Excerpt: 'Alex and Me'

Alex heard the word "no" a lot, from me or other trainers, when he incorrectly identified an object or was up to no good. By the middle of 1978 I noticed that Alex occasionally produced a "nuh" sound in situations where "no" would have been appropriate. "OK, Alex," I said, "why don't we train you to say it right?" Within a very few sessions, Alex replaced "nuh" with "no" in distress situations, such as not wanting to be handled. Very soon he used it to mean No, I don't want to. Here's an example of Alex with a well-developed sense of how to use "no." Kandis Morton, a secondary trainer, was working with Alex in April 1979:

K: Alex, what's this? [Holding a four-corner wood]
A: No!
K: Yes, what is this?
A: Four-corner wood [indistinct].

K: Four, say better.
A: No.
K: Yes!
A: Three … paper.
K: Alex, "four," say "four."
A: No!
K: Come on!
A: No!

Alex was obviously in an especially obdurate mood that day, and was using "no" to express his unwillingness to go along with the training session. (He became even more creative in this respect as he grew older.) It was amusing, unless you happened to be the trainer trying to get some work done. Alex's use of the negative in this way represented a relatively advanced stage of linguistic development.

A few months after this session with Kandis, I had a set-to with Alex that provoked me to write in my journal: "Alex definitely understands NO!" By this time he had developed a passion for corks. On this particular August day he obviously wanted only the best of corks to chew. I gave him a new one. He contentedly proceeded to destroy it for a couple of minutes. When it was about two-thirds gone he dropped it. "Cork," he demanded.

"You have a cork, Alex," I said.

"No!" He picked up the sizeable remnant and tossed it on the floor. If he were human, I would have added that he did it with contempt. "Cork!"

I gave him a cork fragment, again sizeable but not complete. He snatched it from me, tossed it right back at me, and repeated even more urgently and impatiently, "Cork!" He would shut up only when I gave him a new, unblemished cork.

"This happened all morning," I wrote. I had wanted him to learn labels, and to express his wants. I guess I had succeeded.

Even at this early stage in our relationship, Alex was already showing that he was no birdbrain, no matter what the scientific establishment thought.

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