Chimpanzees Learn Local Accent To Talk To New Neighbors

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Chimpanzees have special grunts for different types of foods

Until now, it was believed that the ability to modify their accents to fit in with new social groups was something unique to humans. But a new study reveals that chimpanzees can also pick up a new accent to better communicate with their new neighbors. Katie Slocombe, a professor of psychology at the University of York, said that, when exposed to a new social group, chimps change their calls to sound more like other group members.

Understanding how language evolved over time

Chimpanzees have special grunts for different types of foods like apples and bread. When one chimp grunts for a specific food, others respond by looking for that food. Slocombe said human’s ability to learn new words from our peers might go back to our common ancestor with chimpanzees. She told BBC News that one way to understand how language evolved is to study the communication pattern of animals closely related to us.

The study began in 2010 when nine new chimps from a Dutch safari park were housed together with another group of nine in the Edinburgh Zoo. The Dutch chimpanzees made excited, high-pitched calls for apples, compared to a disinterested grunt used by locals. One year later, there was little change in the grunts of either group. A close look at their social behavior revealed that they were not getting along well. There were not many friendships, said Dr Slocombe.

Scottish-Dutch friendship between chimpanzees

By 2013, the high-pitched calls of the Dutch chimpanzees converged with the low grunt of locals, even as their passion for apples remained undiminished. The Dutch chimps were still more partial to apples than their local companions. They were getting along pretty well, and had formed one big group of 18 chimpanzees.

The University of Zurich researcher Simon Townsend said it would be interesting to find out why chimpanzees are motivated to change their accents to sound similar to their group mates. Findings of the study were published in the journal Current Biology.

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