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?

5 Comments

  1. I watched a great discussion about language on BBC2 and it turned into a debate asking if the effects of the internet, emailing, texting and twitter is changing the language and if so, is it a good thing. The result seemed in this paritcular case to be “perhaps” and a lengthy thought about how language has and continues to evolve and thus this might be an example. Personally I think such change is constant but that does not mean we old farts have to like it.

    Your story here is interesting and well thought out. A sure 9 out of 10.

    I give it 9 and not a 10 simply because there is a pair of Spanish Love-Birds nesting near my house and they currently start their music from 4.30am and I may be losing my sight slowly but I wish it was my perfect hearing…… thus any reference to birds singing or chirping loses a point by default!!!!!

    Damien Charles

      1. I thought of getting a gun since my cat is older than I am (in cat years) and to old/lazy to climb a small tree. No, to be honest the only reason I complain is because my prostate makes me go to the bathroom around 4am and it takes me time to get back to sleep and they have already started, also my wife tells me they are just getting their revenge on my snoring……

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