Lar gibbon image; Credit: © Shutterstock
Gibbons can speak to each other. The linguistic structures and words they use infer meanings such as the presence of predators or behavioural changes needed to instruct their young and other individuals. How could they describe how close a threat is or whether it is stationary or moving? The answer is adjectival phrases to use with the predators’ naming words! New Scientist call it
deciphering their banter, but do we really have to denigrate a language of at least 26 words, as good as some human early attempts at communication?
The city of Racine on the shores of Lake Michigan, US, is not the first place you would seek white-handed gibbons, Hylobates lar, but the zoo there has supplied Angela Dassow and Professor Michael Coen with the idea to compare the least of the great apes with dolphins, rats and other communicators like ourselves. Prof Coen uses computers to express the sounds as algorithms, making it easier to research and understand the complex hoo language. The melodies beloved of gibbon-watchers in SE Asia are territorial songs, but the new Dr.Dassow can interpret for us what each hoo means.
Dolphins have been extensively studied for their ability to use sounds to represent each individual, as we noted here as: Dolphins Remember. Angela has observed actual objects being described by dolphins in some Floridean research where researchers had taught them the word for
sargassum seaweed. Her own words in her dissertation refer to humans with,
Language is a human affair. It transfers conceptual knowledge from speaker to listener and has extraordinarily generalisable descriptive powers. We re-evaluate this distinction in the context of vocalisations of white-handed gibbons, demonstrating previously unrecognised complexity and structure in their vocalisation..That obviously means we must finally accept we are not unique.
The universality of language is unsure. Many communicative animals use other means of expression. This species of gibbon use a different language to that of other species and even other populations. A father talks quietly to his daughter in one scene observed, calming her down when she gets excited. To know what many primates or dolphins are saying will prove very useful for many reasons. Maybe we can even feel we are not alone.
The claim of the scientists is that such
words are the kind of sounds that the first human speakers would have transferred to each other to enable careful meanings, 1.8 million years ago. We lived on plains then, but the gibbon habitat of rainforest canopy demands even more detail of place and time, with sound more important than our own visual power. This explains how complex the language has to be, even in a couple’s discussion of the work for the day, as they singalong at breakfast.