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Written by Dan Wolff - Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin

The following is a transcription of an interview with Jojo, a Western gorilla who has allegedly been taught American Sign Language (ASL) by psychologist Dr. Dahlia Gabon, based at UCLA, in part of her research into language acquisition. According to Dr. Gabon, Jojo has a vocabulary of over 1000 signs plus permutations; however, there has been controversy in the scientific community concerning this claim as Jojo's highly individual mode of speech has always to be interpreted by one of her trainers. Dr. Gabon was unable to attend this interview and so Jojo was interpreted for us by postgraduate research assistant J. F. Miles, known in the psychological community for his advanced work with card-playing mice.

INTERVIEWER: Good morning to both of you, and thanks for your time. Jojo, you're a very famous gorilla. You have thousands of fans, who write you letters, and your own website where people can talk with you via a special keyboard which has a vocabulary of a hundred symbols. Do you enjoy life here at the lab?

JOJO SIGNS: look banana ziploc

J. F. MILES: Ha ha! Jojo made a joke. She is pretending your microphone is a banana and the tape deck is a bag. We often feed her treats out of ziploc bags, so she's saying she's hungry. Jojo likes bananas.

INTERVIEWER: Do you like bananas, Jojo?

JOJO SIGNS: look banana ziploc

J.F. MILES: That doesn't need much interpretation.

INT: I suppose not. I see that Jojo has a lot of toys, a swing, and a hammock. Jojo, do you like your room here in the university?

JOJO SIGNS: look banana ziploc

MILES: Jojo uses this rather unusual combination of signs usually to express either like or dislike, or sometimes indifference, depending upon the context.

INT: It doesn't seem to be a very literal expression.

MILES: Over the years Jojo has developed a private language, which is why I'm here to interpret her meaning for you. It is a common thing in American Sign, as in all languages, to build up private references and jokes around certain key series of signifiers. Jojo is no different from any other speaker.

INT: Jojo, what did you do yesterday?

JOJO: (thinks)

INT: Did you play with Dr. Gabon?

JOJO SIGNS: look banana ziploc

MILES: Jojo sometimes refers to Dr. Gabon by the nickname 'banana ziploc.' She rarely names anyone directly. She's saying she saw Dr. Gabon yesterday.

INT: What do you think of Dr. Gabon?

JOJO SIGNS: look banana ziploc

MILES: Jojo is saying she likes Dr. Gabon very much. The reiteration signifies 'very'.

INT: I see. Now we've heard recently that Jojo was tested before a panel of American Sign Language experts, including several native deaf speakers of the language, who were asked to write down all the signs Jojo made that were recognisable. All recognised many signs, with the total exception of the native deaf speakers, who stated unanimously that she made no symbols at all and was merely making random gestures in the hope of being rewarded. What do you say to that?

JOJO SIGNS: look banana ziploc

MILES: Ha ha! Well, you tell 'em, Jojo. As you can see, even gorillas can show contempt. Yes, we've heard a lot about that study. What you didn't read in the report was that afterwards we had Jojo judge the deaf testers, and she stated that none of them knew ASL and were merely waving their arms about and pretending. We suggested having a third party arbitrate the question of who actually knew sign, Jojo or the native ASL speakers, and proposed a orangutan named Nimrod who lives in the psychology department at Michigan.

INT: Does Nimrod know ASL?

MILES: Actually, Nimrod communicates using parlour charades, but there is plenty of evidence he is conversant in sign. We were all set to go when he was vetoed as arbitrator by the native ASL speakers.

INT: Why?

MILES: Jojo knows. Look, she's blushing.

INT: Jojo, why was Nimrod vetoed as judge in the sign language test?

JOJO SIGNS: look banana ziploc

MILES: That's not why, Jojo. Why was Nimrod vetoed?

JOJO SIGNS: look banana ziploc

MILES: She's being coy. I think she had something of a crush on Nimrod. The fact is, it came out that Jojo and Nimrod had been in close correspondence since 1999. Dr. Gabon knew nothing of this; apparently the whole affair was expedited by assistant researchers.

INT: How on earth did they correspond?

MILES: It seems that Jojo would have a researcher take Polaroid photographs of her signs, and then Nimrod would mail her back a videotape of himself doing charades.

INT: What did they talk about?

MILES: Jojo, what did you and Nimrod talk about?

JOJO: (thinks)

MILES: Did you talk about your cat?

JOJO SIGNS: look banana ziploc

MILES: I thought so. Jojo has a pet cat which she named Banana Ziploc. She's very fond of her.

JOJO SIGNS: look banana ziploc

MILES: Jojo's getting bored now. She's saying she wants to go and play with the cat.

INT: Can I be frank? Dr. Gabon has stated that Jojo has a vocabulary of over a thousand signs, and thus has acquired 'language' in the same sense as a human being, but many psychologists hold the opinion that Jojo is not speaking at all but merely performing trained gestures due to operant conditioning, much like a parrot.

MILES: Any comments, Jojo?

JOJO SIGNS: look banana ziploc

MILES: That's what I think too. Look, is it really so hard to believe that a gorilla, our closet relative amongst the primates, could have some of the mental potential of our own species? We share over 97% of our DNA. Gorillas use tools. They feel happy and sad and interested and bored. Given the opportunity, they'll watch TV, and pick their favorite shows, and they can keep and love pets. They're like us in ways that make many people feel uncomfortable, and such people are apt to pretend they don't see any significance in Jojo's signing. But I don't understand why it is so inconceivable that a gorilla can have a vocabulary.

INT: I thought chimpanzees were our closest primate relative.

MILES: Gorillas, chimpanzees, are you going to split hairs?

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