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Monkey Calls Found to Have Specific Meanings and Syntax, Research Finds
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2 May 2015 05:13 PM EST

-by Yuliya Geikhman, Staff Writer; Image: Diana monkey, taken at Marwell Wildlife (Image Source: Marie Hale on Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Animals have ways of communicating, but there has been little evidence so far that these communications followed any pattern to be qualified as a “language.”

New research has found that not only do some monkeys use specific words and phrases, but that there are meaningful prefixes and suffixes, and that the order matters—a monkey language that has a syntax.

The monkeys in question are Campbell’s monkeys and their closely related Diana monkeys. Researchers at the University of St. Andrews have deciphered six distinct vocalizations that have meanings on their own, but gain different meanings based on how they’re used together.

For instance, according to Discovery News, the sound “krak” means leopard, but “krak-oo” is used to convey non-leopard threats like falling branches.

A monkey might say, “Watch out for that falling tree branch” by saying the sentence “Boom-boom-krak-oo.”

The researchers played back various sentences and calls to other monkeys and watched their reactions. They found that the monkeys react in specific ways—for instance, a threat of a leopard would put them on alert, searching the ground for signs of the danger.

These sounds are used to alert others of threats from below (like the leopard) or above (like birds of prey). They’re also used to claim territory.

The monkeys also responded with their own calls, having conversations not unlike humans might.

“The call exchanges between individuals follow a conversational rule,” said the study’s lead author, Camille Coye. “An individual gives a call and then, after a short silence of less than one second, another answers, just as we do when discussing with others."

Monkeys have also been shown to have dialects and accents, with different groups using expressions unique to them.

The meanings of words can be altered by adding suffixes like the “-oo” in “krak-oo,” and the study shows that the order of these words matters. Saying “oo-krak” would make as little sense to a monkey as would saying “ing-sing” would to an English speaker.

Researchers have identified at least one other vocalization, whose meaning is not yet understood.

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