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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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  • by TheKidWho (705796) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @11:15PM (#30373740)

    They already have?

  • Those scientists who have been studying animal language as a non-pseudoscience have been waiting for anyone to show SYNTAX in animal language. You have have 1 trillion different words in a language, and it has a finite range of expressions... meanwhile you can have 10 different words, that with the right syntax can generate an infinite range of expressions.

    While this is true, it's not clear to me that what's documented here is, in fact, syntax. The researcher in question (Zuberbühler) has written about this stuff before and has been much more cautious in attributing full-on linguistic properties (a search of LanguageLog will turn something up from 2006).

    I'll reserve absolute judgment for when I get a chance to look at the actual paper, but this quote from NYT gives me pause: Two booms can be combined with a series of "krak-oos," with a meaning entirely different to that of either of its components. This is not (typically) how human language works...meaning is compositionally built up from bits of syntax, whereas what's described here looks more like idiom. In fact, it looks more like phonology (*maybe* morphology) to me...meaningless bits that can be put together to make meaningful bits.

    What they need to do now is get a linguist in there so slice & dice the recordings, play them back to the monkeys in various reconstructed forms, and see how they react.

    Also...

    [...] a chance to really look at a real proto-syntax, because all human languages have a very strongly developed syntax

    some would argue against the subordinate clause here (pointing at Piraha, for example), but I'm not one of those. However, it might be the case that this "syntax" has developed in parallel to human syntax from some common protolanguage (since these are monkeys and not even apes, we're talking REALLY far back), and so this may be relatively uninformative with respect to human syntax.

  • by srothroc (733160) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @11:54PM (#30373940) Homepage
    I can't help but feel that you'd have to continuously use new groups of monkeys from the same community, otherwise you'd risk teaching them what you THINK certain calls mean, and they'd begin responding in that fashion...
  • by Estanislao Martínez (203477) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @11:56PM (#30373956) Homepage

    I'm sure there'll be a lot of enlightening commentary about this pretty soon, but my first reaction to it is that the example cited by TFA is not clearly syntactic, in the strictest linguistic sense. Look, for example, at this quote:

    "Krak" is a call that warns of leopards in the vicinity. The monkeys gave it in response to real leopards and to model leopards or leopard growls broadcast by the researchers. 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 "boom-boom" call invites other monkeys to come toward the male making the sound. Two booms can be combined with a series of "krak-oos," with a meaning entirely different to that of either of its components. "Boom boom krak-oo krak-oo krak-oo" is the monkey's version of "Timber!" -- it warns of falling trees.

    So, the meaning we are told for "krak-oo" is not a clear function of the meanings of "krak" and "-oo." The second paragraph makes an even more problematic claim: "boom" and "krak-oo," combined together, means something completely different than the parts.

    What's the problem with this? That one of the paradigmatic properties of syntactic constructions in human language is compositionality [wikipedia.org], the principle that the meaning of an expression made of parts A and B is a function of the meanings of A and B themselves, and of the manner in which they are combined in the expression. So the meaning of Dog bites man is a function of the meanings of the words, and the way in which they are combined (so that it doesn't mean the same thing as Man bites dog).

    This doesn't mean that there isn't no non-compositionality in human language, or even in syntax, but rather that compositionality is typical of syntax, and noncompositionality is typical of morphology [wikipedia.org]. There's in fact tons of noncompositionality in human language, but it's hard to argue that monkeys have a semblance of human language unless you can clearly argue that the meanings of the subparts of the complex calls combine compositionally.

  • by Nutria (679911) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @12:01AM (#30373990)

    will become more complex. given a few thousand years

    I think you're off by a few orders of magnitude.

  • by causality (777677) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @12:50AM (#30374180)

    Strangely enough, your sig link sucks any humor out of your triumphant 'FP!'. I'm surprised you didn't try to get the monkeys to start tea-bagging in the Name of Freedom. You could probably get them to go 'oo-oo-oo' if you presented them with an autographed copy of Sarah Palin's 'book'.

    Go ahead, mod me as -1 Troll. Just make sure you mod parent as well.

    I for one have no problem separating the man's political views from the humor in his post. He's entitled to them, and a link in a sig that I'd have to decide to follow does not constitute a case of him shoving those views down anyone's throat. Sorry but targeting him for that is worse than anything he could write in a blog. I actually view it as a tiny microcosm of how religious wars get started.

    For what it's worth, I don't usually visit links in sigs. There are so many of them and I'd rather just read the comments. However, your comment piqued my curiosity and caused me to visit his blog. I think you gave him some free publicity.

  • by Nutria (679911) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @01:37AM (#30374386)

    A little nervous, eh?

    No, I'm sick and tired of the extended partisan hatred: Dems against Nixon, Reagan and W, Republicans against the Clintons (although it all seems to have shifted towards BHO).

    The partisan vituperation against most sitting presidents in the past 40 years is also really frickin' old.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @01:46AM (#30374424)

    Huh? What are we supposed to be nervous about, losing the election again? Stupid fucking liberals fucking up the country, that's something to worry about.

    Most of us on the right just had this faint hope that after 8 years of nonstop whining [zombietime.com] the left might talk about something fucking else for a change.

    So, though we figured Obama was going to be a complete fucking socialist, his whole hopenchange thing might mean liberals would stop whining about Bush.

    No. Fuck no. Even The One can't make a single fucking speech without mentioning Bush. After all, he has not had a single successful initiative, domestic or foreign, in a full year. Even "Cash for Clunkers" has failed miserably. Since he can't take responsibility for anything he does, after 9 years of whining about Bush, you fucking liberals are going to keep whining about Bush for the next 3 years.

  • Re: Which monkeys? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Black Parrot (19622) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @02:12AM (#30374538)

    In humans language is something cultural, even syntax is something you learn from others, is not builtin. If is the same on monkeys maybe the ones from a region have a different syntax or semantics than others from far away.

    But the capability seems to be at least partly built-in.

    The big debate is between the "speech is special" crowd, who think the built-in stuff is only good for language and only present in humans, vs. those who think language is to a big extent based on more general cognitive capabilities.

    I'm in the latter group, so I find this utterly unsurprising. The discoveries of the past few decades should have disabused everyone by now of the notion that human cognition is of an utterly different caliber than animal cognition.

    Still, there are those who will contest this report vehemently.

  • by jonaskoelker (922170) <jonaskoelker@ g n u .org> on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @02:32AM (#30374642) Homepage

    I have an alternative hypothesis to the one presented in the summary. (Haven't RTFA, fwiw).

    I propose that the word for "leopard" really is the word for "tree". Why?

    Well, suppose the suffix "-oo" means "get up into", and the "come[s] over here" part refers to the trees, not the monkeys.

    Observe that getting up in the trees is a good way to avoid leopards, and that when you yell "Timber!", it's because trees are coming your way. That way, what the monkeys say should still produce the same behaviour as with the summary's language, but the words seem to have more stable, consistent meanings.

    If this were not the case, one might expect the monkeys to say "leopard + comes-over-here" and "tree + comes-over-here", or something similarly systematic.

    Also, observe how (human) children apply simple and logical (but sometimes wrong) rules to construct sentence patterns; something like the thought "hey, the expression "you're going down" must mean that relative to you, I'm going up. Yeah! "I'm going up, you [word]!"". Key point being: simple rules, a consistent inverse relationship between up and down. Wouldn't it make sense that monkeys have a similarly simple and consistent language?

    Note also that the monkeys signal different behaviours when they observe or suspect eagles and snakes. The word for "eagle" might really mean "duck and cover", and the word for "snake" might really mean "stand really still, on your toes, and look down", since that is how they handle these different kinds of predators.

    It might also be more effective to say "get up in the trees" and "get up in the trees" versus "there's a leopard coming" and "there's a [different non-climber] coming"; that way, you can get away with a smaller vocabulary, a more restricted vocal apparatus (since you don't need many different sounds), etc. Just cheaper overall.

    My cents tw-oo ;-)

  • Protip: *Every* time you see anyone going “Humans are the only ones who can do this!“ or “We are the center of $something.”, without haven proven that to be true for a fact, you know you got an arrogant egocentric asshole in front of you, who is no better than a 19th century person going “We are the better race. Only we are real humans. The Earth is the center of the universe. Animals don't *really* think. They are just empty shells. Things without soul or feelings. Just as women, they don not *really* think like we do. And there are no other lifeforms elsewhere. That’s how special we are. $bullshit God $moreBullshit chosen $evenMoreBullshit”.

  • by mr_matticus (928346) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @04:42AM (#30375134)

    my first reaction to it is that the example cited by TFA is not clearly syntactic, in the strictest linguistic sense.

    And in no small part, that's because you're analyzing it as a human language. You go on to suggest that the examples cited tend to indicate morphology. And if this were an elementary study of a phenomenon in a more sophisticated language, I would agree. However, two points:

    1. Morphology is fundamentally syntax (underlying mathematics of structure), it's just the syntax with the word, rather than the assembly of words.
    2. While morphology is unquestionably more basic than syntax, as a lexicon of words is (we assume) a precursor to the emergence of a language, and though morphology eventually becomes a distinct field in highly developed languages, the initial emergence of syntax (and accordingly, sentences) from morphology is not a black and white line.

    Words grow longer and more complicated, and thus carry more and more meaning, until eventually a different structure, a grammar, has to replace a word-based method of communication. The question that this research seeks to answer is whether there is, in fact, a grammar within this language.

    The second paragraph makes an even more problematic claim: "boom" and "krak-oo," combined together, means something completely different than the parts.

    What's the problem with this? That one of the paradigmatic properties of syntactic constructions in human language is compositionality, the principle that the meaning of an expression made of parts A and B is a function of the meanings of A and B themselves, and of the manner in which they are combined in the expression.

    The claim is not problematic and does not necessarily indicate non-compositionality. Again, I believe your perspective is influenced by a study of highly evolved human languages. Consider it more like a machine language and you begin to see things slightly differently.

    If you only have a limited range of sounds (as monkeys do, compared to humans) and if you only have a limited storage capacity (again, as monkeys do, compared to humans), then basic syntax enables a great deal of added complexity for relatively no cost. You can recycle the sounds without creating untenably long morphemes.

    It is not necessarily that "boom" and "krak-oo" when combined mean something different than the parts, but rather that these primates have multiple working definitions for each of their words, and rather than a contextual association, which is rather advanced cognition and language, the different definition is triggered by the syntactical position of the word.

    There's in fact tons of noncompositionality in human language, but it's hard to argue that monkeys have a semblance of human language unless you can clearly argue that the meanings of the subparts of the complex calls combine compositionally

    Agreed, but the issue here is a question of whether we fully understand the meanings attached to their sounds. If you assume that one of their morphemes has exactly one fixed definition regardless of combination, your point is valid.

    But if the meaning shifts based on sequence, allowing each morpheme to be associated with multiple lexical entries depending on its grammatical position within a basic "sentence", then that is indeed evidence of a much more sophisticated language than is commonly assumed.

    Because we have no experience with the development of any human languages at this level, it's hard to say which comes first. I'm of the belief that phonology blurs into morphology, which then blurs into syntax. Is a diphthong a phoneme trying to be a morpheme? Is "boom boom krak-oo [...]" an overextended morpheme, or has it spilled over into a proto-sentence? What is the line between word and sentence, morphology and syntax?

    You're assuming the answer to the question they're asking, and thus begging the question. If the "words" always have one meaning, then it's not much of a syntax--but the research aims to show whether those sounds always have the same meaning or if it does vary with composition.

  • by ArsenneLupin (766289) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @04:47AM (#30375156)

    No, because you can have meaning without syntax.

    ... and you can also have syntax without meaning. Just any regular expression defines a grammar or syntax. That doesn't mean that any string matching that regular expression has a meaning.

  • by theolein (316044) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @11:14AM (#30377146) Journal

    I find it hilarious that a slashdot piece on monkey syntax gets derailed into a flamefest on Dubya and Obama.

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