Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

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Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is a primatologist and experimental psychologist at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, who is well-known for her work investigating the apparent use of great ape 'language'. Savage-Rumbaugh graduated from Missouri State University in 1970 with a BA in psychology (for which she received a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship), and was awarded an MA and PhD (1975) from the University of Oklahoma, the latter concerning mother-infant behavior among captive chimpanzees.[1] She spent 30 years at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center before joining the Great Ape Trust in 2005. In 1997 and 2008, she received honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago and Missouri State University.[2]

Savage-Rumbaugh has worked with two bonobos - along with chimpanzees, one of the two great ape species representing the closest living relatives to humans, most famously with Kanzi, who is claimed to be able to communicate linguistically using symbols on a keyboard.[3] Specifically, Savage-Rumbaugh has claimed that Kanzi's abilities reach and may even exceed those of a two-and-a-half-year-old child, and constitute a "simple language".[4]

Savage-Rumbaugh's view of language is that "all it really is - [is] another form of behavior",[5] not confined to humans and learnable by other ape species - a controversial position within linguistics, psychology and other sciences of the brain and mind, also involving different understandings of evolutionary processes. For example, the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker strongly criticised the position of Savage-Rumbaugh and others in his award-winning The Language Instinct,[6] arguing that Kanzi and other non-human primates failed to grasp the fundamentals of language.

Kanzi and 'ape language'

See also: Kanzi

Savage-Rumbaugh's own work argues for the aforementioned "simple language" in Kanzi's communication, but it also claims that the bonobo exhibited evidence of complex syntax, including recursion. For example, she and her co-authors interpret Kanzi's 77%-correct response rate to sentences such as "Get the ball that's in the cereal" as evidence that the ape understood syntactic relationships (a position rejected elsewhere[7]), though they note that Kanzi did less well on grammatically simpler sentences.[8] Alternative explanations for Kanzi's apparent ability (e.g. understanding of words, but not sentences; only one likely interpretation of the sentence, etc.) come from linguists and cognitive scientists, who would argue that language is not reducible to behavior alone;[9] sympathetic voices have also called for more robust theoretical work.[10]


  1. Savage (1975). Preview available.
  2. Great Ape Trust: 'Ape language pioneer Savage-Rumbaugh receives honorary Ph.D. from alma mater'. May 22, 2008.
  3. Savage-Rumbaugh, Murphy, Sevcik, Brakke, Williams & Rumbaugh (1993); Savage-Rumbaugh & Lewin (1995).
  4. Savage-Rumbaugh, Shanker & Taylor (1998: 63; 69; 77; 191).
  5. Savage-Rumbaugh et al. (1998: 226).
  6. Pinker (1994: 335-346).
  7. See Kirby (2000: 191-192), who argues that this sentence could be reduced to the non-recursive Get the ball from the cereal if Kanzi lacks functional categories (i.e. syntax which allows, for example, embedded clauses).
  8. Savage-Rumbaugh et al. (1998: 63; 72).
  9. e.g. Wallman (1992: 103); Kirby (2000: 191).
  10. e.g. Cowley & Spurrett (2003).