Clever Monkeys
Monkeys and Language


Diana monkeys are some of the most clever monkeys when it comes to language.

We all know the expression monkey see, monkey do. But should the saying really go monkey hear, monkey do? Recent studies are finding that the language abilities of some monkeys are more sophisticated than previously believed. Much more sophisticated.

Monkeys live together in social groups. All members contribute by helping to defend food sources, raise young, and watch for predators. But it is impossible to live in a social group without some form of communication. Group members need ways to influence and inform each other. This is what drives language. Monkeys have evolved many ways of communicating, including visual cues, auditory calls, and even some olfactory signals. Some of their visual signals are quite beautiful, like the long, curled tongue of the emperor tamarin, signaling to her mate when she wants to offload her babies. But visual signals only work if they can be seen. In the dense forest and underbrush that most primates live in, auditory cues are a much more powerful tool. Calls and vocalizations can also be modified in pitch, loudness, and duration, which means a vast array of messages can be transmitted. Alarm calls, territorial calls, food calls, personal identification calls, dominance calls — these are the basic messages that primates need to successfully live in groups. But some developed more complex and specialized forms of auditory communication. Some developed language.

No animals have all the aspects of human language, but several species have some. Diana monkeys, seen in Clever Monkeys, are some of the most clever monkeys when it comes to language. They combine calls to make sentence-like messages. This requires grammar. The meaning of the “sentence” depends on what sounds are included and in what order. Added sounds convey more information, like “maybe,” or “not urgent.” Each predator has an assigned call. The eagle call differs from the jaguar call, meaning Diana monkey language includes semantics: signals convey meaning and refer to features in the real world. And what’s more impressive is that the Diana monkeys can understand other species of monkeys. Putty-nosed guenons also combine calls, and their messages can be understood by the Diana monkeys. A remarkable example of multilingual primates is seen in Clever Monkeys, with eight different monkey species living together and listening to each other. With eight times as many eyes on the lookout, it’s much harder for predators to go unnoticed. Each of the eight species has at least 15 distinct calls — that’s 120 different sounds to remember. There aren’t many humans that speak eight different languages.

One of the most interesting aspects of human language is the ability to deceive. Some primates are capable of displacement, or the use of language to refer to things that are not present. Monkeys use both spatial displacement, referring to objects that are not present in that space, and temporal displacement, referring to objects that are not present at that time. The white-faced capuchin in Clever Monkeys that uses displacement to deceive his troop had to think abstractly about invisible objects. And he had to predict how others would respond. It takes impressive intelligence to tell a monkey lie.

It also takes impressive intelligence to live in very large groups of up to 800 individuals like the geladas of Ethiopia. Within the larger band, gelada males are chosen by females, and they live within harems of females. But staying on top of the social order takes a lot of maneuvering. Most importantly, being a dominant gelada requires a high level of social intelligence and an ability to use visual and auditory signals to communicate. Geladas have over thirty distinct vocalizations. These vocalizations can indicate social status, identity, alarm, friendliness, or submission. Grooming strengthens bonds between group members and brings overall stability to the family unit, but geladas spend most of their day shuffling from spot to spot, picking grass with their thumbs and index fingers. With little time to groom, “chatting” has become a substitute way to relieve tension. This is perhaps what our origins resembled, learning language as we moved across the plains.

Photo by Trisha Shears, Creative Commons license.

  • Germán F. Westphal

    I wonder who did the research for the segment Monkeys and Language and what scholarly publications support the claims made therein. Could you please send me the relevant information to the e-mail address I have provided? Thanks!

  • Leron

    By far the most intriguing show presently on television

  • Jen Buchanan

    I am doing a research paper, and I may choose to do something with monkeys and language. If you could send me the sources you used, that would be wonderful.

  • Michael

    I too am doing research relating the animals and deception. If you could be so kind to send me some scholarly sources used for this segment, i would really appreciate it

  • NATURE Online

    For more information on research in this area, please see our Additional Web and Print Resources in the menu at the right of this page.

  • Kathlien troth

    What do you think about animal inteligence? I need to do a research animal intalligence and I need other people to answer the question.

  • Miamor

    Monkeys Are Awsome

  • Mark

    They also kill each other a lot, that aggression really surprised me. You would think living/surviving in a jungle was tough enough, without having to worry about being attacked by your own kind. I guess some things have never changed.

  • beaglelady

    This was SO fascinating! I loved every minute of it. The animal world is truly amazing.

  • Rebecca

    Never look into the eyes of the monkey -its threating
    Flashing teeth -angry

    Monkeys are cute, playful and funny :-)

  • David

    I am doing a research paper on animal language, this was a helpful article and I was also looking for some of the scholarly sources used. Thank You

  • juergen dee

    oh. my homework gives me headaches. it’s good to have instant answer from this site. thanks

  • Ryan

    “Kathlien Troth – What do you think about animal inteligence? I need to do a research animal intalligence and I need other people to answer the question.”

    Translation: I am too lazy to think for myself. Will someone else do my homework?

  • Twobolt

    Aren’t the “scholarly research requests” quaint.

  • Suzanne

    In the resources section is a book titled ‘ A Primates Memoir’ Great Book! For anyone who loves nature, science, and adventure. The authors study and life among baboons.

  • Conrad

    CLEVER MONKEYS was excellent! I told everyone I saw about the inter-species communications. And humans think they are so smart. I love PBS.

  • Sohrab

    This makes me wonder. Would this group of monkey’s “language” differ from another tribe of monkeys that exhibits communication. One would think if they are using language, then it has aspects of culture to it; much like human language. Where two different monkeys can communicate just fine in their own tribe, but would be completely lost in another’s tribe. Does anyone know of any literature that addresses this?

  • How to Become a Teacher

    When I open up your Feed it provides me with a bunch of garbled text, is the issue on my end? Just thought I’d comment and say cool theme, did you make it yourself? Looks really good!

  • Krakow

    While i began to go through beginning of post i did not think that it might be informative details for me personally nevertheless currently I am seriously greatful that I located this spot to learn. Many thanks to the publisher.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 THIRTEEN Productions LLC. All rights reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.