In a minute I'm going to guide you through a scientific inquiry about whether or not a robin in a youtube video is using language, but first let's start on a historical note about a dead language that took 2000 years to decode: Cuneiform.
Cuneiform originated in Sumer (Southern Iraq) and is the earliest known system of written language, dating back to around 6000-5500 years ago. It was used for nearly 3000 years before it went extinct around the year 150 C.E. At that time all speakers and all of those who knew how to read it were dead. It wasn't until the 1800s before people began to fully decipher it although Greeks, Romans, Persians and Arabs had noticed it and wondered about it when they traveled to the region and saw it on monuments and clay tablets. In fact, Medieval Persian and Arab scholars were the first known people to try to systematically decipher Cuneiform and although they were largely unsuccessful they did figure out some things.
Cuneiform began as a pictogram, accounting system for keeping track of trade transactions, but over thousands of years became a complex written language. The characters started out as symbols for objects and words, but gradually morphed into a hodgepodge of that as well as characters that represented phonetic syllables much like our alphabet. Below is an image that shows the evolution of the character for head over 3000 years.
Deciphering Cuneiform was a process that can help us appreciate the difficulty of scientific inquiry as a process. This is because it often takes many minds working over many generations to make progress on difficult questions. The question people faced when they saw Cuneiform was, "what is this? Is it meaningful?" At first, when nothing was known about Cuneiform because all of its speakers and scribes were dead, it was a hypothesis that it was a written language. It very well could have been just so many scribbles or it could have been a system of numbers with no words. When you first looked at the stone tablet above, if you had known nothing about Cuneiform, would you have guessed that it was a language? Considering the evidence, that it was found on clay tablets, monuments and temple and building walls, it seems a good hypothesis that Cuneiform was a language and that's what people ran with.
Pietro Della Valle, an Italian who had traveled to the Near East in the early 1600s, hypothesized after seeing many examples of Cuneiform that it must be read left-to-right. This was an important contribution, though his only contribution, to the decipherment of the dead language.
Sir Thomas Herbert in 1634 England, after seeing many examples of Cuneiform, hypothesized, correctly, that it wasn't an alphabet, but a written system of words and symbols. He guessed this because it would be highly unlikely that there would be an alphabet of over 1000 letters (Cuneiform had about this many characters), because many examples are continuous without breaks as one would expect to separate words, and because some of the inscriptions were quite short.
"Bishop Friedich Munter discovered that the words in the Persian inscriptions were divided from one another by an oblique wedge and that the monuments must belong to the age of Cyrus and his successors. One word, which occurs without any variation towards the beginning of each inscription, he correctly inferred to signify "king." By 1802 Georg Friedrich Grotefend had determined that two king's names mentioned were Darius and Xerxes (but in their native Old Persian forms, which were unknown at the time and therefore had to be conjectured), and had been able to assign correct alphabetic values to the cuneiform characters which composed the two names." (1)
"In 1836, the eminent French scholar Eugène Burnouf discovered that the first of the inscriptions published by Niebuhr contained a list of the provinces of the Persian Empire. With this clue in his hand, he identified and published an alphabet of thirty letters, most of which he had correctly deciphered." (1)
In 1835, Henry Rawlinson found the Rosetta Stone of Cuneiform. An inscription that had the same statement in Old Persian Cuneiform, Elamite and Babylonian. This inscription led to the complete decipherment of Cuneiform.
Figuring out how the language was spoken and with what accent was done through comparison of it to other related scripts and languages. Today there are several hundred scholars who are both fluent in writing and speaking Cuneiform.
The history of the decipherment of Cuneiform tells us something about how science works. People hypothesize about a problem they are faced with and then seek evidence that upholds or disproves it. To solve a difficult problem often requires contributions from many minds in many different fields. People have to collaborate, sharing their perspectives, insights, and using their creativity. In order to decipher the dead language people had to study many hundreds and thousands of examples of it to find patterns that might give context to otherwise incomprehensible symbols. The process of science can be frustrating because some problems are just too difficult for one person or one generation to figure out and sometimes the best that can be done is to make progress on understanding without ever coming to any absolute truth. Luckily in the case of Cuneiform, the researchers were dealing with a human language with many examples of the writing in existence thus giving many angles for discovering patterns and giving context to those patterns. Also, they were lucky in finding an inscription that contained two known languages as well as the Cuneiform. But despite, these breakthroughs, it still was a 2000 year process, since the extinction of the language to bring it back to life.
What happens though when we deal with an even harder problem? Such as trying to figure out whether or not other animals use sophisticated language. In this case, there are no known examples besides human language, that we can use to help us decipher these languages, and we are stuck in an even harder spot because we don't even know if other animals are just making sounds or actually using a systematized language in the first place. But if we hypothesize that some animals indeed are using language, how can we go about finding evidence to support or disprove it? Just like in the case of deciphering Cuneiform we have to go back to looking for perspectives, insights, patterns and contexts that will help our understanding.
I found an interesting video of an American Robin singing that I'd like to use to guide us on our scientific inquiry. First of all just watch the video once or twice and think/question about what you think the bird is doing by singing and pay special attention to the way it sings. Write down your observations and thoughts.
Have a discussion with people about what they think the bird is doing by singing as well as what they notice about its vocalizations. Is it just talking to itself? Is it talking gibberish? Is it meaningful? Is it language? Is it just expressing itself through music? Is it just a vocal instinctual fixed-action-pattern? Did you notice how songs of a similar pattern are sung and then separated by a pause? Is each song sung the same? Does the number of chirps per song vary? Do the pitches of notes change from song to song. Etc.
Now, how can we go beyond just mere conjecture and find evidence about whether or not the bird is speaking a language? It might be best to begin by allowing everyone to come up with their own method of collecting evidence that the bird is or isn't speaking a language and then playing the video once or twice more. After showing the video again, let everyone share what they came up with and then let people collaborate, adapting their approaches or adopting someone else's, just as it happens in science. Then show the video again once or twice more and repeat the process a few times to see how far people get. Part of what should dawn on people is that 1) we all have unique perspectives and ways of applying our creativity to problems. This is good and other people's ideas should be embraced when they prove to be useful. 2) Real world scientific inquiries are often frustrating and difficult. This is why people have to learn to collaborate and adapt their approaches according to progress that others have made. It should be emphasized from the history of Cuneiform decipherment that many scientific problems take a long time to solve if they are solved and making progress on understanding, sometimes, is the most that can be hoped for, although this can still be very rewarding.
My approach for gaining insight into the bird's songs can be done as follows:
1) Number 1 - 15 on a piece of paper (this is the number of discrete songs the bird sings in the video)
2) Then listen to the video once or twice, having everyone take a tally of how many chirps occur in each song. The numbers will likely vary from person-to-person because the bird sings slurs that sound like two notes as well as notes with two quick beats compared to most other notes sung that have just one beat.
When I'm just tallying beats I get the following numbers:
Have people compare their results and then discuss if any patterns emerged and what might be done to improve their methods. Are there numbers that occur more frequently? Do combinations of numbers always show up together? Etc. What can this tell us about whether or not the bird is using language?
The next time that I listened to the video I used a tally for a regular note, a V for quick double notes, and a dot (I'm typing as an "o" here for convenience) for high pitch notes and got the following results. You could have people do the same. This is the process of refining our methods in science so that we obtain better data and observations. With better data and observations we can make better inferences and conclusions about what is going on.
Again, have people compare their results, discuss their interpretations of and observations about the results and then offer suggestions about how to improve their methods even further. It isn't a problem if they only have pencil and paper and no other instrumentation for it exemplifies the common dilemma in science where we often have questions and methods we want to try that go far beyond our current technological and technical capability. When we lack technology we have to apply our creativity to use what we have to get better results, when we lack technical ability we have to train ourselves and increase our knowledge or find and learn how to collaborate with the people who have the skills and knowledge in demand.
End by having people recommend what things could be done to get better results, what other experiments, knowledge and observations would be useful to shed further light on the issue of whether or not robins or any other species are using language besides humans.
This activity is meant to help people come to understand how science really works. It should make them appreciate that science can be very difficult, slow to progress and frustrating, but also that it can be very exciting and rewarding as well as a playground for the maximum application of creativity because many problems/phenomena have no known answer and many problems/phenomena haven't even been identified yet.
What I found interesting, just by tallying the chirps of the robin's song, is that meaningful patterns began to emerge. For instance, high notes tended to occur as the fifth and eighth note of the songs. The number of notes in the songs varied, but there was occasional repetition. This all highlights something that I've experienced when doing scientific research; oftentimes meaningful patterns emerge when we take the time to make careful observations and to think about what those observations might mean.
Discoveries are rewarding because they further shed light on the nature of existence and our context in the universe as humans. And what's more, one need not be a professor at an elitist university to make discoveries; anyone who is willing to apply their creativity can take part in the excitement of discovery and furthering the process of understanding our universe known as science.