Functionally referential signals: a promising paradigm whose time has passed

Evol Anthropol. Sep-Oct 2012;21(5):195-205. doi: 10.1002/evan.21319.


Finding the evolutionary origins of human language in the communication systems of our closest living relatives has, for the last several decades, been a major goal of many in the field of animal communication generally and primate communication specifically.1-4 The so-called "functionally referential" signals have long been considered promising in this regard, with apparent parallels with the semantic communication that characterizes language. The once-prominent idea that functionally referential signals are word-like, in that they are arbitrary sounds that refer to phenomena external to the caller, has largely been abandoned.5 However, the idea that these signals may offer the strongest link between primate communication and human language remains widespread, primarily due to the fact the behavior of receivers indicates that such signals enable them to make very specific inferences about their physical or social environment. Here we review the concept of functional reference and discuss modern perspectives that indicate that, although the sophistication of receivers provides some continuity between nonhuman primate and human cognition, this continuity is not unique to functionally referential signals. In fact, because functionally referential signals are, by definition, produced only in specific contexts, receivers are less dependent on the integration of contextual cues with signal features to determine an appropriate response. The processing of functionally referential signals is therefore likely to entail simpler cognitive operations than does that of less context-specific signals. While studies of functional reference have been important in highlighting the relatively sophisticated processes that underlie receiver behavior, we believe that the continued focus on context-specific calls detracts from the potentially more complex processes underlying responses to more unspecific calls. In this sense, we argue that the concept of functional reference, while historically important for the field, has outlived its usefulness and become a red herring in the pursuit of the links between primate communication and human language.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animal Communication*
  • Animals
  • Bees
  • Chlorocebus aethiops
  • Cognition*
  • Decision Making*
  • Eagles
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Models, Biological*
  • Primates
  • Vocalization, Animal