By Marco Pagliarulo, Weird Veg Science columnist for Lifelines

 

Untitled1Another distinction between humans and other animals has recently been dissolved. Humans are not the only species to have language with spoken words.

The use of language is a characteristic we employ to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom. Although chimps, gorillas, and bonobos have been taught to use sign language or to write symbols, in each case they are using human language. Until recently, there has been no proof of a language originating from another species.

A combined team of linguists and primatologists analyzed the alarm calls of Campbell’s monkeys living in Tiwai Island of Sierra Leone and in the Ivory Coast’s Tai Forest. They found that the monkeys communicate using a sophisticated language of their own, with spoken words and even with local dialects! [1]

The following are some examples of Campbell’s monkey words and their meanings:

Hok warns of a serious aerial threat, usually eagles.

Krak warns of a leopard in Tai, but on Tiwai it indicates all predatory threats (including eagles).

– The suffix oo softens the meaning of the root word: Hok-oo indicates a minor aerial threath (like falling branches) and Krak-oo indicates a minor threat on the ground.

– A sentence starting with Boom indicates the context is not about predators.

The authors of the study indicate that this research should help to eventually develop the field of “primate linguistics”. Perhaps one day we may even be able to communicate with Campbell’s monkeys. If so, what might we hear them say about us?


References

[1] Schlenker P, Chemla E, Arnold K, Lemasson A, Ouattara K, Keenan S, Stephan C, Ryder R, Zuberbühler. 2014. Monkey semantics: Two ‘dialects’ of Campbell’s monkey alarm calls. Linguist Philos 37:439-501.