This news release is available in German.
Many of us have mixed feelings when remembering painful lessons in German or Latin grammar in school. Languages feature a large number of complex rules and patterns: using them correctly makes the difference between something which "sounds good", and something which does not. However, cognitive biologists at the University of Vienna have shown that sensitivity to very simple structural and melodic patterns does not require much learning, or even being human: South American squirrel monkeys can do it, too.
Language and music are structured systems, featuring particular relationships between syllables, words and musical notes. For instance, implicit knowledge of the musical and grammatical patterns of our language makes us notice right away whether a speaker is native or not. Similarly, the perceived musicality of some languages results from dependency relations between vowels within a word. In Turkish, for example, the last syllable in words like "kaplanlar" or "gller" must "harmonize" with the previous vowels. (Try it yourself: "gllar" requires more movement and does not sound as good as "gller".)
Similar "dependencies" between words, syllables or musical notes can be found in languages and musical cultures around the world. The biological question is whether the ability to process dependencies evolved in human cognition along with human language, or is rather a more general skill, also present in other animal species who lack language.
Andrea Ravignani, a PhD candidate at the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, and his colleagues looked for this "dependency detection" ability in squirrel monkeys, small arboreal primates living in Central and South America. Inspired by the monkeys' natural
|Contact: Andrea Ravignani|
University of Vienna