The Song of the Ape: Understanding the Languages of Chimpanzees (Hardcover)

Understanding the Languages of Chimpanzees

By Andrew R. Halloran

St. Martin's Press, 9780312563110, 276pp.

Publication Date: February 28, 2012



An absorbing investigation of chimpanzee language and communication by a young primatologist

While working as a zookeeper with a group of semi-wild chimpanzees living on an island, primatologist Andrew Halloran witnessed an event that would cause him to become fascinated with how chimpanzees communicate complex information and ideas to one another. The group he was working with was in the middle of a yearlong power battle in which the older chimpanzees were being ousted in favor of a younger group. One day Andrew carelessly forgot to secure his rowboat at the mainland and looked up to see it floating over to the chimp island. In an orchestrated fashion, five ousted members of the chimp group quietly came from different parts of the island and boarded the boat. Without confusion, they sat in two perfect rows of two, with Higgy, the deposed alpha male, at the back, propelling and steering the boat to shore. The incident occurred without screams or disorder and appeared to have been preplanned and communicated. Since this event, Andrew has extensively studied primate communication and, in particular, how this group of chimpanzees naturally communicated. What he found is that chimpanzees use a set of vocalizations every bit as complex as human language. "The Song of the Ape" traces the individual histories of each of the five chimpanzees on the boat, some of whom came to the zoo after being wild-caught chimps raised as pets, circus performers, and lab chimps, and examines how these histories led to the common lexicon of the group.

Interspersed with these histories, the book details the long history of scientists attempting (and failing) to train apes to use human grammar and language, using the well-known and controversial examples of Koko the gorilla, Kanzi the bonobo, and Nim Chimsky the chimpanzee, all of whom supposedly were able to communicate with their human caretakers using sign language.

Ultimately, the book shows that while laboratories try in vain to teach human grammar to a chimpanzee, there is a living lexicon being passed down through the generations of each chimpanzee group in the wild. Halloran demonstrates what that lexicon looks like with twenty-five phrases he recorded, isolated, and interpreted while working with the chimps, and concludes that what is occurring in nature is far more fascinating and miraculous than anything that can be created in a laboratory.

"The Song of the Ape" is a lively, engaging, and personal account, with many moments of humor as well as the occasional heartbreak, and it will appeal to anyone who wants to listen in as our closest relatives converse.

About the Author

Andrew Halloran, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Scientific Literacy at Lynn University in Boca Raton and works as a primatologist for the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy in Nicaragua. He received his Ph.D. at Florida Atlantic University studying biological and linguistic anthropology. He lives in Delray Beach, Florida. The Song of the Ape is his first book.

Praise For The Song of the Ape: Understanding the Languages of Chimpanzees

“Those of us who work with nonhuman species can appreciate the subtle observations that Andrew Halloran in The Song of the Ape shares about individual chimpanzee personalities, dynamic relationships, and vocal communication.  Whether in the wild or in captivity, Halloran shows us that the presence, or absence, of an individual can be pivotal to the survival and evolution of the group or another chimpanzee.  Once again we are reminded that animals are not numbers but are unique beings deserving of our respect. This exploration into the complexity and behavioral dynamics of an ever-changing social group of chimpanzees leads us to think about new ways of studying sentient minds on the planet. For anyone interested in animal behavior and our closest relatives, this book is not to be missed!"--Dr. Denise L Herzing, author of Dolphin Diaries

“The field of ape language research for decades has asked whether we can teach them to speak our language. Andrew Halloran has approached the question from a more intriguing--and sensible--perspective that has received short shrift: How do chimpanzees communicate with each other? Working with groups of captive chimpanzees living on separate islands, Halloran decoded some of their communications and dialects, and, more importantly, showed that there's a complexity to their vocalizations that humans barely understand.” --Jon Cohen, author of Almost Chimpanzee and Shots in the Dark

"Halloran is a wonderful storyteller, and his gripping account of living among the apes alternates between thrills and chills, humor and tender moments.." -- Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"...the author’s detailed descriptions of the chimps themselves...make this book unique. Because of Halloran’s considerable skill at literary nonfiction, the chimps of his study are as fascinating as characters in a novel. Strongly recommended for general readers who enjoy Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee books." -- Library Journal (starred)

"... an engrossing account of communication development among these intelligent animals, presented with genuine affection for them as individuals...With its intriguing mix of personalities and examination of complex primate social relationships, this book will captivate and, most importantly, provide valuable insight into these kindred creatures." --Publishers Weekly 

"Halloran has written a fascinating book that easily spans the gap between scientific research and popular reading tastes." -- Booklist

"This is a fascinating book that provides us with a better understanding of chimpanzees and how they communicate." --Tucson Citizen