It seems like there have been more and more reports of different animals displaying increasingly human characteristics, like making and developing tools, but most of the instances have been in our closer genetic relatives.
So it feels a bit off to say it’s not monkeys, but penguins, whose speech patterns could closely mirror those of people.
Historically, a normal penguin call ranges from a gently peep to a cringe-y squawk, but even though they don’t use words, researchers have found that they’re officially the first non-primates to use the same patterns of speech as human beings.
Scientists studying the songs of African penguins have learned that they use shorter sounds for “words” and longer vocalizations with more syllables when communicating more complex messages, both of which are linguistic principles of human speech around the world.
Zipf’s Law of Brevity postulates that the more often a word is used, the shorter it will be, and vice versa, due to selective pressures to communicate accurately and efficiently.
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The Menzerath-Altmann Law says that the longer a word or sentence, the shorter its components will be.
Both principles have been documented in humans and non-human primates, but the penguins are a first.
The authors write in Biology Letters,
“Our results provide the first evidence for conformity to Zipf’s and Menzerath-Altmann laws in the vocal sequences of a non-primate species.”
To come to these conclusion, the researchers studied the calls of 28 adult African penguins, collecting and analyzing 590 display songs during a single breeding season. They found that a sequence of three distinct sounds made up the songs – the first two, a short croak and a longer, exhaled noise that occurred most often, and a third, inhaled vocalization of varied length.
The scientists theorized that the first two were simply announcing their presence and availability, while the longer one was some kind of argument about why they were the fitter partner.
“As predicted, we found that the duration of the syllables was inversely correlated with the frequency of occurrence.”
The conclusions seem to point toward language laws not being intrinsically about semantics and syntax, but about the fundamental need to communicate efficiently.
Which means that, if we apply their findings across the board, it may be more likely that we can truly understand what’s being communicated between members of many species.
I can’t wait until we can divine what our cats are thinking. What a day that will be!