Birds Can Be Grammar Nerds, Too

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Photo: dreamnikon/Getty Images

Fine, so various species of animals have demonstrated signs of traits we might once have considered “uniquely human” — empathy, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence, to name just a few. But grammar! We humans still have our grammar in general, and syntax in particular. That still makes us special, right?

Maybe not, reports the Washington Post’s Rachel Feltman. According to a new paper in Nature Communications, a particular type of bird — the Japanese great tit, similar to the chickadee here in North America — uses syntax in its communication with its fellow birds. More specifically, as Feltman writes, these birds use a particular type of syntax: compositional, referring to the way a sentence or, in this case, a series of chirps — is structured. We humans use compositional syntax to get across complex ideas. For example:

Careful, it’s dangerous” is a phrase that has meaning, and so is “come toward me.” When those two phrases are combined, they have a different meaning than they do on their own: They’re directing the receiver to act in a different way than either phrase would independently.

Again, this particular type of syntax was long thought to be a human-only thing. Until now. Feltman explains:

Suzuki and his colleagues found that a call referred to as the “ABC” call — a string of notes used to signal other birds to scan for predators — was often followed by the “D” call, which told other birds to approach. When the ABC-D call is made, birds were seen to conduct both behaviors: They flew toward the speaker but scanned for predators first.

But when the order of that call was swapped around by a tricky scientist to D-ABC, the birds didn’t respond, “at least not as strongly or consistently as they did to ABC-D,” David Wheatcroft, who studies animal communications at Uppsala University, told the Post. He theorizes that other animals likely communicate in a similar way — scientists just haven’t caught on yet. “We hope people start looking for it and find it everywhere,” he told the Post. “Because then we can start answering the question of how and why syntax evolved. For now, we don’t have any close relatives that we know who use syntax. And it’s a big question. Why not just convey a new meaning by creating a new word? Why does order matter? We hope that in the future, this research will help give us insight into why syntax evolved in humans.”

For now, though, we can take this as further evidence that perhaps people are not, alas, the most special creatures on the planet.