Diagram That Sentence!

Songbirds May Be Able to Learn Grammar
AP Science Writer Wed Apr 26, 9:59 PM ET

WASHINGTON - The simplest grammar, long thought to be one of the skills that separate man from beast, can be taught to a common songbird, new research suggests.

Starlings learned to differentiate between a regular birdsong "sentence" and one containing a clause or another sentence of warbling, according to a study in Thursday's journal Nature. It took University of California at San Diego psychology researcher Tim Gentner a month and about 15,000 training attempts, with food as a reward, to get the birds to recognize the most basic of grammar in their own bird language.

Yet what they learned may shake up the field of linguistics.
Noam Chomsky not-withstanding, I've always thought birds, if any other animal, were likely to have some kind of grammar rules. There're just so many variations in birdsong. And that's just what I get from mornings reading and smokin' on the back porch.

I wonder how it'll develope over the coming many many MANY millenia. Probably into nothing like human speech. It's just cool to see the structure "diagrammed" like a human sentence.


  1. The mockingbirds in my backyard always end their entences in prepositions, though, so they must not be all that smart.

  2. AND they mix their metaphors ALL THE TIME!

    Tweet. Tweet. Tweet!


  3. I don't think they're the only animals who do this. I've seen my cats do it -- they seem to be able to pick up on some human phrases and loosely imitate them.

    The concept of animal grammar is interesting -- it's easy to imagine so many variants involving sounds, gestures, eye movements, pheromones, etc. Some of those things are part of our gramar, too; we just focus so much on spoken language we often tune out the other stuff, but it still registers semi-consciously.

  4. This is the honest truth...my mother taught her dog to say "Ma-ma"...I am not making this up. We have evidence on an old VHS tape.

  5. What, the dog wouldn't perform without the cameras rolling?

  6. I dunno. We have to be careful of anthropomorphising. We only know and understand human experience and we naturally see everything through this prejudice.

    I always think of the Larson cartoon. The guy is saying to his dog something like. "Look, Fido. I want you to chase the ball. OK Fido? Now go get it Fido"
    And what the dog hears is "blah blah blah Fido blah blah blah Fido".

    Personally I reckon (And this could be from another Larson cartoon that has become assimilated) that when dogs bark they are just saying "Hey! hey! hey!, hey!, hey!"

  7. What was that about mixin' metaphors with the camera on?

    And I do dig it, Stew. But the opposite problem is the Homomaniacal belief that human intelligence is somehow unrelated to our being animals. We be people! People aren't animals! {-' I love that Far Side 'toon, regardless.

    At any rate, my buddy sent me another link to the same story. I think this author does a better job explaining what exactly it is that tells us birds utilyze language.

  8. Hmmm...I often copy the calls of the birds. Now I wonder what it is I'm saying to them!!! (grin)

  9. lol! I've wondered too when trying to imitate some of their sounds. They prolly think I'm one of the "slow" kids. {rollin'eyes'n'grinnin'}


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