Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 37, Issue 6, pp 439–501 | Cite as

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

  • Philippe SchlenkerEmail author
  • Emmanuel Chemla
  • Kate Arnold
  • Alban Lemasson
  • Karim Ouattara
  • Sumir Keenan
  • Claudia Stephan
  • Robin Ryder
  • Klaus Zuberbühler
Research Article


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 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Arnold, K., Keenan, S., Lemasson, A., & Zuberbühler, K. (2013). Population differences in wild Campbell’s monkeys alarm call use. Manuscript, University of St Andrews.Google Scholar
  2. Arnold, K., Pohlner, Y., & Zuberbühler, K. (2008). A forest monkey's alarm call series to predator models. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 62, 549–559.Google Scholar
  3. Arnold, K., Pohlner, Y., & Zuberbühler, K. (2011). Not words but meanings? Alarm calling behaviour in a forest guenon. Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects, 35, 437–468.Google Scholar
  4. Arnold, K., & Zuberbühler, K. (2006a). The alarm calling system of adult male putty-nosed monkey Cercopithecus nictitans martini. Animal Behaviour, 72, 643–653.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Arnold, K., & Zuberbühler, K. (2006b). Semantic combinations in primate calls. Nature, 441, 303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Arnold, K., & Zuberbühler, K. (2008). Meaningful call combinations in a non-human primate. Current Biology, 18(5), R202–R203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Arnold, K., & Zuberbühler, K. (2012). Call combinations in monkeys: Compositional or idiomatic expressions? Brain and Language, 120(3), 303–309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Arnold, K., & Zuberbühler, K. (2013). Female putty-nosed monkeys use experimentally altered contextual information to disambiguate the cause of male alarm calls. PLoS ONE, 8(6), e65660. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065660.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Berwick, R. C., Okanoya, K., Beckers, G. J. L., & Bolhuis, J. J. (2011). Songs to syntax: The linguistics of birdsong. Trends in Cognitive Sciences Elsevier, 15(3), 113–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Binmore, K., & Samuelson, L. (1999). Evolutionary drift and equilibrium selection. Review of Economic Studies, 66(2), 363–393.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Blumstein, D. T. (1999). The evolution of functionally referential alarm communication: Multiple adaptations, multiple constraints. Evolution of Communication, 3, 135–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Caro, T. M. (2005). Antipredator defenses in birds and mammals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  13. Cäsar, C., Byrne, R., Young, R. J., & Zuberbühler, K. (2012). The alarm call system of wild black-fronted titi monkeys Callicebus nigrifrons. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 66(5), 653–667.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cheney, D., & Seyfarth, R. (1990). How monkeys see the world: Inside the mind of another species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  15. Chierchia, G., Fox, D., & Spector, B. (2012). The grammatical view of scalar implicatures and the relationship between semantics and pragmatics. In P. Portner, C. Maienborn, & K. von Heusinger (Eds.), Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning. (Vol. 3, pp. 2297–2332). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  16. Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic structures. The Hague: Mouton.Google Scholar
  17. Fichtel, C., & Kappeler, P. M. (2002). Anti-predator behavior of group-living Malagasy primates: Mixed evidence for a referential alarm call system. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 51(3), 262–275.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fleiss, J. L. (1981). Statistical methods for rates and proportions. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  19. Glenn, M. E. (1996). The natural history and ecology of the Mona Monkey (Cercopithecus mona Schreber 1774) on the Island of Grenada, West Indies. Ph.D. Dissertation, Northwestern University, Evanston‘ IL.Google Scholar
  20. Grice, P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (Ed.), Syntax and semantics, 3: Speech acts. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  21. Guschanski, K., Krause, J., Sawyer, S., Valente, L. M., Bailey, S., Finstermeier, K., Sabin, R., Gilissen, E., Sonet, G., Nagy, Z. T., Lenglet, G., Mayer, F., & Savolainen, V. (2013). Next-generation museomics disentangles one of the largest primate radiations. Systematic Biology, 62(4), 539–554.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Halle, M., & Marantz, A. (1994). Some key features of distributed morphology. In A. Carnie & H. Harley (Eds.), Papers on phonology and morphology (Vol. 21, pp. 275–288). Cambridge: MITWPL.Google Scholar
  23. Horn, L. R. (1972). On the semantic properties of logical operators in English. PhD Thesis, University of California, LA.Google Scholar
  24. Horsburgh, K. A., Matisoo-Smith, E., Glenn, M. E., & Bensen, K. J. (2002). A genetic study of a translocated Guenon: Cercopithecus mona on Grenada. In M. E. Glenn & M. Cords (Eds.), The Guenons: Diversity and adaptation in African Monkeys. Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects (pp. 99–109). Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  25. Keenan, S., Lemasson, A., & Zuberbu¨hler, K. (2013). Graded or discrete? A quantitative analysis of Campbell’s monkey alarm calls. Animal Behavior, 85, 109–118.Google Scholar
  26. Kuhn. J. (2013). Do Campbell’s monkeys have linguistic morphology? Seminar Paper, NYU. Available online March 10, 2014, from
  27. Lachlan, R. F. (2006). Bird song dialects. In K. Brown (Ed.), The encyclopedia of language and linguistics (2nd ed., p. 538). Oxford: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  28. Landis, J. R., & Koch, G. G. (1977). The measurement of observer agreement for categorical data. Biometrics, 33(1), 159–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lemasson, A., Gautier, J.-P., & Hausberger, M. (2003). Vocal similarities and social bonds in Campbell’s monkey (Cercopithecus campbelli). Comptes Rendus—Biologies, 326, 1185–1193.Google Scholar
  30. Lemasson, A., Glas, L., Barbu, S., Lacroix, A., Guilloux, M., Remeuf, K., & Koda, H. (2011a) Youngsters do not pay attention to conversational rules: Also in nonhuman primates? Scientific Reports, 1, 22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lemasson, A., & Hausberger, M. (2011). Acoustic variability and social significance of calls in female Campbell’s monkeys (Cercopithecus campbelli campbelli). Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 129(5), 3341–3352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lemasson, A., Ouattara, K., Bouchet, H., & Zuberbühler, K. (2010). Speed of call delivery is related to context and caller identity in Campbell’s monkey males. Naturwissenschaften, 97(11), 1023–1027.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lemasson, A., Ouattara, K., Petit, E. J., & Zuberbühler, K. (2011b). Social learning of vocal structure in a nonhuman primate? BMC Evolutionary Biology, 11, 362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lemasson, A., Zuberbühler, K., & Hausberger, M. (2005). Socially meaningful vocal plasticity in Campbell’s monkeys. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 119(2), 220–229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Magri, G. (2009). A theory of individual-level predicates based on blind mandatory scalar implicatures. Natural Language Semantics, 17(3), 245–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Manser, M. B. (2001/2002). The acoustic structure of suricates’ alarm call varies depending on predator type and the level of response urgency. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 268, 2315–2324.Google Scholar
  37. Marshall, A. J., Wrangham, R. W., & Arcadi, A. C. (1999). Does learning affect the structure of vocalizations in chimpanzees? Animal Behaviour, 58(4), 825–830.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ouattara, K., Lemasson, A. & Zuberbühler, K. (2009a). Campbell’s monkeys use affixation to alter call meaning. PLoS ONE, 4(11), e7808.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Ouattara, K., Lemasson, A., & Zuberbühler, K. (2009b). Campbell’s monkeys concatenate vocalizations into context-specific call sequences. PNAS, 106(51), 22026–22031.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ouattara, K., Zuberbühler, K., N’Goran, E. K., Gombert, J.-E., & Lemasson, A. (2009c). The alarm call system of female Campbell’s monkeys. Animal Behaviour, 78, 35–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Owings, D. H., & Virginia, R. A. (1978). Alarm calls of California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi). Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 46(1), 58–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Perelman, P., Johnson, W. E., Roos, C., Seuánez, H. N., Horvath, J. E., Moreira, M. A. M., Kessing, B., Ponitus, J., Roelke, M., Rumpler, Y., Schneider, M. P. C., Silva, A., O Brien, S. J.,&Pecon-Slattery, J. (2011). A molecular phylogeny of living primates. PLoS Genetics, 7(3), e1001342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Schel, A. M., Tranquilli, S., & Zuberbühler, K. (2009). The alarm call system of two species of black-and-white colobus monkeys (Colobus polykomos and Colobus guereza). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 123(2), 136–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Schlenker, P. (to appear). The semantics/pragmatics interface. In M. Aloni & P. Dekker (Eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Seyfarth, R. M., & Cheney, D. L. (1986). Vocal development in vervet monkeys. Animal Behaviour, 34(6), 1640–1658.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Seyfarth, R. M., Cheney, D. L., & Marler, P. (1980a). Monkey responses to three different alarm calls: Evidence of predator classification and semantic communication. Science, 210, 801–803.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Seyfarth, R. M., Cheney, D. L., & Marler, P. (1980b). Vervet monkey alarm calls: Semantic communication in a free-ranging primate. Animal Behaviour, 28, 1070–1094.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sieving, K. E., Hetrick, S. A., & Avery, M. L. (2010). The versatility of graded acoustic measures in classification of predation threats by the tufted titmouse Baeolophus bicolor: Exploring a mixed framework for threat communication. Oikos, 119, 264–276. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0706.2009.17682.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Skyrms, B. (1996). Evolution and the social contract. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Spector, B. (2007). Aspects of the pragmatics of plural morphology: On higher-order implicatures. In U. Sauerland & P. Stateva (Eds.), Presupposition and implicature in compositional semantics (pp. 243–281). Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  51. Stalnaker, R. C. (2002). Common ground. Linguistics and Philosophy, 25(5–6), 701–721.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Stephan, C., & Zuberbühler, K. (2008). Predation increases acoustic complexity in primate alarm calls. Biology Letters, 4(6), 641–644.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Struhsaker, T. T. (1967). Auditory communication among vervet monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops) . In S. A. Altmann (Ed.). Social Communication Among Primates (pp. 281.324). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  54. Templeton, C. N., Greene, E., & Davis, K. (2005). Allometry of alarm calls: Black-capped chikadees encode information about predator size. Science, 308, 1934–1937.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Wheeler, B. C., & Fischer, J. (2012). Functionally referential signals: A promising paradigm whose time has passed. Evolutionary Anthropology, 21, 195–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Zuberbühler, K., Noë, R. R., & Seyfarth, R. M. (1997). Diana monkey long-distance calls: Messages for conspecifics and predators. Animal Behavior, 53(3), 589–604.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Zuberbühler, K. (2000). Interspecies semantic communication in two forest primates. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 267, 713–718.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Zuberbühler, K. (2002). A syntactic rule in forest monkey communication. Animal Behaviour, 63(2), 293–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philippe Schlenker
    • 1
    Email author
  • Emmanuel Chemla
    • 2
  • Kate Arnold
    • 3
  • Alban Lemasson
    • 4
    • 5
  • Karim Ouattara
    • 6
  • Sumir Keenan
    • 3
  • Claudia Stephan
    • 7
    • 8
  • Robin Ryder
    • 9
  • Klaus Zuberbühler
    • 3
    • 10
  1. 1.Institut Jean-Nicod, CNRSParisFrance
  2. 2.LSCP, CNRSParisFrance
  3. 3.School of Psychology & NeuroscienceUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsScotland, UK
  4. 4.Université de Rennes 1, Laboratoire d’éthologie animale et humaine, UMR 6552 – C.N.R.S.Rennes CedexFrance
  5. 5.Institut Universitaire de France, Maison des universitésParisFrance
  6. 6.Laboratory of Zoology and Animal BiologyUniversity Félix Houphouet Boigny Côte d’IvoireAbidjanIvory Coast
  7. 7.Institute of Biology, Department of Comparative CognitionUniversity of NeuchâtelNeuchâtelSwitzerland
  8. 8.School of Psychology and NeuroscienceUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsScotland, UK
  9. 9.Centre de Recherche en Mathématiques de la DécisionUniversité Paris-DauphineParisFrance
  10. 10.Cognitive Science CentreUniversity of NeuchâtelNeuchâtelSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations