There’s been a lot of talk about a new study that claims “European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) accurately recognize acoustic patterns defined by a recursive, self-embedding, context-free grammar.” I’m not competent to evaluate it (and have an admitted prejudice against the whole talking-animal thing), so I’ll send you to Mark Liberman for a thorough discussion of the merits of the study. Me, I’m just going to quote Yreka Bakery in the highly respected Speculative Grammarian:

An apparently new speech disorder a linguistics department our correspondent visited was affected by has appeared. Those affected our correspondent a local grad student called could hardly understand apparently still speak fluently. The cause experts the LSA sent investigate remains elusive. Frighteningly, linguists linguists linguists sent examined are highly contagious. Physicians neurologists psychologists other linguists called for help called for help called for help didn’t help either. The disorder experts reporters SpecGram sent consulted investigated apparently is a case of pathological center embedding.

All I have to say is, starlings linguists language loggers readers follow commented on the work of studied are damn smart!


  1. Isn’t extraction out of an NP one of those inviolable constraints on movement? For me, Linguists language loggers commented on the work of studied starlings. is by itself very deeply weird, even without nested recursion. Maybe this is just my I-language showing, but even a simpler sentence like The spaghetti I had a box of cooked quickly doesn’t quite compute. Why are examples of complicated concepts so prone to be infested by simple errors?

  2. dungbeetle says

    (Sturnus vulgaris) even the Romans knew them as common starlings, for the linguist types,was it after a word that be pronounced “sternumentum vulgaris”, as they caused common sneezing amongst the popularis, being a member of the crow family they be the singing linguistic cozens of the crow. If, instead of the crow,it had been the starling with the cheese, the fox would not have got his lunch and Aesop be without a tale.
    Starling be such a cawing,babeling bunch catawalling greeters of the morning sun.

  3. Going Dotty in Kansas says

    If they (whoever the “they” are who conducted this study) discovered this recursive self-embedding stuff about starlings, what the dickens would they discover about catbirds (which never repeat their complex song patterns) or mockingbirds (which do repeat their complex song patterns)?

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