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Experimental evidence for compositional syntax in bird calls


Suzuki, Toshitaka N; Wheatcroft, David; Griesser, Michael (2016). Experimental evidence for compositional syntax in bird calls. Nature Communications, 7:10986.

Abstract

Human language can express limitless meanings from a finite set of words based on combinatorial rules (i.e., compositional syntax). Although animal vocalizations may be comprised of different basic elements (notes), it remains unknown whether compositional syntax has also evolved in animals. Here we report the first experimental evidence for compositional syntax in a wild animal species, the Japanese great tit (Parus minor). Tits have over ten different notes in their vocal repertoire and use them either solely or in combination with other notes. Experiments reveal that receivers extract different meanings from 'ABC' (scan for danger) and 'D' notes (approach the caller), and a compound meaning from 'ABC-D' combinations. However, receivers rarely scan and approach when note ordering is artificially reversed ('D-ABC'). Thus, compositional syntax is not unique to human language but may have evolved independently in animals as one of the basic mechanisms of information transmission.

Abstract

Human language can express limitless meanings from a finite set of words based on combinatorial rules (i.e., compositional syntax). Although animal vocalizations may be comprised of different basic elements (notes), it remains unknown whether compositional syntax has also evolved in animals. Here we report the first experimental evidence for compositional syntax in a wild animal species, the Japanese great tit (Parus minor). Tits have over ten different notes in their vocal repertoire and use them either solely or in combination with other notes. Experiments reveal that receivers extract different meanings from 'ABC' (scan for danger) and 'D' notes (approach the caller), and a compound meaning from 'ABC-D' combinations. However, receivers rarely scan and approach when note ordering is artificially reversed ('D-ABC'). Thus, compositional syntax is not unique to human language but may have evolved independently in animals as one of the basic mechanisms of information transmission.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:07 Faculty of Science > Department of Anthropology
Dewey Decimal Classification:300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology
Language:English
Date:2016
Deposited On:25 Apr 2016 15:48
Last Modified:10 Aug 2017 17:45
Publisher:Nature Publishing Group
ISSN:2041-1723
Free access at:PubMed ID. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10986
PubMed ID:26954097

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Licence: Creative Commons: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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