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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 gandhi_2 (1108023) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @10:48PM (#30373584) Homepage

    FP!

    • by Vombatus (777631) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @10:52PM (#30373604)
      Get enough of them together and it will be like watching a Shakespeare play
    • Best. Simpsons. Reference. Ever!
  • by istartedi (132515) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @10:49PM (#30373586) Journal

    But when they throw "exceptions", look out!

  • The researchers plan to play back recordings to the monkeys to test their theories for syntax errors.

    And the GNU toolchain folks expect to have a working compiler front end by some time early next year.

  • Syntax. Semantics. Not same. Doh!

    • by mr_matticus (928346) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @02:12AM (#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.

      • And then comes the fun part when we talk about the epistemology of monkeys! How do we know what the monkeys know? And what is the nature of their knowledge? How much can we teach them and how will that affect their language (such as it is)? Do they teach their kids or is it hard-wired?
        • I'm fairly certain that they, like us, have a certain hardwired capacity, but clearly if they are able to create new combinations to represent new meanings, then they, like us, are capable of invoking new concepts. If they do indeed have syntax, then surely it must be the first evidence of a form of naturally occurring proto-language outside of humans.

      • Without meaning, syntax can't exist.

        Shouldn't that be the other way round?

        • No, because you can have meaning without syntax. You just have a limited set of combinations and thus a limited field of expression.

          If you can make 40 unique sounds, you can express at least 40 unique concepts.

          Then you can throw morphology into the mix, which is really just intraword syntax, and string those 40 sounds together in combinations to express many more concepts. Without syntax, though, you're limited to single-word expression (which is basically how most people view animal languages--they can c

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by ArsenneLupin (766289)

            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.

  • ook? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Suchetha (609968) <suchetha&gmail,com> on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @10:55PM (#30373632) Homepage Journal

    Ook! [lspace.org]

    OOK! [dangermouse.net]

  • 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.

    • 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 potpie (706881)
        I basically agree. What we are seeing here is probably indeed the rise of Language (capital L) in this species. However I think it's a far cry from seeing the development of SYNTAX. It seems to me that what these primates have is a certain number of vocal signs (like monosyllables), and the possibility to combine multiple signs to achieve a greater range of meaning (like multisyllabic words). But meaning, as has always been apparent, is NOT to be mistaken for syntax. I can flip you the bird and you unde
      • by xigxag (167441)

        I think the article is engaging in a bit of unfortunate hyperbole by using the term "entirely different." It seems to me that it is NOT entirely different, that in fact the key point is quite the opposite, although articulated in a muddled fashion. It seems to me that the main claim is that "krak" is a generalized term for danger or warning, and that by either duplicating it or adding "-oo" or sticking the whole thing in another phrase, you get different specific warnings.

      • For all the kids here that studied Philosophy of language and AI, you should know what the Chinese Room thought experiment is all about and why syntax does not equal semantics.

        I would at least wait for the Monkeys' Greatest Hits to be released, and how their fans receive it before handing a banana to any of the monkeys in lab coats for this discovery.

        Remember, as humans we are least bias towards syntax, and worse adding meaning to it when all other things being equal it is nearly impossible to prove it exis

        • One of the key assumption of the Chinese Room thought experiment is that programs do not have semantics. I would argue this is wrong.

          Sure, programs do have semantics. How do you suppose the program to be interpreted to behave on a computer? A program is a reduction from one semantics to another, higher level to lower level. If we succeed in AI, that means we now have a program that reduces human semantics down to machine semantics, the instruction set for von Neumann architecture. Or if you will, operatio

      • by radtea (464814)

        However, it might be the case that this "syntax" has developed in parallel to human syntax from some common protolanguage

        What is interesting here is not the structure of the language, but the fact of it.

        Humans are possessed of a wide range of incredibly powerful, flexible and general linguistic mechanisms. Non-human animals are frequently held to be entirely non-linguistic.

        This is implausible on the most basic evolutionary grounds: evolution is an elaborative process, and to have such remarkable abilities

      • Does this mean they're ripe for Uplift [wikipedia.org]?
    • 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 ;-)

      • by Jesus_666 (702802)

        My cents tw-oo ;-)

        Stop giving spurious warnings, you krak!

      • I tried to read parent post, I really did.

        It wasn't tl;dr that caused me to quit halfway through.

        It was tms: too much syntax.

        Syntax can be overused. When the mapping of syntactic possibilities begin to branch in too complex a fashion, then information is destroyed rather than conveyed.

        KISS is good. Parent post was not KISS.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by mestar (121800)
      You have have 1 trillion different words in a language

      Yet you keep using the same one.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by DynaSoar (714234)

      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 hav

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Recently it was discovered that profanity is linked to the amygdala. Does it affect signing, too?

        • Recently it was discovered that profanity is linked to the amygdala. Does it affect signing, too?

          That is a seriously interesting question. And precisely the sort of distracting thing that keeps me from finishing my dissertation and answering my own language-based research question. Thanks.

  • They'd make great Slashdot editors! hahahahahahaha!
  • by Kebis (1396783) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @11:08PM (#30373696) Journal
    The monkey version of "Timber!" is “Boom boom krak-oo krak-oo krak-oo". So, in monkey it's 8 sylables, and in English it's 2. No wonder humans became the dominant species, we had more time to get out of the way after the falling tree warning.
  • PNAS (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @11:10PM (#30373712)
    Haha, they said PNAS.
    • by martas (1439879)
      i don't get it.
    • by chord.wav (599850)

      This is why I like /. It's a sanctuary of wisdom in this world of dumbness. Where us, the enlightened, above-average IQ, well-formed and educated people can gather together to discuss the most profound topics knowing that any silly comment will get inevitably modded down thanks to the peer modding system.

      • by Jesus_666 (702802)
        Just assign -1 to Funny mods in your user properties. To quote Steven Paul Jobs: "Boom." Problem solved.

        If you feel grumpy, assign -1 to all mods, browse Slashdot at 1 and then complain that these days people only make stupid comments as evidenced by the mods. (Note that nobody will notice you have changed your scoring settings.)
  • by paiute (550198) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @11:12PM (#30373722)

    The monkeys' lawyers just served papers on the researchers for copyright violations and the making of unauthorized reproductions of the primates' intellectual property. Spokesape Lance Link said "The researchers have submitted my clients' calls to several funding agencies. This is clearly intent to distribute my clients' intellectual properties, and we will therefore be seeking compensatory and punitive damages of one billion bananas for each call infringed upon."

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Orion Blastar (457579)

      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 mili

      • by Jesus_666 (702802)
        Remember that flinging poo at someone's face is not considered torture yet. Then again, it's only a matter of time until the DHS exploits this.
  • Careful (Score:5, Funny)

    by PPH (736903) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @11:24PM (#30373786)

    Violate Strunk and White just once and they'll fling shit at you.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      So, how long have these monkeys been on slashdot? (The number is perhaps not infinite, but does seem to continue to grow...)

  • All you have to do to get around the pay wall is have a referrer from google. Like say from here. [google.com]

  • by FatdogHaiku (978357) on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @11:33PM (#30373826)

    The researchers plan to play back recordings to the monkeys to test their theories for syntax errors.

    Create a very long string of recordings of unrelated calls and play them back to check for buffer overflow errors...

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

    by damn_registrars (1103043) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 08, 2009 @11:51PM (#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 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...
  • "Dr. Zuberbühler said he planned to play back recordings of given calls to the Campbell's monkeys and to test from their reactions whether he had correctly decoded their messaging system."

    They haven't done that, and yet got published in PNAS? While I don't work in animal communication, I'd have thought that would be required for any claim of having decoded messages.

    Or possibly they didn't get published in PNAS - I can't find anything resembling this on the PNAS web site (I have paid-for access.)

  • 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 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 vadim_t (324782)

      I think it makes quite a lot of sense actually.

      Take "krak" to mean something like "The scary thing on the ground" (referring to leopards), as opposed to eagles being "the scary thing in the sky". The -oo suffix makes it less specific, like "a scary thing on the ground". "Boom-boom" may mean "run" or "move".

      So "Boom boom krak-oo krak-oo krak-oo" could be translated to something like "Run! danger on the ground! danger on the ground! danger on the ground!" implying that you must move NOW, or something may fall

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

      by Black Parrot (19622)

      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

  • by Pike (52876) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @12:47AM (#30374164) Homepage Journal

    I guess they'll know they had a "syntax error" if the monkey fails to understand the warning and gets killed by the falling tree.

    • ...and just before the event, we will get to learn the monkey phrase for "Oh, shit"

      Double win!

  • Interesting... Except for the syntax thing, you'd have Slashdot editors.

  • Ook!

    And be careful who you call monkey here.

  • I think it's past my bed time.

    But now I have the sudden urge to work on a new DARPA grant proposal....

  • The politically correct name is "Perl Monks".
  • Really, we're missing something important here. Animals communicate fine with other species, yet we have no idea where to start to translate their thoughts as expressed in their body language, scents and cries. We've moved too far from that baseline. Self critique has always been a weakness of the scientific method, it's high time for some holistic science.

  • So, let's see:

    eeeee = leopard
    eeeee-oo = unseen predator
    kuuu eeeee = timber! (or is that "kuuu eeeee-oo"?)

    I don't see the syntax, just reuse of some phonetic inventory. For syntax, you'd need more elements, and they'd need to be combined in more varied combinations.

  • 150 comments and no one has used the phrase "code monkey."

    [sniffle] My little /. is all growns up.

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