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Monkeys 'have a memory for grammar'

world Updated: Jul 08, 2009 17:03 IST

Monkeys not only have a memory for mathematics, but grammar too, say researchers.

A new study by Harvard University has revealed that primates could intuitively recognise some rules of grammar -- in fact, they possess skills needed to use language, which are linked to basic memory functions.

One grammatical structure that is found across many languages is affixation -- the addition of syllables, either
at the beginning or end of a word to modify its meaning. For instance, in English, the suffix "–ed" is added to verbs to make the past tense.

And, as this structure is found in so many languages, the researchers thought it may well be linked to basic memory functions that are independent of language.

To test this, they studied 14 cotton-top tamarins, which, like all other non-human primates, do not use language to communicate -- they first played a sequence of nonsensical "words" to the monkeys that all had the same prefix.

The following morning, the animals were played a different set of entirely new words. This second set had completely different stems -- brain, breast, and wasp instead of bi, ka, and na -- but were preceded by the same prefix.

Mixed in to the new batch of words were a few that violated the familiar prefix pattern by having a suffix instead of a prefix ("brainshoy" instead of "shoybrain").