There is more to written language than just the transcription of sounds: there are patterns, some sort of visual logic, that we seem to recognise instinctively, whether we can speak the language in front of us or not. For instance, if, as English speakers, we come across a German text, we do not need to actually read the text to realise it’s not English. We see it at first glance, and may then look more closely at a few words and their structure to ascertain that it is indeed German, not Dutch or any related language. Similarly, if I try to imitate Arabic writing (which I have no knowledge of whatsoever), no one will be fooled, however non-existent their knowledge of that language. Whether we understand the code or not, we are still capable of identifying certain shapes as significant and correct.
A recent study at Aix-en-Provence, in France, has revealed that baboons can differentiate real words from non-words too. A group of about 30 baboons were introduced to screens that displayed four-letter English words or non-words. The baboons proved capable of recognising the great majority of real words, including some words that the baboons had never seen before.
The results of this research suggest that language and reading are not exclusively human skills that we learn and develop, but rather a manifestation of a faculty shared by primates (and possibly other species) to recognise patterns, however complex and seemingly random.
Illustration: Sarah King