March 04, 2004

red gorilla bad me unattention

In response to this post, Mark Seidenberg sent a link to a page that he has set up contrasting the sentences of William Shatner, reflecting on his 1988 meeting with Koko the gorilla, and the sentences of Koko the gorilla, conversing in 1988 with William Shatner. His point, I think, is that we can be impressed by the emotional bond across species boundaries, and by Koko's first steps towards the symbolic expression of meaning -- or we can be impressed by the qualitative difference between what Shatner has to say and what Koko does.

The quotes are not (as I understand the page) taken from an actual dialogue, but are selected at random from Shatner's report and Koko's interactions with him (and/or with others?). So the point is not that the dialogue is incoherent (for which see here), but that Shatner's sentences (and the ideas they express) show a complexity of structure and a lack of connection to current stimulation that are very different from Koko's sentences and ideas.

One example:

"Koko and I talked. We touched hands and we touched minds. Feeling her powerful hand on the back of my neck was unlike any other experience I've known."
--William Shatner (aka Captain James T. Kirk), 1988

"candy you"
--Koko, the signing gorilla, 1988

And another:

"That hand across the border that Koko extended taught me in that one moment that we are linked inexorably with everything else in nature and that for us to be destroying species after species is criminal."
--William Shatner (aka Captain James T. Kirk), 1988

"red gorilla bad me unattention"
--Koko, the signing gorilla, 1988

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 4, 2004 09:48 AM