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Call combinations in birds and the evolution of compositional syntax
Grad Univ Adv Studies, SOKENDAI, Dept Evolutionary Studies Biosyst, Hayama, Kanagawa, Japan.
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Biology, Department of Ecology and Genetics, Animal ecology.
Univ Zurich, Dept Evolutionary Biol & Environm Studies, Zurich, Switzerland.
2018 (English)In: PLoS biology, ISSN 1544-9173, E-ISSN 1545-7885, Vol. 16, no 8, article id e2006532Article in journal, Editorial material (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Syntax is the set of rules for combining words into phrases, providing the basis for the generative power of linguistic expressions. In human language, the principle of compositionality governs how words are combined into a larger unit, the meaning of which depends on both the meanings of the words and the way in which they are combined. This linguistic capability, i.e., compositional syntax, has long been considered a trait unique to human language. Here, we review recent studies on call combinations in a passerine bird, the Japanese tit (Parus minor), that provide the first firm evidence for compositional syntax in a nonhuman animal. While it has been suggested that the findings of these studies fail to provide evidence for compositionality in Japanese tits, this criticism is based on misunderstanding of experimental design, misrepresentation of the importance of word order in human syntax, and necessitating linguistic capabilities beyond those given by the standard definition of compositionality. We argue that research on avian call combinations has provided the first steps in elucidating how compositional expressions could have emerged in animal communication systems.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
PUBLIC LIBRARY SCIENCE , 2018. Vol. 16, no 8, article id e2006532
National Category
Zoology General Language Studies and Linguistics
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URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-364731DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2006532ISI: 000443383300035PubMedID: 30110321OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-364731DiVA, id: diva2:1260114
Available from: 2018-11-01 Created: 2018-11-01 Last updated: 2018-11-01Bibliographically approved

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