Understanding Squirrel Monkeys And Language Musicality
November 13, 2013

Monkeys Understand The Musicality Of Language

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Cognitive biologists at the University of Vienna have found that monkeys have an understanding of the musicality of language.

According to the new study, South American squirrel monkeys are sensitive to the simple structural and melodic patterns of language. Language features a particular relationship between syllables, words and musical notes. Understanding the musical and grammatical patterns of language allows people to helps recognize whether a speaker is native or not.

Dependences found in words, syllables or musical notes are shown throughout both language and musical cultures around the world. Researchers wanted to determine whether this ability to process dependencies evolved in human cognition along with language, or if it was a more primitive skill.

The team looked for the dependency detection ability in squirrel monkeys, which are small arboreal primates living in Central and South America. These monkeys have a lot of musicality in their nature calls.

Researchers designed a “musical system” for monkeys, which included overall caustic features similar to the monkeys’ call, with structures that mimicked syntactic or phonological patterns like those found in many human languages.

Monkeys in the study were first presented with “phrases” containing structural dependencies, and later tested them using stimuli either with or without dependencies. The animals’ reactions were measured using the “violation of expectations” paradigm.

"Show up at work in your [pajamas], people will turn around and stare at you, while at a slumber party nobody will notice,” Andrea Ravignani, a PhD candidate at the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, said in a press release. "This is not about absolute perception, rather how something is categorized and contrasted within a broader system."

The scientists found that monkeys reacted more to the “ungrammatical” patterns than the others, which demonstrates the perception of dependencies amongst squirrel monkeys.

“Monkeys discriminated between tone sequences containing a dependency and those lacking it, and generalized to previously unheard pitch classes and novel dependency distances. This constitutes the first pattern learning study where artificial stimuli were designed with the species' communication system in mind,” the researchers wrote in the journal Biology Letters.

Ruth Sonnweber, co-author of the paper, said in the press release this experiment is usually done by presenting monkeys with human speech, so designing one using species-specific language helped the squirrel monkeys’ perception.

Ravignani added that our ancestors might have already acquired this simple dependency detection ability 30 million years ago.

“Mastering basic phonological patterns and syntactic rules is not an issue for squirrel monkeys: the bar for human uniqueness has to be raised,” says Ravignani. “This is only a tiny step: we will keep working hard to unveil the evolutionary origins and potential connections between language and music.”