I went to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the other week, and hadn’t really thought of subjecting you to a review until I read Geoff Pullum’s thoughts over at Language Log. As he points out, there are many inconsistencies in the apes’ use of language.
I appreciated the inclusion of sign language - the apes use ASL, and the reason why is explained very sweetly. I’m not sure how linguistically complex the ASL was, it looked a bit pared down, but at least it was one area where they got some expert assistance. There are precedents for teaching apes to sign in a limited capacity (one being Nim Chimsky), so this made sense. It made less sense that the apes would use spoken language given that many primates lack the vocal tract physiology to articulate the range of human sounds. Therefore, the speaking apes are more in the realm of fantasy than sci-fi.
What I found disappointing is that the apes moved towards spoken language more as they became less idyllic ‘savages’ in their Avatar-esque tree world and became conniving in a way that moved them closer to acting like the humans in the urban environment. Sign language was therefore positioned as the softer, simpler communication compared to the fuller and more complex speech. Sure, the more they interacted with humans the more they used spoken language (where they learned that is never really explained), but it’s not clear why they had to meet the humans on their spoken language terms - a roadblock to communication for many signing communities, not just this imaginary one.
Sorry for going full linguist film critic on you, but for me this tendency to move towards spoken language as the film progressed echoed the now refuted idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny - i.e. that this movement from signed communication to spoken communication that occurs in the film for individual apes somehow mirrors the development of linguistic communication from basic manual gestures to sign. The idea can be boiled down this argument:
- Early humans gestured pantomimically to communicate
- At some point humans then shifted to speaking because it was ‘better’
- Gesture no longer important (‘dropped as superfluous’ Henry Sweet, or ‘quickly replaced’ Tomasello).
It’s no clear why early humans would start communicating with their hands, which were busy with feeding, hunting and doing things. It’s also not clear why speaking suddenly was decided to be ‘better’ in such a theory. (For more on this check out David McNeill’s How Language Began)
What is clear is that the signing apes in this film are actually using a complex linguistic system (although perhaps not drawing on its full complexity), and so it’s not clear why they’re also bilingual in a spoken mode, although it does indicate they are far more linguistically competent than any known non-human primates in the real world!