"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 says.
As they note in the paper, some of the "striking parallels" between language acquisition in birds and humans include the phase of life when each is best at picking up languages, and the part of the brain used for language. Another similarity, Berwick notes, relates to an insight of celebrated MIT professor emeritus of linguistics Morris Halle, who, as Berwick puts it, observed that "all human languages have a finite number of stress patterns, a certain number of beat patterns. Well, in birdsong, there is also this limited number of beat patterns."
Birds, bees and dolphins?
The researchers acknowledge that further empirical studies on the subject would be desirable.
"It's just a hypothesis," Berwick says. "But it's a way to make explicit what Darwin was talking about very vaguely, because we know more about language now."
Miyagawa, for his part, asserts it is a viable idea in part because it could be subject to more scrutiny, as the communication patterns of other species are examined in further detail. "If this is right, then human language has a precursor in nature, in evolution, that we can actually test today," he says, adding that bees, birds and other primates could all be sources of further research insight.
MIT-based research in linguistics has largely been characterized
|Contact: Sarah McDonnell|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology