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Orangutans Use Slang? We’re Shook.

Scientists discovered something very interesting about the way orangutans communicate.

Three orangutans sitting together

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Humans make up new slang words all the time. And, it turns out, orangutans do something similar, though they don’t use words. 

Orangutans can’t talk, but they do use sounds to communicate. Scientists in the United Kingdom have found that orangutans often come up with new sounds. Like human slang words, these sounds often catch on and are used by other orangutans in the community.

In a study led by Dr. Adriano Lameira of the University of Warwick, scientists spent five years recording “kiss-squeaks” emitted by orangutans in various communities. Kiss-squeaks are sounds that orangutans make to try to scare away predators. Scientists once thought kiss-squeaks were hardwired, meaning they never change. But the recordings showed that new kiss-squeaks are invented over time. The recordings also showed that after hearing a new kiss-squeak, other orangutans sometimes begin to use it. 

If this sounds familiar, it may be because this is a lot like the way humans add new words to their languages.

Scientists already know that human language is shaped by social surroundings. In other words, we begin to use new words after seeing or hearing them from friends, social media, TV, and other sources. The study provides evidence that orangutan communication is somewhat similar. Dr. Lameira told The Guardian he believes that some orangutans will invent new sounds to “show off their coolness and how [much of a] rebel they are.”

Did You Know?

Baby orangutan holding onto a branch

© Andrey Gudkov/

The Bornean orangutan has been critically endangered since 2016 due to habitat destruction and illegal hunting. This orangutan population has been reduced by half in the past 60 years.

Jazz-Age Jargon

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Want to know how much human language changes over time? Check out these slang terms from the 1920s!

Cabbage: money

Hard-boiled: a tough person

Know your onions: to know a lot about something

Let’s blouse: “Let’s go”

Sinker: a doughnut (because people would dip their doughnuts in coffee)

The bee’s knees: a highly admired person or thing

The cat’s pajamas: an excellent person or thing

They’re All Talk

Mammals communicate, but did you know that fish and insects communicate too? 

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Syllabic representation:



: a word or phrase that is used mostly in informal speech : a colloquial expression

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