Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Linguists team up with primatologists to crack the meaning of monkey calls

July 6, 2016

It has long been known that monkeys convey information through alarm calls, but now a combined team of linguists and primatologists has laid the groundwork for a systematic 'primate linguistics.'

In a series of five articles published in multiple linguistics journals, the authors have brought the general methods of contemporary linguistics to bear on monkey morphology (pertaining to the structure of calls), syntax (how the calls are put together into sequences), and semantics (what calls and call sequences mean), building on several earlier studies conducted within primatology.

"We can now study the form and meaning of monkey calls using methods from theoretical titi monkeys linguistics," explains Philippe Schlenker, a senior researcher at Institut Jean-Nicod within France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. "Using this approach, we can compare one monkey species to another and see, for instance, that some of their calls have been preserved over three million years."

The research, which Schlenker co-authored with Emmanuel Chemla, a research scientist at France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and Klaus Zuberbühler, a professor at Switzerland's University of Neuchâtel, appears in the journals Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, Lingua and Theoretical Linguistics and follows an earlier study in Linguistics & Philosophy. The team of authors includes several other primatologists and linguists, as well as a statistician.

The authors emphasize that monkey languages in no way have the complexity of human language, but that they still display exciting and sometimes challenging formal properties.

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