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A ‘Dictionary’ of Chimpanzee Sign Language

By Russell Tenofsky

Infographic demonstrating how chimpanzees use sign language to communicateStand aside, Noah Webster. A new study has just created a ‚Äúdictionary‚ÄĚ for chimpanzee sign language. As published in Current Biology, scientists from the University of St. Andrews say they have ‚Äútranslated‚ÄĚ the meanings of 66 distinct chimpanzee gestures.

A Chimpanzee Language

The scientists created the dictionary by studying 80 wild chimpanzees in Uganda. They examined over 4,500 individual signs from the chimpanzees and then deciphered and cataloged their meanings.

The researchers also argue that this is the first time another species has been documented having a system of ‚Äúintentional communication‚ÄĚ ‚Äď where one individual specifically targets another individual with a message.

“There is abundant evidence that chimpanzees and other apes gesture with purpose,” said co-author Richard Byrne. “Apes target their gestures to particular individuals, choosing appropriate gestures according to whether the other is looking or not; they stop gesturing when they get the result they want; and otherwise they keep going, trying out alternative gestures or other tactics altogether.”

Chimpanzee Nuance

As is the case with human language, many of the chimpanzees’ gestures had multiple meanings and their usage depended upon the individual and situation.

“Just as with human words, some gestures have several senses, but importantly the meanings of chimpanzee gestures are the same irrespective of who uses them,” said lead author Dr. Catherine Hobaiter. “Chimpanzees may use more than one gesture for the same purpose, especially in social negotiations, where the final outcome may be a matter of some give and take.”

Scientists are debating the extent to which humans can decipher the complete meanings of the gestures, however, ‚ÄúNow that the basic chimpanzee gesture ‚Äėdictionary‚Äô is known, we can start to tackle other interesting questions,‚ÄĚ Dr. Hobaiter said. ‚ÄúDo some gestures have very general meanings, where their intended sense is understood from the context? Or do subtle variations in how a gesture is made determine which sense was meant?‚ÄĚ

“The big message [from this study] is that there is another species out there that is meaningful in its communication, so that’s not unique to humans,” Dr. Hobaiter said.

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