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Semantic communication in vervet monkeys and other animals


Manser, Marta (2013). Semantic communication in vervet monkeys and other animals. Animal Behaviour, 86(3):491-496.

Abstract

The research field of semantic communication in animals was initiated by the study on alarm calls of vervet monkeys, Chlorocebus pygerythrus (then known as Cercopithecus aethiops) by Seyfarth, Cheney and Marler (Animal Behaviour, 1980, 28, 1070–1094). Based on observations of alarm call production and playback experiments in the natural habitat of the monkeys, Seyfarth, Cheney and Marler provided evidence that the alarm calls designated predators as external referents and conveyed sufficient information to listeners to make distinct adaptive responses in the absence of the stimulus. Their interpretation that ‘these calls show semantic properties, potentially based on the formation of internal perceptual concepts’ contrasted with the existing consensus of the time, which saw animal signals as ‘affective’, providing information only about the internal motivational state of the signaller and/or the signaller's likely behaviour. This study, particularly its semantic approach, was hugely influential in revitalizing the discussion of what animal calls ‘mean’, specifically how they are interpreted in the minds of the animals, and ultimately acted as the impetus for the construction of the ‘functionally referential’ framework in animal communication. Although this semantic approach has been criticized in terms of anthropomorphizing animal communication, understanding the underlying cognitive mechanisms is a crucial component of deconstructing animal communication systems and hence we can greatly profit from such a research trajectory. Applying linguistic concepts to animal vocal communication has opened up an enormous research field regarding the continuity between animal vocalizations and human language, integrating different disciplines including animal behaviour, comparative psychology, neurobiology, linguistics and philosophy.

The research field of semantic communication in animals was initiated by the study on alarm calls of vervet monkeys, Chlorocebus pygerythrus (then known as Cercopithecus aethiops) by Seyfarth, Cheney and Marler (Animal Behaviour, 1980, 28, 1070–1094). Based on observations of alarm call production and playback experiments in the natural habitat of the monkeys, Seyfarth, Cheney and Marler provided evidence that the alarm calls designated predators as external referents and conveyed sufficient information to listeners to make distinct adaptive responses in the absence of the stimulus. Their interpretation that ‘these calls show semantic properties, potentially based on the formation of internal perceptual concepts’ contrasted with the existing consensus of the time, which saw animal signals as ‘affective’, providing information only about the internal motivational state of the signaller and/or the signaller's likely behaviour. This study, particularly its semantic approach, was hugely influential in revitalizing the discussion of what animal calls ‘mean’, specifically how they are interpreted in the minds of the animals, and ultimately acted as the impetus for the construction of the ‘functionally referential’ framework in animal communication. Although this semantic approach has been criticized in terms of anthropomorphizing animal communication, understanding the underlying cognitive mechanisms is a crucial component of deconstructing animal communication systems and hence we can greatly profit from such a research trajectory. Applying linguistic concepts to animal vocal communication has opened up an enormous research field regarding the continuity between animal vocalizations and human language, integrating different disciplines including animal behaviour, comparative psychology, neurobiology, linguistics and philosophy.

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11 citations in Web of Science®
10 citations in Scopus®
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Additional indexing

Contributors:Manser, M B, Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:07 Faculty of Science > Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
Dewey Decimal Classification:570 Life sciences; biology
590 Animals (Zoology)
Language:English
Date:September 2013
Deposited On:04 Dec 2013 14:11
Last Modified:05 Apr 2016 17:12
Publisher:Elsevier
ISSN:0003-3472
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.07.006
Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-85774

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