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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Linguistic capacity of non‐human animals

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Linguists interested in language evolution tend to focus on combinatorial features and rightly point out the lack of comparable evidence in animal communication. However, human language is based on various unique capacities, such as a motor capacity of sophisticated vocal control and a cognitive capacity of acting on others' psychological states. These features are only present in very rudimentary forms in non‐human primates, suggesting they have evolved more recently in the human lineage. Here, the evidence from recent fieldwork for precursors of these abilities is reviewed, notably sequence‐based semantic communication, vocal tract control, and audience awareness. Overall, there is evidence for both continuity and discontinuity when comparing modern primate and human communication, suggesting that the origin of language is the result of multiple gradual transitions from earlier forms of primate‐like communication and social cognition, rather than a sudden and fundamental redesign in ancestral human communication and cognition. WIREs Cogn Sci 2015, 6:313–321. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1338

This article is categorized under:

  • Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition
  • Linguistics > Evolution of Language
Male putty‐nosed monkeys combine two calls, ‘pyows’ and ‘hacks’, into different context‐specific utterances. A series of pyows are given to general disturbances, including leopards, series of hacks to crowned eagles, and sequences of pyows followed by hacks to indicate forthcoming group movement. (a) Call series experimentally elicited by leopard growling: the group traveled significantly farther after hearing call series that contained at least one pyow–hack (P–H) sequence compared with the distance moved in response to all other sequences. (b) Naturally occurring call series: the habituated study group traveled significantly farther following call series containing at least one P–H sequence (P–H) compared with the distance moved in response to other series that included no P–H sequences (Other) or when there were no calls made by the male (None). Box plots indicate medians, inter‐quartiles, and ranges. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2008 Nature Publishing Group)
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Spatial reference in bonobo gestures. A subadult male produces a beckoning gesture sequence to persuade a distant high‐ranking female to approach and jointly move to a different location for sex. Illustrations depict the sexual initiation posture (a) followed by a beckoning gesture: arm stretch toward recipient (b), sideways arm sweep toward self (c–e), wrist twirl (f), and then a body pivot (g and h) before walking away and regularly gazing back to check whether recipient is following (i).
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(a)Vocal tracts of non‐human primates are homologous to humans in form and function. Illustration of the vocal tract of a Diana monkey with details as seen in dissection and lateral X‐ray. T—tongue; Tr—trachea; uL—upper lip; lL—lower lip; L—larynx; P—palate; dashed line 1—oral vocal tract length; dashed line 2—nasal vocal tract length; arrows indicate the dorsoventral distances of the oral vocal tract. (b)Vocal tracts of non‐human primates are homologous to humans in form and function. Vowel‐like vocal output of male Diana monkeys produced by specific articulatory movements and constrictions of the vocal tract. Spectrograms and time series depict a Diana monkey leopard and eagle alarm call, including the first (F1) and the second (F2) formants with a downward modulation at the beginning of the leopard call but not in the eagle alarm call. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2006 Elsevier)
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Results of a playback experiment to test whether bonobos can make inferences about the location of food by listening to recordings of other individuals' food call sequences to kiwi (high value) or apples (low value). In the experiment, subjects first learned to find kiwis or apples at two distinct foraging fields within their enclosure. In the subsequent testing phase, subjects then heard recordings of another individual's call sequence given to either kiwi or apple from a concealed speaker. Box plots indicate subjects' foraging responses, at the two foraging fields, in the different playback conditions (‘Control’, no sound played back; ‘Kiwi’, playbacks of food call sequences originally given to kiwi; ‘Apple’, playbacks of food call sequences originally given to apples; medians, inter‐quartile ranges, and extreme values). (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2005 Public Library of Science)
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Cognitive Biology > Evolutionary Roots of Cognition
Linguistics > Evolution of Language

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