The vocalizations of the gelada, a baboon relative, appear to follow a linguistic rule called Menzerath's law. Christopher Intagliata reports.
Communication on Twitter is artificially constrained: 140 characters per tweet, max. So it turns out the more words in a tweet, the shorter each word tends to be—at least according to one analysis. Sorta makes sense on Twitter: there's a limited amount of space to play with. But the weird thing is, that pattern—longer phrase, shorter words—also holds true in our everyday language too. It's called Menzerath's law.
"And it's this idea of essentially compression in information." Morgan Gustison, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. "So Menzerath's Law, the way you define it is, the larger the whole, the smaller the parts."
Gustison and her colleagues tested out that rule of human language on the calls of geladas—relatives of baboons. <<call sample>> They analyzed more than a thousand of those call sequences—which are strung together from six distinct call types. And they found that, just as the law would predict in human communication, the longer the gelada sequence, the shorter the constituent calls. <<sample1>> And the shorter the string? The longer the calls. <<sample2>> The study is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Morgan L. Gustison et al, Gelada vocal sequences follow Menzerath’s linguistic law]
Gustison says the meaning of the calls is still a bit of a mystery. But the fact that they obey the rule could suggest something important is going on. "The interesting thing about it is it suggests there are universal principles that can underpin complex vocal systems. And so the more you say, you find a more efficient way of saying it. So that's what we think is going on with the geladas, is that they have so much to say, so they’re finding these strategies to make what they’re saying more efficient." Might not be a bad thing to consider…the next time you have a lot of say.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]