Monkey communication shows similarity to human language

A new study by the University of Roehampton has found that one of our primate relatives, geladas, a species of monkey in Ethiopia, communicate in a similar way to humans.

Posted: 20 April 2016

image for news story Monkey communication shows similarity to human language

The study by an international team of scientists led by Professor Stuart Semple from the University of Roehampton, London and Morgan Gustison from University of Michigan in the US, found that the geladas’ long and complex vocal sequences follow a pattern seen in many human languages. It found that the longer the overall sequence, the shorter the sounds are within it.

In human language, Menzerath’s law (named after Slovak lingusist Paul Menzerath) states that the ‘the larger the whole, the smaller the parts’. This means that longer words tend to be made up of shorter syllables and longer phrases to make up shorter words. This pattern is found in a wide range of languages, including English, French and Mandarin Chinese, but this study is the first time it has been discovered in any other species.

The research team tested the law in geladas, a species in which males produce long sequences of calls that are made up of six different call types, producing a total number of twenty five calls. They analysed 1,065 of these vocal sequences (comprised of 4,747 individual calls) recorded from fifty-seven males in the Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia. They found an inverse relationship between the sequence length in terms of the number of calls, and the mean duration of the constituent calls.

Their findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Species, also provided support for the idea that Menzerath’s law reflects compression—the principle of minimising the expected length of a code.

This study, the researchers believe, may also point to how our primate ancestors may have evolved to speak.

Click play below to listen to the gelada's calls.

The Department of Life Sciences at Roehampton offers a range of outstanding degrees including the integrated BSc and MSc Zoology and BSc in Zoology. You can also further your studies on our MRes Primate Biology, Behaviour and Conservation course.

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