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.