Gilgamesh for apes

I love studies of animal language precisely because, of course, they’re generally really just as much about human language and culture. The generous, absurd gesture of translating a Babylonian epic into ape-ish just underscores the point.

There’s been increased interest lately in monkey languages after discoveries were made about how putty-nosed monkeys combine sounds to create a basic syntax:

* Hack-hack-hack-hack: “There’s an eagle over there!”
* Pyow-hack-hack-pyow-pyow-pyow: “I’ve seen a leopard, let’s move away!”
* Hack-hack-hack-pyow-hack-hack-hack-hack-hack “There’s an eagle over there, let’s move away!”

But research at the Great Ape Trust using the sign language Yerkish reveals the primates are capable of far more linguistic sophistication. Primate Poetics sets out a manifesto to enrich this new language, starting, ambitiously, with a translation of the epic Gilgamesh:

“We will learn Yerkish.
We will translate human literature into Yerkish.
We will invent words, word-tricks, word-jokes, word-games to show the apes new ways of using (their) language.
We will become knowledgeable and original enough to be invited by the researchers of the Great Ape Trust to read our Yerkish translation of Gilgamesh to Kanzi, Panbanisha and all the others.

“We are not here to compare and to compete with the ape but to appreciate its language for its own beauty. This is emphatically not about some lone genius monkey penning the Great Primate Novel.”

from “Poetry for Primates,” Fed by Birds, 20 September 2008

Originally published at

Add Your Comments