One of the most complex primitive syntaxes ever found in a "non-human" being discovered in an African cercopithecus. His way of communicating could shed new light on the origin of our language.

Elisabetta Intini, 14 December 2009

In the course of evolution, our roads were divided about 30 million years ago. Since then between man and campbell cercopithecus (Cercopithecus campbelli campbelli), an arboreal little monkey of West Africa, there is the most total incomprehension. We enclose in the rigid laws of human syntax, they, the primates, in indecipherable monkey-like vocalizations. But perhaps things are changing: an international team of scientists has in fact recently managed to "translate" some of the verses of these distant "cousins" of ours. Discovering one of the most complex examples of non-human language ever known so far.

Monkey-Sentinel. For two years a team of researchers from the universities of Rennes (France), St Andrews (Scotland) and Cocody-Abidjan (Ivory Coast), studied the behavior of 6 different groups of Campbell vervets in the Taï National Park, Ivory Coast. These monkeys live in small groups of about ten specimens, headed by an alpha male who has the task of alerting his companions in case of danger. Ethologists in particular have identified three cries of alarm, which sound more or less like this.
"Boom!" it is the most repeated verse to warn the group of the imminent fall of a branch, or to communicate to the other monkeys the need to "move" to another area of ​​the forest.
"Krak!" it is a very specific alarm cry: attention, a leopard in sight!
"Hok" used almost exclusively when threatening the monkeys, it is one of the most formidable birds of prey in the area, the crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus).

A suffix, a thousand words. But the speeches of the vervet monkeys are not limited to these 3 simple expressions. Further analysis showed that these primates know how to multiply their range of different vocalizations simply by "attaching" to the most common verses, a small syllable, the suffix "-oo". This trick, to which we humans use every day: for example, it is sufficient to attach the suffix "-mente" to the adjective "common" to form a new word, the adverb "commonly".
Thus "krak" with the addition of the suffix "-oo" turns into a generic alarm cry, not necessarily referring to a leopard, while "hok-oo" means "Eye! There is something in the trees" it doesn't matter if a bird or a monkey from a rival group.

More and more difficult! And it's not over. In a second research, scientists focused on how these monkeys combine sounds to communicate with each other. Discovering that rarely the vervet monkeys emit isolated lines, on the contrary. They can also elaborate a "phrase" of 25 distinct vocalizations, combined from time to time in different ways to provide information about the nature of the danger (a falling tree, a predator), the type of predator and how it was located (the I saw, I heard it) and finally, on how to avoid it (maybe by running away).
I can't see you but I can hear you. The complexity of this syntax could be explained by the need to compensate with the variety of vocalizations, the narrow range of vocal inflections of vervets (with respect to, for example, the different notes that a bird can emit). Or again, as a response to a "visibility" problem. Because of the dense African vegetation in fact, these monkeys are often forced to communicate with each other without seeing each other: hence the usefulness of such a vast vocabulary.
At the roots of the word. A similar study was conducted on another species of cercopithecus, the white-nosed species (Cercopithecus nictitans), in March 2008 ( go to news ). If also tested on other primate species, the new discovery - published on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences website - could provide valuable clues to the origin of our language. It is thought that Campbell's man and cercopithecus separated from a common ancestor about 30 million years ago. Some primitive linguistic traits apparently seem to unite them even today.