Humans Matched by Chimprehension

A chimpanzee has thrown doubt on the idea that only human brains are specially adapted to process speech.

The appropriately-named Panzee, now aged 25, is able to make out 128 different spoken words, even when the words are distorted or incomplete.

Panzee was raised by humans since she was eight days old, and has always been spoken to as if she were human. As well as being able to recognize the 128 words and point to a corresponding symbol on a lexigram board, she appears to understand their meaning and can use the board to communicate.

A team from Georgia State University, where Panzee lives, decided this made her an ideal test subject for research into understanding of speech. They played a series of 48 words to Panzee and gave her four options to choose the right answer from. The testing involved distorting the words in two ways: making them very husky (noise-vocoded synthesis) and reducing them to just three tones (sine-wave synthesis.) The researchers also asked 32 humans to take the same tests.

Science magazine has an audio link of the two techniques being applied to the word apricot. Fortunately they used the American English pronunciation: the British English variant of “ape-ri-cot” might have caused more confusion!

In the noise-vocoded synthesis test, Panzee scored 55% correct (significantly above the 25% that would have been expected by simply guessing), while the humans as a group achieved a 70% success rate. In the sine-wave synthesis test, Panzee matched the 40% score of the humans.

What this means is open to dispute. The Georgia researchers believe there is no doubt over the theory that human speech recognition skills developed through a brain adaptation only came when chimps and humans went their separate evolutionary ways. However, other researchers argue the results aren’t conclusive, noting that only have a vocabulary of 128 words makes the task of distinguishing between them far easier.

(Image credit: Carolyn Richardson/Division of University Relations/Georgia State University, via Science)

6 Responses to Humans Matched by Chimprehension

  1. If Panzee impresses You, then You have to have a look at Koko, the Gorilla Ambassador!
    Koko: A Talking Gorilla [1/8] <– Part 1 of a documentary on Koko

    Koko is a 39yr old female Gorilla, knowing over 1.000 Words of American Sign Language, which she not only is able to understand, but to use it to actively building whole sentences to communicate her thoughts and needs to her human friends.

    Koko also understands over 2.000 spoken English words…she loves cats, is a fan of William Shatner (Captain Kirk), whom she even met once for a while. She has no  children, though there is also footage documenting her stating she'd like to have some, as well as video of her dating a male gorilla. But he was a dork ;)

    Now watch in awe, there's lots more Koko-Vids on Youtube (she has her own channel), and then please tell me again, what separates men from wild in Your opinion?

    • The use of tools to change the environment to better suite oneself is a big one that I can think of in my mind.

    • The use of tools to change the environment to better suite oneself is a big one that I can think of in my mind.

    • The use of tools to change the environment to better suite oneself is a big one that I can think of in my mind.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.