A Primate Dictionary? Decoding the Function and Meaning of Another Species' Vocalizations
Version of Record online: 11 FEB 2010
© 2000 Cognitive Science Society, Inc.
Volume 24, Issue 3, pages 445–475, September 2000
How to Cite
Hauser, M. D. (2000), A Primate Dictionary? Decoding the Function and Meaning of Another Species' Vocalizations. Cognitive Science, 24: 445–475. doi: 10.1207/s15516709cog2403_5
- Issue online: 11 FEB 2010
- Version of Record online: 11 FEB 2010
Decoding the function and meaning of a foreign culture's sounds and gestures is a notoriously difficult problem. It is even more challenging when we think about the sounds and gestures of nonhuman animals. This essay provides a review of what is currently known about the informational content and function of primate vocalizations, emphasizing the problems underlying the construction of a primate “dictionary.” In contrast to the Oxford English Dictionary, this dictionary provides entries to emotional expressions as well as potentially referential expressions. It therefore represents a guide to what animals do with their vocalizations, as well as how they are represented by signalers and perceivers. I begin by a discussion of the unit problem, of how an acoustic space is carved up into functionally significant components leading to a species-specific repertoire or lexicon of sorts. This section shows how little we know about the units of organization within animal vocal repertoires, and how such lack of information constrains our ability to tackle the problem of syntactic structure. In Section III, I review research on the production and perception of vocal signals that appear to be functionally referential. This work shows that several nonhuman primates produce vocalizations that share some of the key properties of reference, but certainly not all; the components that are missing raises questions about their role as precursors to human words. In Section IV, I explore the social uses of vocalizations, assessing whether the signal contains sufficient information for listeners to judge a caller's credibility; ultimately, caller credibility determines how receivers select an appropriate response. Results show that individuals can use calls to assess whether someone is reliable or unreliable, and that such attributes are associated with individuals and particular contexts. I conclude by synthesizing the issues presented and then raise some directions for future conceptual and methodological progress.