[lg policy] Chimps Learn the Local Language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Feb 7 16:50:30 UTC 2015


Chimps Learn the Local Language
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[image: 78778624]
<http://languagemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/78778624.jpg>When
humans move to a new place, they oftentimes learn the local way of
speaking, whether picking up some of the local language or just learning
new vocabulary within the same language — think of a Londoner moving to
California and calling the trunk of a car *the boot* or the hood of a car *the
bonnet.* Ever since Saussurrean semiotics, it’s a common theory that words
are arbitrary, and that whether you call it an apple, or a *manzana* or a
*pomme*, these arbitrary words all refer to the same fruit. Humans adapt
their language to be understood. However, a new study out in *Current
Biology* suggests that we’re not the only ones. Chimpanzees also adapt
their language when they move to a new place.

The researchers recorded the vocal calls that chimps in a Dutch zoo used
for apples, and then documented how their call for apples adapted after
moving in with another group of chimps at a zoo in Edinburgh. The chimps
from the Edinburgh zoo had a much lower-pitched call for apples. The
researchers sought to see if the immigrants chimps coming from the
Netherlands would adapt their call for apples to speak the same language as
the Scottish chimps.

The study resulted in the first ever evidence of vocal learning in a
primate species other than humans. Over three years, the immigrant chimps
changed their call for apples to match that of the host chimps.
Interestingly, the convergence of the two distinct calls for apples into
one coincided with the social integration. In other words, they only began
speaking the same language after the two groups of chimps established
relationships among each other.

By comparing the acoustic structure of the grunt that the chimps used for
apples both before and after their integration, the researchers
demonstrated that the referential calls in chimpanzee language are not
fixed. For chimps, like for humans, the sign, or the relationship between
language and the thing that the language represents, is arbitrary. The
researchers noted that the call for apples converged asymmetrically, and
that the immigrant chimps modified their call to match the call of the host
chimps, and not vice-versa. Furthermore, this process was not immediate;
after the first year of living together, the call had not converged. It was
only after around three years of building social bonds that the immigrant
chimps learned the local language.

The full study, “Vocal Learning in the Functionally Referential Food Grunts
of Chimpanzees” is available here
<http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822%2814%2901635-2>.

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