Animal Communication

How Linguists try to Decipher the Monkey Language

Campell Monkey

It was pretty clear that "krak" ist the Campell Monkey term for "Leopard in sight", as scientists determined it by observing them in their home forests of Ivory Coast. Research revealed: The Campell Monkey vocabulary differenciates in this regard between hawks, leopards, and other but minor potential sources of danger. You need to know by here that those monkeys are famous for their advanced communication forms with rudiment syntax. Ok, so the assumption, "krak" means "Leopard" was stable until they found recently Campell Monkeys on Tiwai Island in Sierra Leone, that use the same vocabulary but obviuosly with a different meaning - as there are no leopards on this island. As they failed to get a plausible explanation they with their current approach, they startet to think in more linguistic patterns and to apply linguistic methodology - and finally encountered a solution that seems to be rather promising:

Here’s where it gets tricky: word meanings tend to be contextual. In human language, we choose the most specific term available and, when we don’t, the listener infers that there is a special reason why we opted for a relatively vague word. Simply put, “words compete with each other,” Schlenker says. “And you use the more informative one.”


See the article on the Scientific American: Monkey See, Monkey Speak

Or read the paper by Philippe Schlenker et al.: Monkey semantics: two ‘dialects’ of Campbell’s monkey alarm calls

Image: "Cercopithecus campbelli lowei“ von Badgernet - Eigenes Werk. Lizenziert unter CC BY-SA 3.0 über Wikimedia Commons.

Did language evolve out of bird songs?

Birdsong lacks a lexical structure. Instead, birds sing learned melodies with what Berwick calls a “holistic” structure; the entire song has one meaning, whether about mating, territory or other things. The Bengalese finch, as the authors note, can loop back to parts of previous melodies, allowing for greater variation and communication of more things; a nightingale may be able to recite from 100 to 200 different melodies.

MIT News: How human language could have evolved from birdsong