Recording the simian tongue

Richard Lynch Garner’s contributuion to the debate on animal language

  • Michela Piattelli La Sapienza University of Rome
Keywords: Richard Lynch Garner, animal language, simians, evolutionism, recording


The paper introduces the figure of American self-taught naturalist Richard Lynch Garner (1848-1920) and his work with the language of animals. Garner was mainly known for his use of the “phonograph”, a tool realised by Thomas Alva Edison towards the end of the Nineteenth-century for recording and reproducing sounds. It was Garner’s intuition to use the instrument to record the verses uttered by monkeys in order to study them from a linguistic point of view. Aided by his recordings, Garner came up with a theory that considered the languages of monkeys as real idioms, allegedly the antecedents of human articulate language. Though not fully up-to-date with Darwinism and evolutionism, Garner’s proposal holds a great interest in the history of animal studies as an early instance of empirical observation conducted in close contact with animals.