Songbirds and humans share common speech patterns, study finds

The calls of more than a dozen species of songbirds follow patterns similar to those used in human speech, according to a new study.

Zoologists at McGill University in Canada analyzed calls from 15 species of birds, including wild canaries, zebra finches, chaffinch, swamp sparrows and sedge warblers.

The longer the sentence, the shorter the individual sounds inside, they found – a pattern already seen in humans and known as Menzerath’s Law.

Menzerath’s Law, named after the German phonetician Paul Menzerath, says that large linguistic structures are made up of shorter parts.

By law, longer words contain additional syllables, but those syllables tend to be shorter.

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Adult zebra finches (left) learn their songs and use them in courtship interactions with females (right).

WHAT IS MENZERATH’S LAW?

Menzerath’s law says that large linguistic structures are made up of shorter parts.

The law says: “An increase in the size of a language construct leads to a decrease in the size of its constituents and vice versa.

Let’s take an example, longer words contain additional syllables, but those syllables tend to be shorter.

The law is named after the German phonetician Paul Menzerath (1883-1954).

Likewise, the longer a sentence, measured in terms of the number of clauses, the shorter the clauses.

Surprisingly, the study shows that birdsong follows Menzerath’s Law – in that the larger the whole, the smaller the individual constituents.

Study author Logan James of McGill University explains Menzerath’s Law in layman’s terms: “When I say the words ‘linguist’ and ‘linguist’, we have words with two and three syllables, respectively.

“If I’m careful, I can notice that I pronounce the first two syllables in linguistics faster than in ‘linguist’ – that is, the more syllables a word has, the shorter those syllables tend to be. .

“Other examples might be even more obvious: ‘resolve’ versus ‘resolve’, syllables are faster in ‘resolve’ than in ‘resolve’. ”

Linguists believe the law could make communication more efficient by making things easier to understand or say, not only for humans, but for other animals as well.

McGill researchers have found negative relationships between the number and duration of constituents in 15 species, showing proof of the law in birds.

“Although we see Menzerath’s Law in all of the songbird species we have examined, and others have seen it in primates and penguins, we are not sure that this necessarily reflects an efficacy of improved communication in non-human animals, ”said study author Jon Sakata, a professor in the McGill Department of Biology.

“It is possible that these communication patterns that we have seen in songbirds are caused by physical predispositions and constraints.”

When we listen to songbirds, we may hear repeated melodies or phrases. Each phrase is made up of distinct sounds, chained to each other.

The wild canary (Serinus canaria).  The relationship between the number and length of syllables in a sentence was steeper (more negative) than accidentally expected for repeated sentences in canaries, marsh sparrows, canyon tohi, Oregon juncos, and Oregon juncos. northern scoffers

The wild canary (Serinus canaria). The relationship between the number and length of syllables in a sentence was steeper (more negative) than accidentally expected for repeated sentences in canaries, marsh sparrows, canyon tohi, Oregon juncos, and Oregon juncos. northern scoffers

Graphic summary of the team's research paper.  The team found negative relationships between the number and duration of constituents in all 15 species - showing evidence for the law in birds

Graphic summary of the team’s research paper. The team found negative relationships between the number and duration of constituents in all 15 species – showing evidence for the law in birds

WHAT SPECIES OF BIRDS HAVE BEEN ANALYZED?

The 15 species were:

– Zebra finch

– Bengal Finch

– Java sparrow

– House finch

– Canary

– Chaffinch

– Marsh sparrow

– Canyon tohi

– Red fox sparrow

– White-crowned Sparrow

– Junco from Oregon

– Icterine Warbler

– Sedge Warbler

– Common blackbird

– Northern Mockingbird

Menzerath’s models of law were strongest of the five species within the Passerellidae family:

– Junco from Oregon

– White-crowned Sparrow

– Red fox sparrow

– Canyon tohi

– Marsh sparrow

A well-known example of bird song found in the UK is that of the wood pigeon (Columba palumbus), which has a distinct five-note call.

The research, detailed in the journal Current Biology, found that songbird species tended to use shorter “elements” (in this case, sounds rather than spoken words) when composing longer sentences. .

In humans, Menzerath’s Law can simply make communication more efficient by making things easier to understand or say.

However, in the case of birds, their vocal sounds may be simply limited by the physiology of their syrinx, the avian vocal organ at the top of the trachea.

Interestingly, the study also found that brain mechanisms regulating respiration and vocal muscles appear to be organized similarly in birds and humans.

Additionally, when the researchers compared the song patterns of birds that were typically raised and educated by their parents with those that were not taught to sing by their parents (uneducated birds), they found the same patterns.

“The individual sound units produced by uneducated birds were very different from those produced by generally bred birds,” said James, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.

“However, the ‘rules’ by which they organize these outliers are indistinguishable from generally bred birds.

“These results suggest that physical predispositions or limitations may play a role in the production of these song models.”

MENZERATH’S LAW ALSO APPLIES TO CHIMPANZEES: STUDY 2019

The closest animal parent to humans, chimpanzees, communicate in a distinctly “human” way, scientists reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2019.

Primates use gestures that follow some of the same rules as basic human language, experts at the University of Roehampton have found.

One was Zipf’s Law of Abbreviation, which says commonly used words tend to be shorter.

The other was Menzerath’s Law, which predicted that large linguistic structures are made up of shorter parts – such as syllables in spoken words.

The academics made the discovery after studying videos of wild chimpanzees living in the Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda.

Scientists have analyzed more than 2,000 of the 58 different types of “play” gestures employed by chimpanzees.

Principal researcher Raphaela Heesen said: “The gestural communication of primates is, of course, very different from human language, but our results show that these two systems are based on the same mathematical principles.

“We hope that our work will pave the way for similar studies, to see how widespread these laws might be in the animal kingdom.”

Like other great apes, chimps do not have the ability to speak, but they have previously been shown to use gestures to communicate with each other.

Scientists have compared it to deaf people who “sign” with each other.

In addition to using hand and foot gestures, chimpanzees communicate with noises, body postures, and facial expressions.

About Tracy G. Larimore

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