Linguists Team Up With Primatologists to Crack the Meaning of Monkey Calls

Titi monkey (credits: Cristiane Cäsar)It has long been known that monkeys convey information through alarm calls, but now a combined team of linguists and primatologists has laid the groundwork for a systematic ‘primate linguistics.’ In a series of five articles published in multiple linguistics journals, the authors have brought the general methods of contemporary linguistics to bear on monkey morphology (pertaining to the structure of calls), syntax (how the calls are put together into sequences), and semantics (what calls and call sequences mean), building on several earlier studies conducted within primatology.

The authors insist that monkey languages should be analyzed on their own terms, without arbitrarily importing concepts from human language – and in most cases they assign a simple meaning and structure to them. But one tool of contemporary linguistics, called ‘implicatures,’ has proven illuminating.

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