Have we underestimated great ape vocal capacities?

Katie Slocombe

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Have we underestimated great ape vocal capacities?

More Like This

Show all results sharing these subjects:

  • Linguistics
  • Language Evolution
  • Phonetics and Phonology


Show Summary Details


This article raises an important question that asks whether the vocal capacities of great apes have been underestimated or not. Considerable research effort has been dedicated to vocal communication in primates, and has revealed communicative and cognitive traits in non-human primates that have relevance for language evolution. The vast majority of vocal communication studies to date have, however, focused on monkey species. In contrast to both research into monkey vocal communication and research on other aspects of great ape behavior and great ape vocalizations has been surprisingly limited. This relative paucity of information on great ape vocal behavior has serious consequences for the understanding of language evolution. First, given that apes outperform monkeys on many cognitive tasks, further research on great apes may reveal that they use their vocalizations in a more sophisticated way than monkeys, possibly demonstrating more commonalities with humans. This article refers to mammals such as chimpanzees and orangutan. Chimpanzee barks are also produced in a context-specific manner, indicating they have the potential to function referentially. Crockford and Boesch found that wild adult male chimpanzees produced bark variants in response to snakes, and whilst hunting. These barks were sometimes combined with other calls or drumming and when produced in conjunction with other signals, they were highly context specific. Playback experiments are now required to assess whether recipients extract meaningful information from these context-specific calls. Many issues need resolving, and numerous areas require more systematic investigation. In particular, the issue of the degree of volition and intentionality that drives call production in great apes must be addressed, as this currently represents a chasm between human and non-human primate vocal communication.

Keywords: vocal communication; primates; great ape behavior; vocalizations; language evolution; cognitive tasks

Article.  2374 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Phonetics and Phonology

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.