Tuesday, December 08, 2009

What exactly is syntax? Animal language again

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 Zuberb├╝hler 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.


Alex said...

How do they know 'krak-oo' doesn't just mean "oh shit!"?

Monica said...

and I really want to know how they know -oo is a suffix. Maybe it's a clitic!

Joe said...

@ Alex: Yeah, I'm voting for 'oh shit' for now.

@ Monica: or even an independent word.

Anonymous said...

Dude, you gotta put scare quotes around 'language' in this kind of subject line ... people who don't know you might draw the wrong conclusion.

Chris said...

Derek Bickerton (lightly) reviews these 'boom boom' calls in his language evolution book Adam's Tongue. His point is that a term which cancels out another term is not predication, hence this is not language-like. It's a weak criticism, I feel, but Bickerton's whole book is lightweight.

What counts as syntax is certainly a core question in linguistics, and I'm glad you're asking it. I suspect the article will be dissapointing, nonetheless.

outerhoard said...

I heard the story from Ed Yong's telling.

If you think of it as a story about language that mentions monkeys, it's bound to disappoint. If you think of it as a story about monkeys that mentions language, it cannot fail to delight.

Peter Kaminsky said...

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