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article imageChimpanzee 'language' translated to English

By Ryan Hite     Jul 6, 2014 in Environment
New research brings insight into Chimpanzee language and how gestures could be used to convey a specific meaning, raising questions about the origins of our own language development.
After analyzing thousands of chimp-to-chimp gestures in the wild, researchers at the University of St Andrews believe that they have translated the meanings of up to 36 chimpanzee gestures used to communicate.
This is the first time that another animal communication system has been found to have meaning, according to researchers, and may also offer an insight into the evolution of human language. The study is now published in Current Biology.
Previous research has found that apes and monkeys are able to understand information conveyed by the call of another animal. It did not appear that voices at first were used intentionally to communicate messages to one another. This is the crucial difference between calls and gestures, researcher Catherine Hobaiter told BBC, since chimps use gestures as a communication system to convey messages to others of the same species.
“That’s what’s so amazing about chimp gestures,” she said. “They’re the only thing that looks like human language in that respect.”
To conduct the study, Hobaiter spent 18 months observing a group of wild chimpanzees in the rainforests of Uganda. She and Richard Byrne, a colleague, then analyzed more than 4,500 chimp exchanges to decipher what the gestures may mean.
They found that chimpanzees use 66 gestures to deliberately communicate up to 19 meanings. The researchers were also able to assign absolute meanings for 36 of the gestures.
“What we’ve shown is a very rich system of many different meanings,” Byrne told Wired news. “We have the closest thing to human language that you can see in nature.”
The researchers acknowledged that their study was limited by the fact that they could only assign meanings to gestures that provoked a reaction, meaning that there may probably be many more gestures that cannot be interpreted. It has also been pointed out that the nature of some of the meanings likely means that we are missing a lot of information contained in these gestures.
The researchers are confident that their work has merit. “The big message is that there is another species out there that is meaningful in its communication, so that’s not unique to humans,” Hobaiter stated. “I don’t think we’re quite as set apart as we would perhaps like to think we are.”
More about Chimpanzee, Chimpanzees humans, chimpanzee language
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