Linguistic laws in chimpanzee gestural communication
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.