Koko the gorilla with her birthday gift, a kitten. Using sign language, she named it All Ball.

Koko the gorilla with her birthday gift, a kitten. Using sign language, she named it “All Ball”. Photo: Adam Rifkin | FlickrCC.

A longstanding belief about apes has argued that they aren’t capable of controlling their voices or breathing enough to create sounds on purpose. The idea is based on a failed experiment to teach chimps to speak back in the 1930s and, frankly, it sounds a bit dubious.

Even cats and dogs are able to control their own voices when they want to express certain things, and since apes are much more closely related to humans, they already have some of the groundwork for developing language skills, based simply on biological similarities.

According to Marcus Peralman, apes are closer to speaking than even generous assumptions would expect. Pearlman studies 71 hours of footage of Koko, a 40-year-old gorilla famous for having been taught some aspects of American Sign Language. Koko has been living and interacting with humans since she was six months old, and in that time, she’s developed some skills that gorillas in the wild don’t seem to have.

Koko the gorilla is able to play wind instruments, like recorders, which she seems to do for her own amusement. That’s pretty impressive by itself, although whether she has enough control to create music is another story entirely. Understanding music theory is likely outside of her abilities. But it does show the ability to control her breathing in a way that isn’t simply natural or reactionary.

She’s also shown the ability to cough on command, which doesn’t sound very impressive for a human, but it is for a gorilla. That’s because coughing on command shows a great deal of control over the larynx, specifically in that she can close it at will. The larynx, and our control over it, is an essential part of human speech.

Pearlman noticed these trends because he sifted through a great deal of footage, which by its very nature is more compressed than the experience of spending time with Koko. He was also looking specifically for it, which might explain why these attributes haven’t been studying much in the past.