A new study published in Nature found that chimpanzees communicate with each other not just through sounds but actual words and short sentences. Their findings can have major implications for the origins of human languages and syntax. Many assume language is something that evolved in humans as a race and is not something we shared with our ancestors – but this doesn’t seem to be the case here, since chimpanzees appear to be using syntax.
So, what do the chimpanzees say when speaking with each other? This study was built on analyzing their interaction when encountering a threat – in this case snakes.
From the study:
“Chimpanzees produce ‘alarm-huus’ when surprised and ‘waa-barks’ when potentially recruiting conspecifics during aggression or hunting. Anecdotal data suggested chimpanzees combine these calls specifically when encountering snakes. Using snake presentations, we confirm call combinations are produced when individuals encounter snakes and find that more individuals join the caller after hearing the combination.”
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Something which made researchers conclude that chimpanzees speak, not just make sounds of warning, is the fact that, once one chimpanzee was “warned” about a snake, they no longer acted surprised in seeing it – which means they understood exactly what to expect.
More from the study:
“From a production perspective, natural observations supported by snake presentations suggest the “alarm-huu + waa-bark” call combination is emitted in a highly specific context, namely when a chimpanzee encounters a snake, whilst the constituent calls are produced in a wide range of situations (AH: potential threat; WB: general recruitment). Thus, there is a possibility that the combination of calls may offer more specific information to listeners than the constituent calls can in isolation.”
So, what does this mean?
“Our work suggests that compositional structures may not have evolved de novo in the human lineage, but that the cognitive building-blocks facilitating syntax may have been present in our last common ancestor with chimpanzees,” write the researchers.
You can read their study here, it’s fascinating stuff.
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