Tag Archives: linguistics

The Language of Living Things

How do birds chirp? This is a question I asked myself yesterday while taking a walk and listening to a songbird.

Do they have vocal cords? Do they blow air through their nostrils? Or is it something I can’t even fathom, like maybe a hum that starts in their bellies? I’d like to know the answer.

Somehow, the universe must have heard my question, because last night my husband turned on the TV to watch NOVA, and the episode was about how animals communicate. And although it didn’t specifically answer my question about how birds sing, it did have some fascinating things to say about the language of animals.

Did you know, for example, that male spiders have a vocal language when they mate, and that whales have certain hit songs that spread from ocean to ocean like the British Invasion of 1964?

We humans have much in common with other animals when it comes to language, and I’m not just talking about our mating behavior. Take Zipf’s Law, for example, which I learned about for the first time last night on NOVA. According to Zipf (by the way, I’m not sure how to pronounce Zipf, but he probably could tell me if he were still alive, since he was a linguist), there’s a universal rule when it comes to language.

Using computers, linguists have analyzed large texts in several languages and have found that if you rank the words in order according to how often they appear, there’s a mathematical relationship (Zipf’s Law):

  • The frequency of word #1 is two times that of word #2,
  • the frequency of word #1 is three times that of word #3,
  • and so on.

If you plot it on a graph, it makes a straight line (slope) from upper left to lower right. And the same graph happens no matter what language you use. It even works with vocalizations of dolphins, elephants, and birds!

I don’t pretend to know much about animal language, but it’s already changed how I react when I listen to the birds sing.

I wonder if they write poetry, too?