If Penguins Could Text: African Birds Compress Language Like Humans

The tendency to compress language belongs not only to humans, but also to this particular African penguin species’ way of communication.

Cape Penguins in South Africa
Cape Penguins in South Africa
Leonardo Di Paco

TURIN — Very different species are sometimes united by the use of common linguistic patterns. The Cape penguins are known as "jackass penguins' because their particular call is so similar to the donkey's bray. But their language, notably their use of the syllables at their disposition to speak in the most "economical" way, is strikingly similar to humans.

The discovery, published in the prestigious Biology Letters scientific journal, is the work of two Italian scholars. University of Turin researcher Livio Favaro and Professor Marco Gamba, from the Department of Life Sciences and Systems Biology, have shown that the tendency to compress language — when writing text messages, for example — belongs not only to humans, but also to this particular penguin species' way of communication.

"Recent studies have shown that animals genetically very close to humans, such as primates, reflect this law in their organization. This is found, for example, in gibbons and macaques," explain the two scholars.

The discovery marks the first time this language rule is observed in a species other than primates.

During their breeding period, male Cape penguins — the only penguin species living on the African continent — produce vocalizations consisting of different types of syllables associated with particular movements. They consist of vocalizations with two types of functions. The first is territorial defense, while the second is to attract females and convince them to form a stable couple.

"Previous research had already shown that the spectro-temporal characteristics of these syllables encode information about the speaker," the two researchers write.

African penguins in Boulders Beach, South Africa — Photo: Kallerna

By analyzing vocalizations of a group of penguins in captivity, Favaro and his group discovered that adult penguins have a particular type of call to express "detachment" or "sense of isolation" from the group. They called them "contact calls." These calls are different from those that penguins use during fights for territorial defense, and from those expressed during mating time or nesting.

Interestingly, in their vocal sequences, penguins always keep several long syllabic elements useful to underline their body size. This aspect plays a fundamental role during breeding periods.

Words we use most in our language tend to be short.

Some of these syllables contain information correlated to the penguin's physical size "and tell us how big the male is and how capable he is of being a good partner: strong, a brave hunter, and able to protect the nest."

Precisely by continuing to study hundreds of vocalizations, researchers realized that they mirrored human linguistic principles.

"These laws tell us that in communication systems and the acoustic elements that are most frequently used, there is a tendency to compress information and to minimize," they write.

This fact explains why the words we use most in our language tend to be short. "I, You, We, You" or all conjunctions are the most effective examples. Conversely, long words are less frequently used.

"The most important thing to keep in mind is that, when we refer to animal vocal sequences, we do not refer to complex lexical structures. We must always be very careful to highlight the fact that these vocal sequences, unlike human language, do not have precise semantics or syntax," write Favaro and Gamba.

That's why "parallelism with humans has to be sought in terms of the duration of acoustic elements and the proportion of their use. What emerges from our research is that we have a pattern of the production of these vocal signals which follows a linguistic vision similar to that of human language. Above all, they follow a common principle: when the elements conveyed become numerous, shorter sequences are used. This rule occurs in all languages; the mechanism of communication is always the same."

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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