Researchers Listen to Penguins, Hear a First

Traits such as shorter syllables found for first time outside primates
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 6, 2020 8:51 AM CST

(Newser) – When it comes to language, penguins and humans appear to have a thing or two in common. Researchers studied the calls of African penguins and found that their vocal patterns follow two distinct patterns that until now have never been seen outside primates, reports the Ecologist. First, the penguins' most common vocal sounds are short ones, similar to how the most common human words ("the," "and," "so," etc.) are short as well, explains CNN. Linguists refer to this as Zipf's Law of Brevity. Second, when the penguins voice longer "words," they are "typically made up of sequences of short syllables," writes Denise Chow at NBC News. In humans, this is known as the Menzerath-Altmann Law.

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The study in the journal Biology Letters asserts that "this is the first compelling evidence for conformity to linguistic laws in vocal sequences of a non-primate species." While human language is far more complex, the study suggests penguins' communication has evolved to become brief and efficient, a concept known as "information compression" that is an abiding principle of the way we humans talk. One quirky factoid from CNN: The researchers arrived at their conclusion by recording and studying 590 breeding calls, or songs, made by adult African penguins. Those songs sound somewhat like a donkey's bray, which is what saddled the birds with the nickname "jackass penguin." (A British bicyclist lost the ability to speak English after a crash.)

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