Songbirds and humans share common speech patterns

Adult zebra finches (left) learn their songs and use them in courtship interactions with females (right). Photo credit: Raina Fan.

If you listen to songbirds, you will recognize repeated melodies or phrases. Each phrase is made up of distinct sounds, linked together. A study by researchers at McGill University found that the song phrases of many species of songbirds follow similar patterns to those used in human speech. At least in some ways.

The songbirds that researchers have studied, like humans, regardless of what language they speak, tend to use shorter elements (whether words or sounds) when composing sentences. longer. Linguists believe that this model, known as Menzerath’s Law, can make communication more efficient by making things easier to understand or say.

But the McGill team suggests that, at least in songbirds, physical factors such as muscle fatigue and limited lung capacity may also play a role. They also speculate that similar factors could contribute to seeing Menzerath’s Law in humans.

Do physical elements play a role in the vocal patterns of songbirds (and humans)?

“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 increased communication in non-human animals, “said Jon sakata, professor in the McGill Department of Biology and lead author of the recently published article in Current biology. “It is possible that these communication patterns that we have seen in songbirds are caused by predispositions and physical constraints. “

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

Even the songs of uneducated birds follow similar patterns

The idea that physical elements may play a role in these song patterns is supported by the fact that when researchers compared the song patterns of birds that had been typically raised and educated by their parents with those that were not. learned 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 Logan James, the paper’s first author and former doctoral student in Professor Sakata’s laboratory, now a post-doctoral 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. “

More work will need to be done in this area to see if this is the case. For example, work linking species variation in the strength of Menzerath’s law to species variation in the biomechanics of voice production would be a useful next step.

About this study

James et al., “Phylogeny and Mechanisms of Shared Hierarchical Patterns in Birdsong” in Current Biology

DOI: 10.1016 / j.cub.2021.04.015

The research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, MEXT / JSPS KAKENHI, the Brain, Language and Music Research Center, and a Heller Prize. To read: James et al., “Phylogeny and Mechanisms of Shared Hierarchical Patterns in Birdsong” in Current Biology

About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill University is the best medical doctoral university in Canada. McGill is consistently ranked among the top universities, both nationally and internationally. It is a world-renowned higher education institution with research activities spanning two campuses, 11 faculties, 13 vocational schools, 300 study programs and over 40,000 students, including over 10,200 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, with its 12,800 international students representing 31% of the student body. More than half of McGill students report having a mother tongue other than English, including about 19% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

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