Monkeys Sense Poor Grammar picture

"Did someone just end a sentence with a preposition?" Photo: ahisgett/Flickr

It's not just your annoying cousin with the English degree who notices your grammatical mistakes. According to a recent Harvard University study, Cottontop tamarin monkeys have an innate ability to notice when certain basic grammatical rules are violated. Previous studies have shown that these monkeys can learn to understand some basic grammar, but not complex sentence structures (ex. the "if... then..." sentence construction). But this is the first study to demonstrate specifically that they are also able to recognize incorrect word usage.

"We were really curious whether monkeys could even detect the common trend found in human language to add sounds to word edges, like adding 'ed' in English to create the past tense," study author Ansgar D. Endress told National Geographic News.

The study used the nonsense word "shoy" coupled with prefixes and suffixes like "ba" and "mo" to form new words like "bashoy" and "shoymo." One group of monkeys learned words with only prefixes added, and another group learned words only with suffixes. Both heard words consisting of the same "shoy" root word. Eventually, the groups were combined and played audio recordings of a series of words. If a monkey responded in puzzlement to a word that violated that monkey's learned grammar, the monkey was counted as having recognized the error.

The response rate to incorrect words was 52 percent, compared to only 37 percent response to correct words. The results are notable because the recognition was spontaneous. That is, although the tamarins were taught the manufactured words used in the study, they were not trained to recognize the grammatically incorrect forms.

In what other ways do we underestimate our primate cousins? Maybe it's only a matter of time before they learn to use the Internet and pettily flame us on message boards when we make minor mistakes.

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