What does the language of African penguins have in common with human language?

Although it is a dream for most people living with pets, communicating intelligently with our favorite animals turns out to be relatively impossible. Quite simply because inter-species communication is extremely difficult, each animal having its own language. However, this does not mean that some animals do not comply with the linguistic standards followed by different human languages. Indeed, a team of researchers has demonstrated that the language of African penguins conforms to the two main linguistic laws that govern human languages.

A team of researchers from France and Italy discovered that the vocalizations of African penguins conformed to the linguistic laws to which human languages ​​conform. In their article published in the journal Biology Letters , the group describes their study of penguin voice recordings and what they learned from them.

The laws of Zipf and Menzerath-Altmann: linguistic laws governing human languages

In 1945, linguist George Kingsley Zipf developed what is known as Zipf's brevity law, which states that the more a word is used, the shorter it tends to be, regardless of the language. Later work by other linguists in the following years not only confirmed this conclusion, but showed that its law was true for all human languages.

Several years later, Paul Menzerath and Gabriel Altmann developed what is called the Menzerath-Altmann law, which stipulates that the increase in the size of linguistic constructions leads to a decrease in the size of their constituents - very long words. usually have short syllables. However, the law states that the opposite is also true. Previous research has shown that other animal communications than humans (mainly by primates) also comply with both laws.

Language of African penguins: it conforms to human linguistic laws

The authors found that the African penguin calls were also consistent with them. The endangered African penguin is known for its distinctive calls - some have described them as similar to a roaring donkey, which has led to the nickname “jackass penguins”. The researchers wanted to know more about the birds' calls, so they collected and analyzed 590 vocalizations from 28 adult males living in Italian zoos.

Previous research had shown that the vocalizations of African penguins are constructed using sequences of three types of clean sounds, which are similar to syllables in human languages. The analysis revealed that the birds' baits conformed to the two linguistic laws developed to explain the functioning of human languages.

The first sound is a little croak made at the expiration of the bird, which lasts 0.18 seconds. The second is a longer noise at expiration which lasts 1.14 seconds. These are the most and least common noises made during songs, respectively. "This is the first notable proof of compliance with linguistic laws in the vocal sequences of a non-primate species. As expected, we saw that the duration of the syllables was inversely correlated with the frequency of occurrence.”

Researchers suggest that language laws are a sign of energy conservation - people and other animals who communicate in the most concise manner are more likely to succeed in efforts such as mating - a skill passed on to the offspring.


Research article:
Do penguins’ vocal sequences conform to linguistic laws?

Livio Favaro, Marco Gamba, Eleonora Cresta, Elena Fumagalli, Francesca Bandoli, Cristina Pilenga, Valentina Isaja, Nicolas Mathevon and David Reby

Published:05 February 2020


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