As a child I would listen with joy to the calls of the different birds that lived in my Princeton Junction, New Jersey neighborhood. Sometimes when I was walking home from school or the pool I would hear a bird singing to another bird and try to imitate the call, hoping to get some kind of response from another bird. I suppose I must have been doing it wrong because I never got any sort of answer from other birds. Now it looks like studies are showing the reason for my lack of answer may have just been poor grammar on my part. Grammar — in a bird call? Absolutely, according to a seemingly unnecessary study by Kentaro Abe of Kyoto University in Japan.
In the study, scientists closely studied bird calls from Bengal finches and then replicated them perfectly, albeit in different order than that in which it had been originally presented by the birds. The response was hostile when the songs were mixed up in certain orders and not when they were presented in other orders. To think that I get worked up when I hear grammatical errors — and then post about it as Grammar Man.
The scientists soon realized that birds that were raised in complete isolation from other did not have any such qualms with the grammar errors — meaning that the Bengal finches were learning the rules of grammar from other finches.
To me, this raises some thoughts. For one, it would be interesting to know if there are finches out there that openly defy the rules of grammar? For example, finches that communicate in the manner that many people do when they are sending text messages to one another — writing “r u” instead of “are you” and switching around word order?
I would also be more interested to know if the finches that are not adept at learning the rules of grammar, if such finches exist, are shunned by the other finches in the community and forced to live out on their own. Is there anything we can learn from the finches that strictly stick to rules of grammar?