SYNTAX IN ANIMALS!!1! er, maybe.

They seem to have found it. As you may know, some animals give different warning cries in response to different predators. Several primate species give one kind of call when they see an eagle, another when they see a snake, and another when they see a leopard. This seems natural, insofar as each type of predator means there's a different way to escape ("Eagle! Duck under a bush." "Snake! Climb a tree." "Leopard! Scatter [because ducking or climbing may not save your ass.]")

The essence of human language is when two sounds, which separately mean two different things, can be combined with the result having a new meaning different from its constituent parts. You'll never hear a dog growl + pant and have it mean something else.

But now researchers are claiming that just this type of thing happens in putty-nosed monkeys. From the Nature article:

But now zoologists have realized that at least one combination of these sounds has its own distinct meaning: up to three "pyows" followed by up to four "hacks" seems to mean 'let's move on'. This call sequence is given both in response to the presence of predators or simply as a sign to head for new terrain.

As always, I approach the idea of human-like language in other species with a bucket of caution and a dollop of disdain. Zoologists are rarely linguists, and after the decades of insidious claims by animal handlers that apes can speak sign language (now rooted in popular consciousness), I'm not going to buy it unless I hear scads of details about the study.

But that last part of the quote above is pretty convincing. In the absence of predators, the call induces the group to move on.

However: if the call takes a few moments to utter, and it's only after the utterance that the meaning comes into play, what are the reactions of the monkey group during the first few moments? Is the reaction different if the utterance comes at a lower volume or uttered in a different way? I want to see waveform analysis done on the calls.

Does the alpha male move first after uttering the cries? The group response might just be to his motion, and not to his utterances. I want to see full recordings of the event.

I'm not trying to harsh on their vibe, and I'm not trying to deny them their thunder. But they are zoologists and not linguists. And the smoking gun of syntax is difficult to find.

For the record, I fully believe that animals have memories and emotional reactions similar to ours. You've seen a cat shake its head rapidly, usually when it doesn't respond to you trying to play with it or bother it? Or a noise? I'm convinced that's the cat experiencing some unpleasant memory and trying to shake it off. The stories you've heard about animal shelters playing back sounds of dogs panting and sounding playful over a speaker, and having the kept dogs become calmer? Clearly, that's working. And no one is denying that apes can use signs in isolation.

It's just that putting this all together has only happened in one species that we know about for sure.


Blogger Andrew said...

I think it's less likely than you give them credit for. Washoe was capable of combining signs into other meaningful signs. What's missing is the really crucial part of syntax: recursion.

7:10 PM  

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