As regular CFZ-watchers will know, for some time Corinna has been doing a column for Animals & Men and a regular segment on On The Track... particularly about out-of-place birds and rare vagrants. There seem to be more and more bird stories from all over the world hitting the news these days so, to make room for them all - and to give them all equal and worthy coverage - she has set up this new blog to cover all things feathery and Fortean.

Thursday 6 February 2020

Jackass penguins have a jackass language not so different from English

The braying songs of African "jackass" penguins follow two extremely common rules of human language.

African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) bear the unfortunate nickname "jackass penguins" because they communicate through honking, donkey-like brays. Laugh at them if you like, but a new study suggests that their jackass language actually follows the same basic linguistic rules as ours.

In the study, published Wednesday (Feb. 5) in the journal Biology Letters, researchers recorded nearly 600 vocalizations from 28 adult male penguins living in Italian zoos. (Males tend to vocalize a lot during the mating period, which is why the researchers turned to this population). The scientists knew from prior research that African penguins honk using three distinct types of sound, reminiscent of human syllables, when greeting one another, mating, or defending territory. But the researchers wanted to know whether those "syllables" followed two common linguistic rules.

One of those rules, called Zipf's law of brevity, was proposed in 1945 by linguist George Zipf. The law states that the more frequently a word is used in any language, the shorter it tends to be (think of words like "the," "to" and "of" in English). Previous studies have analyzed more than 1,000 world languages for evidence of Zipf’s law, and the rule holds up in all of them. 

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