SOAS     2013 Annual Meeting of the
Linguistics Association of Great Britain

28 - 31 August 2013

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Workshop on Primate Grammar | Workshop on Morphology

Workshop on Primate Grammar (and Beyond)

28th August 2013, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Organised by Ad Neeleman

This workshop will be held in association with Philippe Schlenker's Henry Sweet Lecture at the Annual Meeting of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain 2013.

Plenary speaker

  • Philippe Schlenker (Jean-Nicod/NYU) - 'Towards a primate linguistics' (based on joint work with Emmanuel Chemla, Alban Lemasson, Karim Ouattara, Kate Arnold, Sumir Keenan, Claudia Stephan, Robin Ryder and Klaus Zuberbühler)

Invited speakers

  • Robert Seyfarth (UPenn) - 'Social cognition and the origin of language'
  • Chris Templeton (St Andrews) - 'Feathered primates? Communication rules in avian vocalisations'
  • Simon Townsend (Zurich) - 'Semantic compositions in the meerkat alarm call system'
  • Klaus Zuberbühler (St Andrews) - 'Meaningful strings of calls in primates'


In the last thirty years, several striking results have emerged from field studies of the vocalizations and gestures of non-human primates.

  • Alarm calls sometimes have a referential semantics, i.e. they do not always encode a level of threat, but sometimes the kind of predator that triggers their occurrence (e.g. Seyfarth and Cheney, Science 1980). To give an example, Campbell's monkeys have a 'hok' alarm call which is usually used in the presence of eagles, while another alarm call, 'krak', is more commonly associated with leopards (Ouattara et al., PNAS, 2009b).

  • In some cases, a simple morphological structure appears to be available. To continue with the same example, Campbell's monkeys have an '-oo' suffix which can appear after the 'roots' 'hok', 'krak' and 'wak' (and it might conceivably modify their meanings in a regular way) (Ouattara et al., PLOS ONE, 2009a).

  • Several systems of primate vocalizations display syntactic regularities, though few are understood. It might initially appear that call sequences can be generated with finite state machines, with 'loops' that produce numerous instances of repetitions – but at this point this is just an impression. A few rules are understood in greater detail, however. For instance, in Campbell's monkeys a single 'boom boom' pair can appear at the beginning of a sequence – and it seems to have a semantic effect: sequences prefixed with the 'boom boom' call are associated with contexts that do no involve predation (Ouattara et al., PNAS 2009b).

  • In addition, a rich literature has investigated the communicative gestures of various apes, with detailed lists of gestures and associated meanings in chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, as well as a description of the variation – or lack thereof –within and across species (e.g. Hobaiter and Byrne, Animal Cog 2011).

These properties are evocative of phenomena that linguists have studied in human language. This workshop aims to ask whether the level of sophistication reached by recent descriptions of primate communication systems makes them ripe for a kind of 'primate linguistics'. One side of the question is methodological: can the tools of contemporary linguistics (with its emphasis on formal modelization) bring new light to data from experimental primatology? The other side of the question is substantive: are the formal properties of non-human primate communication systems indicative of a particular proximity (in particular an evolutionary one) with human language?

Further details

Details on how to register for this event and other sessions taking place as part of LAGB 2013 will be available in May 2013. To submit a paper for the General Session of the LAGB or the Workshop on Morphology, please see the Call for Papers.

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