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"The next time you hear a bird chirping outside your window, you might think twice about what’s going on inside his little birdbrain."
November 3, 2011 6:18 AM   Subscribe

Are birds’ tweets grammatical? [Scientific American] But are the rules of grammar unique to human language? Perhaps not, according to a recent study, which showed that songbirds may also communicate using a sophisticated grammar—a feature absent in even our closest relatives, the nonhuman primates. 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.
posted by Fizz (31 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Are birds’ tweets grammatical?

More so than people's, in my experience.
posted by The Bellman at 6:42 AM on November 3, 2011 [12 favorites]


Doesn't grammar require words? It's one thing to show that the pattern of notes is important to a finch, but it seems like a leap to talk about syntax when you haven't shown that the notes themselves are morphemes.
posted by hydrophonic at 6:51 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have a hard time fathoming how brains that small can foment original thoughts
posted by Renoroc at 6:58 AM on November 3, 2011


I have a hard time fathoming how brains that small can foment original thoughts

I thought we were talking about birds, not politicians.
posted by Fizz at 7:00 AM on November 3, 2011


I have a hard time fathoming how brains that small can foment original thoughts.

Can you explain how _large_ brains can do that?

Because if you can, you should write that down or blog it or something.
posted by mhoye at 7:04 AM on November 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


Also, why are they so angry?
posted by panboi at 7:09 AM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Hell, people's tweets aren't grammatical.
posted by xorry at 7:09 AM on November 3, 2011


I have a hard time fathoming how brains that small can foment original thoughts.

Maybe your brain is too small?
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:10 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


In a recent thread, IjonTichy linked to this relevant article, which I found interesting.
posted by painquale at 7:15 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Philosopher Dirtbike: "I have a hard time fathoming how brains that small can foment original thoughts.

Maybe your brain is too small?
"

Yeah... birdbrain.
posted by symbioid at 7:16 AM on November 3, 2011


Doesn't grammar require words?

The definition of grammar that first springs to my mind says "no", but some others' preferred definition says "yes".
posted by Jpfed at 7:16 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Doesn't grammar require words?

No. Grammar is organization, words are just particular building materials. You can organize a different set of building materials.
posted by DU at 7:21 AM on November 3, 2011


I wonder if they applied Zipf's law to the various elements of their songs. I've seen that done before as a metric of non-human intelligence.
posted by edguardo at 7:22 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


This doesn't really surprise me all that much.

People tended to think that chimps and other primates, because they share common ancestors, must share the same cognitive abilities as we do, albeit at reduced levels.

And it just isn't true. Evolution encourages specific traits in species, pretty much regardless of how we might organize those species in terms of their closeness to us. Hence, we're much closer to mammals than cephalopods, but octopi are more intelligent and better at problem solving than most mammals.

So it absolutely makes sense that birds would have a more complex form of communication than apes would. It's way more important to birds than to chimps.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:42 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


So it absolutely makes sense that birds would have a more complex form of communication than apes would. It's way more important to birds than to chimps.

Why?
posted by edguardo at 7:49 AM on November 3, 2011


LOL I jus took a shit on this dude #birdpoo #shitondis
posted by Mister_A at 7:50 AM on November 3, 2011


Mister_A: Nice tweet.
posted by hanoixan at 7:56 AM on November 3, 2011


Deathalicious, I think your assumptions are faulty. Most non-human primates live in incredibly socially complex environments in which communication is key. As I rambled about previously, we do see elements of grammatical construction across many primate orders. I'm most familiar with alarm call behavior in some African monkeys, but there is increasing evidence that monkeys not only have specific calls for specific predators, but combine and/or alter them in different ways to give them new meanings (article from open source journal). I'm by no means a vocalization specialist, but I do know there are other examples - the name to look for is Klaus Zuberbuhler.

Primates also use vocalizations as territorial calls in very similar ways to birds - gibbon pairs, for example, give unique duet calls every morning and night that act as a method of social bonding and also remind other gibbons that this territory belongs to this pair of gibbons who are very much in love, so stay the hell out of it and leave us our fruit. I don't know that anyone has done functional analyses of these calls to look at grammar (for one thing, because each duet is unique to the pair giving it and develops with their relationship, it might be difficult to determine some sort of generalized grammatical structure), but it would be an interesting challenge.

Anyway, the point is that we actually do seem to share the evolutionary origins of our ability to use symbolic communication with at least some primates. There is clearly an evolutionary component to it, but there is also, as you allude to, some aspect of evolutionary convergence on similar strategies to solve similar problems.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:59 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


They might be more grammatical if they weren't trying to cram a whole thought into 140 tones.
posted by ctmf at 8:15 AM on November 3, 2011


Mister_A: Nice tweet.

I wonder if that's actually what most of them are saying. "PLEASE RETWEET".
posted by mhoye at 8:24 AM on November 3, 2011


No. Grammar is organization, words are just particular building materials. You can organize a different set of building materials.

I think you're missing hydrophonic's point, which is that 'grammar' in the restrictive sense of linguistics refers to a system that organizes semantic units, and it doesn't seem likely that individual bird notes have semantic content. What the article describes sounds more like (and people who actually know things should jump in and correct me if I'm wrong here) a question of phonology than syntax, if we're framing this linguistically.
posted by invitapriore at 8:28 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Now that I'm reading the actual paper it sounds like they're thinking about it in terms of formal grammars, with the birds being able to tell the difference between different context-free grammars. That's really cool.

It's also giving me visions of a steampunk retrofuture where regular expressions exist and are parsed by long rows of finches bred to be able to distinguish between regular grammars, on dirigibles, wearing aviator goggles.
posted by invitapriore at 8:41 AM on November 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


Oh man this is so fucking cool. Everyone commenting should know that the SciAm article doesn't really do the paper justice. Birds are awesome.
posted by invitapriore at 8:44 AM on November 3, 2011


Oops, I forgot that I'm reading this from a university network right now. I guess most people will be restricted from reading the paper. Sorry. :(
posted by invitapriore at 8:45 AM on November 3, 2011


I'm a professional herder of birds and have been aware of this for years. But what the press isn't covering is that the Bengalese finches are known as the grammar nazis of the bird world.
posted by birdherder at 8:45 AM on November 3, 2011


Grammar BULLSHIT thought ways-all me, is. Grammar fuck! ??? it HA have why HA ! HA make words sense, way any ? riteiam
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:00 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Renoroc: "I have a hard time fathoming how brains that small can foment original thoughts"

Live for a parrot for a while and you will understand. Boy will you understand.
posted by Splunge at 10:48 AM on November 3, 2011


No, no, no!

It's chirp before cheep unless after squawk!


Oh wait...
posted by mmrtnt at 11:57 AM on November 3, 2011


grammar, tool use, art, recognition of individuals from different species... I tell ya, humans got lucky.
posted by edgeways at 12:19 PM on November 3, 2011


Parrots are uncanny because they can reproduce human speech so well, but the most intelligent birds are probably corvids, which is kind of weird to think about given how ubiquitous the family is. New Caledonian Crows, in particular, have tool-using capabilities at the same level or higher than any of the great apes, including even cultural dissemination of new tool types and the ability to spontaneously make tools from materials they never encounter in the wild.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 9:22 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.
posted by Noam Chomsky at 3:40 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


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