These are several pictures of Tatu signing BLACK, which I took in 1993 and 1995 during my visits to the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute of Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington State.
The female chimpanzee Tatu was part of the second project that the psychologists couple Allen and Beatrix Gardner set up after their first successes with the famous signing chimpanzee Washoe. Tatu was born at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma on December 30, 1975. Three days later she arrived in Reno, Nevada, to be part of the Gardner’s second project with newborn chimpanzees. Tatu is “three” in Swahili. By 1998 Tatu had acquired 146 reliable signs and 54 signs, according to the CHCI.
In the recent study that I did on the signing chimpanzees’ use of signs in the 1990s, Tatu made 899 analyzable sign utterances in the 22 hours of videotaped interactions with humans. She made a sign 1,348 times and used 55 different signs. The most frequent sign that Tatu used was THAT/THERE/YOU or pointing with her index.
Her second most frequent sign was BLACK. According to the Gardners and Fouts, the colour black used to be Tatu’s favourite colour. The Fouts later interpreted the sign BLACK not only as a reference to the colour, but also as a sign that expresses like or positive affect. They came to this conclusion because Tatu appeared to be enjoying some event when she used the sign even though no black objects were present. They then compared the use of BLACK to the use of the English adjective cool.
In most instances of Tatu’s use of BLACK in the corpora that I analyzed, however, the context did not allow for a certain judgment that she was expressing positive affect. These utterances were therefore coded as Unclear in terms of communicative intention. What was clear from the videos was that the sign was often repeated many times, over and over again. Tatu drew her extended index over her brow to the side sometimes up to five times. In the 1999 and 1994 corpora there were several times that Tatu signed BLACK at about the time she was regurgitating food. In these instances she bent forward to regurgitate while signing BLACK, after which she chewed on the regurgitated food now back in her mouth, sometimes repeating the sign BLACK. This combination of signing BLACK and the regurgitation of food occurred 15 times in four different 1999 conversations, so in half of the times that Tatu used BLACK in the 1999 sessions. In the 1994 corpus this phenomenon occurred six times in six different sessions. Nevertheless, in all of these instances the coders were unclear as to the exact intention Tatu might express at these moments.
A different explanation than Tatu saying cool when signing BLACK in the Unclear instances might be that the sign carries no referential meaning, but has become something of a tic or a nervous habit. It may still have a positive connotation, because there must be some incentive for her to repeat it that often. There may be a pleasant sensual feeling in repeatedly pressing her index along the pronated brow characteric of chimpanzees. Whatever the eventual specific underlying motive Tatu may have, it is clear from this study that Tatu’s unclear use of BLACK is a constant phenomenon that is consistent throughout the years. It appeared in the 1994 corpus of 1993-1994 and was also found in the 1999 corpus of 1999. A future study of Tatu’s intriguing use of BLACK is definitely worthwhile.
Read more about my study and its results and conclusions by downloading my dissertation.