You might have more in common with a sparrow than you think, according to researchers at MIT.
A study conducted by linguistics and biology researchers at the school suggests that human speech might be result of mimicking the patterns and emphasis of bird songs and chirps.
The research, being conducted by MIT and a scholar from the University of Tokyo, is studying the premise that human language is a combination of the complex song of birds that help convey expression and the more direct messages seen in other insects and animals such as bees and primates.
“It’s this adventitious combination that triggered human language,” said Shigeru Miyagawa, professor of linguistics in MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy and co-author of the paper recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
According to Miyagawa and University of Tokyo biopsychologist Kazuo Okanoya, an expert on animal communication, the birds ability create and memorize complex melodies and utilize them in a variety of patterns to indicate one idea is similar to humans ability to take elements of speech and create questions or add complexity.
In a simple sentence such as “Todd saw a condor,” the researchers said, human can insert variations to form questions such as “When did Todd see a condor?” or change the statement by inserting emphasis. Birds perform a similar act by reciting a learned melody with one meaning but looping back to one section of the previously recited melody to give it more variation or communication something slightly different.
They gave the example of the Bengalese finch, which often returns back to parts of previous melodies to give its message more variation and complexity. They added that the nightingale might have more than 200 different melodies in its repertoire.
This expression layer is one of the one the researchers believe contributed to human speech. The other, the lexical layer, contains the core information. In the “condor” example, the basic information is the subject (Todd), verb (see) and object (condor) and is the type of information generally provided by other living creatures in different ways, such as bees waggling to provide information or short howls by primates.
Humans, they said, combined these two forms of communication into a unique language approximately 80,000 years ago.
“There were these two pre-existing systems,” Miyagawa said, “like apples and oranges that just happened to be put together.”
“When something new evolves, it is often built out of old parts,” he said. “We see this over and over again in evolution. Old structures can change just a little bit, and acquire radically new functions.
“It’s not a very long step to say that what got joined together was the ability to construct these complex patterns, like a song, but with words,” Berwick added.
The researchers said the “melodic capacity” of humans and the ability to rearrange and recombine language helps to create a seemingly endless vocabulary. They said that it also seems to support the belief of Charles Darwin that humans first developed the ability to sing and then worked specific information elements into their speech patterns.