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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 snowgirl (978879) * on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @10:55PM (#30373634) Journal

    There are so many people out there who have been pushing for "animals can speak!" and "we taught monkeys to use sign language!" And it's like, as a linguist, one has to pull out all sorts of jargon and details about why this isn't actual language.

    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.

    That's why I think this is so cool... a chance to really look at a real proto-syntax, because all human languages have a very strongly developed syntax.

  • Angry monkeys (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nephridium (928664) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @12:15AM (#30374052)
    They want to play back intentionally malformed phrases? I guess they'll need to prepare to the Campbell monkeys' equivalent of "What did you just call my mother?" ;)
  • by Orion Blastar (457579) <orionblastar@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @12:19AM (#30374066) Homepage Journal

    Yes and now that monkeys are shown to have syntax, they are considered intelligent enough to have civil rights.

    So along with intellectual property rights for Monkey-speak and Monkey-syntax they also want the right to vote, collect welfare and social security, hold a job, get married, buy cars and houses, run for public office (can't do any worse than the politicians he had in office for the past 30 years anyway, a monkey might be an improvement?), send their kids to public school, and also serve in the military (man those terrorists almost won, until we sent in the 268th Monkey Brigade after them, those terrorists couldn't crack their monkey code or figure out their monkey tactics and they took the terrorists by surprise and got the location of Osama bin Laden out of them using monkey logic and reason to interrogate them but not torture them). What until humankind learns that they are obsolete and now the monkeys are the one on top of evolution. Hey we might even splice their genes to have them talk and understand as humans do, or they might do it via evolution and natural selection. After all, what is the worst that can happen? [wikipedia.org]

  • Which monkeys? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gmuslera (3436) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @12:27AM (#30374102) Homepage Journal
    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.
  • by Estanislao Martínez (203477) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @12:29AM (#30374110) Homepage

    I don't know - a predator (danger that's out to get you) and danger from falling trees aren't entirely unrelated.

    But, to borrow a bit from another comment of mine, neither are disco and psycho , right? Lots of psychos go to discos, after all. [slashdot.org]

    The point is that the "krak-oo" example is at best unclear as evidence of syntax. If you want to argue that there's human language-like syntax in monkey calls, you need to find a clearer example, and preferably one that leads to a combinatorial explosion, where n calls can be combined to yield something in the order of n^2 meanings in a predictable manner.

  • by DynaSoar (714234) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @07:21AM (#30375730) Journal

    Those scientists who have been studying animal language as a non-pseudoscience have been waiting for anyone to show SYNTAX in animal language.

    Then linguists should have been paying closer attention, and/or been been more accepting of the definition of syntax that applies to sign language: simultaneous/parallel modifiers to sign displays that alter the meanings; taken together they can be considered the primary means of development of language -- compounding components into single components with specific meanings. The novel constructions that result can be instantly recognized and meaning determined by another user of the language despite not having encountered that specific combination before. If the latter, it would only fit the Skinnerian learning model; if the former, Chomsky's 'generative grammar'.

    Either millions of sign users around the world are not using language because they're not using syntax, or Koko has been using language for quite some time because she has been using syntax in constructions to modify the meanings of combinations of signs.

    Penny Patterson writes: Koko uses several aspects of ASL syntax in the utterance, "You sip?". She indicates a question by maintaining eye contact, holding the sign for an extended period of time, and raising her eyebrows. She adjusts the subject of the phrase from

    "I sip" to "you sip" by moving the sign away from her lips and turning it toward me, thereby altering the direction of the sign. Her pursed lips and forward-leaning posture are additional grammatical inflections.

    The sign "sip" is Koko's invention, a combination of the signs "eat" (fingers to mouth) and "drink" (thumb to mouth). "Sip" can be a noun or a verb; the distinction is marked in ASL by repetition of the contact motion if the sign acts as a noun, and by a single contact if it acts as a verb. Koko regularly uses this syntactic feature of sign.

    Interested readers can see Koko's sign language in action in the 1999 PBS Nature documentary, "A Conversation with Koko."

    (We now return to our /. post)

    None of the linguists I've worked with ever had a problem considering the modifier components of sign as syntax, particularly if they were used generatively. And they had no problem recognizing Koko's signs as such. This was at the Nation Institute on Deafness and Communications Disorders at NIH, which means two things to my mind: (1) what would you expect from linguists working at NIDCD?, but then (2) NIDCD doesn't bother with linguists who can't manage to expand their thinking beyond the restrictive serial language syntax constructions. The latter adhere to a limited form of Chomky's theory, taking generative grammar to mean people in different cultures develop different syntax/grammars evidenced by different patterns of construction (especially noun/verb ordering) specific to those cultures. These are easily refuted by (1) presenting sentences with ordering uncommon to the language used, with comprehension in intact (says Yoda understand what I'm saying you can), (2) tonal languages which have a simultaneous modifier that, while is a vocal component, performs exactly like the modifiers that are considered syntax in sign.

    I studied linguistics so that I could do my neuroscience magic tricks and figure out what the brain was doing during different phases of communication, both ordered and disordered. I also happened to have been an ASL interpreter with experience in sign languages from other countries (ie. not derived from Gallaudet's French version). Through these I came, by necessity, to recognize how much of human communication is non-verbal, that and includes most of ASL 'syntax' in that it's based in kinesics, proxemics and chronemics. Having been so equipped, I found that by simply taking the non-verbal as the primary rather than the semantic "word" unit, I could deconstruct much of animal behavior as display behavior with intentional meaning. So it was of no surprise that in reading Penny Patterson's di

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