You've probably seen the headlines saying "Baboon Reading Skills" all over the internet. But don't worry — the rise of the apes isn't coming quite so quickly.

It's true that another barrier between us an our simian cousins has been brought down — it seems that certain apes can identify words from gibberish, even though they can't read. The skill is known as orthographic processing, and it's how we can identify a word by its shape, rather than having to spell it out in our heads. And now we've identified the same ability in baboons. But no, that doesn't mean they can read.

This research is published in this week's Science, and it breaks down one of the long standing beliefs about reading, that you can't recognize individual words without prior language knowledge, or any grasp of its sounds and meanings.


When you get down to it, spotting words is mostly an example of recognizing a string of complicated little shapes, which is precisely what these baboons were trained to do. They were rewarded for correctly identifying a string of letters as a "word" or "non-word", learning to differentiate dozens of words from more than 7,000 non-words with nearly 75 percent accuracy. One baboon even had a lexicon of 308 words. The creatures weren't just brute force memorizing each word either, they appear to have learned which letter clusters appear more frequently in words than non-words, and used that to improve their accuracy.

What this shows is that the ability to recognize a word is independent of the part of our brain used for linguistics, instead that used for visual processing.


Which does mean you can get a monkey butler, and train it to recognize the bottle marked "whiskey". Which is all you really need.

Image: A baboon from the study by Dr. Grainger and colleagues, courtesy of J. Fagot