The ABC's of animal speech: Not so random after all

Aug 20, 2014
The ABC's of animal speech: Not so random after all

The calls of many animals, from whales to wolves, might contain more language-like structure than previously thought, according to study that raises new questions about the evolutionary origins of human language.

The study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, analyzed the vocal sequences of seven different species of birds and mammals and found that the vocal sequences produced by the appear to be generated by complex statistical processes, more akin to .

Many species of animals produce complex vocalizations – consider the mockingbird, for example, which can mimic over 100 distinct song types of different species, or the rock hyrax, whose long string of wails, chucks and snorts signify male territory. But while the vocalizations suggest language-like characteristics, scientists have found it difficult to define and identify the complexity.

Typically, scientists have assumed that the sequence of animal calls is generated by a simple random process, called a "Markov process." Using the Markov process to examine animal vocalization means that the sequence of variables—in this case, the vocal elements—is dependent only on a finite number of preceding vocal elements, making the process fairly random and far different from the complexity inherent in human language.

Yet, assuming a Markov process exists raises questions about the of animal language to human language—if animal vocal sequences are Markovian, how did human language evolve so quickly from its animal origins?

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
In this Science Minute from NIMBioS, Dr. Arik Kershenbaum explains new research that suggests the calls of many animals might contain more language-like structure than previously thought. Credit: NIMBioS

Indeed, the study found no evidence for a Markovian process. The researchers used mathematical models to analyze the vocal sequences of chickadees, finches, bats, orangutans, killer whales, pilot whales and hyraxes, and found most of the vocal sequences were more consistent with statistical models that are more complex than Markov processes and more language-like.

Human language uses what's called "context-free grammars," whereby certain grammatical rules apply regardless of the context, whereas animal language uses simple or "regular" grammar, which is much more restrictive. The Markov process is the most common model used to examine animal vocal sequences, which assumes that a future occurrence of a vocal element is entirely determined by a of past vocal occurrences.

The findings suggests there may be an intermediate step on the evolutionary path between the regular grammar of animal communication and the context-free grammar of human language that has not yet been identified and explored.

"Language is the biggest difference that separates humans from animals evolutionarily, but multiple studies are finding more and more stepping stones that seem to bridge this gap. Uncovering the process underlying vocal sequence generation in animals may be critical to our understanding of the origin of language," said lead author Arik Kershenbaum, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis.

Explore further: Which happened first: Did sounds form words, or words form sentences?

More information: Kershenbaum A, Bowles A, Freeburg T, Dezhe J, Lameira A, Bohn K. 2014. Animal vocal sequences: Not the Markov chains we thought they were. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. rspb.royalsocietypublishing.or… .1098/rspb.2014.1370

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someone11235813
1.9 / 5 (10) Aug 20, 2014
Notwithstanding that Animal calls may be more complex than previously thought, it is irrelevant to try to learn anything about human speech from studying animal communication for the simple reason that the complexity of human speech and symbolic language which is is a direct consequence of the solely human capacity for a comprehension of self awareness to the point of being aware of ones awareness.

It also cannot be a coincidence that the hyoid bone as well as the large amount of brain area devoted to the lips and tongue developed along with the large and complex brain capacity necessary for the capacity for human speech, to the point where language just seems to be hardwired into humans. This is shown most clearly in the 800 languages of Papua New Guinea.

If there was anything to learn about human language from the way animals communicate then surely it would only be relevant to study our great ape cousins.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (9) Aug 20, 2014
the solely human capacity for a comprehension of self awareness to the point of being aware of ones awareness.

That's a pretty bold statement - without any evidence to back it up.
someone11235813
1.4 / 5 (7) Aug 20, 2014
@antialias_physorg, fair enough comment but it is a reasonable inference that can be made by studying the behaviour of any animal. In fact I could ask anyone to point to any evidence that any animal other than h. Sapiens exhibits characteristics that point to an awareness of being aware. I suppose such an animal would have to tell us in person.
saposjoint
5 / 5 (5) Aug 20, 2014
They have. We don't listen too well. We're famously insensitive to others, or did you forget?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (7) Aug 20, 2014
but it is a reasonable inference that can be made by studying the behaviour of any animal.

Without mind reading an animal it's impossible to say. Have you any idea what goes on in chimps mind (or a cat's that sits around gazing at nothing all day)? I'm not aware of anyone who does.
To make a reasonable inference one must have a reason.

evidence that any animal other than h. Sapiens exhibits characteristics that point to an awareness of being aware.

There are many experiments in which animals show abstract or social behavior that does not benefit themselves (i.e. empathy).
It is impossible to show empathy without being aware that other beings are aware (which is even a further step up from being aware that the animal itself is aware)
Whydening Gyre
3 / 5 (5) Aug 20, 2014
all this awareness talk is wearing me out....
Valentiinro
4 / 5 (4) Aug 20, 2014
all this awareness talk is wearing me out....


Ba dum tissss
Pantonal
2 / 5 (5) Aug 20, 2014
Grammar, the use of articles or prefixes to signify conceptual categories, verbs, nouns etc., is a pretty advanced stage of sign use. It is difficult to imagine how animals should have anything of that. Most animals probably do not use signs at all. What they do have is nonverbal communication of emotion, manifestations of fluctuating tension, intensity, aggression, excitation etc.
someone11235813
1 / 5 (5) Aug 20, 2014
@antialias_physorg


To make a reasonable inference one must have a reason.


That doesn't even make sense.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (2) Aug 21, 2014
Grammar, the use of articles or prefixes to signify conceptual categories, verbs, nouns etc., is a pretty advanced stage of sign use. It is difficult to imagine how animals should have anything of that. Most animals probably do not use signs at all. What they do have is nonverbal communication of emotion, manifestations of fluctuating tension, intensity, aggression, excitation etc.

Well, since they don't have hands, sign language as we know it is out. Body posture, ear position, etc. is the "sign" language animals use. It's the language ALL animals use and have used for millions of years. You need to get a dog or something - you'll figure it out...
BTW. Sign language is NOT verbal... It's a manual representation of verbiage that humans use. We're copying animals!
Captain Stumpy
4.7 / 5 (3) Aug 21, 2014
In fact I could ask anyone to point to any evidence that any animal other than h. Sapiens exhibits characteristics that point to an awareness of being aware
@someone11235813
the first thing I would do is ask you to define "awareness". Wolves are fully "aware" of self and can differentiate between themselves (my tail, my foot) and others (not my foot) so animals CAN be aware IMHO

http://www.psycho...they-are

the thing is, are you using strictly visual cues or any cues?
Do you include olfactory cues?
or are you narrowing the field to improve the human chances of being supremely unique?

we need to address ALL this before we can move on to answer your question. if it is a matter of belief, I would say that IMHO- MANY animals are aware, especially of self.
We're copying animals!
@Whyde
i am not so sure we are copying as much as we are part of an evolutionary process

IDK... that is my take on it, anyway
someone11235813
1.3 / 5 (3) Aug 21, 2014
@Captain Stumpy

the first thing I would do is ask you to define "awareness". Wolves are fully "aware" of self and can differentiate between themselves (my tail, my foot) and others (not my foot) so animals CAN be aware IMHO


OK, first though, I want to point out that being 'aware' (in the sense we are using it) and being 'aware that one is aware', are two completely different concepts.

The example you have given is merely an example of simple 'awareness', which is trivial. If an organism is aware of it's own awareness, that would mean that it is able to come to a self conclusion, or a self judgement. Which is the source of so much human grief.

A child is aware but only as an animal up to the age of about 18 months or so, soon after it becomes aware that it is an individual completely separate from and equally individual to all the other people it sees. Hence the 'terrible two's'

Many animals plan for the coming season, but that is about it, they don't extrapolate further.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (5) Aug 21, 2014
To make a reasonable inference one must have a reason.

That doesn't even make sense.

Then I'll translate: To make an infernece you have to have some point to make an inference from (i.e. you have to have some certain knowledge of X to say "from knowing X I can infer Y")
We know nothing of what thoughts go on in an animal mind so we cannot infer anything from that.
If anything we can infer the opposite of what you state:
Fact: humans and anaimals are related
Fact: (some) humans have self awareness and awareness of self awareness
Inference: It is therefore possible that animals have self awareness and awareness of self awareness.

It is difficult to imagine how animals should have anything of that.

Why do you think all communication must be through sound? Pheromones, visual cues, vibrations, heat changes, chemical gradients, (and the combination of any and all of them) ... The list of possible avenues that can have their own grammar is almost endless.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (5) Aug 21, 2014
We're copying animals!

@Whyde
i am not so sure we are copying as much as we are part of an evolutionary process

IDK... that is my take on it, anyway

I know, Cap'n, but that explanation doesn't sound so humorous...:-)
Anyway, the fact that we can't seem to understand them is not an indication of THEIR stupidity...:-)
Pantonal
1 / 5 (1) Aug 21, 2014
Whydening Gore

Linguistically auditory and manual signs are just diffent types of signs, i.e. more or less arbitrary signifiers representing concepts. Noverbal communication, like posture etc. is shared by most animals, yes, humans included. It may consist of a repertoire of instinctual acts, but it is not given that it is 'language' in a linguistic sense. Submission may be manifested by submitting, vigorousness manifested by vigorous wagging etc. The intonations of howling dogs are fluctiations in tension, it is not a grammatical combination of signs. That was my point. The researchers should be applauded for the discovery that animal vocalization is not arbitrary, but that does not make it into a language proper.
Watebba
1 / 5 (4) Aug 21, 2014
IMO the communication of animals resembles much more the interaction of little kids in the kindergartens: these little cute&nasty creatures are twaddling all the time, despite someone is listening them right now or not. They don't actually communicate - they just signalize and verbalize their momentary feelings. Analogously we shouldn't seek the signs of true bi-directional communication and language in all behavior of animals, because this behavior often apparently doesn't serve for actual communication.
Pantonal
1 / 5 (2) Aug 21, 2014
Good point Watebba; they are pretty egocentric, and not necessarily intentionally communicative. Yet our vocal apparatuses would hardly have evolved if they did not serve some communicative purpose. That we vocalize when we are alone as well, shows how we have integrated these 'exteroceptive' sensations into our own sense of self.

saccoflame
1 / 5 (4) Aug 21, 2014
Give me a break. Human language didn't evolve. The brain evolved. There was no proto-language but there were proto-humans and once the brain evolved to where it assumed that there was grammer, grammer was imposed on the signs which made it a language. Once the brain created language it rapidly grew. Those who could use grammar and therefore language were human and those that could not weren't.
Watebba
4.2 / 5 (5) Aug 21, 2014
Human language didn't evolve. The brain evolved
This is essentially a creationist view, just applied to social level instead of biological one. The ability of speech isn't some product of Holy Spirit breathed into human brains from above. Of course the language of cave men wasn't particularly developed and the size/complexity of brain wasn't the only factor of it.
saccoflame
1 / 5 (3) Aug 21, 2014
Indeed, the study found no evidence for a Markovian process.Occam's razor the principle of parsimony interpreted to mean something like "the simpler the explanation, the better. Is wrong again. Occam's razor is pretty much always wrong because the world is always a little more complex than we think it is.
Watebba
1 / 5 (3) Aug 21, 2014
IMO Occam's razor is OK, it's application just depends on proper definition of complexity and entropy. Which is already a huge problem in entropic analysis of black holes, for example. Does the entropy of black hole increase or decrease, when it becomes more compact?

IMO the application of Occam razor is the remnant of previous epoch of reality understanding, which favored the low-dimensional formal models in similar way, like the expanding perspective of ripples at the water surface. At the small scales the water surface remains turbulent and complex, but at distance these irregularities compensate mutually and only the regular circles spread into outside. So we can get the impression, the simpler model we use, the farther we can apply it.

But with increasing scope the chaotic nature of environment gradually arises again and the circles will get scattered into chaotic and turbulent underwater again. So we should redefine the Occam razor principle in the light of the latest findings.
Watebba
1 / 5 (3) Aug 21, 2014
For example with respect to spreading of ripples at the water surface the wave equation is definitely less complex than for example the Navier-Stokes equations - which may lead some people (like the J.F.Prins here) into impression, "everything is (composed of) waves". But with respect to formal models the collision simulation of particles is even simpler and it can describe both the Navier-Stokes in the bulk of fluid, both the wave equation at its surface. The principal simplicity of such a simulation doesn't mean, it cannot occasionally lead into very complex behavior.

The Occam rule therefore shouldn't be fooled with superficial complexity of many phenomena, which are still based on simple underlying principles. These principles just may be difficult to express in formal low-dimensional math - that's all. The conceptual simplicity is something, which cannot be expressed easily with strictly deterministic formal models.
saccoflame
1 / 5 (2) Aug 21, 2014
Watebba Perhaps you should learn a little about the field before you make a comment like that. My views are based on the work of the two individuals. Stephen R. Anderson is professor of linguistics, psychology, and cognitive science at Yale. Noam Chomsky NOAM CHOMSKY Institute Professor & Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) Linguistic Theory, Syntax, Semantics, Philosophy of Language.

Watebba "This is essentially a creationist view, just applied to social level instead of biological one. The ability of speech isn't some product of Holy Spirit breathed into human brains from above. Of course the language of cave men wasn't particularly developed."

In this day and age someone who thinks he can lie about creationism. Creationism denies the evolution. As I mentioned the evolution of the brain the claim that my view is creationist one is a lie. No only is it a lie it is insulting.
So you prevent debate by cutting of words.
saccoflame
1 / 5 (1) Aug 21, 2014
Watebba If you are interested in learning about language these guys would be a good place to start Noam Chomsky

The essence of his theories of language acquisition state that human beings are pre-wired to learn language and in fact are born with the basic rules for language intact.

Stephen R. Anderson is professor of linguistics, psychology, and cognitive science at Yale University.http://yalepress....00103395

Noam Chomsky Language and Mind http://www.amazon...2167493X
saccoflame
1 / 5 (2) Aug 21, 2014
Waterbba argues from the particular to the general a well-known fallacy

If people have questions they can consult the Skeptics Dictionary

http://skepdic.com/occam.html
someone11235813
1 / 5 (2) Aug 21, 2014

We know nothing of what thoughts go on in an animal mind so we cannot infer anything from that.


I see now where your error is. If we knew an animals thoughts then we would not need to infer their thoughts would we. We do not know an animals thoughts therefore we make some inferences based on their actions.

For example, no animals acts in a way that indicates that it may feel 'embarrassed', which is a peculiarly human emotion possible because of awareness of oneself as a conscious being. When people put ruffs or other silly items on their pets and then guffaw at this risible jape, we can infer from the animals behaviour that it does not have thoughts along the line of 'they are making fun of me'.
someone11235813
1 / 5 (3) Aug 21, 2014
@antialias_physorg

Referring to my above post, I suppose I should anticipate your probable response and acknowledge that yes, it may certainly be true that the dog with the ruff, could in fact purposely be acting indifferent to embarrassment in the ultimate knowledge that it will have it's nefarious revenge at a later time. If you seriously believe that animals exhibit any behaviour that indicated that they come to a self conclusion or a self judgement then I may suggest that you have been watching too many cartoons like Family Guy.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Aug 22, 2014
We have seen evidence in apes that they are capable of lying (pertending to hide food in some area while actually hiding it in another). This might indicated that they have the capability of predicting other's behavior based on an extrapolation of what their own behavior would be. That might indicate self awareness and awareness of that self awareness (in others, too!)

We do not know an animals thoughts therefore we make some inferences based on their actions.
As I said: making an inference that is at odds with the only data point we have (our own thoughts) makes no sense.

It's like taking a measurement that comes up "blue" and from that claiming that any further measurement must therefore - by inference - come up "red". It's just not a logically supportable inference.
mooster75
5 / 5 (3) Aug 22, 2014

We know nothing of what thoughts go on in an animal mind so we cannot infer anything from that.


I see now where your error is. If we knew an animals thoughts then we would not need to infer their thoughts would we. We do not know an animals thoughts therefore we make some inferences based on their actions.

For example, no animals acts in a way that indicates that it may feel 'embarrassed', which is a peculiarly human emotion possible because of awareness of oneself as a conscious being. When people put ruffs or other silly items on their pets and then guffaw at this risible jape, we can infer from the animals behaviour that it does not have thoughts along the line of 'they are making fun of me'.

You've never laughed at a cat, have you?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Aug 22, 2014
For example, no animals acts in a way that indicates that it may feel 'embarrassed', which is a peculiarly human emotion possible because of awareness of oneself as a conscious being

Embarassment with regards to other animals of the same species? How can you tell that they don't without mind-reading capability?

Humans don't act embarrassed with regards to animals. When someone walks out in a silly costume do you see them acting all embarrased when a dog walks by? Why would you even expect animals to act embarassed towards humans?

You're demanding things of animals that you don't even demand of humans.
someone11235813
1 / 5 (3) Aug 23, 2014
You've never laughed at a cat, have you?


I have.

What is your point?

@antialias_physorg

How about you just tell me what the point you are making is, unless it's what I think, which is that animals may indeed have human like capacity with regards to the thinking and all that entails, like planning for their grandchildren, but that we can never know because they can't talk.

Hopefully you are not taking such an idiotic stand seriously, or perhaps you are just trolling which is OK I suppose. But I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and suppose that there really is some point you want to make and so perhaps you could just state it clearly.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (2) Aug 23, 2014
Human language evolved and continues to, only because we developed means to record it. If our language was only vocalized, then it would be much closer to other animals.
Rua
5 / 5 (1) Aug 26, 2014
I think it is a bit strange to keep speaking of humans as non-animals when we clearly are.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Aug 26, 2014
How about you just tell me what the point you are making is

The point is that your "reasonable inference" isn't an inference (nor reasonable or supported by reason) but merely wishful thinking.

but that we can never know because they can't talk.

They do make sounds, spray chemicals or knock on the ground to transmit shockwaves (even animals that don't look for mates or can't breed). You think they're doing that just for the heck of it?
There is information transmission going on (as other members of the species react to these signals)

Hopefully you are not taking such an idiotic stand seriously

The stand is: we don't know how complex the language of various animals is at this point - and what kind of information they impart. Neither do we know what kinds of internal monologues (or dreams) they have. That they have none is less than baseless speculation. It's directly at odds with the only base we have (ourselves)