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Conference Information

Full Title: Workshop on Primate Grammar (and Beyond)
Location: London, United Kingdom
Start Date: 28-Aug-2013 - 28-Aug-2013
Contact: Oliver Bond
Meeting Email: click here to access email
Meeting URL:
Meeting Description: The Workshop on Primate Grammar (and Beyond) will be held in association with Philippe Schlenker’s Henry Sweet Lecture at the Annual Meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain 2013.


In the last thirty years, several striking results have emerged from field studies of the vocalizations and gestures of non-human primates.

- Alarm calls sometimes have a referential semantics, i.e. they do not always encode a level of threat, but sometimes the kind of predator that triggers their occurrence (e.g. Seyfarth and Cheney, Science 1980). To give an example, Campbell’s monkeys have a ‘hok’ alarm call which is usually used in the presence of eagles, while another alarm call, ‘krak’, is more commonly associated with leopards (Ouattara et al., PNAS, 2009b).

- In some cases, a simple morphological structure appears to be available. To continue with the same example, Campbell’s monkeys have an ‘-oo’ suffix which can appear after the ‘roots’ ‘hok’, ‘krak’ and ‘wak’ (and it might conceivably modify their meanings in a regular way) (Ouattara et al., PLOS ONE, 2009a).

- Several systems of primate vocalizations display syntactic regularities, though few are understood. It might initially appear that call sequences can be generated with finite state machines, with ‘loops’ that produce numerous instances of repetitions - but at this point this is just an impression. A few rules are understood in greater detail, however. For instance, in Campbell’s monkeys a single ‘boom boom’ pair can appear at the beginning of a sequence - and it seems to have a semantic effect: sequences prefixed with the ‘boom boom’ call are associated with contexts that do no involve predation (Ouattara et al., PNAS 2009b).

- In addition, a rich literature has investigated the communicative gestures of various apes, with detailed lists of gestures and associated meanings in chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, as well as a description of the variation - or lack thereof -within and across species (e.g. Hobaiter and Byrne, Animal Cog 2011).

These properties are evocative of phenomena that linguists have studied in human language. This workshop aims to ask whether the level of sophistication reached by recent descriptions of primate communication systems makes them ripe for a kind of ‘primate linguistics’. One side of the question is methodological: can the tools of contemporary linguistics (with its emphasis on formal modelization) bring new light to data from experimental primatology? The other side of the question is substantive: are the formal properties of non-human primate communication systems indicative of a particular proximity (in particular an evolutionary one) with human language?
Linguistic Subfield: Cognitive Science; General Linguistics; Linguistic Theories
LL Issue: 24.1167

This is a session of the following meeting:
Linguistics Association of Great Britain Annual Meeting 2013

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