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Science

Monkeys With Syntax 197

Posted by kdawson
from the there's-a-word-for-that dept.
jamie writes "The Campbell's monkey has a vocabulary with at least six types of basic call, but new research published in the PNAS claims that they combine them and string them together to communicate new meanings. (Login may be required on the NY Times site.) For example, the word for 'leopard' gets an '-oo' suffix to mean 'unseen predator.' But when that word is repeated after 'come over here,' the combination means 'Timber!' — a warning of falling trees. Scientists have known for some time that vervet monkeys have different warning calls for different predators — eagle, leopard, and snake — but unlike the Campbell's monkeys, vervets don't combine those calls to create new meanings, a key component of syntax. The researchers plan to play back recordings to the monkeys to test their theories for syntax errors."
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Monkeys With Syntax

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  • ook? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Suchetha (609968) <suchetha AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @09:55PM (#30373632) Homepage Journal

    Ook! [lspace.org]

    OOK! [dangermouse.net]

  • Here's the paper (Score:4, Informative)

    by damn_registrars (1103043) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @10:51PM (#30373920) Homepage Journal
    Straight from PNAS instead of the NYT summary:
    Chimpanzees modify recruitment screams as a function of audience composition [pnas.org]
    The full text should be available to anyone in the US for free, AFAIK (and possibly to those outside the US as well). One thing you will notice on that page is that the NYT is around 2 months late summarizing that article, it was published online in PNAS back in October.
  • by Nutria (679911) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @10:56PM (#30373960)

    I must assume that you have never heard Dubya speaking.

    The war is over, you won, W is gone. Now GIVE IT A FUCKING REST ALREADY!!!!

  • by mr_matticus (928346) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @01:12AM (#30374540)

    Actually, "meaning" isn't just limited to sense and reference (semantics).

    Meaning, that is, syntactic meaning, is a key component of syntax. Without meaning, syntax can't exist.

    Knowing that a repeating pattern has a logical definitional rule behind it is a key element of meaning. If I say the word "mine" to you, without syntax, you have no idea of the semantic meaning. Is it a verb? An object? A noun? If it is a noun, does it refer to the kind for digging or the kind for exploding? Syntax plays a huge role in meaning.

    Consider that the monkeys have a semantic inventory of distinct sounds A , B, and C. Semantically, they have three concepts and no more--because they lack syntax. With a simple syntactic structure, the sounds get new meanings because sequence suddenly informs meaning.

    Without syntax, words can only have one meaning. As the article argues and as the sentence describes, the fact that position changes the meaning of sounds is key evidence of the use of syntax in the language. If semantic meaning were unaffected by sequence, that would be evidence of the absence of syntax.

    Semantics cannot be divorced from phonology and syntax in oral language. Phonological meaning plus syntactic meaning is fundamentally semantic meaning. More advanced languages have more complicated systems of context and idiom that add layers onto this. But the basic point remains that meaning is certainly an element of syntax.

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