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Researchers translate chimp language

Baby chimp, probably saying something insightful
Photo by John Parra

Have you ever wondered what Cheetah was really saying to Tarzan? Or wondered whether or not Bonzo was retaining the lessons Reagan attempted to teach him? Well wonder no more; researchers believe they have been able to translate 36 gestures wild chimps use to communicate with one another.

In a report published online yesterday in Current Biology, the researchers have identified what is believed to be the first known instance of language with meaning in a non-human species. Other animals have been known to understand calls made within their own species and from other species, but never been shown to actively convey meanings with specific gestures.

“That’s what’s so amazing about chimp gestures,” said lead researcher Catherine Hobaiter. “They’re the only thing that looks like human language in that respect.” Hobaiter conducted the study by observing a group of wild chimps for 18 months in Uganda’s Budongo rainforest.

She and her colleague, Richard Byrne, analyzed more than 4,500 exchanges. They were able to identify 66 gestures, and they were able to assign a meaning to 36 of these, according to IFLScience.com.

This could provide some insight in the roots of all language, including what we humans use. It has long been known that other animals are able to communicate in various ways, but never with a level that could be considered language.

“What we’ve shown is a very rich system of many different meanings,” said primatologist Richard Byrne of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, co-author of the chimpanzee study. “We have the closest thing to human language that you can see in nature.”

The researchers did acknowledge that the gestures aren’t as complex or flexible as the language we use. They didn’t have sentence structure or syntax, and our language can be rearranged and used for a much wider variety of situations. Additionally, they could only identify those gestures that caused an action to be performed immediately afterward.

But the research may yet be very useful to ape researchers and those who study the history of language. “The big message is that there is another species out there that is meaningful in its communication, so that’s not unique to humans,” said Hobaiter. “I don’t think we’re quite as set apart as we would perhaps like to think we are.”