Linguistic laws in chimpanzee gestural communication

Bibliographic Collection: 
Publication Type: Journal Article
Authors: Heesen Raphaela; Hobaiter Catherine; Ferrer-i-Cancho Ramon; Semple Stuart
Year of Publication: 2019
Journal: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological SciencesProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Volume: 286
Issue: 1896
Pagination: 20182900
Date Published: 2019/02/13
Publication Language: eng

Studies testing linguistic laws outside language have provided important insights into the organization of biological systems. For example, patterns consistent with Zipf's law of abbreviation (which predicts a negative relationship between word length and frequency of use) have been found in the vocal and non-vocal behaviour of a range of animals, and patterns consistent with Menzerath's law (according to which longer sequences are made up of shorter constituents) have been found in primate vocal sequences, and in genes, proteins and genomes. Both laws have been linked to compression—the information theoretic principle of minimizing code length. Here, we present the first test of these laws in animal gestural communication. We initially did not find the negative relationship between gesture duration and frequency of use predicted by Zipf's law of abbreviation, but this relationship was seen in specific subsets of the repertoire. Furthermore, a pattern opposite to that predicted was seen in one subset of gestures—whole body signals. We found a negative correlation between number and mean duration of gestures in sequences, in line with Menzerath's law. These results provide the first evidence that compression underpins animal gestural communication, and highlight an important commonality between primate gesturing and language.


doi: 10.1098/rspb.2018.2900

Short Title: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences