If we meet an extraterrestrial who keeps shouting "gavagai!", how are we to decode its meaning? Do bees and dolphins possess a linguistic competence? Did the chimpanzees Sara, Washoe, and Nim acquire a human-like language?
In this book, Premack examines our human fascination with using language as a tool to our understanding of ourselves. He clearly and wittily untangles the complex skein of arguments, put forth since Darwin's time, over whether we are unique because we can talk. Gavagai! examines the arguments of the biologists interested in the evolutionary significance of "talking" chimpanzees, the problems confronted by linguists trying to determine what language is, and the theories entertained by psycholinguists and philosophers.
Communication is a poor way to characterize what is unique in humans, Premack argues, and language alone an even poorer measure of our uniqueness. Taking us into the animal lab, he introduces us to the trials and tribulations of Sara, Peony, Elizabeth, Washoe, and Nim as they learn "language" and explores the kind of learning that has taken place. Can a chimpanzee think with the language? Can we produce an emotional reaction in chimpanzees through the use of words alone? Can they refrain from the use of emotional physical actions, using language alone to express anger, affection, jealousy?
Gavagai! concludes that we would do well to rid ourselves of our infatuation with language as the sole human specialization. Pedagogy, social attribution, and consciousness are unique forces that link one human to another. It is advanced intelligence coupled with a special factor which permits language to emerge. A human, Premack observes, is not simply a chimpanzee to which language has been added.