Language Lessons

Translated from Spanish by Robin Myers



Our common ancestor lived around 600 million years ago. It was a flatworm with a shell that looked like a witch’s hat and it might have swam or crawled across the ocean floor. It had two light-sensitive patches on its head and a tangle of nerves distributed across its body. But that’s all we know. What it ate, how it reproduced, how it lived—we have no idea.



The shape of an octopus is to lose its shape. This we know.

It can lift up its cloak behind its head: be Nosferatu.
Fashion a couple fleshy horns above its eyes: be elegant.
Sculpt its tentacles into a spiral: be the volute of a violin.

Or be an octopus and escape through a chink in the pipes.



Being invertebrates, octopi were excluded from regulations against animal cruelty until not long ago. In the name of science, it was legal to operate on them without anesthesia and subject them to electric shocks or mutilate their brains. Today, they’re honorary vertebrates.


Octopi don’t like being confined. They don’t like harsh light, and they hate being inside when they could be out: this is why they break out of their tanks, spit on light bulbs until they short-circuit, and remove the lids from their aquariums.


The human brain is a self-contained thingamajig on a long stem that ends in a knot.
The octopus brain is extended into ten thousand neurons per tentacle.

Three hearts in its head and neurons in its tentacles:
it feels with its brain and thinks with its feet.


Octopi have a screen stuck to its body.
They’re covered in screen.

They’re a screen divided into:

Suddenly, instead of an octopus, a mid-sized sole appears, a striped snake, a mantis shrimp, a bit of coral.

A body of pure possibility: exempt from distance, angles, edges, nooks, and bones.

Flesh free of joints and articulations:
cakes, mushrooms, asteroids,
handfuls of plush tongues,
dense underwater gardens,
clovers of vegetal love.



Language Lessons



 Name: Hanabi-Ko, “fireworks child” in Japanese, nicknamed “Koko.”
Species: Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla).
Date and place of birth: July 4, 1971, San Francisco Zoo.
Head researcher: Francine “Penny” Patterson.
Research assistants/caretakers: Ann Southcombe and Cindy Duggan.
Start date of language lessons: July 1972.



Koko lives in a trailer on the outskirts of the Stanford campus. She has her own room with a cage that’s almost always left open. She has constant access to the kitchen, but the bathroom for humans and the storage room is kept under lock and key. Given her sharp teeth and endless curiosity about how things are made, there are numerous objects that Koko would destroy if she could get hold of them. And so, instead of a mattress, she has a pile of towels that she shapes into a nest on top of a motorcycle tire.

Koko keeps herself busy with Play-Doh, pieces of plastic, paintings, trucks, and other small objects. She likes to careen around the trailer, swing from the bars on the ceiling, and bang her fists against the walls or her metal toy box. She can be quite noisy. Outside, she has a sandbox and a tricycle. Next to the front door is a shed full of animals used in university lab experiments. The castrated bulls ignore her when she charges them. She frantically tries to speak with them in sign language.


Lesson: Hygiene
Koko regularly washes herself with a sponge she then attempts to eat.


Report: Bites
Most of Koko’s bite attempts occurred in the early months, as I tried to teach her sign language through the “molding” technique (taking her hands and shaping them into the proper way to represent an object or activity). As she began to associate movement and meaning, I would gradually loosen my hold on her hand. But every time I’d take her hands to mold a new sign, she’d respond by trying to bite me.

Koko’s teeth aren’t very sharp, but they’re certainly large. At first I was very worried about the possibility of getting bitten. When Carroll Soo-Hoo, the man who had donated Koko’s mother to the San Francisco Zoo, showed me photos of himself frolicking about with three 200-pound gorillas, I stopped worrying.


Lesson: Alligator
The sign for “alligator” is made by snapping the palms of your hands together like an alligator’s jaws. This is a particularly important sign in Koko’s vocabulary, although she has never seen an alligator in real life. So important that she has learned to modulate the sign: for a small alligator, she gestures with her hands; for a large one, she uses her whole arms.

Since she fears alligators, Koko sometimes uses the sign as a threat. Once, Cindy had prepared a snack for Koko that she was slow to deliver. Koko signed, “Alligator chase lip” (“lip” being her general term for a girl or a woman). Puzzled, Cindy signed, “Alligator?” “Alligator do that hurry,” Koko replied.”

I have exploited Koko’s irrational fear by arranging small toy alligators in corners of the trailer she isn’t supposed to explore. A visitor might suspect that we are members of a strange religious cult.


Celebrities 1
In 2001, Koko met Robin Williams. After a tickling session, Koko seized the actor’s glasses and tried them on. Then she took his wallet and examined his IDs.


Report: Michael
Michael was three years old when he came to live with us. He came from the Vienna Zoo, where he’d been sent from Cameroon when he was orphaned. As soon as he learned enough sign language, he told the story of his mother’s murder. His is the only existing testimony of gorilla poaching as told by a survivor.

His favorite color is yellow. He likes Sesame Street and Pavarotti.


Report: Routine
8:00: Koko gets up when Ann and I arrive, assuming she hasn’t already been woken by Michael’s racket. She eats cereal for breakfast and then helps clean the trailer.
9:30: Auditory English lesson.
10:30: When she tires of this, she signs to me, “Let Mike in,” and they spend an hour tickling each other and playing hide-and-seek. They take a break to eat a banana.
11:30: Sign-language class.
14:00: Koko eats an egg or meat, juice, a vitamin tablet, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
15:00: Video recording of Koko’s sign-language progress.
16:00: Walk.
17:00: Fresh vegetables for dinner. Koko is partial to tomatoes and corn on the cob. She doesn’t like spinach or carrots. She has a few gourmet proclivities: artichokes, asparagus, and eggplant. She despises olives, mushrooms, and radishes.
18:00: Koko entertains herself by signing things in a book or magazine. Pointing to a flower, she signs, “There flower,” settles into her nest of blankets (“That soft”), or plays with one of her dolls (“That ear,” she says, bringing the doll’s ear to her own).
19:30: After her nightly routine of toothbrushing and baby oil-application, I give her a little fruit, encouraging her to associate bedtime with something pleasant.


Lesson: Compound Words
Koko can link signs (which is to say, concepts) to express herself. For example, she combines the sign for “Coca-Cola” and “love.” For “grapefruit,” which she dislikes, Koko signs “fruit” and “bird.”

Lesson: Lies
I catch Koko chewing on a red crayon. “You weren’t chewing that crayon, were you?” I ask her. Koko says “lip” and moves the crayon across her lips, as if applying makeup.


Report: Mischief
I turn away during a videotaping session and Koko tries to steal some grapes from a bowl. “Stop stealing,” I scold her. “Don’t be such a pig. Be polite. Ask me. Stealing is wrong, wrong, wrong, like biting and hurting is wrong.” Then I ask, “What does Penny do that’s wrong?” and she answers, “Break things, like, tell me ‘polite’ [when I’m] hungry pig.”


Celebrities 2
In 2016, the Gorilla Foundation published a video on Facebook of Koko playing the bass with Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.


Lesson: Stove
Today Koko learned to define an object. I ask her, “What is a stove?” She points to it and says, “Cook with.” “What is an orange?” I ask her. “Food, drink,” she says.


Lesson: Joke
I ask Koko to tell me something she finds funny and she says “Nose there,” pointing to the tongue of a toy bird. “That red,” she signs, and shows me a green plastic frog we’d been playing with. When I bring a stethoscope to my ears, Koko grins and covers her face with her hands.


Report: Insults
Koko has a vast repertoire of insults: “rotten stink,” “dirty toilet,” “bird,” “nut,” “devil.”
Cathy tells me she got into an argument with Koko. The trouble started when she showed Koko a poster of her own photo that had been used at a fundraising event. “What’s this?” she asked.
“Gorilla,” Koko answered.
“Who gorilla?” Cathy asked.
“Bird,” Koko signed. Then things took a turn for the worse.
“You bird?” Cathy asked.
“You,” Koko retorted.
“Not me, you are bird,” Cathy insisted, aware that Koko can use “bird” as an insult.
“Me gorilla,” Koko maintained. “You nut. Nut, nut, nut.”


Lesson: Animals
In Koko’s view, a zebra is a “white tiger,” Pinocchio is an “elephant baby,” and a mask is an “eye hat.” Seeing a horse with a wound in its mouth, Koko signs “Horse sad.” Why sad? I ask. “Teeth,” she replies.

When she sees a poster of Snowflake, the famous albino gorilla, resisting an upcoming bath, Koko signs, “Me cry there.” She hates baths, too.


Lesson: Vending Machine
Sometimes Koko, Michael, Ann, and I take a drive in my car. The gorillas sit in the back and gaze out at the landscape; other drivers rarely notice them. Sometimes Koko tries her hand at backseat driving and suddenly says, “Go there hurry go drink,” gesturing to a vending machine.


Report: Intelligence
Cultural biases in IQ tests make them almost impossible to apply to Koko. One quiz asks, “Point to the two things that are good to eat”; the accompanying image shows a block, an apple, a flower, a shoe, and some ice cream. Koko picks the apple and the flower.

“Pick where you would go to shelter from the rain.” The image shows a hat, a tree, a spoon, and a house. Koko picks the tree, of course. The rules dictate that these responses must be marked as errors.


Celebrities 3
Koko appeared twice on the cover of National Geographic: first in October 1978, in a photo she took of herself in a mirror, and then in January 1985, with a story about her kitten All Ball.


Lesson: Mike
Once Mike was groping for the sign that would persuade Ann to let him in and play with Koko, who was getting restless; “Do visit Mike hurry, Mike think hurry,” she signed to him through the wire fence, and “Koko good hug.” Mike finally signed “Koko” and Koko answered “Good know Mike.”


Report: Memory
Koko and I have a striking conversation about the bite episode.
Me: “What did you do to Penny?”
Koko: “Bite.”
(She’d called it a scratch.)
Me: “You admit?”
Koko: “Sorry bite scratch.”
(I show Koko the mark on my hand.)
Koko: “Wrong bite.”
Me: “Why bite?”
Koko: “Because mad.”
Me: “Why mad?”
Koko: “Don’t know.”


Report: Hole
Cynthia Gorney, of the National Geographic, interviewed Koko in 1985. When asked, “Are you an animal or a person?” Koko responded, “Fine animal gorilla.” At the end, Gorney asked Koko where gorillas go when they die. “Comfortable hole bye,” she said.

The episodes narrated in “Language Lessons” come from articles written by Francine Patterson, who taught sign language to Koko, for National Geographic.



The Voices of the Whales

  1. I’m interested in the language of animals.
  2. Whales, especially the humpback whale and the various subspecies of blue whale, are known to make repetitive sounds with different frequencies we consider to be songs.
  3. When we look at animals, we hope to find virtues we lack.
  4. Although sexual selection is thought to be their primary purpose, whale songs remain a mystery to scientists.
  5. The human body is a symphony. (Charles Ives)
  6. The universe is a symphony. (John Cage)
  7. Nothing suggests that whales are trying to communicate with us.
  8. The Sounds of Earth, the record coordinated by Carl Sagan that traveled into space on Voyagers I and II, includes:

“Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong
a Navajo night chant
an image of a woman eating fruit in a supermarket
an image of a string quartet
a diagram of vertebrate evolution
a selection of Senegalese percussion
a Peruvian wedding song
an image of a cooking fish
volcanoes, cricket, frog, laughter, vital signs, gentle dog, footsteps, the flight of an F-111
greetings in fifty-five human languages
greetings of humpback whales


  1. What would aliens think of whales?
  2. The US Navy detected whale songs in the 1960s. Ten years passed before they were divulged to the general public.
  3. Nothing suggests that whales are trying to communicate with the general public.
  4. The tonal frequencies of whales diminish a few fractions of a hertz every year. Are they affected by noise pollution in the water? Have changing oceanic temperatures caused this drop? If their songs are a form of cultural expression, are whales victims of capitalism?
  5. There are whales in all the oceans in the world, but they spend so much time underwater that we know almost nothing about their routines.
  6. We know they sing and that’s enough.
  7. The voices of the whales will outlive us.