Irene M. Pepperberg

Departments of Psychology, Harvard and Brandeis Universities

An Avian Model for Language Evolution





Most language evolution research focuses on primates, positing a hominid transitional link with the beginnings of learned vocal communication. Interest in primate models of language evolution increased after apes, humans? closest genetic relatives although incapable of acquiring full, complex human language learned elements of human communication systems. But how vocal language, and vocal learning, developed from what was likely a precursor gestural communication system is still a matter of speculation. Other species, however, phylogenetically distant from primates, notably Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) and cetaceans, acquire human-like communication skills comparable to those of great apes (Hillix & Rumbaugh, 2003), and, unlike present-day nonhuman primates, engage in vocal learning. Many studies have also demonstrated striking parallels between both the ontogeny and the neurological underpinnings of vocal communication in birds and humans (e.g., Jarvis et al. 2005). Recently, an avian species, once thought to be incapable of vocal learning, has shown elements of such acquisition (Kroodsma, 2005; Saranathan et al. 2007), suggesting that it might be a living avian model for the transitional link between our nonvocal-learning and vocal-learning hominid ancestors. This paper explores the data supporting use of such an avian model for language evolution. 


Hillix, W.A. & Rumbaugh, D.M. (2003). Animal bodies, human minds: Ape, dolphin, and parrot language skills. New York: Springer. 

Kroodsma, D.E. (2005). The singing life of birds. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 

Jarvis, J.D., Güntürkün, O., Bruce, L., Csillag, A., Karten, H., Kuenzel, W. et al. (2005). Avian brains and a new understanding of vertebrate evolution. Nature 

        Reviews Neuroscience, 6, 151-159. 

Saranathan, V., Hamilton, D., Powell, G.V.N., Kroodsma, D.E. & Prum, R.O. (2007). Genetic evidence supports song-learning in te three-wattled bellbird 

        Procnias trucarunculata (Cotingidae). Molecular Ecology, 16, 3689-3702.