If you’ve ever wanted to talk to a monkey, there’s research being done to enable you to do that.
Philippe Schlenker (and crew) are on the case of cracking the linguistic code of monkey-speak.
In 2009 a team of scientists travelled to Tai Forest with one mission—to terrify Campbell’s monkeys. Prior studies had collected monkey calls and then parsed vague meanings based on events that were already happening on the forest floor. But these primatologists set up realistic model leopards and played recordings of eagle screeches over loudspeakers. Their field experiments resulted in some of the best data available about how monkeys verbally respond to predators. “When you really want to understand the meaning of a call, you need a field experiment,” Schlenker says. “If you yourself are the trigger, you have much better control over what causes each calling sequence in the first place.” The primatologists initially pieced together a few basic monkey calls: krak, hok, krak-oo, hok-oo and boom.
They concluded that krak meant leopard and hok meant eagle. The oo suffix softened the meaning of each word—krak-oo indicated minor disturbances on the ground whereas hok-oo was reserved for less serious aerial threats, like falling branches. Boom meant that the coast was clear.
Is any of this conclusive? No, not yet. Much correlation.
Arik Kershenbaum, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, agrees that studying animal calls through the lens of linguistics was a worthwhile pursuit. “Too often we decide, a priori, that because animal communication isn’t language it’s pointless to apply linguistic tools,” he says. “I think it’s a refreshing and much needed formalism for looking at animal signals.” But Kershenbaum cautions that the krak mechanism suggested in the paper is based on hypotheses rather than experimental data. “Although this current work seems very internally consistent, it does rest on a shaky foundation of correlation,” he says. “Without experimental confirmation the premise is highly speculative indeed.” He adds that although the logic fits together nicely, it will not be possible to draw definite conclusions about how monkeys use krak without follow-up experiments in the field. “In a line, my thoughts are—absolutely fascinating way to look at things,” he says. “Now let’s see whether it holds up.”
I hope it does hold up, because I’ve got some questions for our monkey brethren.
Now go lift something heavy,