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Rudiments of Language Discovered in Monkeys

Posted on: 08/12/2009

Monkeys appear to combine the same calls in different ways, using rules of grammar that turn sound into language.

Whether their rudimentary syntax echoes the speech of humanity’s evolutionary ancestors, or represents an emergence of language unrelated to our own, is unclear. Either way, they’re far more sophisticated than we thought.

“This is the first evidence we have in animal communication that they can combine, in a semantic way, different calls to create a new message,” said Alban Lemasson, a primatologist at the University of Rennes in France. “I’m not sure it has strong parallels with humans, in the way that we will find a subject and object and verb. But they have meaningful units combined into other meaningful sequences, with rules imposed on how they’re combined.”

For example, male monkeys called “boom boom” to gather other monkeys to them, but “boom boom krak-oo krak-oo” meant that a tree or branch was about to fall. Adding a “hak-oo” to that sequence turned it into a territorial warning against stray monkeys from neigboring groups. Multiple “krak-oo” calls added to an original “krak” meant not only that a leopard was in the area, but that it posed an immediate threat.

The research raises the question of whether early humans or our primate ancestors combined calls in a similar way, turning a small set of sounds into a rich verbal reportoire.

According to Lemasson and to Jared Taglialatela, a chimpanzee communication researcher at Clayton State University, it’s too soon to say whether the monkey talk is proto-human.

Read more: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/12/monkey-talk/

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