Babblers convey meaningful signals by rearranging meaningless sounds

Scientists studying social birds called the chestnut-crowned babblers have found that those birds possess the ability to rearrange meaningless sounds to create meaningful messages. The entire study has been described in the peer-reviewed open access science journal PLOS Biology. The findings of the study, according to scientists, might shed light on the evolution of human language.

According to the authors of the said study, the results obtained by them are indicating that humans are not the only living beings to possess the ability of rearranging meaningless sounds for creating new meaningful signals. They added that the findings might hint at a possible “early step towards the generative phonemic system of human language”.

The quality that sets the humans apart from all other known animal species most strongly is language. To date, it was known that the humans are the only ones to possess the ability of stringing multiple meaningless sounds together for exchanging complex ideas with each other.


Since a long time, scientists have been carrying out studies on different animals, from zebra finches to apes, for finding out how language abilities have evolved. Those studies have allowed them to identify some commonalities in different stages.

According to the author of this new paper, one such commonality is observed in Campbell’s monkey or Cercopithicus cambelli. These creatures produce a couple of predator- specific alarm calls. Each of these alarm calls get modified into more usual disturbance calls in a very predictable manner, through the addition of a similar suffix.

According to the authors of this new study, one of the primary questions concerning language evolution is how the generative power for the evolution emerged. They further wrote that the power that allows communication of innumerable ideas and thoughts stems from human language’s combinatorial nature.

Such a power seems to be present in the calls of the social bird species known as Chestnut-crowned babbler. This bird is native to the Australian Outback and weighs just around 2 ounces.

Scientists have found that these babblers have 15 different calls for different situations. Out of them, three pairs are of an unusual quality. They, according to the scientists, appear to share similar sounds, but in a rearranged order.

For gathering more information on this, scientists analyzed both songs in a particular pair for confirming that those were indeed similar sounds. Then they tested the birds’ reactions. They found that the blabbers successfully distinguished between the two sounds when they played the sounds back to them.