A recent Discovery News article indicates that some primates may have a richer vocabulary than previously believed — but that their language may just take an unfamiliar form. Author Jennifer Viegas writes:
While such syntax-like behavior has been described in other species, such as whales and dolphins, the new findings are the first to clearly demonstrate the skill in a non-human primate.
“What our research shows is that individual calls do not carry any specific meanings, but different call sequences do,” co-author Klaus Zuberbuhler told Discovery News.
“So, for example, a series of hacks almost certainly indicates the presence of a crowned eagle, whereas a series of hacks preceded by 1 to 2 pyows reliably indicates that the caller is about to start traveling away,” added Zuberbuhler, who is a researcher in the School of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
The article describes the study’s method, which consisted of researches playing recorded calls and observing the results. I’m fascinated how our own preconceptions about language play into studies like this. It’s easy for humans to observe other animals and conclude that no language-based communication is occurring — it doesn’t resemble our language after all! But our lack of comprehension does not necessarily imply a lack of language.
[Discovery News: Monkey vocab richer than thought]