Scientists have moved one step closer to decoding the languages that animals like chimpanzees use to communicate. According to a new study published in Nature, chimpanzees have specific words, or noises, that signify different human words, and they can even be combined into “syntactic-like structures,” creating a unique chimpanzee language.
The research began following anecdotal data that chimpanzees might combine different calls or noises when encountering certain creatures, like snakes. To test the data, researchers set up snake presentations and then recorded how the chimps responded to the appearance of the snakes. According to the study, the chimps produced various “alarm-huus” and “waa-barks” when encountering snakes particularly.
Based on the observations made by the researchers, chimpanzees have their own language and even their own “words” for things like surprise/danger and even “come quickly.” When they see a snake, the chimps seem to combine these noises together, which the researchers suggest communicates surprise and calls for other chimps around the caller.
It’s an intriguing bit of research that helps showcase just how similar animal communication can be to humans. Further, the researchers conclude that the “compositional structures may not have evolved de novo in the human lineage,” and that instead, “the cognitive building-blocks facilitating syntax may have been present in our last common ancestor with chimpanzees.”
It’s possible that the language used by chimpanzees is some kind of precursor to how human language itself evolved. At least, that appears to be the suggestion that the researchers are making here. Language has always been something that humans believed was special to them because they were able to combine various words and noises to mean different things.
But, with this new research, the basic blocks of how human syntax evolved and even began could turn what scientists think they know about human syntax on its head, and it could help further strengthen the ties between humanity’s evolution and animals like chimpanzees.