Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Grammar: for the birds?

Until recently, scientists thought grammar was what separated our language from the hoots, barks, growls and squeaks of animals.

A study of starlings is making them rethink that assumption.

Like humans, starlings can insert "clauses" into their songs. In human speech, this is called "recursive center embedding." It means you can stick as many words or clauses in a sentence as you want, as long as you wrap them in commas on each side.

For example:

"The man is a senator" can become "The man, who eats pizza in the nude, is a senator," or "The man, who eats pizza in the nude, burps, then demands a napkin, is a senator" and so on and so forth. (He can even do it while living in the house that Jack built, for those of you familiar with the nested-clause nursery rhyme.)

MSNBC has more on starlings and their unexpected language facility.

But if birds can figure out grammar in their teeny-tiny little heads, then what's wrong with this man?

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