G is for Gossip

6 05 2012

The other week I posted the following ‘status update’ on Facebook:

“The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.” (Dunbar, R. 1996. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, p. 77).

With 141 FB friends, I am dangerously near the 150 point. Time for some discreet culling? 😉

The comment was tongue in cheek, obviously, but there was a semi-serious point to it. I’m not the first – by a long chalk – to want to broadcast the fact that it’s simply not possible to have thousands of ‘friends’, unless friendship is redefined in such a way as to leach it of all meaning entirely. When I finally took the FB plunge I vowed to friend only those people whom I’d actually met and whose names I could remember – already stretching the meaning of friend to breaking point – and, by and large, I’ve kept to that pledge.

It’s terrible!

But more about that later. Professor Dunbar, whose calculation of 150 manageable ‘friends’ is a key element in his compelling argument as to how language originated (Dunbar, 1996), was in the news again recently. Using a massive dataset of nearly two million mobile phone calls and 500 million text messages, collected over a 7-month period, Dunbar and his colleagues tracked the way that relationship patterns vary over time and according to gender. Among their findings were “a marked sex difference in investment in relationships during the period of pairbond formation, suggesting that women invest much more heavily in pairbonds than do men”. Not only that, the results of the study “tend to support the claim that mother-daughter relationships play a particularly seminal role in structuring human social relationships”. All this based on who people talk to (or text), how often, and over how long a period of time.

The way that language both shapes and is shaped by social networks has been a recurrent theme in Dunbar’s work. The book on gossip (1996) outlines the thesis that, when our primate forebears descended from the trees onto the African savannah, the ecological need to form larger and larger social groupings required other means, apart from mutual grooming, for bonding and group cohesion. It was simply not possible to groom your whole clan at one sitting. Language, specifically the phatic use of language that we have come to call gossip, provided an alternative to grooming. “Language has two interesting properties compared to grooming: you can talk to several people at once and you can talk while travelling, eating or working in the fields” (Dunbar 1992:30). By sharing information about other clan members, speakers not only cemented group ties but laid down norms of acceptable behaviour. “Language evolved to allow us to gossip” (Dunbar 1996:79).

And, like grooming, the socializing use of language was probably – initially, at least – gender-specific . While males hunted; women gathered – and gossiped.

So, men don’t gossip? It depends what you define as ‘gossip’. Certainly, as Coates (2004: 104) observes,  talking about football seems to fulfil a similar function. She quotes a study that suggests that “if female gossip is a way of talking which solidifies relationships between women, then talking about football would appear to serve a very similar purpose for men”.

In another, much older study of mobile phone use (reported in The Guardian in 2001) researchers found that “some 27% of men, compared with 21% of women, admitted making calls primarily for gossip, which 26% of men referred to as ‘keeping in touch’.  But when some were questioned in focus groups, this often proved to be ‘essentially a euphemism for gossip’” (Ezard 2001).  So, yes, men gossip – but they call it by a less pejorative name.

Which brings me back to Facebook. For all his insight, Dunbar got one thing horribly wrong. He saw no future in digital media in terms of consolidating or extending social networks. “The information super-highway’s only real benefit in the end will be the speed with which ideas are disseminated. … Nor is it likely that electronic mail will significantly enlarge people’s social networks” (1996: 204-205).

Why not? Because, according to Dunbar, 150 friends is the maximum number we can manage.  But, as one of my FB friends asked (in response to my cheeky post): “That was before Facebook. Wonder if he’s adjusted the number since”, while another commented “I don’t think the number above needs to be adjusted; it’s just the word “friend” has had a meaning shift”. Or, as still another said, ‘There are FB friends and then there are people who will lend you money, help you move a piano or go your bail’.

It’s certainly true that it’s not easy – or wise – to gossip on either Facebook or Twitter. Gossip assumes a measure of privacy, and social media are conspicuously public. And gossip assumes shared knowledge, but do all my Facebook friends know one another? I’m absolutely sure that they do not.

So, what’s it all for? Is it the case, that, as one of my ‘friends’ put it: ‘You are confusing genuine friendship & Facebook friendship, which is more about self-promotion & ego-boosting’?  But then, Dunbar (1996: 123) may well have foreseen this. He writes  “One of the most important things gossip allows you to do is to keep track of (and of course influence) other people’s reputations as well as your own.  Gossip… is all about the management of reputation”.

And isn’t that what Facebook is about, too?


Coates, J. (2004)  Women, Men and Language (3rd edition), Harlow, Pearson.

Dunbar, R.  (1992)  ‘Why gossip is good for you’, New Scientist, 21/11/1992.

Dunbar, R. (1996) Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, London: Faber & Faber.

Ezard, J. (2001)  ‘Mobile users “ape monkeys”’, Guardian 6/12/2001.

Palchykov, V., Kaski, K., Kertész, J., Barabási, A-L., and Dunbar, R.I.M. (2012) ‘Sex differences in intimate relationships’, Scientific Reports, 2, at http://www.nature.com/srep/2012/120419/srep00370/full/srep00370.html

Illustrations from Swan, M. & Walter, C. (1984) The Cambridge English Course 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

P is for Primate language

24 07 2011

I’ve just seen this somewhat dispiriting documentary about Nim, one of a number of primates who have been sequestered, domesticated, scrutinised, feted, and ultimately abandoned in the name of linguistic research.  Even the shots of the Columbia University forecourt that I walk through every day failed to enliven a story of wanton cruelty, institutional pettiness, dodgy science and bad hair.

The film charts a succession of sudden, traumatic abductions, starting when baby Nim was snatched screaming from his mother’s arms. Over a period of several years, with only humans to interact with, the young chimp was taught to sign, using an adapted form of  American Sign Language, and acquiring a working vocabulary of several hundred words. When he outgrew his cute and cuddly stage, and/or when the funding ran out, he was packed off to a sort of primate Guantánamo Bay. The story is only slightly redeemed by the efforts of one of his former minders to track him down. Even in his hoary old age, Nim still retains a trace of his former competence, pathetically signing ‘play’ from within the bars of his prison.

Columbia University

Frustratingly, the film hardly touches on the linguistic controversies that fuelled this research. In the 1970s, when this unhappy story took place, the debate as to whether only humans are innately equipped with a modular language acquisition device (LAD) was still a fairly hot issue. Not for nothing was Nim named Nim Chimpsky, in (cute) recognition of Noam Chomsky’s role as the leading protagonist of the debate.

What was at stake was this: if highly intelligent apes, exposed to a similar linguistic environment as human children, could acquire an extensive lexicon, but fail to develop even the rudiments of a ‘grammar’, this would go some way towards supporting the view that humans are uniquely hard-wired for language acquisition. On the other hand, if evidence of syntax, however primitive, could be demonstrated, Chomsky’s notion of a ‘Universal Grammar’ (UG) would either need to be extended to nonhuman primates, or it would need to be re-evaluated entirely.

And the findings? Nim’s vocabulary was impressive, but more impressive still was his ability to form two-sign, three-sign, and even longer strings: MORE EAT, HUG NIM, BANANA EAT ME NIM, etc. Moreover, a superficial analysis of the data would suggest that Nim was operating according to some kind of embryonic grammar, producing word order patterns not dissimilar to those of human children’s first utterances. For example, he consistently placed the sign for MORE in front of the sign it modified:  MORE TICKLE, MORE DRINK, etc. But, as Jean Aitchison (1983) notes, “a closer analysis showed that the appearance of order was an illusion. Nim simply had a statistical preference for placing certain words in certain places, while other words showed no such preference” (p.55).

However, as Roger Brown(1973) argued, with regard to similar results for Washoe, an earlier case study of primate signing, “While appropriate order can be used as evidence for the intention to express semantic relations, the lack of such order does not establish the absence of such intentions” (p. 41). This is because the use of appropriate word order, of the verb-object type, for example, as in GIVE BALL, is not strictly necessary, since the context in which the utterances are generated usually resolves any ambiguity. That is to say, the pragmatics of the situation renders syntax redundant. But if that is the case, why do (human) children show evidence of a proto-syntax right from the start?

In the end, we don’t seem to be much the wiser as to whether the higher primates have a rudimentary LAD, despite all the anguish that was inflicted in trying to find one. Nor, for that matter, do we really know whether humans have an LAD either, or whether their faculty for language acquisition isn’t just a spin-off of their vastly more developed cognitive capacities.

What we do know is that the chimpanzees who have been studied do not use their linguistic capacities in the same way as humans, even very young ones, do. Nim, for example, rarely initiated a conversation, and was unable to grasp the basics of turn-taking. As Aitchison (1983, p. 57) concludes, “Nim did not use his signs in the structured, creative, social way that is characteristic of human children”.

In fact, Nim’s ‘language’ was simply a more elaborated version of the way chimpanzees use gestures and vocalizations in the wild: to regulate two-way social interactions such as grooming, feeding, and play. As Tomasello (2003, p. 11) puts it, nonhuman primate communication functions “almost exclusively for imperative motives, to request a behavior of others, not to share attention or information with others in a disinterested manner”.

As someone once said, “Your dog can tell you he is hungry, but not that his father was poor but happy”.


Aitchison, J. (1983). The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics (2nd edn). New York: Universe Books.

Brown, R. (1973). A First Language: The Early Stages. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.