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Brain Lang. 2012 Mar;120(3):303-9. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2011.10.001. Epub 2011 Oct 26.

Call combinations in monkeys: compositional or idiomatic expressions?

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Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife KY16 9JP, UK.


Syntax is widely considered the feature that most decisively sets human language apart from other natural communication systems. Animal vocalisations are generally considered to be holistic with few examples of utterances meaning something other than the sum of their parts. Previously, we have shown that male putty-nosed monkeys produce call series consisting of two call types in response to different events. They can also be combined into short sequences that convey a different message from those conveyed by either call type alone. Here, we investigate whether 'pyow-hack' sequences are compositional in that the individual calls contribute to their overall meaning. However, the monkeys behaved as if they perceived the sequence as an idiomatic expression rather than decoding the sequence. Nonetheless, while this communication system lacks the generative power of syntax it enables callers to increase the number of messages that can be conveyed by a small and innate call repertoire.

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