Thursday, May 04, 2006

Starlings don't 'parrot'!

` Yes, those little European blackbirds that chatter, whistle and squawk all around me are capable of syntax! To think that the birds I once had as pets were actually doing more than making simple calls. According to Nature:

27 April 2006

The language of birdsong

Noam Chomsky's work on 'generative grammar' led to the concept of a set of rules that can generate a natural language with a hierarchical grammar, and the idea that this represents a uniquely human ability. In a series of experiments with European starlings, in which several types of 'warble' and 'rattle' took the place of words in a human language, the birds learnt to classify phrase structure grammars in a way that met the same criteria. Their performance can be said to be almost human on this yardstick. So if there are language processing capabilities that are uniquely human, they may be more context-free or at a higher level in the Chomsky hierarchy. Or perhaps there is no single property or processing capacity that differentiates human language from non-human communication systems.

` Neato! In other words, the ability to recognize whether or not a vocal pattern has syntax is present in blackbirds! Indeed, this ability is part of what makes us humans able to describe new ideas and strange things to people who have never seen them before, among other things!
` Oh, and there was also this, if you want to get nitty-gritty about it:

Nature 440, 1204-1207 (27 April 2006) doi:10.1038/nature04675; Received 21 October 2006; [October 2006?! It's only May 2006!! Hee hee!]; Accepted 27 February 2006

Recursive syntactic pattern learning by songbirds

Timothy Q. Gentner1,3, Kimberly M. Fenn2, Daniel Margoliash1,2 and Howard C. Nusbaum2

Humans regularly produce new utterances that are understood by other members of the same language community1. Linguistic theories account for this ability through the use of syntactic rules (or generative grammars) that describe the acceptable structure of utterances2. The recursive, hierarchical embedding of language units (for example, words or phrases within shorter sentences) that is part of the ability to construct new utterances minimally requires a 'context-free' grammar2, 3 that is more complex than the 'finite-state' grammars thought sufficient to specify the structure of all non-human communication signals. Recent hypotheses make the central claim that the capacity for syntactic recursion forms the computational core of a uniquely human language faculty4, 5. Here we show that European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) accurately recognize acoustic patterns defined by a recursive, self-embedding, context-free grammar. They are also able to classify new patterns defined by the grammar and reliably exclude agrammatical patterns. Thus, the capacity to classify sequences from recursive, centre-embedded grammars is not uniquely human. This finding opens a new range of complex syntactic processing mechanisms to physiological investigation.

Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and
Department of Psychology, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA
†Present address: Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093, USA

` And, after this brief blogging encounter, I must flee for higher ground! I need to mail people some DVDs I made. Finally!


Galtron said...

Do parrots then 'starling?' You'd think they would, being so smart!

S E E Quine said...

` A worthy enigma, Sancho... I mean, Galtron. It is likely that the neuro-psycho-ornithologists will figure it out eventually.

Galtron said...

Neuro-psycho-ornithologists. Those sound like fun people!

S E E Quine said...

` Yes, they're probably more interesting than acarologists.

Galtron said...

I know an acarologist - he's a poli-sci major!

S E E Quine said...

` Ha!! 'Poly-ticks'. I get it....

Galtron said...

You know.... I wasn't even thinking that.

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