Robert Seyfarth: Can Monkeys Talk?

Jun 5, 2014

Robert Seyfarth describes how monkey calls used by Vervet Monkeys might be precursors to language.

To read more about language in monkeys (and chimps), see the NY Times article: “Deciphering the chatter of monkeys and chimps”

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3 comments on “Robert Seyfarth: Can Monkeys Talk?

  • If you consider language to be interaction between your immediate clan or troupe, it can be considered that any noise made by one of your clan that precedes a general reaction within the clan or a specific reaction within a family group must have a specific meaning that is understood and is therefore either a basic or sophisticated language depending on the number of different sounds that are enunciated and understood. Most animals have a sound that signals danger and the more intelligent the animal the more variations in sound impart more variations of meaning. Evolution and natural selection will define the degree of sophistication needed within a species. If you are a antelope species and you spend most of the day nibbling grass the only call you need is one that warns you of approaching carnivore’s. If you are a tree living monkey you need a bit more information, you live in a forest so you need to know where the fruit bearing trees are you need to know the various kinds of predators and where they are likely to be coming from etc;
    if you are a earth bound hominid who uses tools eats various berries, various different kinds of prey, knows where birds eggs, honey, fish and crustacean’s are to be found. where to find the stone to make your tools and to impart the knowledge as to how to make axe heads, arrow heads, spears etc then your noises will develop in to a sophisticated set of ‘labels’ over a couple of million years and with increasing brain size it is not difficult to imagine the massively expanding vocabulary that will be needed to cope with the increasingly complex life style.
    Language will have come in to uses simultaneously in isolation in many different parts on the globe, the roots of distant groups of humans are so different from the bushman of the deserts, the tribes in the rain forests and the Inuit of the Arctic but all would have developed some kind of grammar to put together meaningful sentences. Language evolved like any aspect of human behaviour. If it were not for some kind of understanding within animal groups they would not now exist, it would be very surprising if there were no way of animals to convey information that was important for their existence whether it be sign, touch or noise..

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  • I suppose the crux of the matter is does one group of Vervet monkey have a different ‘call’ or ‘word’ for a leopard than another…

    That can be tested too obviously… If you play ‘Leopard’ to a foreign group will they run into the trees or will they in fact look on it as the call of an unrelated Vervet and look around to chase them off!

    However since we know that chimps and gorillas and orangutans can use symbolic representation of words to communicate then I don’t really see this as in any way a surprise.

    Maybe the idea that the monkey in the room with the typewriter is a little outdated because the modern ones in the research laboratory with an ipad seem to do just fine!

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  • Robert Seyfarth’s description of the experiment with monkeys bears an uncanny resemblance to an account of prairie dog vocalizations narrated on a TV “Nature” program I saw years ago. The critters, scurrying among their “village” mounds, would warn one another with two different cries – one for the approach of a snake and the other for the approach of a hawk.

    If the validity of the hypothesis that the monkey vocalizations may be precursors to human language depends on our relative closeness on the phylogenetic tree, the prairie dog parallel pretty much sends researchers back to the drawing board. Cute though they are, prairie dogs are neither primates nor “dogs.” They are rodents.

    Linguists generally agree that functional language must incorporate both a component of grammar and semantics. The “sign language” allegedly learned by gorillas, chimps and bonobos has yet to demonstrate these components credibly. What we probably observe in animals who seem to speak and understand [human] “language” is the ability to associate sounds with simple objects or behavior retained in memory.

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