Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Recursive syntactic pattern learning by songbirds

Abstract

Humans regularly produce new utterances that are understood by other members of the same language community1. Linguistic theories account for this ability through the use of syntactic rules (or generative grammars) that describe the acceptable structure of utterances2. The recursive, hierarchical embedding of language units (for example, words or phrases within shorter sentences) that is part of the ability to construct new utterances minimally requires a ‘context-free’ grammar2,3 that is more complex than the ‘finite-state’ grammars thought sufficient to specify the structure of all non-human communication signals. Recent hypotheses make the central claim that the capacity for syntactic recursion forms the computational core of a uniquely human language faculty4,5. Here we show that European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) accurately recognize acoustic patterns defined by a recursive, self-embedding, context-free grammar. They are also able to classify new patterns defined by the grammar and reliably exclude agrammatical patterns. Thus, the capacity to classify sequences from recursive, centre-embedded grammars is not uniquely human. This finding opens a new range of complex syntactic processing mechanisms to physiological investigation.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Grammatical forms.
Figure 2: Classification of grammatical pattern stimuli.
Figure 3: Generalization to new FSG and CFG sequences.
Figure 4: Agrammatical controls for alternative strategies.

References

  1. Hockett, C. F. The origin of speech. Sci. Am. 203, 89–96 (1960)

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. Chomsky, N. Syntactic Structures (Mouton, The Hague, 1957)

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  3. Hopcroft, J. & Ullman, J. Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages, and Computation (Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1979)

    MATH  Google Scholar 

  4. Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N. & Fitch, W. T. The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298, 1569–1579 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Fitch, W. T., Hauser, M. D. & Chomsky, N. The evolution of the language faculty: clarifications and implications. Cognition 97, 179–210 (2005)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Eens, M. Understanding the complex song of the European starling: An integrated approach. Adv. Study Behav. 26, 355–434 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Gentner, T. Q. & Hulse, S. H. Perceptual mechanisms for individual vocal recognition in European starlings, Sturnus vulgaris. Anim. Behav. 56, 579–594 (1998)

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. Gentner, T. Q. & Hulse, S. H. Perceptual classification based on the component structure of song in European starlings. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 107, 3369–3381 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. Gentner, T. Q. & Margoliash, D. Neuronal populations and single cells representing learned auditory objects. Nature 424, 669–674 (2003)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  10. Hauser, M. D., Newport, E. L. & Aslin, R. N. Segmentation of the speech stream in a non-human primate: statistical learning in cotton-top tamarins. Cognition 78, B53–B64 (2001)

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Hauser, M. D., Weiss, D. & Marcus, G. Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins. Cognition 86, B15–B22 (2002)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Fitch, W. T. & Hauser, M. D. Computational constraints on syntactic processing in a nonhuman primate. Science 303, 377–380 (2004)

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  13. Pinker, S. & Jackendoff, R. The faculty of language: what's special about it? Cognition 95, 201–236 (2005)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank T. Brawn for help in conducting some of these experiments, and A. Henly, P. Visser and L. Kay for comments on an earlier draft. This research was supported by an NIH grant to D.M.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Timothy Q. Gentner.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at npg.nature.com/reprintsandpermissions. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Note

This file contains the Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables and Supplementary Figures. (PDF 1351 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Gentner, T., Fenn, K., Margoliash, D. et al. Recursive syntactic pattern learning by songbirds. Nature 440, 1204–1207 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04675

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04675

This article is cited by

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing