, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 41–63 | Cite as

Umwelt and Ape Language Experiments: on the Role of Iconicity in the Human-Ape Pidgin Language

  • Mirko Cerrone


Several language experiments have been carried out on apes and other animals aiming to narrow down the presumed qualitative gap that separates humans from other animals. These experiments, however, have been driven by the understanding of language as a purely symbolic sign system, often connected to a profound disinterest for language use in real situations and a propensity to perceive grammatical and syntactic information as the only fundamental aspects of human language. For these reasons, the language taught to apes tends to discard iconic and indexical elements in favour of symbolic signs. This paper sheds light on the iconic components of human language, with close attention to the iconic properties of language as present in the ape language experiments. We emphasise the role of the body in the interpretation and production of iconic signs, while demonstrating the need to take into account the Umwelt theory in the research paradigm of the experiments. Uexküll’s Umwelt theory is used to exemplify the methodological problems connected to the teaching of human language to other animal species; furthermore, we discuss how the modelling capacities of language affect the biological layer that constitutes the animal Umwelt. Language is analysed as a particular case of Umwelt transition (Tønnessen), and as such its implications are further discussed in the article. With this paper, we enrich the discussion surrounding the human-ape pidgin language by advocating for the need to include iconic components as vital parts of this research area. With this inclusion, we uncover the inter-dependency of iconic, indexical and symbolic signs in human language, aiming to further develop the research paradigm of the ape language experiments.


Language Iconicity Apes Interspecies communication Umwelt 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Philosophy and SemioticsUniversity of TartuTartuEstonia

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