So, maybe science journalism is just there to confuse us about what scientists are actually doing and reporting in publications.
I've been wondering about what syntax really is and how we would show it exists since reading this in the NYT this morning. It reports work by Klaus Zuberbühler and others arguing that Campbell's monkeys (cute critters, see pic) in Ivory Coast not only have some sound-meaning correspondences (boom boom mean 'come here once', krak means 'leopard', etc.), but that they have what they're calling inflectional morphology, a suffix -oo, which sounds like an auditory evidential — indicating you've heard but not seen something.
And they argue that combinations of these calls can be combined to form completely new meanings. Boom boom krak-oo krak-oo krak-oo apparently warns of falling trees, not 'come're, there are leopards'. The piece is being published in PNAS but not available yet (a familiar complaint from the Log about PNAS). I really wonder how many combinations and what kinds one needs to have before we can think about 'proto-syntax', as it's called in the story.
But the bigger question is whether they can confirm these interpretations. Apparently they haven't yet played the recordings to monkeys to check whether they get the same reaction. But surely they did something more than observe a correlation between these calls and some event. And how many times did they observe monkeys calling about falling trees?
I'd probably scream all kinds of stuff if trees started falling around me. And most of it would not be printable in PNAS. But let's see what the actual article says.