Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Communication in Bonobos, Chimpanzees, and the Evolution of Language

The current issue of First Language features some interesting articles on the evolution of language:
It includes a book review of Michael Tomasello's "Origins of Human Communication" by Evan Kidd as well as a review of an edited volume titled "The Evolution of Human Language: Biolinguistic Perspectives" by Thomas Scott-Phillips, who rightly argues that the term Biolinguistics - which is mainly used by people from the Generative Grammar camp - is "not a theory-neutral term for the study of language origins."

Last but not least, there's also an interesting article by Heidi Lyn, Patricia Greenfield and E. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh about "Semiotic combinations in Pan: A comparison of communication in a chimpanzee and two bonobos."

Here's the abstract:

Communicative combinations of two bonobos (Pan paniscus) and a chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) are compared. All three apes utilized ordering strategies for combining symbols (lexigrams) or a lexigram with a gesture to express semantic relations such as agent of action or object of action. Combinatorial strategies used by all three apes revealed commonalities with child language, spoken and signed, at the two-year-old level. However, many differences were also observed: e.g., combinations made up a much smaller proportion and single symbols a much larger proportion of ape production compared with child production at a similar age; and ape combinations rarely exceeded three semiotic elements. The commonalties and differences among three sibling species highlight candidate combinatorial capacities that may underlie the evolution of human language.