Evolution of communication and language: insights from parrots and songbirds

Irene M. Pepperberg

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

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

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Evolution of communication and language: insights from parrots and songbirds

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Most language evolution research focuses on primates, positing a hominin transitional link with emerging learned vocal communication. Such research increased after apes, humans' closest genetic relatives, learned elements of human communication systems. This article traces the evolution of language and communication with special reference to parrots and other songbirds. Grey parrots, despite considerable phylogenetic separation from humans, acquire comparable human-like communication skills and, unlike present-day apes, can imitate human speech because they can learn novel vocalizations. Specifically, they acquire species-specific and heterospecific vocalizations by actively matching their progressive production of specific sound patterns to live interacting models or memorized templates. Research on selective pressures resulting in avian vocal learning and imitation could provide clues about pressures leading to similar human skills. To understand the ancestral hominin condition, language evolution researchers might use models based on both phylogenetic kin and birds. Birds, although having diverged from the lineage leading to humans approximately 280 million years ago, can provide models for the evolution of vocal communication.

Keywords: vocal communication; evolution of language; human speech; vocalizations; phylogenetic kin

Article.  3729 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

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