Research Article

Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 37, Issue 6, pp 439-501

First online:

Monkey semantics: two ‘dialects’ of Campbell’s monkey alarm calls

  • Philippe SchlenkerAffiliated withInstitut Jean-Nicod, CNRS Email author 
  • , Emmanuel ChemlaAffiliated withLSCP, CNRS
  • , Kate ArnoldAffiliated withSchool of Psychology & Neuroscience, University of St Andrews
  • , Alban LemassonAffiliated withUniversité de Rennes 1, Laboratoire d’éthologie animale et humaine, UMR 6552 – C.N.R.S.Institut Universitaire de France, Maison des universités
  • , Karim OuattaraAffiliated withLaboratory of Zoology and Animal Biology, University Félix Houphouet Boigny Côte d’Ivoire
  • , Sumir KeenanAffiliated withSchool of Psychology & Neuroscience, University of St Andrews
  • , Claudia StephanAffiliated withInstitute of Biology, Department of Comparative Cognition, University of NeuchâtelSchool of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews
  • , Robin RyderAffiliated withCentre de Recherche en Mathématiques de la Décision, Université Paris-Dauphine
  • , Klaus ZuberbühlerAffiliated withSchool of Psychology & Neuroscience, University of St AndrewsCognitive Science Centre, University of Neuchâtel

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We develop a formal semantic analysis of the alarm calls used by Campbell’s monkeys in the Tai forest (Ivory Coast) and on Tiwai island (Sierra Leone)—two sites that differ in the main predators that the monkeys are exposed to (eagles on Tiwai vs. eagles and leopards in Tai). Building on data discussed in Ouattara et al. (PLoS ONE 4(11):e7808, 2009a; PNAS 106(51): 22026–22031, 2009b and Arnold et al. (Population differences in wild Campbell’s monkeys alarm call use, 2013), we argue that on both sites alarm calls include the roots krak and hok, which can optionally be affixed with -oo, a kind of attenuating suffix; in addition, sentences can start with boom boom, which indicates that the context is not one of predation. In line with Arnold et al., we show that the meaning of the roots is not quite the same in Tai and on Tiwai: krak often functions as a leopard alarm call in Tai, but as a general alarm call on Tiwai. We develop models based on a compositional semantics in which concatenation is interpreted as conjunction, roots have lexical meanings, -oo is an attenuating suffix, and an all-purpose alarm parameter is raised with each individual call. The first model accounts for the difference between Tai and Tiwai by way of different lexical entries for krak. The second model gives the same underspecified entry to krak in both locations (= general alarm call), but it makes use of a competition mechanism akin to scalar implicatures. In Tai, strengthening yields a meaning equivalent to non-aerial dangerous predator and turns out to single out leopards. On Tiwai, strengthening yields a nearly contradictory meaning due to the absence of ground predators, and only the unstrengthened meaning is used.


Primate linguistics Primate semantics Alarm calls Primate communication