Chimpanzee Grunts and Screams Are Actually a Complex Language Consisting of 390 Words

A new study reveals that chimpanzees have complex vocalizations far beyond what primatologists predicted.
chimpanzee

The discovery of a 390-word chimpanzee “language” has far-reaching consequences on how human speech evolved. Few animals appear to be able to communicate with a range of complex and intricate groups as humans. Those language skills may exist in limited form in great apes (our closest evolutionary neighbors), many of whom learn to communicate using sign language taught by human scientists. While sign language is physically communicated, researchers did not assume that giant apes have their own comparable, complex spoken language. That is, until now.

What researchers found out

According to a new study, chimpanzees can have complex vocalizations far beyond what pessimistic biologists had predicted. Their “words” weren’t like human vocal words but rather a blend of chimpanzee sounds, which usually sound like chirps and grunts to human ears. How big is the chimpanzee dictionary? It contains about 390 words. According to Science magazine, the average 20-year-old human English speaker knows approximately 42,000 words.

Common Chimpanzee uses spherical tool in the lab
Common Chimpanzee uses spherical tool in the lab by Cornelia Schrauf under CC BY-SA 2.5

The study

The scientists researched a group of 46 chimpanzees at Côte d’Ivoire’s Taï National Park in Africa. They discovered that they are capable of intricate vocalizations much beyond what more pessimistic scientists thought was conceivable. The study published in the journal Communications Biology revealed that “Chimpanzees produced 390 different voice sequences.” “Most vocal units released singly were also released in two-unit sequences (bigrams), which were then embedded into three-unit sequences (trigrams), the researchers write.”

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Adult female and infant wild chimpanzees feeding on Ficus sur.jpeg
Adult female and infant wild chimpanzees by Alain Houle under CC BY 4.0

Research findings

Based on their findings, the researchers expected that the way the vocal sequences were structured hints that chimpanzees could also come up with new words. “The ability to blend individual components into ordered sequences offers a dynamic framework ideal for a large-scale meaningful development.” “More research work is needed to understand how these structural sequences communicate predictable meaning,” says the lead researcher.

Chimpanzees have very flexible vocal cords

“What is amazing about the chimpanzee vocal repertoire, compared to other non-human animals, is the extreme flexibility with which they can combine their restricted number of signals,” co-author Catherine Crockford of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology told Salon via email. While the researchers were unable to compare this vocal complexity to human language, “This paper demonstrates adaptability across their whole vocal repertoire. In other animals, vocal sequence flexibility appears to be restricted to alarm or mating attraction situations. So we anticipate seeing some fascinating meaning extensions in chimps.”

This line of research will aid in our understanding of how human language evolved

The researchers believe that this study has far-reaching consequences beyond simply understanding how chimpanzees interact. Humans have been able to form thousands of languages over millennia of recorded history. But this isn’t due to making thousands of distinct sorts of sounds. Humans, like chimps, have had to rely on a restricted set of sounds to transmit an infinite number of meanings. Thus, the new study could have far-reaching ramifications for evolutionary scientists.

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“This field of inquiry will aid in understanding how human language might have developed,” Crockford said before describing how humans are “extremely constrained in the sounds we actually employ in speech.” “Here we illustrate the first part in chimpanzees — a hurdle towards language — having enough vocal production to blend existing sounds together,” the scientist continued, adding that this could illuminate how human speech evolved.

Reference to related studies

According to other studies, chimps mostly talk about what they’re presently doing (greeting, eating, grooming, traveling, resting, or playing). 

“I only have a few findings that show that Chimpanzees vocalize about recent events or what they want/will do in the near future,” Crockford explains.

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While this is true, the study also reminds us that chimpanzees are considerably more human-like than we might care to accept.

“Chimpanzees show signs of empathy in certain interactions with members of their groups, such as when they console one another after a traumatic event,” researcher Ashley Ward told Salon. “While we may find it difficult to assess an animal’s emotional condition, it’s unlikely that we are the only species capable of empathy.”

three wise monkeys chimpanzee simia troglodyte

Could we someday communicate with chimpanzees?

“Scientists have a lot to do to fully understand the potentials of what they have discovered about chimpanzees’ vocalizations,” Crockford said.

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The next thing would be to see if these sequences allow chimpanzees to significantly communicate more information to their group members than single calls do. For example, if an animal has ten call types but can’t combine them, it means the animal can only send at most ten messages.

What’s more? If you are of the opinion that this study means you’ll be able to communicate with chimpanzees soon, keep in mind that, while it’s possible, Crockford believes “the communication might still be extremely limited.”