Discovery of animal communication syntax of some birds. The case of Parus minor
It’s funny how since its very beginning scientific dissemination has tried to adapt what we discovered about animal behavior to human behavior patterns that we were much more familiar with. And animal communication is one of the favorite subjects of many science communicators who humanize animal behaviours. Thus we have traditionally thought that dogs “talk” to each other when they bark.
The reality seems to be much more complex than this. Strictly speaking it was considered that the syntax, the way to put words or sounds in correct order to encode a message, was an unique and distinctive quality of human beings, even some thinkers as E. Coseriu described the human being as “speaker being, Moreover, THE being who speaks” ruling that “human being is the only being who speaks”. Is it possible that being in front of such diversity we are communicatively so alone?
The fact that we can bring order to the words or sounds transforms a sequence of sounds in a codified message that the receiver understands. If there were no that order in sounds, the reign of the arbitrariness of the sign would prevent the existence of messages. Let’s say then that the complex messages endowed with significance depend on the existence of syntax or sound order.
In primates and some birds specific sounds encoded meanings were known, but lacked of sequence or order, limiting the range of communication possibilities. Recently a group of researchers from Japan, Switzerland and Sweden have discovered for the first time something that seems to be a primitive syntax in a kind of bird, Parus minor. The choice of this specie is due to his wide vocal repertoire, which allows to alter sequences of emissions and to observe the response in the group.
Basically researchers realized that these birds responded with different behaviors to the song sequence ABC-D to D-ABC and it follows that the ability to develop messages is much more complex than expected. In the same way that human language has infinite possibilities more than the number of words of a language.
Would it be possible that other species with complex behaviors are developing more complex systems of communication in the strict sense? It is possible that such doubts can be resolved in the not too distant future. What we can say is that the developing of anti-predator adaptation mechanisms shows enormous evolutionary costs and would not manifest itself but for their social utility. Let’s see what impact does this work in cetologists, primatologists and specialists from other fields.
By now we are left with the feeling of not being so alone. The accompaniment comforts me in the club of speaking beings … If we woke all those philosophers and linguists up and if we told them that we have discovered that, according to their definitions, a small bird of Japan is “human” what would they think then about cetaceans, primates, dogs …
For further information you can read full paper in:
Suzuki, T. N. et al. Experimental evidence for compositional syntax in bird calls. Nat. Commun. 7:10986 doi: 10.1038/ncomms10986 (2016).
Cosireu, E. El hombre y su lenguaje: estudios de teoría y metodología lingüística. Madrid. Ed. Gredos (1977).