As humans, we tend to think that there are a lot of things that set us apart from animals. Today, however, it came out that one of those things might not be as exclusive as we once thought. Syntax is the way we arrange words in a sentence. It is important because it gives out a clearer meaning for what we have to say. For example, the reason that Yoda sounds so strange to us is because he speaks in a strange syntax.
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We use syntax to direct people how to do something, explain what we want done, and even convince people to do things they might not want to do. However, sometimes we put phrases together that mean other things independently than they do when they are separate.
A study published in Nature Communications says that the Japanese great tit - a bird similar to the North American chickadee - uses grammatical rules like these in their calls.
These birds and humans both use phonological and compositional syntax.
Phonological syntax turns sounds that individually have no meaning into ones with meaning. For example, we use suffixes and prefixes. Other animals do similar things: monkeys use "oh" at the end of words to make them more urgent. These birds won't respond unless the words are in the right order.
“In the course of 10 years of field research, I noticed that the Japanese great tit has a wide variety of call types and uses many different calls in different contexts,” lead author Toshitaka Suzuki of the Graduate University for Advanced Studies said.
As it turns out, they do! The order of the message matters in a similar way to the way humans speak to each other.
Suzuki and his colleagues found that a specific call referred to as the “ABC” call — which is a string of notes that is used to signal other birds as a warning to scan for predators — was most often followed by the “D” call, which told other birds that it was all clear and they could approach. When the ABC-D call is made, birds conducted both behaviors: They flew toward the speaker but not before scanning for predators.
“The really critical part of the study came out of the review process,” co-author David Wheatcroft, a postdoctoral researcher at Uppsala University, said. There is some skepticism about whether or not they are actually hearing the pattern.
“Maybe they just hear ABC and D in close proximity and do both behaviors,” Wheatcroft explained. “So we said OK, we’ll do another experiment. Toshitaka reversed the call, and he played D-ABC for the birds. And they didn’t respond, or at least not as strongly or consistently as they did to ABC-D.”
Instead of combination calls producing behaviors, there seems to be a "rule" to prompt the behavior, to approach but to stay on high alert as well.
No one is really sure what the rule is based on: whether the predator related piece of the call is more important or not. They have likely developed a syntax to warn of danger. No one wants to watch their friend get harmed because they didn't warn them.
The next step will be to see whether or not other birds use these rules. They Japanese great tit has close relatives all over the globe, and they have complex calls as well. It is possible they are all using syntax.
“Do they have the same rule? Maybe the ordering is switched in North America. Maybe the syntactical rule is random,” Wheatcroft said.
He expects that there will be other rules to find as well.
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“We hope people start looking for it and find it everywhere,” he said. “Because then we can start answering the question of how and why syntax evolved. For now, we don’t have any close relatives that we know who use syntax. And it’s a big question. Why not just convey a new meaning by creating a new word? Why does order matter? We hope that in the future, this research will help give us insight into why syntax evolved in humans.”