Common marmosets are sensitive to simple dependencies at variable distances in an artificial grammar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Recognizing that two elements within a sequence of variable length depend on each other is a key ability in understanding the structure of language and music. Perception of such interdependencies has previously been documented in chimpanzees in the visual domain and in human infants and common squirrel monkeys with auditory playback experiments, but it remains unclear whether it typifies primates in general. Here, we investigated the ability of common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) to recognize and respond to such dependencies. We tested subjects in a familiarization-discrimination playback experiment using stimuli composed of pure tones that either conformed or did not conform to a grammatical rule. After familiarization to sequences with dependencies, marmosets spontaneously discriminated between sequences containing and lacking dependencies (‘consistent’ and ‘inconsistent’, respectively), independent of stimulus length. Marmosets looked more often to the sound source when hearing sequences consistent with the familiarization stimuli, as previously found in human infants. Crucially, looks were coded automatically by computer software, avoiding human bias. Our results support the hypothesis that the ability to perceive dependencies at variable distances was already present in the common ancestor of all anthropoid primates (Simiiformes).


  • Stephan A. Reber
  • Vedrana Šlipogor
  • Jinook Oh
  • Andrea Ravignani
  • Marisa Hoeschele
  • Thomas Bugnyar
  • W. Tecumseh Fitch
External organisations
  • University of Vienna
  • Free University of Brussels (ULB)
  • Austrian Academy of Sciences Acoustics Research Institute (ARI)
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Evolutionary Biology
  • General Language Studies and Linguistics


  • Automated video coding, Familiarity preference, Familiarization-discrimination, Interdependencies, Language evolution, Simiiformes
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)214-221
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number2
Early online date2018 Dec 1
Publication statusPublished - 2019
Publication categoryResearch