Evidence of Language Discovered in Monkeys

Researchers at Taï National Park in Côte d’Ivoire may have made an astounding discovery, that monkeys there may be communicating using a ‘recursive’ and ‘syntactic’ language.

For those of you who I may have just lost, recursion is essentially repetition, when I say “tree” twenty times, I’m referring to the same object everytime you hear it. What separates language from noise is this consistency. For example, when your dog barks it can mean any number of things, thus there is little or no recursive pattern. The ability to understand and decipher these patterns is apparently a critical difference in the human brain allowing for the use of language.

Syntax basically means rules. That means there is a right and wrong way to do something, in this case speak. If I say “store the pickup water go to”, you’ll have a harder time figuring out what I want than when I say “go to the store and pickup some water”. Leaving out words and not speaking in the proper order breaks conventions of the English language that we have come to accept. If those conventions are broken we know something is wrong (ex. ‘maybe he’s not a native english speaker’.)

In the case of these monkeys, scientists have not only recorded the use of the equivalent of words but also the use of prefixes and suffixes, indicating possible rudimentary sequence (sentence) formation. But before you go out an pick up a copy of Rosetta Stone ‘Tarzan Edition’, the researchers also reveal what they haven’t found:

Despite these examples of combinatorial signaling, there are no good examples in animal communication studies of individuals acoustically modifying individual calls in patterned ways to produce structurally altered vocalisations with novel meanings. In human speech, however, this process is ubiquitous. Human languages rely on numerous morphological processes to alter meaning, one prominent example being affixation, the addition of a morpheme (the smallest linguistic unit that has semantic meaning), to a word stem (the part of the word that never changes), as for instance in the English word ‘brother-hood’ [6]. Although non-human primates are able to discriminate between subtle acoustic changes in human speech signals, it is unknown whether they also produce such acoustic patterns as part of their natural communication.

Scientists have been looking for these traits (recursion and syntax) in animal communication for years because it may bolster research in evolution or help us understand how language developed in humans. The images below show visualizations of the audio spectrum when monkeys are speaking. The red indicates consistent, identifiable sounds that have lead scientists to the conclusion that the monkey’s are conversing.

Screen shot 2009-12-08 at 10.03.51 AM.png

Looking for patterns.

Screen shot 2009-12-08 at 10.04.41 AM.png

Visualizing the calls of a male monkey.

This is truly remarkable discovery if it survives peer review from the scientific community and the inevitable creationists who’ll denounce it as a sign of the apocalypse. The monkeys researched are known as a type of old-world monkey, unrelated to apes or new-world monkeys (like chimps) in that they have tails (apes do not) that are not prehensile (which new-world monkeys do).

“Hok! Boom Boom!” I just said “hey, get over here” in Monkey!

You can read the report at “Campbell’s Monkeys Use Affixation to Alter Call Meaning”

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About the author: Jonathan Gosier is a UI designer, software developer and writer. He currently lives in Kampala, Uganda where he incubates and invests in East African entrepreneurs as the CEO of Appfrica Labs. He's also a TED Fellow.
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