Irène Pepperberg -Evolving Language: A View from the Wings
Abstract: Human language, in all its complexity, clearly evolved in the primate line, but tracing that evolution has proved difficult. We have no living representatives of the species that were likely intermediates along the evolutionary path (i.e., the ‘missing links’), and our closest relatives, the great apes, do not engage in any significant level of vocal learning—one hallmark of normative human language (i.e., sign languages being considered as special cases). As a consequence, many researchers have turned to songbirds—vocal learners with complex communication systems—as models for language evolution. My talk will emphasize how other avian species—bellbirds and parrots—provide alternative models, giving various rationales for their use; I will describe some of the language-like behavior patterns achieved by Grey parrots. I will note how several nonhumans of various species have achieved significant symbolic representation—a subset of language abilities—but so far their levels of communication are not equivalent to those of humans.