Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Sir Richard Francis Burton's Attempt to Learn Monkey Language

Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

In the 20th century and beyond, several research programs explored the ability of apes to communicate with human sign language, including primate celebrities such as Washoe the chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky, and Koko the gorilla. Charles Darwin himself wondered if human language might have evolved from the musical cries of our ape-like ancestors, asking in one of his Notebooks: "Did our language commence with singing … do monkeys howl in harmony?"

But before Washoe, Nim, and Koko—and even before Darwin—the famed British explorer, ethnographer, and writer Sir Richard Francis Burton made an eccentric attempt to bridge the communications gap by starting a residential school for monkeys and trying to learn the language of their calls and cries.

Burton owed the success of many of his explorations to an extraordinary ability to learn foreign languages. During a life of military adventure and travel in the far reaches of the British Empire, he is said to have learned to speak more than 20 languages with fluency, including Turkish, Persian, Hindustani, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Pashtu. He famously staked his life on his Arabic in 1853, when he entered the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina (then forbidden to Europeans) in disguise as a pilgrim on the hajj.

In the 1840s, Burton was a junior officer in the army of the British East India Company, stationed in the province of Sindh, now in Pakistan. According to his wife, Isabel (née Arundell), who published a version of his journals after his death in 1890, Burton was drawn to the chatter of the wild monkeys in the streets of the city and decided to try and learn what they were saying.

In The Life of Captain Sir Richard F. Burton [PDF], Isabel described how Burton moved into a house with a troop of monkeys and set about trying to learn their language. "He at one time got rather tired of the daily Mess, and living with men, and he thought he should like to learn the manners, customs, and habits of monkeys," she wrote, "so he collected forty monkeys, of all kinds of ages, races, species, and he lived with them." His goal, Isabel wrote, was "ascertaining and studying the language of monkeys, so that he used regularly to talk to them, and pronounce their sounds afterwards, till he and the monkeys at last got quite to understand each other."

Burton also issued the monkeys with honorary titles and monkey-sized costumes that he thought suited their characters: "He had his doctor, his chaplain, his secretary, his aide-de-camp, his agent, and one tiny one, a very pretty, small, silky-looking monkey, he used to call his wife, and put pearls in her ears," Isabel explained.

The dinner table provided opportunities for teaching etiquette: Burton presided over the meals, all served by Burton’s servants. "They all sat down on chairs at meals, and the servants waited on them, and each had its bowl and plate, with the food and drinks proper for them," Isabel wrote. "He sat at the head of the table, and the pretty little monkey sat by him in a high baby's chair … he had a little whip on the table, with which he used to keep them in order when they had bad manners, which did sometimes occur, as they frequently used to get jealous of the little monkey, and try to claw her."

Burton repeated the monkeys' sounds over and over until he believed he understood some of them. According to Isabel, Burton learned to identify up to 60 monkey "words," which he recorded in a "monkey vocabulary." But around 1845, he moved on from Sindh and his monkey school, on his way to what became more famous adventures: visiting the forbidden city of Harar in what is now Ethiopia; getting speared through the cheek by Somali warriors (surviving with the scars to prove it); and seeking the source of the Nile in East Africa. Although Burton had hoped to one day return to his animal language research, his journals of his time in Sindh and his monkey vocabulary were destroyed in 1861 after a fire at a London warehouse where his belongings were being stored. Sadly, many of the details of his experiments have been lost to history.

Burton's experiments seemed fairly bizarre to his contemporaries, but they might seem less so today. More than 150 years after his efforts, scientists look to our primate relatives for clues to the origin of human language. One recent study found that macaque monkeys have all the physical organs necessary to produce human-like speech; what they lack is our brainpower. "If they had the brain, they could produce intelligible speech," Princeton neuroscientist Asif A. Ghazanfar told The New York Times. No doubt Sir Richard Francis Burton would have been among the first to try and write it down.

ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.


Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.


Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.


Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.


Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.


Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

Why Do Dogs Crouch Forward When They’re Playing?

Whether they're tilting their heads or exposing their bellies for rubs, dogs are experts at looking adorable. But these behaviors do more than elicit squeals from delighted humans; in many cases, they serve important evolutionary functions. A prime example is the "play bow": If you've ever seen a dog crouch forward with its elbows on the ground and its rear end in the air, wagging tail and all, then you know what it is. The position is the ultimate sign of playfulness, which is important for a species that often uses playtime as practice for attacking prey.

The play bow first evolved in canids as a form of communication. When a dog sees another dog it wants to play with, it extends its front paws forward and lifts up its behind as a visual invitation to engage in a friendly play session. Dogs will "bow" in the middle of playtime to show that they're having fun and wish to continue, or when a session has paused to signal they want to pick it back up. Play bows can also be a sort of apology: When the roughhousing gets too rough, a bow says, “I’m sorry I hurt you. Can we keep playing?”

Play between canines often mimics aggression, and starting off in a submissive position is a way for all participating parties to make sure they’re on the same page. It’s easy to see why such a cue would be useful; the more puzzling matter for researchers is why the ancestors of modern dogs evolved to play in the first place. One theory is that play is crucial to the social, cognitive, and physical development of puppies [PDF]. It’s an opportunity for them to interact with their own kind and learn important behaviors, like how to moderate the strength of their bites. Play also requires the animals to react quickly to new circumstances and assess complex actions from other dogs.

Shiba inus playing outside.
Taro the Shiba Inu, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Another evolutionary explanation is that playtime prepares puppies for the hunting they do later as adults. Watch two puppies play and you’ll see them stalking, biting, and pouncing on one another—all behaviors canines exhibit in the wild when taking down prey.

Of course, it’s also possible that dogs simply play because it’s fun. This is a strong case for why pet dogs continue to play into adulthood. “Devoting a lot of time to play may be less advantageous for a wild species who spends much of its time hunting or foraging for food, searching for mates, or avoiding predators,” Dr. Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and co-author of The Science Behind a Happy Dog, tells Mental Floss. “Many domestic dogs are provisioned by humans, and so have more time and energy to devote to play as adults.”

Because play is a lifelong activity for domestic dogs, owners of dogs of all ages have likely seen the play bow in person. Wild canids, like wolves, foxes, and coyotes, tend to reserve this behavior for members of their own species, but pet dogs often break out the bow for their humans—or anyone else who looks like they might be up for a play session. Grigg says, “One of my dogs regularly play bows to her favorite of our cats.”


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