Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
– hit song by The Animals

We’ve long known that chimpanzees communicate with ‘words’ –specific sounds to signify specific objects. What’s new, however, is the discovery that chimps have accents that depend on where they live and with whom they socialize. Published earlier this month in the journal Current Biology, the article “Chimps Learn New Language When They Change Locale” describes how a group of nine chimps literally changed their tune when they moved from a Dutch zoo to a zoo in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Prior to the move, the Dutch chimps used a high-pitched series of grunts to signify an apple, one of the chimps’ favorite foods. After joining the Scottish chimps, the newcomers lowered their pitch to match that of their new friends. “It’s the first time we’ve seen another primate species — not humans — change the structure of the call that they give for a specific object by socially learning it,” explained University of York psychologist Katie Slocombe. In essence, “the Dutch visitors changed their call for apples to conform to the pitch pattern used by their Scottish hosts.”

Pitch is a key component of any accent, be it a chimpanzee accent or a human one. In English, there are several instances where changing the pitch of a word altogether changes its meaning. For example, compare the pitch pattern of ‘a greenhouse’ with that of ‘a green house.’ A ‘greenhouse’ has an up-down pitch pattern. A ‘green house’ has an even pitch pattern. (Meaning, the pitch is the same for both ‘green’ and ‘house.’)
Acquiring new pronunciation patterns, whether it occurs naturally or a through an accent modification program, allows us to be easily understood. This may arguably be every person’s, and possibly every chimpanzee’s, greatest desire.