Monkey semantics: two ‘dialects’ of Campbell’s monkey alarm calls

Linguistics and Philosophy 37 (6):439-501 (2014)
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Abstract

We develop a formal semantic analysis of the alarm calls used by Campbell’s monkeys in the Tai forest and on Tiwai island —two sites that differ in the main predators that the monkeys are exposed to. Building on data discussed in Ouattara et al. :e7808, 2009a; PNAS 106: 22026–22031, 2009b and Arnold et al., we argue that on both sites alarm calls include the roots krak and hok, which can optionally be affixed with -oo, a kind of attenuating suffix; in addition, sentences can start with boom boom, which indicates that the context is not one of predation. In line with Arnold et al., we show that the meaning of the roots is not quite the same in Tai and on Tiwai: krak often functions as a leopard alarm call in Tai, but as a general alarm call on Tiwai. We develop models based on a compositional semantics in which concatenation is interpreted as conjunction, roots have lexical meanings, -oo is an attenuating suffix, and an all-purpose alarm parameter is raised with each individual call. The first model accounts for the difference between Tai and Tiwai by way of different lexical entries for krak. The second model gives the same underspecified entry to krak in both locations, but it makes use of a competition mechanism akin to scalar implicatures. In Tai, strengthening yields a meaning equivalent to non-aerial dangerous predator and turns out to single out leopards. On Tiwai, strengthening yields a nearly contradictory meaning due to the absence of ground predators, and only the unstrengthened meaning is used

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