Chestnut-crowned babbler calls are composed of meaningless shared building blocks

Sabrina Engesser*, Jennifer L. Holub, Louis G. O'Neill, Andrew F. Russell, Simon W. Townsend

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    17 Citations (Scopus)


    A core component of human language is its combinatorial sound system: meaningful signals are built from different combinations of meaningless sounds. Investigating whether nonhuman communication systems are also combinatorial is hampered by difficulties in identifying the extent to which vocalizations are constructed from shared, meaningless building blocks. Here we present an approach to circumvent this difficulty and show that a pair of functionally distinct chestnut-crowned babbler (Pomatostomus ruficeps) vocalizations can be decomposed into perceptibly distinct, meaningless entities that are shared across the 2 calls. Specifically, by focusing on the acoustic distinctiveness of sound elements using a habituation-discrimination paradigm on wildcaught babblers under standardized aviary conditions, we show that 2 multielement calls are composed of perceptibly distinct sounds that are reused in different arrangements across the 2 calls. Furthermore, and critically, we show that none of the 5 constituent elements elicits functionally relevant responses in receivers, indicating that the constituent sounds do not carry the meaning of the call and so are contextually meaningless. Our work, which allows combinatorial systems in animals to be more easily identified, suggests that animals can produce functionally distinct calls that are built in a way superficially reminiscent of the way that humans produce morphemes and words. The results reported lend credence to the recent idea that language's combinatorial system may have been preceded by a superficial stage where signalers neither needed to be cognitively aware of the combinatorial strategy in place, nor of its building blocks.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)19579-19584
    Number of pages6
    JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
    Issue number39
    Publication statusPublished - 24 Sept 2019


    • Combinatoriality
    • Habituation-discrimination
    • Language evolution
    • Phonology
    • Vocal communication


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