Viewpoint: On new research that has found birds may have evolved grammatical rules in their songs

Caroline Rowland

Dr Caroline Rowland, from the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, comments: “The idea that birdcalls might have a grammar is exciting because it provides more evidence that animal communication systems and human language might not be that different after all. Many researchers now think that each and every individual ability necessary to learn a language is present in at least one other animal – be it chimpanzees, bees, dolphins or birds. The difference between us and other animals is simply that we have learnt to put them all together to develop a more sophisticated, flexible communication system – one that we call language.

“The researchers discovered that Bengalese finch songs have a grammatical structure very similar to that of human language. Their songs are made up of strings of syllables – individual bursts of sounds separated by miniscule moments of silence. The researchers found that the finches would not respond to songs in which the syllables had been mixed up, even when they contained exactly the same syllables as the original songs. Even more surprisingly, they managed to train finches on songs that followed artificial but grammatical rules (e.g. if sound 1 occurs, sound 2 must follow it at some point). The finches responded to the grammatical, but not the ungrammatical, songs.

“The results of this study provide one more nail in the “language is unique” coffin. One by one, language abilities that were once thought to be unique to humans have been discovered in other species. Like humans, dolphins and parrots spontaneously imitate sounds. Like humans, macaques and starlings can discriminate the sound patterns of language. And, like humans, many primates use distinctively different vocalisations to communicate different messages; one to warn of predators, another to inform the group that they’ve found food. And now, like humans, Bengalese finches seem sensitive to grammar.

“There is perhaps one thing left that might be unique: In human languages, it’s not just words that convey meaning – grammar does too. The way we put words together makes a big difference to what a sentence means. The two sentences “the dog bit George” and “George bit the dog” share exactly the same words but have very different meanings, simply because of the way the words are combined. We have yet to discover whether changing the “grammar” of birdsong changes the meaning of the song – now that would be something to talk about.”

Read more:

One thought on “Viewpoint: On new research that has found birds may have evolved grammatical rules in their songs

  1. J.dilly

    There are studies which suggest that the expression of the FOXP2 gene in humans found in the cerebellum and responsible for speech and language aquisiion is extremely similar to that of birds that sing. The FOXP2 transcription factor is linked to the neural control of orofacial coordination in vocalisation in humans. Studies found little variation between vertebrates accept for two amino acids between humans and chimpanzees. It is a fascinating area of research and I am very pleased to see more interest in this subject.
    This gene has been found in echolocatiing bats, whales, and dolphins which use sonar signalling systems. These mammal species have a much more advanced function of sensori motor coordination. Tones are emitted and used in response to echo feedback mechanisms from targets, as many species of bats are blind. So who knows what further research will discover?

Leave a comment