When it comes to syntax, Bengal Finches know where it’s at. This particular species of bird is rather sensitive to unfamiliar bird calls — for instance, if they hear a sound they don’t recognize, they’ll reply with a burst of their own loud ’chattering’.
Kentaro Abe, a researcher at Kyoto University, began a study where he played these recordings to the finches. Eventually, the birds became so familiar with the sounds, they no longer reacted aggressively when played.
After the other songs became like second nature (get it?!) to them, he took the recordings and jumbled them four different ways. The result? The finches only reacted to one pattern of calls!
Abe believes that the three recordings that didn’t provoke a reaction followed the ‘finch rules of syntax’ — meaning, the birds still understood the ‘message’ — but the recording that did provoke the reaction must have meant something completely different to the birds, that they believed it was unlike any other call they’ve heard before.
I am cold
Cold I am
I cold am
Am I cold
If someone were to say the first three of these sentences to you, you could figure out that this person is cold. However, if someone were to say the last one to you, you wouldn’t know if they were actually cold or not (clearly because they don’t know if they’re cold or not). Hence, the meaning changes.
However, Abe has delved further into the study, and has gone as far as ‘chemically destroying’ the part of the brain that recognizes faulty grammar, the anterior nidopallium, in hopes that “further study into the anterior nidopallium will help reveal just why finches and humans alike evolved a capacity for grammar.”
Which begs the question, is it necessary to go that far for the benefits of scientific discovery?