Nim Chimpsky

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Nim Chimpsky

Nim Chimpsky (November 19, 1973 – March 10, 2000) was a chimpanzee who was the subject of an extended study of animal language acquisition (codenamed 6.001) at Columbia University, led by Herbert S. Terrace; the linguistic analysis was led by the psycholinguist Thomas Bever. Chimpsky was given his name as a pun on Noam Chomsky, a leading theorist on human language structure and generative grammar, who holds that humans are "wired" to develop language.[1] Though usually called Nim Chimpsky, his full name was Neam Chimpsky, or Nim for short.[2]

The validity of the study is disputed, as Terrace argued that all ape-language studies, including Project Nim, were based on misinformation from the chimps. R. Allen[3] and Beatrix Gardner made a similar earlier study, called Project Washoe, in which another chimpanzee was raised like a human child. Washoe was given affection and participated in everyday social activity with her adoptive family. Her ability to communicate was far more developed than Nim's. Washoe lived 24 hours a day with her human family from birth. Nim at 2 weeks old was raised by a family in a home environment by human surrogate parents,[2] as part of a study "conceived in the early 1970s as a challenge to Chomsky's thesis that only humans have language",[4] but whose "data, along with data from other studies, yielded no evidence of an ape's ability to use a grammar".[2] Both chimps could use fragments of American Sign Language to make themselves understood.

Project Nim

Project Nim was an attempt to go further than Project Washoe. Terrace and his colleagues aimed to use more thorough experimental techniques, and the intellectual discipline of the experimental analysis of behavior, so that the linguistic abilities of the apes could be put on a more secure footing.

Roger Fouts wrote:

Since 98.7% of the DNA in humans and chimps is identical, some scientists (but not Noam Chomsky) believed that a chimp raised in a human family, and using ASL (American Sign Language), would shed light on the way language is acquired and used by humans. Project Nim, headed by behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace at Columbia University, was conceived in the early 1970s as a challenge to Chomsky's thesis that only humans have language.[4]

Attention was particularly focused on Nim's ability to make different responses to different sequences of signs and to emit different sequences in order to communicate different meanings. However, the results, according to Fouts, were not as impressive as had been reported from the Washoe project. Terrace, however, was skeptical of Project Washoe and, according to the critics, went to great lengths to discredit it.

While Nim did learn 125 signs, Terrace concluded that he had not acquired anything the researchers were prepared to designate worthy of the name "language" (as defined by Noam Chomsky) although he had learned to repeat his trainers' signs in appropriate contexts.[2] Language is defined as a "doubly articulated" system, in which signs are formed for objects and states and then combined syntactically, in ways that determine how their meanings will be understood. For example, "man bites dog" and "dog bites man" use the same set of words but because of their ordering will be understood by speakers of English as denoting very different meanings.

One of Terrace's colleagues, Laura-Ann Petitto, estimated that with more standard criteria, Nim's true vocabulary count was closer to 25 than 125. However, other students who cared for Nim longer than Petitto disagreed with her and with the way that Terrace conducted his experiment. Critics assert that Terrace used his analysis to destroy the movement of ape-language research. Terrace argued that none of the chimps were using language, because they could learn signs but could not form them syntactically as language, as described above.

Terrace and his colleagues concluded that the chimpanzee did not show any meaningful sequential behavior that rivaled human grammar. Nim's use of language was strictly pragmatic, as a means of obtaining an outcome, unlike a human child's, which can serve to generate or express meanings, thoughts or ideas. There was nothing Nim could be taught that could not equally well be taught to a pigeon using the principles of operant conditioning. The researchers therefore questioned claims made on behalf of Washoe, and argued that the apparently impressive results may have amounted to nothing more than a "Clever Hans" effect, not to mention a relatively informal experimental approach.

Critics of primate linguistic studies include Thomas Sebeok, American semiotician and investigator of nonhuman communication systems, who wrote:

In my opinion, the alleged language experiments with apes divide into three groups: one, outright fraud; two, self-deception; three, those conducted by Terrace. The largest class by far is the middle one.[5]

Sebeok also made pointed comparisons of Washoe with Clever Hans. Some evolutionary psychologists, in effect agreeing with Chomsky, argue that the apparent impossibility of teaching language to animals is indicative that the ability to use language is an innately human development.[6]

Project Nim, a documentary film by James Marsh about the Nim study, explores the story (and the wealth of archival footage) to consider ethical issues, the emotional experiences of the trainers and the chimpanzee, and the deeper issues the experiment raised. This documentary (produced by BBC Films, Red Box Films, and Passion Films) opened the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.[7] The film was released in theaters on July 8, 2011 by Roadside Attractions,[8] and was released on DVD on 7 February 2012.[9]


Terrace's sceptical approach to the claims that chimpanzees could learn and understand sign language led to heated disputes with Allen and Beatrix Gardner, who initiated the Washoe Project. The Gardners argued that Terrace's approach to training, and the use of many different assistants, did not harness the chimpanzee's full cognitive and linguistic resources.

Roger Fouts, of the Washoe Project, also claims that Project Nim was poorly conducted because it did not use strong enough methodology to avoid such comparisons and efficiently defend against them.[clarification needed] He also shares the Gardners' view that the process of acquiring language skills through natural social interactions gives substantially better results than behavioral conditioning. Fouts argues, based on his own experiments, that pure conditioning can lead to the use of language as a method mainly of getting rewards rather than of raising communication abilities. Fouts later reported, however, that a community of ASL-speaking chimpanzees (including Washoe herself) was spontaneously using this language as a part of their internal communication system. They have even directly taught ASL signs to their children (Loulis) without human help or intervention. This means not only that can they use the language but that it has become a significant part of their lives.[10]

The controversy is still not fully resolved, in part because the financial and other costs of carrying out language-training experiments with apes make replication studies difficult to mount. The definitions of both "language" and "imitation", and the question of how language-like Nim's performance was, remain controversial.

Retirement and death

When Terrace ended the experiment, Nim was transferred back to the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma, where he struggled to adapt after being trained to live as a human child[clarification needed] for the first decade of his life. When Terrace made his one and only visit to see Nim after a year at the Institute of Primate Studies, Nim sprung to Terrace immediately after seeing him, visibly shaking with excitement. Nim also showed the progress he had made during Project Nim, as he immediately began conversing in sign language with Terrace. Nim retreated back to a depressed state after Terrace left, never to return to see Nim again. Nim developed friendships with several of the workers at the Institute of Primate Studies, and learned a few more signs, including a sign named "stone" which indicated that Nim wanted to smoke marijuana.[11]

The Institute later sold Nim to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), a pharmaceutical animal testing laboratory managed by NYU. Nim's time here was mostly spent receiving injections after being heavily sedated.[citation needed] Medical workers documented signs that Nim would make to them that included "hug" and "play". After efforts to free him, Nim was purchased by the Black Beauty Ranch, operated by The Fund for Animals, the group led by Cleveland Amory, in Texas. While Nim's quality of life improved at the Black Beauty Ranch, Nim lived primarily in isolation inside a pen. He began to show hostility that included throwing TVs and killing a dog.[citation needed] Nim's behavior and overall well-being improved when other chimpanzees, several from the LEMSIP, joined Nim inside his pen after about a decade at the Black Beauty Ranch. Nim continued to show signs of the sign language he learned decades ago whenever a former trainer at the Institute for Primate Studies went to visit him.

Nim died on 10 March 2000 at the age of 26, from a heart attack. The story of Nim and other language-learning animals is told in Eugene Linden's book Silent Partners: The Legacy of the Ape Language Experiments.[12]


All quotations appear in the original article by Terrace and colleagues.[2]

Three-sign quotations

  • Apple me eat
  • Banana Nim eat
  • Banana me eat
  • Drink me Nim
  • Eat Nim eat
  • Eat Nim me
  • Eat me Nim
  • Eat me eat
  • Finish hug Nim
  • Give me eat
  • Grape eat Nim
  • Hug me Nim
  • Me Nim eat
  • Me more eat
  • More eat Nim
  • Nut Nim nut
  • Play me Nim
  • Tickle me Nim
  • Tickle me eat
  • Yogurt Nim eat

Four-sign quotations

  • Banana Nim banana Nim
  • Banana eat me Nim
  • Banana me Nim me
  • Banana me eat banana
  • Drink Nim drink Nim
  • Drink eat drink eat
  • Drink eat me Nim
  • Eat Nim eat Nim
  • Eat drink eat drink
  • Eat grape eat Nim
  • Eat me Nim drink
  • Grape eat Nim eat
  • Grape eat me Nim
  • Me Nim eat me
  • Me eat drink more
  • Me eat me eat
  • Me gum me gum
  • Nim eat Nim eat
  • Play me Nim play
  • Tickle me Nim play

Longest recorded quotation

  • H.S. Terrace, in his article "How Nim Chimpsky Changed My Mind", quotes Nim's longest sentence as the 16-word-long "Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you."

See also


  1. Radick, Gregory (2007). The Simian Tongue: The Long Debate about Animal Language. University of Chicago Press. p. 320.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Terrace, Herbert; Petitto, L. A.; Sanders, R. J.; Bever, T. G. (November 23, 1979). "Can an ape create a sentence" (PDF). Science. 206 (4421): 891–902. doi:10.1126/science.504995. PMID 504995. However objective analysis of our data, as well as those obtained by other studies, yielded no evidence of an ape's ability to use a grammar.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Berger, Joseph (July 3, 2011). "Chasing a Namer lost to Time". The New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 "A chimp named Nim". Independent Reader.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Wade, N. (1980). "Does man alone have language? Apes reply in riddles, and a horse says neigh". Science. 208. pp. 1349–1351.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Pinker, S.; Bloom, P. (1990). "Natural language and natural selection". Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 13. pp. 707–784.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Project Nim". Sundance Film Festival. Archived from the original on July 21, 2012. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Fleming Jr, Mike (January 27, 2011). "Sundance: Roadside Attractions To Release 'Project Nim'". Deadline. Retrieved December 18, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Project Nim". Metacritic.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Fouts, Roger; Mills, Stephen Tukel (1998). Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees. William Morrow Paperbacks. ISBN 978-0380728220.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "'Project Nim': A Chimp's Very Human, Very Sad Life". NPR. July 20, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Linden, Eugene (1987). Silent Partners: The Legacy of the Ape Language Experiments. Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0345342348.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Hess, E. (2008). Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. New York: Bantam.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Seidenberg, M. S.; Pettito, L.A. (1979). "Signing behavior in apes: A critical review". Cognition. 7. pp. 177–215.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Terrace, H. S. (1979). Nim. New York: Knopf.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Terrace, H. S.; Singer, P. (November 24, 2011). "Can Chimps Converse?: An Exchange". New York Review of Books.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links