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New Research Finds: Chimpanzee Gestures Follow the Same Laws as Human Language



|| February 13: 2019 || ά. New research by the University of Roehampton has shown that chimpanzees’ gestural communication follows the same mathematical patterns, known as, linguistic laws, as are seen in human language, indicating that the gestures of our primate cousins, may be, more similar to our own language than previously thought.

The Study, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, was led by Masters student Ms Raphaela Heesen and Professor Stuart Semple from the University’s Department of Life Sciences. The researchers studied videos of gestures, made by wild chimpanzees, living in Uganda’s Budongo Forest Reserve.

They Study looked at two particular linguistic laws: Zipf’s Law of abbreviation, which predicts that more commonly used words tend to be shorter and Menzerath’s Law, which predicts that larger linguistic structures are made up of shorter parts, e.g, longer words are made up of shorter syllables.

While these laws are known to hold in many different languages, they had, never, previously, been explored in the gestural communication of animals. They focussed on gesturing, during play, as this is a context where they are, most frequently, used, both alone and in sequences.

They measured the length of over 2,000 play gestures, of 58 different types and found that, just as predicted by the two linguistic laws, more frequently used gestures were shorter in duration and in longer sequences, the average gesture duration was, also, shorter.

Ms Raphaela Heesen, the Lead Author of the Study, said, “Primate gestural communication is, of course, very different to human language but, our results show that these two systems are underpinned by the same mathematical principles. We hope that our work will pave the way for similar studies, to see quite how widespread these laws, might be, across the animal kingdom.”

About the University of Roehampton: The University of Roehampton, London, is an established international higher-education institution, providing a high-quality learning and research experience with the aim of developing personal growth and driving social change. The University has a proud and distinguished history dating back to the 1840s and it was one of the first institutions in the UK to admit women to its colleges of higher education. This tradition of commitment to equality continues to be part of the ethos of the University, which has one of the most diverse and thriving communities of students in the UK; its 9,000 student body includes international students from over 146 countries.

Today the University is renowned for its broad range of expertise across teacher training, business, social sciences, the arts and humanities, as well as, human and life sciences, with world leading and internationally recognised research in these fields.:::ω. 

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