Primate communication and its links to human language

Environmental Biology
Green and Pink Lecture Hall, UMCU
Dr. Anne Marijke Schel


Primate communication and its links to human language

Dr. Anne Marijke Schel, Animal Ecology, Biology, Utrecht, University



One hallmark feature of human language is its intentionality, which allows us to inform ignorant others about external events. When using language, humans often make use of a highly complex form of intentionality, where both signaler and recipient are aware of, and can influence each other’s minds (i.e. intentions and beliefs). Although currently there is no convincing evidence for this kind of intentionality used during signal production in other animal species, several previous studies have revealed that great apes are capable of first order intentional signal production. This means that signalers produce their communicative signals voluntarily to influence another individual’s behaviour, rather than their mind. Such previous studies predominantly focused on the intentional production of gestural signals. Vocal signals of animals are still often claimed to be the result of zero-order intentional processes and therefore often classified as ‘reflexive, involuntary and unintentional’. Although this claim has profound implications for theories on human language evolution, proper comparative work to investigate this is scarce. In today’s seminar, I will address this topic by describing the results of recent field studies with wild chimpanzees in Uganda and I will discuss their implications for theories on human language evolution.


Short CV

As a biologist, it fascinates me how evolution has shaped human’s extremely complex cognitive capacities, such as language. My study Biology at Utrecht University (1996-2002) enabled me to dive deeper into one particular aspect of this topic: for my master research I travelled to Sumatra, Indonesia, for a 9 month fieldwork period in which I studied the geographical variation in wild Thomas’ langur vocal communication. Since then, my research has focussed on using the comparative approach to unravel whether our closest living relatives, non-human primates, possess cognitive precursors to human language. My PhD research with Professor Klaus Zuberbuhler at the university of St Andrews (2004-2009) was carried out with wild black-and-white colobus monkeys in Uganda and Ivory Coast, and revealed that these monkeys possess rudimentary forms of semantics and syntax, two of the core features of human language. As a post-doc at the University of York (2009-2012) I collaborated with Dr. Katie Slocombe. We studied whether wild chimpanzees make use of intentional and flexible acoustic communication, two other core features of human language. In Uganda, I pioneered challenging and highly controlled new field methods for this. From 2013-2014 I re-analysed the syntactic properties of my black-and-white colobus data together with Philippe Schlenker and Emmanuel Chemla, two linguists from the Institut Jean Nicod at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. For this, we used ‘formal monkey linguistics’, a controversial new approach for analysing primate vocalizations. After returning to Utrecht University in 2014, I started to investigate similar questions in captive primates, and found that intentionality of primate communication is evolutionary older than previously acknowledged. My aim for the future is to further unravel which cognitive capacities are uniquely human and which ones are evolutionary older, with the ultimate goal of contributing in answering the question ‘what makes us human’. 

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