The ABC-D of Animal Linguistics: Are Syntax and Compositionality for Real?
Philippe Schlenker, Camille Coye, Maël Leroux, Emmanuel Chemla
January 2023

In several animal species, an alarm call (e.g. ABC notes in the Japanese great tit) can be immediately followed by a recruitment call (e.g. D notes) to yield a complex call that triggers a third behavior, namely mobbing. This has been taken to be an argument for animal syntax and compositionality (= the property by which the meaning of a complex expression depends on the meaning of its parts and the way they are put together). Several additional discoveries were made across species. First, in some cases, animals respond with mobbing to the order alarm–recruitment but not to the order recruitment–alarm. Second, animals sometimes respond similarly to functionally analogous heterospecific calls they have never heard before, and/or to artificial hybrid sequences made of conspecific and heterospecific calls in the same order, thus adding an argument for the productivity of the relevant rules. We consider the details of these arguments for animal syntax and compositionality and argue that, with one important exception (Japanese tit ABC-D sequences), they currently remain ambiguous: there are reasonable alternatives on which each call is a separate utterance and is interpreted as such ('trivial compositionality'). More generally, we propose that future studies should argue for animal syntax and compositionality by explicitly pitting the target theory against two deflationary analyses: the 'only one expression' hypothesis posits that there is no combination in the first place, e.g. just a simplex ABCD call; while the 'separate utterances' hypothesis posits that there are separate expressions (e.g. ABC and D), but that they form separate utterances and are neither syntactically nor semantically combined.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/006962
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: Accepted with minor revisions in Biological Reviews
keywords: animal linguistics, animal syntax, animal semantics, compositionality, semantics, morphology, syntax
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