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Formal monkey linguistics: The debate

  • Philippe Schlenker EMAIL logo , Emmanuel Chemla , Anne M. Schel , James Fuller , Jean-Pierre Gautier , Jeremy Kuhn , Dunja Veselinović , Kate Arnold , Cristiane Cäsar , Sumir Keenan , Alban Lemasson , Karim Ouattara , Robin Ryder and Klaus Zuberbühler
From the journal Theoretical Linguistics


We explain why general techniques from formal linguistics can and should be applied to the analysis of monkey communication – in the areas of syntax and especially semantics. An informed look at our recent proposals shows that such techniques needn’t rely excessively on categories of human language: syntax and semantics provide versatile formal tools that go beyond the specificities of human linguistics. We argue that “formal monkey linguistics” can yield new insights into monkey morphology, syntax, and semantics, as well as raise provocative new questions about the existence of a pragmatic, competition-based component in these communication systems. Finally, we argue that evolutionary questions, which are highly speculative in human language, can be addressed in an empirically satisfying fashion in primate linguistics, and we lay out problems that should be addressed at the interface between evolutionary primate linguistics and formal analyses of language evolution.

Grant acknowledgments

Arnold: The research leading to these results received funding from the Leverhulme Trust.Cäsar: The research leading to these results received funding from the CAPES-Brazil, FAPEMIG-Brazil, S.B. Leakey Trust and the University of St Andrews.Chemla, Kuhn and Schlenker: Research by Schlenker and Chemla was conducted at Institut d’Etudes Cognitives, Ecole Normale Supérieure – PSL Research University. Institut d’Etudes Cognitives is supported by grants ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC et ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL.Schlenker: The research leading to these results received funding from the European Research Coucil under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement n°324115-FRONTSEM (PI:Schlenker).Zuberbühler: The research leading to these results received funding from the European Research Council under ERC grant ‘Prilang 283871’ and also from the Swiss National Science Foundation under grant ‘FN 310030_143359/1’. The project also benefited from the support of the Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques en Côte d'Ivoire and Taï Monkey Project.Ryder: Ryder was partly funded by a CNRS-PSL PEPS grant.


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These are replies to commentaries that appear with Schlenker et al. 2016b. We are extremely grateful to the commentators for their critical remarks, and to Hans-Martin Gärtner for his editorial help. We also benefited from helpful comments from Gerhard Jäger, as well as from general discussions with Takashi Morita. The authors alone are responsible for any errors.

Published Online: 2016-7-5
Published in Print: 2016-7-1

©2016 by De Gruyter Mouton

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