Is Grammar Unique to Human Language?

the strawberry thief
While birdsong has long been known to share similarities with human language, the ability to convey different bits of information by simply rearranging word order was thought to be exclusively human.

This study revealed that Bengalese finches can learn grammar and, furthermore, that their grammatical abilities involve a specific part of the brain region distinct from other brain regions involved in singing. This is similar to what neuroscientists understand about human language processing.

If the tweets of birds can be roughly likened to strings of human words, and if bird brains process songs in a way similar to how human brains process language, future research may tackle whether these animals possess other cognitive abilities once thought to be singularly characteristic of human intelligence.

About the Author: Danielle Perszyk is a social neuroscience researcher at the Yale Child Study Center, where she studies autism using electrophysiological methods. At Williams College, studying cognitive science and neuroscience, she wrote a thesis on the neural mechanisms underlying syntax in birdsong. She is interested in the mind from an evolutionary perspective and is pursuing her PhD in cognitive psychology.

Strawberry Thief is one of William Morris’s most popular repeating designs for textiles. It takes as its subject the thrushes that Morris found stealing fruit in the kitchen garden of his countryside home, Kelmscott Manor, in Oxfordshire. To print the pattern Morris used the ancient and painstaking indigo-discharge method he admired above all forms of printing.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is fascinating. And Danielle Perszyk makes me wish I had been a better student so I could grow up and make contributions like hers. What intriguing work she is doing!

  2. Thank you for posting that. Our attitude to the subtleties of communication used by other species reminded of the Jose Mota sketches about ‘invented languages’ where every other language except Spanish is just a game, used to impress others. I don’t know if you understand Spanish and I couldn’t find subtitles, but Mr Mota’s physical comedy is superb, so you’ll get the idea – he says at one point that Egyptian is for using ‘de puertas para fuera’ (outside the home/family/familiar group) :

    • That is a very funny concept. —I think children sometimes believe that if they just speak gobbledygook, it will be as significant as those strange sounds they hear coming from the mouths of ‘foreigners’.
      The heartbreaking thing is that–with very few exceptions—until now, humans dismissed so many forms of communication as meaningless if they were generated by non-human animals.
      One of the rare things I find wonderful about current culture is that we are trying to uncover meaning everywhere: In the gestures of infants, in the dance of bees, in the ways our bodies respond to the world, in dreams.

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