Animals With Language-Like Communication: Avian Edition

Animals With Language-Like Communication:  Avian Edition

Australian Babblers can create new “words” by combining sounds.

When studying the communication patterns of an adorable songbird that has “Babbler” in its name, one should almost expect interesting findings. The chestnut-crowned babbler, a.k.a. the “Australian Babbler”, is a highly social songbird that lives in Australia’s “arid zone”. As is typical of songbirds, this species formulates songs by using a set “word-bank” of sounds strung together in a particular pattern. Unlike most songbirds, though, the Babbler doesn’t actually “sing”… From the sound of it, their songs have more in common with sentences than with music.

Order of sounds

Dr. Sabrina Engesser led a study that attempted to decipher some of these songs. In particular, two calls were compared: a nesting call and a flying call. Both use the same two sounds – which the team labeled as “A” and “B” – but in slightly different orders. The flying call took the form “AB”, while the nesting call was “BAB”. The sounds themselves have no distinct meaning, until they are put together to form “words” of sorts. Unlike with other songbirds, changing the order of the sounds in Babbler-speech changes their meaning – just like it does with human speech.

In English, we have words such as “get”  and “forget”, and “be” and “being”. We then use such words in sentence-form, such as, “I forget”. Switching the order to “forget I” makes no sense; nor does coding such forms like “getfor” or “ingbe”. The forming of new sounds from combinations of pre-existing sounds is often considered to be a language precursor – an attribute we humans acquired long ago on our journey to possess true language capabilities. Babbler-speech still has a while to go before it can ever reach “language” status, but it looks to be further along than the communication of most other songbirds. Pretty awesome.

Getting smarter

It seems only social animals ever develop means of communication advanced enough that they might one day be considered true language. This makes sense as complex communication soon becomes an evolutionary necessity – to communicate when a predator is near, where the good food is, and to locate group members if one gets lost. If the species gets “smarter”, then members can slowly add to the complexity of their “speech”. Should they advance far enough, their speech may become on par with human language – even to the point where it must be learned instead of it being intuitive.

Engesser, S., Crane, J., Savage, J., Russell, A., & Townsend, S. (2015). Experimental Evidence for Phonemic Contrasts in a Nonhuman Vocal System PLOS Biology, 13 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002171

Jeffrey Daniels

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