Bird song and language

Peter Slater

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Bird song and language

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This article provides an overview of bird song and language. There are several reasons why bird song might be of interest to those who are studying human language. First, and most obviously, it is a system of communication. Birds use sounds to communicate with one another. The most elaborate sounds are referred to as songs; males largely use songs in the breeding season to attract mates and keep rivals out of their territories. But there are other simpler sounds, usually labeled as calls, which fulfill other functions and are often used by both sexes throughout the year. Sounds can go round corners and are as useful by night as they are by day, both features that give them an advantage over visual signals. The third main modality, that of smell, has the advantage of persistence, as when the scent marks of one dog are sensed by another days later, but is certainly not appropriate for the transfer of a complex and changing stream of information. Beyond these two basic similarities comes a fourth, superficially more important, one: birds, like human beings, often have a huge repertoire of different sounds. To conclude, it is clear that vocal communication is of prime importance in many birds as it is in humans. Some of the similarities, such as that between our vocabulary and the large song repertoires found in many birds, are superficial. But the fact that learning plays a role in the song development of many birds, as it does in language development, may help us to look back in time and think about the reasons why this crucial evolutionary step took place on the way of language development.

Keywords: bird song; communication; visual signals; vocal communication; song development

Article.  2917 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

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