Grammatical Bird Tweets?

Send to Kindle

By Sheldon Greaves

Bengalese finch. Photo: Scientific American

Obviously, we're not talking about tweets on Twitter, which I think are kind of required to be ungrammatical. No, this is about some experiments that investigate whether certain birds assume some kind of grammatical structure in their communication.

For a long time, humans were assumed to be the only ones who employed language, although recent experiments with other animals have shown that different species can understand human speech with a remarkable degree of accuracy (I've plenty of anecdotal evidence myself that tends to confirm this), but because they don't have the physiological equipment for speech, they don't talk back and humans are none the wiser about what gets through to animals.

Grammar, however, appears to be a different story. From Scientific American:

Kentaro Abe and Dai Watanabe of Kyoto University performed a series of experiments to determine whether Bengalese finches expect the notes of their tunes to follow a certain order. To test this possibility, Abe and Watanabe took advantage of a behavioral response called habituation, where animals zone-out when exposed to the same stimulus over and over again.

In each experiment, the birds were presented with the same songs until they became familiarized with the tune. The researchers then created novel songs by shuffling the notes around. But not every new song caught the birds’ attention; rather, the finches increased response calls only to songs with notes arranged in a particular order, suggesting that the birds used common rules when forming the syntax of that song. When the researchers created novel songs with even more complicated artificial grammar—for example, songs that mimicked a specific feature found in human (Japanese) language—the birds still only responded to songs that followed the rules.

Because the birds responded strongly to tunes ordered with certain structure, even when this structure was artificially constructed, the research team determined that the finches were able to spontaneously learn new grammar. This ability, though, seemed to be dependent upon their social context.

Birds isolated as babies from other birds were still able to learn artificial rules of grammar, but they failed to respond to songs with modified syntax—that is, normal Bengalese finch songs with the notes shuffled. However, after being reintroduced to other birds, it took them only two weeks to learn to respond to the shuffled songs, indicating that the birds needed to hear other birds’ songs to absorb the precise rules of Bengalese finch grammar.

Structure is the basis of language, even in declined languages that don't depend as much on word order, some internal structure is required. Years ago linguist Noam Chomsky did an experiment of his own to illustrate this. He took the following sentence:

"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

He asked people if they thought it was a sentence, and nearly all replied in the affirmative, even though the sentence is semantically meaningless (this did not, however, stop numerous artists, musicians, and poets from attempting to interpret this phrase).

To what extent this avifaunal "grammar" corresponds to the human variety remains to be seen, but these early results are intriguing. The follow up question I would like the answer to is whether this grammar implies the presence of a vocabulary.

This entry was posted in Ornithology. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply