Based on collaborative work with Emmanuel Chemla, Anne Schel, Kate Arnold, Alban Lemasson, Karim Ouattara, Sumir Keenan, Claudia Stephan, Robin Ryder, Klaus Zuberbühler
In the last 30 years, field experiments in primatology have yielded rich data on the morphology, syntax and semantics of primate alarm calls. To give but one (particularly rich) example: Ouattara et al. 2009a, b suggested that male Campbell's monkey calls (i) involve 4 roots (krak, hok, wak, boom), (ii) one suffix (-oo) which attaches to 3 of the roots (yielding krak-oo, hok-oo, wak-oo), and (iii) possibly one clear syntactic rule (boom appears sentence-initially). Schlenker et al. 2013 further suggested on the basis of more recent data that (iv) an explicit semantics and pragmatics can be devised for these calls, and that (v) it can account for apparent cases of dialectal variation among Campbell's monkeys.
Based on these and more recent data, we will argue that the method of formal 'fragments' common in linguistics can bring new light to theoretical questions on monkey communication (this methodological point does not entail any claim about the similarity or evolutionary connection between monkey communication and human language). We will review from this perspective recent results on Campbell's monkey calls, which have a sophisticated semantics and possibly pragmatics, but a very ill-understood syntax. We will then discuss somewhat simpler 'monkey languages' found in several species of Old World monkeys (Putty-nosed and Blue monkeys, Black-and-White Colobus monkeys) and New World monkeys (Titi monkeys), emphasizing in each case the key theoretical decisions that must be made in constructing and assessing formal models.
Note: Various references and links to some sound files and videos can be found at: https://sites.google.com/site/philippeschlenkerteaching/ens13