Context, not sequence order, affects the meaning of bonobo (Pan paniscus) gestures
In most languages, individual words can be ambiguous between several different meanings, but through syntax and context
the intended meaning of an ambiguous word usually becomes apparent. Many great ape gestures also have ambiguous meanings, which poses the
problem of how individuals can interpret the signaller’s intended meaning in specific instances. We tested the effects of sequence
compositionality and situational context (including behavioural and interpersonal contexts) in wild bonobos (Pan paniscus)
at Wamba, DRCongo. We found no effect on a gesture’s meaning from its presence and position in sequence. However, two aspects of situational
context did affect meaning: behaviour of the signaller immediately prior to gesturing, and relative age/sex of signaller and recipient. The
intended meaning of ambiguous gestures was almost completely disambiguated by means of these aspects of context. Our findings suggest that
the use of contextual information to interpret ambiguous signals predates the uniquely-human lineage and is not specific to language.
- Data collection
- Video coding
- Inter-observer reliability
- Do gesture types convey the same meanings when they are used singly as when they are used in sequences?
- Are gesture types more likely to appear at a specific position in a sequence?
- Does the position of a gesture in a sequence affect its meaning?
- Can behavioural context reduce the ambiguity of gesture meanings?
- Does interpersonal context further reduce ambiguity in gesture meaning?