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Birds use syntax like humans?

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File:Parus minor (side).JPG
Japanese tit/Alpsdrake, CC

By now we know the lyrics. From the Washington Post:

These birds use a linguistic rule thought to be unique to humans

But sometimes we use syntax to impart complex combinations of ideas. “Careful, it’s dangerous” is a phrase that has meaning, and so is “come toward me.” When those two phrases are combined, they have a different meaning than they do on their own: They’re directing the receiver to act in a different way than either phrase would independently.

Until now, only humans seemed to use syntax this way. But a study published Tuesday in Nature Communications suggests that the Japanese great tit — a bird closely related to the North American chickadee — uses grammatical rules like these in its calls.

The birds’ book deal is just around the corner, we hear.

No? So what’s the significance then?

He expects scientists to find evidence of these grammatical rules in other birds — and, he hopes, across the animal kingdom.

“We hope people start looking for it and find it everywhere,” he said. “Because then we can start answering the question of how and why syntax evolved. For now, we don’t have any close relatives that we know who use syntax. And it’s a big question. Why not just convey a new meaning by creating a new word? Why does order matter? We hope that in the future, this research will help give us insight into why syntax evolved in humans.” More.

Okay. This seems to mean: So far as the researchers know, apes and monkeys do not use syntax. But some bird species do. No wonder he (Toshitaka) hopes to find the trait everywhere. Best of all, to find it in apes and monkeys much more than in a bird species not remotely related to humans.

And what if they never do? What would that suggest?

Looking at the matter from a non-naturalist perspective, what is the content of what the bird or animal says? For example,

Alex the parrot (1976-2007), possibly the most famous “intelligent bird” personality, could use human language to communicate needs. However, he had only typical parrot needs. Alex was not achieving more human-like intelligence–as his researcher and patron Irene Pepperberg acknowledged:

“I avoid the language issue,” she said. “I’m not making claims. His behavior gets more and more advanced, but I don’t believe years from now you could interview him.” She continued: “What little syntax he has is very simplistic. Language is what you and I are doing, an incredibly complex form of communication.”

Put another way, if an intelligent dog had “vocal cords” (a syrinx) like a parrot, he could tell a human in words that he needs to go outside or have his water dish refilled. But he does not go on to express interest in things that do not naturally concern a dog. More.

No reason to think that will change either. Worst still, we live in a world where it could turn out that many birds use syntax but gorillas never do.

See also: Furry, feathery, and finny animals speak their minds


Does intelligence depend on a specific type of brain?

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Here’s the abstract:

Human language can express limitless meanings from a finite set of words based on combinatorial rules (i.e., compositional syntax). Although animal vocalizations may be comprised of different basic elements (notes), it remains unknown whether compositional syntax has also evolved in animals. Here we report the first experimental evidence for compositional syntax in a wild animal species, the Japanese great tit (Parus minor). Tits have over ten different notes in their vocal repertoire and use them either solely or in combination with other notes. Experiments reveal that receivers extract different meanings from ‘ABC’ (scan for danger) and ‘D’ notes (approach the caller), and a compound meaning from ‘ABC–D’ combinations. However, receivers rarely scan and approach when note ordering is artificially reversed (‘D–ABC’). Thus, compositional syntax is not unique to human language but may have evolved independently in animals as one of the basic mechanisms of information transmission. (Public access) – Toshitaka N. Suzuki, David Wheatcroft & Michael Griesser

One Reply to “Birds use syntax like humans?

  1. 1
    Robert Byers says:

    There they go again. getting work to try and say animals are smart as people.
    Language is a function of human intelligence. using sounds for words is a simple thing for intelligent mankind. mere memory at work. Thats why dumb babies learn quick enough.
    All birds can talk but are too dumb to do so. only mimic.
    The essence of man is his identity as a intelligent being . the only one.

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