bird song/conversation analysis

Tom Givon tgivon at
Fri Jun 18 18:55:23 UTC 2010

Dear Shannon,

Before we send your poor colleague on a wild-goose (well, they're avian 
too) chase for similarities between avian & human communication, perhaps 
he could benefit from considering some of the fundamental difference:

a. *Contents/function/information*: Song-birds communication is almost 
entirely limited to two adaptive topics--territorial control and mate 

b. *Reciprocity*: Most typically, the avian singer is a male, 
broadcasting two messages, to two different potential interlocutors, 
with the same-self song: (i) "I control this territory, buzz off!" 
directed at other males; and (ii) "I'm a big macho with good territory, 
come mate with me!" directed at females. The interlocutors seldom 
response with their own songs, they just act appropriately. This doesn't 
mean that duets don't exist in bird communication, like in e.g. the dual 
mating dances of some avian species. But in general, the sequencing and 
reciprocal elaboration of complex information--I contribute this; you 
respond, elaborate and add; I respond, elaborate and add; etc.--are not 
found in bird communication. (Work by Wally Chafe, Chuck Goodwin, Sue 
Erwin-Tripp & others elaborates on this cooperative aspect of human 
conversation). Orthodox CA, alas, has always tended to emphasize the 
sociology of turn-taking and competition for the floor over the 
semiotics of collaborative accretion of information. But this is 
predictable from CA having been developed by sociologists, not 
anthropologists or linguists. One way or another, it would be 
interesting to see how applicable EITHER aspect of human conversation is 
to bird communication.

c. *Form-function matching*: Birds song has complex phonological and 
syntactic structure, and is thus tantalizingly reminiscent of human 
language. However, there is no isomorphic matching between units of 
meaning/message and units of structure in avian communication Rather, it 
is extremely 'holisti'c (as much as I hate this word, but it fits here). 
Why then the extreme length & complexity (and artistic elaboration) of 
the songs? The conjecture is that, much like the peacock's feathers, the 
singing male broadcasts through this extravagant elaboration a dual 
message to his two audiences: (i) "I am stronger than you, don't bother 
to challenge me" (to competing males); and (ii) "I am a big bruiser 
macho, I can supply superior genetic material for your progeny" (to 
interested female). There is an extensive discussion of this in Dave 
Geary's "Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences" (2nd 
edition, 2009; Washington, DC: American Psych. Assoc.).

Cheers, TG


s.t. bischoff wrote:
> Hi all,
> A biologist colleague of mine who works on animal communication (bird songs)
> is interested in learning a bit about conversation analysis (far outside my
> area of expertise). He hopes that he might be able to get some ideas from
> linguists how best to analyze certain bird song behaviour. Any references,
> comments, or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Below is a brief
> description of what he is looking at.
> Thanks,
> Shannon
> Behavioral ecologist seeks cross-disciplinary advice:
> I am seeking input from Linguists to help develop a review of
> answering rules in song birds. Briefly, individuals of many songbird
> species sing repertoires of discrete learned song types.  When two
> birds living on neighboring territories interact vocally (i.e.,
> “countersing”), the song type that one bird sings can affect the other
> bird’s choice of song type. In the simplest case, the second bird
> might match the first bird's song type. A similar phenomenon occurs
> when mated pairs of certain species sing rapidly alternating phrases,
> resulting in so-called "duet" songs.The type of phrase uttered by one
> partner affects the other partner’s subsequent choice of phrase. Thus
> during both contersinging and duet singing, birds abide by “answering
> rules”. Of course, these interactions have some properties in common
> with conversations, and answering rules bear a passing resemblance to
> adjacency pairs. I would be grateful if list members could suggest
> resources (concepts, hypotheses, or methods) from Linguistics that
> might be relevant to this project.  I am particularly interested in
> hearing from students of conversational analysis. Thank you! -- David
> Logue, Assistant Professor  / Department of Biology, University of
> Puerto Rico

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