A new scientific study has revealed that chimpanzees are capable of complex vocalizations far beyond what some thought possible. Their “words”, a combination of chimpanzee utterances (or unique vocal sequences) which generally sound a bit like grunts and chirps to human ears, total almost 400! And get this: The scientists suggest that the way the vocal sequences are arranged suggests chimps could be coming up with new words, too.
What types of things do chimps communicate with each other about?
The data suggest that chimps vocalize about things that have happened in the immediate past or what they want or will do in the immediate future (like eating, resting, traveling, greeting, playing, grooming, and so on). Previous research has suggested that chimpanzees give every indication of empathy in some of their dealings with members of their communities. It remains to be determined if their language (or “words”) reflect this sentiment.
What is next?
Like humans, chimpanzees have to utilize a limited range of sounds to convey a limitless expanse of meanings.
“The next step is to determine if these sequences allow chimpanzees to convey substantially more messages to their group mates than single calls allow… [For instance,] if an animal has 10 call types and cannot combine them, they can send a maximum of 10 messages. If they can flexibly combine them, as we demonstrate the chimpanzees do, they have the potential to convey many more messages. Now we need to assess whether they really use that potential to convey many messages.”
-Dr. Catherine Crockford of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology source
Journal reference: Girard-Buttoz, C., Zaccarella, E., Bortolato, T. et al. Chimpanzees produce diverse vocal sequences with ordered and recombinatorial properties. Communications Biology Journal, 5, 410 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-022-03350-8