Brief Communication | Published:

Language evolution

Semantic combinations in primate calls

Naturevolume 441page303 (2006) | Download Citation


Putty-nosed monkeys rely on two basic calling sounds to construct a message of utmost urgency.


Syntax sets human language apart from other natural communication systems, although its evolutionary origins are obscure1. Here we show that free-ranging putty-nosed monkeys combine two vocalizations into different call sequences that are linked to specific external events, such as the presence of a predator and the imminent movement of the group. Our findings indicate that non-human primates can combine calls into higher-order sequences that have a particular meaning.

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Author information


  1. School of Psychology, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16 9JP, UK

    • Kate Arnold
    •  & Klaus Zuberbühler


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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Klaus Zuberbühler.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Methods

    This file contains Supplementary Figures S1-S5 (PDF 401 kb)

  2. Audio clip 1

    A series of 'pyow' calls: these can function as an alarm in response to a nearby leopard, but are also used in other contexts. (WAV 2574 kb)

  3. Audio clip 2

    A series of 'hack' calls: mostly functions as an alarm in response to a nearby eagle. (WAV 384 kb)

  4. Audio clip 3

    A 'pyow–hack' sequence: sometimes produced in reponse to eagles or leopards; normally results in significant movement by the monkey troop in a variety of contexts. (WAV 520 kb)

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