What if our language originated from birdsongs?
You might not sing as a Nightingale and possess its amazing repertoire but according to a study, led by MIT (Massachussets Institute of Technology) scholars Sigeru Miyagawa and Robert C. Berwick with the cooperation of Kazuo Okanoya from the Department of Life Sciences of the University of Tokyo, suggests that human language could be an association of two pre-existing finite and simpler systems from the animal-kingdom.
As the study explains, the idea that “all human language sentences are composed of two meaning layers” has widely been supported by Noam Chomsky or Kenneth Hale and Samuel Jay Keyser. The researchers divided the two systems between Type E (for expression), found in birdsongs, involving a constant possibility of changeable organisation of sentences and the Type L (for lexical) found in non-human primate calls and honeybee waggle dances, relating to the core content of a sentence. Human language then is constructed with an “outer layer” following an expression structure and “inner layer” of lexical structure.
The parallel between birdsongs and human language has also been drawn by several scholars and linguists including Charles Darwin and Johan J. Bolhuis. Some of the similarities in their acquisitions are “a need for external input; sensitive developmental periods ending at sexual maturity; hemispheric lateralisation; and motor-auditory rehearsal systems”.
The combination of the Type E and Type L resulted in a unique human language. From old structures, humans would have been able to generate new functions, characterised by a non-finite state (as suggested by Chomsky) and a hierarchical structure. Humans can communicate meanings (like primates and bees) but also a message with their melodic capacity (like birds).
As the study reveals, “the connection between birdsong and human language is not between song and language in its entirety; rather, the connection is between birdsongs and the expression structure component of human language syntax”. They also suggest that, as Darwin conjectured, humans would have acquired the Type E system before integrating the Type L and being able to formulate lexical elements within the first system.
This study is only a hypothesis and more empirical research will have to be conducted to further investigate the process through which the two systems came to be linked in modern humans.