Grammar's for the Birds: Human-only language rule? Tell starlings

12:45pm, April 26, 2006

At least some birds can learn a pattern once proposed as unique to the grammars of human languages, say researchers.

Starlings trained in a lab have learned to distinguish between sounds strung together like a laundry list and those with nested, or recursive, elements, according to Timothy Q. Gentner of the University of California, San Diego.

Human languages make ample use of recursion. A simple sentence, "Scientists argue about languages," can expand quickly as the speaker tucks in subordinate bits within the basic framework. For example: "Scientists, who have passionate opinions, argue about languages, of which there are many."

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