Nothing to Talk About

On the Linguistic Abilities of Nonhuman Primates (And Some Other Animal Species)
  • Julia Fischer
Part of the The Frontiers Collection book series (FRONTCOLL)


Is language a species-specific feature that distinguishes humans from other animals? While monkey and ape calls carry rich information that is potentially available to listeners, callers have little voluntary control over the structure of their calls and are hence unable to use these calls in a symbolic fashion. Likewise, combinations of calls do occur, but again, these do not appear to be driven by a set of rules applied by the sender. In contrast, listeners are able to attribute meaning to single calls as well as to specific call combinations. Although nonhuman primate communication may function very effectively with regard to social and ecological affordances, it is fundamentally distinct from human speech, where members of a linguistic community agree on the referential content of utterances by convention, and where syntactical rules provide a means to generate infinite meaning. Hence, the idea that speech and language are species-specific human traits is probably not an illusion. Future studies should address the selective pressures that shape communicative behavior, while genetic studies are needed to uncover the constraints that apparently play a role in animal communication.


Autism Spectrum Disorder Specific Language Impairment Alarm Call Playback Experiment FOXP2 Gene 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I thank Eckart Voland for his willingness to consider views of the world that sometimes differ radically from his own, the organizers of this volume for insisting on my contribution, Tabitha Price for comments on the manuscript, and Kurt Hammerschmidt for the many discussions we shared.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cognitive Ethology LaboratoryGerman Primate CenterGoettingenGermany

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