Boom Boom Krak-oo! Have Monkeys Demonstrated Syntax?

By Andrew Moseman | December 8, 2009 10:43 am

campbellsmonkey220Birds, whales, monkeys, and other animals constantly demonstrate simple communication through a variety of sounds. But one thing that has always separated them from humans, scientists thought, is that they haven’t achieved syntax—stringing together multiple different sounds to create another meaning, or what we might think of as a sentence. Now, in a study published in yesterday’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers argue that they have observed monkeys using these rudimentary rules of grammar.

Klaus Zuberbühler and his team previously established the meanings of specific calls among the Campbell’s monkeys in the Tai National Park of the Ivory Coast, like the sound they dubbed “krak,” which by itself means a leopard approaches. This time, however, they documented call combinations. The monkeys can vary the call by adding the suffix “-oo”: “krak-oo” seems to be a general word for predator, but one given in a special context — when monkeys hear but do not see a predator, or when they hear the alarm calls of another species known as the Diana monkey [The New York Times].

The PNAS paper contains many more examples. “Boom boom” means to gather together, the scientists say, but “boom boom” with a few “krak-oos” afterward meant that a tree branch is about to give way, so look out. “Hok hok hok,” they say, is also an alert, but one pertaining to a different manner of death from the skies: crowned eagles.

These combinations could be the first demonstration of monkey syntax, researcher Alban Lemasson says. “People have criticized the use of ’syntax’ to describe animals just because they produce sequences of sound. They say that each unit has no meaning, that no rules explain how they’re combined,” said Lemasson. “Here we have rules of combination” [].

In humanity’s efforts to teach language to primates, researchers had been unable to see such a syntactic ability in them. Perhaps, however, we were trying to teach them our way of communicating rather than trying to find theirs. Jared Taglialatela, a specialist in chimp communication, said that Zuberbühler’s study certainly shows primate syntax, but that we shouldn’t go too far in thinking the monkeys are developing a language like ours. “People like to draw lines and make boxes and put animals inside them. I don’t like to do that. There are differences and shades of grey. And when you take the time to collect data in a way that allows you to recognize complexity and patterns, than you find evidence of them” [].

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Image: Florian Moellers

  • Nick

    “Jared Taglialatela, a specialist in chimp communication, said that Zuberbühler’s study certainly shows primate syntax, but that we shouldn’t go too far in thinking the monkeys are developing a language like ours.”

    It’s sad to see such anthropocentrically bigoted attitudes in our scientists and researchers. It’s a holdover from our pre-rationality days when we thought that “God” created everything that existed, in it’s current state of existence. We now know that this is not true – though it is still a pretty story – but the fact is these animals have the exact same amount of DNA legacy we do – just slightly different, but they evolved from the same RNA/DNA that spawned all life, and have had just as much evolutionary time as we have had. We lucked out with our opposable thumb and cognitive mutations that allowed us to rapidly advance from “ook ook ook” to quantum mechanics, and there is no reason to expect that this wont be showing up in any, or eventually every, other animal, given enough time.

    Orcas sing the entire time they are migrating. So do Australian aborigines. I suspect that the singing of the Orcas is a ‘verbal’ history of their family, possibly similar in function to the aborigines singing of dreamtime during their walkabouts – an oral history of their family with their location knowledge embedded in it, with a mystical fetishism for exact memorization – otherwise you will not find what you need to survive, and your family will perish.

    We really need to wise up on the intelligence and capabilities of the other inhabitants of earth before it’s too late – they’ve all had hundreds of millions of years to learn how to solve problems, and that’s all encoded in their DNA, and the expression of that as brain plus their culture, however rudimentary or advanced it may be, which is the software running the brain, will prove to be a treasure trove of information once we start unlocking it.

  • Brandon Keim

    @Nick: I think Jared was actually expressing a viewpoint very much in line with your own. Instead of saying, “Hey, here’s an animal with something like language — let’s categorize it according to our own rules!”, he’s judging it on its own terms. Why should human language represent some sort of ideal solution, towards which any animal language must be evolving? Maybe the monkeys (and the whales, I suspect) are onto other ways of doing things.

  • Nacireman

    My nemesis, the squirrel that molests my bird feeder, can string together some words. I get to listen to the annoying rodent every day. That is nothing compared to a whales intricate vocalization. Syntax can be found thru out the animal kingdom.

  • amphiox

    I can’t remember the source, but I recall hearing about the following experiment with wild bottlenose dolphins:

    The researchers had recorded a string of dolphin vocalizations and wanted to see how the dolphins would respond when it was played back to them. So they got into their scuba gear, dove in with their audio equipment, and started playing the sequence.

    Several nearby dolphins were immediately interested and swam over. Then they did something remarkable. They swam to the surface, turned their bodies perpendicular, and slowly sank down to the seafloor (the water was fairly shallow here), almost as if mimicking the actions of the researchers when they first dived in out of their boat.

    And then they called back, mimicking the recording that had been played exactly, except they added another *click* at the end.

    The researchers played the recording again, and the dolphins repeated it back, and this time added two *clicks* to the end. Unfortunately, the researchers had no means of varying their own recording on playback, so they could only play back the original sequence again.

    After a little while, the dolphins left, perhaps convinced that humans did not have syntax and so were not intelligent.

  • Fatkid

    Ethnocentricim is the whole us vs. them malady
    that besets cultures. What is the species equivalent term? Thinking that only humans have responsive vocalization isn’t just shortsighted, it diminishes the repect we have for other species. When we can look another animal in the eyes with empathy, we might just be able to sustain this place long enough to leave it. Just think of the succulent delicacies that await in Alpha Centari!

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