Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Birds grasp basic rule of grammar, study finds

By Aussiegirl

In the previous post we learned that pigeons can think in logarithms. In this very interesting article we learn that the European starling -- that's the bird in the accompanying photo -- can understand recursive center-embedding, a fundamental feature of human language. What's that, you ask? Well, read further.

Birds grasp basic rule of grammar, study finds

Birds grasp basic rule of grammar, study finds
April 26, 2006
Courtesy University of California, San Diego
and World Science staff

The European starling—long known as a virtuoso songbird and expert mimic—may also soon win a reputation as something of a grammatician, researchers say: the little bird can learn language patterns formerly thought to be unique to humans.

Researchers led by Timothy Q. Gentner, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, have found that starlings can understand a key feature of grammar.

This feature, called recursive center-embedding, is what lets speakers make new sentences by inserting words and clauses within other sentences.

Thus, for example, “Oedipus ruled Thebes” can become “Oedipus, who killed his father, ruled Thebes” or “Oedipus, who killed his father, whom he met on the road from Delphi, ruled Thebes.” This can theoretically go on without limit.

Some researchers, including followers of the highly influential U.S. linguist Noam Chomsky, have held that this is a universal feature of human language, unique to humans, and which forms the logical core of our language.

The new findings challenge that view, Gentner said. “If birds can learn these patterning rules, then their use does not explain the uniqueness of human language.”

The finding also “re-invigorates the search” for the evolutionary roots of language among animals, said Daniel Margoliash, a coauthor along with Gentner of a paper describing the findings. The study appears in the April 27 issue of the research journal Nature. [....]

“There might be no single property or processing capacity,” the researchers wrote, “that marks the many ways in which the complexity and detail of human language differs from non-human communication systems.”

More generally, Gentner said, “The more closely we understand what nonhuman animals are capable of, the richer our world becomes. Fifty years ago, it was taboo to even talk about animal cognition,” he continued. Now, “no one doubts that animals have complex and vibrant mental lives.”


At 11:45 PM, Blogger mks said...

This is reading TOO much into the experimental findings. The bird song experiment, though interesting and enlightening in many ways, fails to lighten the claim that birds /starlings have a capacity for Language.


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