Birds are one of many other species that use language in a similar fashion to humans, and the study of bird songs may yield tremendous knowledge to be applied to human communication.
The translation services world can be a dry kind of place, filled with academic knowledge and people muttering into their beards about weighty subjects.
I often try very hard to convey the excitement and energy I feel when working on a translation project or simply learning more about language in general, but it’s very difficult sometimes to talk about this sort of thing without boring the uninitiated to tears. Sometimes I have difficulty calibrating what will seem exciting to the non-translation crowd (the answer is typically: nothing at all about legal translation, unfortunately).
For example, I was reading about bird songs and the possible implications for the study of human language and excitedly introduced the topic into conversation one evening, only to be disappointed by the reaction I received. Still, bird songs are fascinating, especially to a translation services professional such as myself.
Humans Not Alone
The first thing to know about language is simple: Humans are not at all the only species that utilises language – something you sometimes hear from supposed know-it-alls. If you think about it, this is absurd on the face of it: Whales use songs to communicate over vast distances, dolphins use a wide variety of vocalisations, and some apes have even been taught human sign language. Even your house dog or cat uses vocalisations to communicate what they’re feeling. We humans often mistake our own lack of understanding for a lack of language.
Birds, are some of the chattiest creatures on the planet – think about it! I recall reading a humorous science fiction story once where the protagonist was suddenly able to understand bird speech, and went mad because he suddenly realised that birds were constantly chattering in the air all the time!
Bird Songs and Speech
Once you start researching them, bird songs are breathtakingly complex. In fact, they have all the facets you’d expect from a language:
They Vary in Vocabulary: Bird songs are often species-specific. However, birds can learn the songs and calls from another species if the circumstances warrant it. However, if given a choice they will always learned their own species’ calls and songs. This implies that the vocalisations aren’t some genetically-programmed behaviour but rather a true information-sharing system.
They Vary in Purpose: Bird songs are lengthy and complex, bird calls are short and simple. Each are used in different ways. The songs themselves vary in length and purpose, and can be learned – birds often learn the songs being used by other birds, just like humans can learn new words and phrases when the need arises.
One of the biggest reasons birds are suddenly the topic of interest in linguistics is the fact that many songbird species can be easily raised in captivity, making them very easy to study. There are already many similarities shown between the portion of the human brain that runs language and the portion of the bird brain that runs language. Who knows what fruits these studies will bear in the future?
Image courtesy twobirdersandbinoculars.com