Natural Language & Linguistic Theory

, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 271–298 | Cite as

Titi semantics: Context and meaning in Titi monkey call sequences

  • Philippe Schlenker
  • Emmanuel Chemla
  • Cristiane Cäsar
  • Robin Ryder
  • Klaus Zuberbühler


Cäsar et al. (2013) show that the structure of Titi monkey call sequences can, with just two call types (A and B), reflect information about predator type and predator location. Using the general methods of Schlenker et al. (2014, 2016, to appear), we ask what these observations show about the ‘linguistic’ structure of Titi calls. We first demonstrate that the simplest behavioral assumptions make it challenging to provide lexical specifications for A- and B-calls: B-calls rather clearly have the distribution of highly underspecified calls; but A-calls are also found in highly heterogeneous contexts (e.g. they are triggered by ‘cat in the canopy’ and ‘raptor on the ground’ situations). We discuss two possible solutions to the problem. One posits that entire sequences are endowed with meanings that are not compositionally derived from their individual parts (a related idea was proposed by Arnold and Zuberbühler to analyze pyow-hack sequences in Putty-nosed monkeys). The second solution, which we consider to be superior, takes sequences to have no structure besides concatenation: the B-call is a general call, the A-call is used for serious non-ground threats, and each call reflects information about the environment at the time at which it is uttered. The composition of Cäsar et al.’s sequences is seen to follow from the interaction between call meaning, rules of competition among calls, and more sophisticated assumptions about the environmental context. In the end, a detailed analysis of the division of labor between semantics, pragmatics and the environmental context yields a simple and explanatory analysis of sequences that initially seemed to display a complex mapping between syntax and semantics.


Semantics Pragmatics Monkey linguistics 



We are very grateful to three anonymous referees and to Editor Ad Neeleman for very helpful comments and criticisms. We are also grateful to Melissa Berthet for discussing (at the very end of this research) some preliminary results of ongoing field experiments she is conducting with Titi monkeys. Special thanks to Lucie Ravaux for help with the manuscript (including the preparation of some of the figures).

Grant acknowledgments:

Cäsar: The research leading to these results received funding from the CAPES-Brazil, FAPEMIG-Brazil, S.B. LEAKEY TRUST and the University of St Andrews.

Chemla and Schlenker: Research by Schlenker and Chemla was conducted at Institut d’Etudes Cognitives, Ecole Normale Supérieure—PSL Research University. Institut d’Etudes Cognitives is supported by grants ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC et ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL.

Schlenker: The research leading to these results received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement n°324115-FRONTSEM (PI:Schlenker).

Zuberbühler: The research leading to these results received funding from the European Research Council under ERC grant ‘Prilang 283871’ and also from the Swiss National Science Foundation under grant ‘FN 310030_143359/1’.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philippe Schlenker
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Emmanuel Chemla
    • 2
    • 4
  • Cristiane Cäsar
    • 5
    • 6
    • 7
  • Robin Ryder
    • 8
  • Klaus Zuberbühler
    • 5
    • 9
  1. 1.Institut Jean-Nicod (ENS—EHESS—CNRS), Département d’Etudes CognitivesEcole Normale SupérieureParisFrance
  2. 2.PSL Research UniversityParisFrance
  3. 3.New York UniversityNew YorkUSA
  4. 4.LSCP (ENS—EHESS—CNRS), Département d’Etudes CognitivesEcole Normale SupérieureParisFrance
  5. 5.School of Psychology and NeuroscienceUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsUK
  6. 6.Instituto de Ciências da NaturezaUniversidade Federal de AlfenasAlfenasBrazil
  7. 7.Bicho do Mato Instituto de PesquisaBelo HorizonteBrazil
  8. 8.Centre de Recherche en Mathématiques de la DécisionUniversité Paris-DauphineParisFrance
  9. 9.Centre for Cognitive ScienceUniversity of NeuchâtelNeuchâtelSwitzerland

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