bird song/conversation analysis

A. Katz amnfn at
Fri Jun 18 20:22:08 UTC 2010


While I tend to have the same general assumptions about bird song that you 
have shared here, (territorial/mating function with aesthetic elaboration 
but no coding of complex meanings), I would be hard pressed to say where I 
picked up this information. Is it just folklore, or have there been 
scientific studies done to establish that complex bird song serves 
aesthetic goals by its complexity but not communicative goals?

This brings up the whole issue of proof of a negative -- or a positive. In 
order to prove that a particular species doesn't have language, what do we 
do? In order to show that it does, what do we do?

It seems that even in the case of encryption, the only way to prove that 
something is a code is to break it. The only way to prove that something 
is a language is to learn it and thus be able to use it for communication.

Is there some other way to prove that something is a language? For that 
matter, is there any way to prove that something isn't a language, but is 
just gibberish?


Has anybody proven that there is not someth

On Fri, 18 Jun 2010, Tom Givon wrote:

> 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 
> attraction.
> 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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