Monkey talk

Those crafty scientists at the University of St Andrews have managed to decipher monkey language, it seems:

“Krak” is a call that warns of leopards in the vicinity. The monkeys gave it in response to real leopards and to model leopards or leopard growls broadcast by the researchers. The monkeys can vary the call by adding the suffix “-oo”: “krak-oo” seems to be a general word for predator, but one given in a special context — when monkeys hear but do not see a predator, or when they hear the alarm calls of another species known as the Diana monkey.

The “boom-boom” call invites other monkeys to come toward the male making the sound. Two booms can be combined with a series of “krak-oos,” with a meaning entirely different to that of either of its components. “Boom boom krak-oo krak-oo krak-oo” is the monkey’s version of “Timber!” — it warns of falling trees.

This seems to be based on this PLoS One paper from November. They basically correlated vocalizations with features of the environment (ok, they used a GLM). They then used these features, such as the presence of a jaguar, as templates and simulated their arrival in the environment to check their predictions. They were right. The important point isn’t that the monkeys have words, but rather that they string together words to modify meaning (ie, they use syntax). Here’s how they sum it up:

[I]t is still largely unclear whether non-human primates intentionally inform their audience about the event they have just experienced, or whether their vocal response is more directly driven by the psychological processes triggered by external events, the currently prevailing hypothesis. What our results show is that callers appear to make some judgements about the nature of the event (tree fall, group gathering to travel, conspecific intruder, eagle, leopard), and that this assessment determines whether or not affixation takes place. Equally important, male Campbell’s monkeys rarely produce single calls but almost always give sequences of different call types.

I just want to know when we can hold a conversation with them that contains more content than an interview Sarah Palin. Zing!

We are who we say we are

This is a good article on literary darwinism, or at least one that agrees with my preconceived notions of it. I was smitten from the line, “[Evolutionary psychology] is the Malcolm Gladwell of science: facile and glib, but so persuasive and charming that no one wants to ruin the fun.”

Evolutionary Psychology is usually just BS that sounds vaguely correct; some of it is good, but it is usually in more of an evolutionary biology sense than psychology sense. [Via]

I also found this article on how language shapes who we are to be fairly interesting. For example:

Even basic aspects of time perception can be affected by language. For example, English speakers prefer to talk about duration in terms of length (e.g., “That was a short talk,” “The meeting didn’t take long”), while Spanish and Greek speakers prefer to talk about time in terms of amount, relying more on words like “much” “big”, and “little” rather than “short” and “long” Our research into such basic cognitive abilities as estimating duration shows that speakers of different languages differ in ways predicted by the patterns of metaphors in their language. (For example, when asked to estimate duration, English speakers are more likely to be confused by distance information, estimating that a line of greater length remains on the test screen for a longer period of time, whereas Greek speakers are more likely to be confused by amount, estimating that a container that is fuller remains longer on the screen.)