Pritty Patel-Grosz

University of Oslo
Paris IAS
10 months

Research interests: Formal semantics and pragmatics, gesture semantics, primate linguistics, dance cognition, discourse management, cross-linguistic pronominal typology

Research Project

Semantic Atoms of Primate Gestures – the Search for Universals

Recent advances in primatology have led to detailed descriptions of great ape gestures, including videos and descriptions of around 90 gestures found in our non-human primate relatives such as chimpanzees and bonobos (the Great Ape Dictionary). This research project builds on comparative studies showing that a large number of these gestures are shared by pre-linguistic (1-to-2-year-old) human children.

The project takes the natural next step, which is to investigate possible continuities of such shared ape gestures (as found in chimpanzees and human infants) and the gestures of human adults. It specifically explores a particular hypothesis about the nature of such continuities, by positing that the original ape gestures that are oriented towards the external physical world are recycled into discourse management gestures in adult humans. An overarching goal of the project is to unearth potential universal meaning components of gestures in humans, which are shared with our non-human primate relatives. This is achieved by providing a precise semantic analysis of the respective gestural meanings.

New insights into these matters have enormous societal applications in that they inform our perspectives on humans in the natural world and animals in the human world, two areas with increased importance in our age of rapidly declining biodiversity.


Pritty Patel-Grosz is a Professor of Linguistics and Director of the Super Linguistics Research Group at the University of Oslo. At University College London, then at MIT, her early interests included the syntax-semantics-pragmatics interface and psycholinguistics. She has conducted research on individual variables, agreement and anaphoric presuppositions. In recent work, P. Patel-Grosz advocates for the emerging field of Super Linguistics, whose goal is to expand the traditional boundaries of language and linguistics, by applying formal linguistic methodology to non-standard objects beyond language. P. Patel-Grosz’s current research proposes a unified semantic theory of body movement. In collaboration with musicologists and primatologists, she has explored the semantics of ape gestures and narrative dance, illustrating their similarities to linguistic semantics; this research is now being extended to non-human primates.