Formal monkey linguistics: the debate

Philippe Schlenker*, 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, Klaus Zuberbühler

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
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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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-201
Number of pages29
JournalTheoretical Linguistics
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2016


  • Call evolution
  • Evolution of language
  • Evolutionary primate linguistics
  • Primate linguistics
  • Primate semantics
  • Primate syntax


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