Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More linguistic monkey business: Doolittlery

We've followed some of the animal communication stuff lately, like plans for an elephant dictionary (that still cracks me up) and the old rock star-tamarind connection (that freaks me out). Science Times today has a followup by Nicholas Wade on his earlier story that triggered this piece here. Today's story repeats a chunk of the last one, along these lines:

Some species may be able to produce sounds in ways that are a step or two closer to human language. Dr. Zuberb├╝hler reported last month that Campbell’s monkeys, which live in the forests of the Ivory Coast, can vary individual calls by adding suffixes, just as a speaker of English changes a verb’s present tense to past by adding an “-ed.”

The Campbell’s monkeys give a “krak” alarm call when they see a leopard. But adding an “-oo” changes it to a generic warning of predators. One context for the krak-oo sound is when they hear the leopard alarm calls of another species, the Diana monkey. The Campbell’s monkeys would evidently make good reporters since they distinguish between leopards they have observed directly (krak) and those they have heard others observe (krak-oo).

Sigh. Even if the description is all perfectly correct, the interpretation of what this says about monkey cognition is extremely difficult. Overall, though, it's a lot better than most of this stuff — Wade quotes the right group of specialists, for instance.

But this time, there's no need to say more here, since Mark Liberman over on the Log has posted all that needs to be said on the topic, "Chimps have tons to say but can't say it." Most importantly, Liberman appears to have coined a key new word, "doolittlery". That's one I'll be using.


Anonymous said...

I love the word, but it's pretty hard to say, or rather, doesn't roll off the tongue. Doolittlism doesn't quite work, though.

ALM said...

And it continues: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8479170.stm