How computational linguists think about birds

Ask A Computational Linguist: Do “talking” birds have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?


While listening to our budgie, Tucker, declaim last night, I realized that although he parrots English, he doesn’t say any words with “th.”
Do similarly verbal species, like African grays, have a catalogue of phonemes that they can and can’t (or do and don’t) say?

BTW, I watched a cute video on YouTube of a budgie from Japan. It’s immediately clear that he’s parroting Japanese, not English, just from the sounds. You could probably tell me why.


In lieu of my normal English notes, I have added links to the definitions of the various and sundry low-frequency words in this post.


Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any reason that a “verbal” bird would be unable to produce any sound.  My recollection from grad school is that their mechanism of “talking” works very much like that of a speaker, so within the limits of engineering, I can’t think of any limits.  Two questions come to mind for me:

1. Perception on the part of the parrot: to reproduce something, they presumably need to be able to hear it, which moves the area of discussion from the presence or absence of productive capabilities to the question of the presence or absence of perceptual abilities. Especially relevant in that th-sounds are of pretty low amplitude, so they fall into the category of sounds that you might be unlikely to be able to perceive, if you indeed had limits on perception, be they related to the anatomy of your ears or to what your brain does to process sounds.
2. Perception on the part of the human: it is within the realm of possibility that the bird is making the sound in question, but that the humans in the room aren’t hearing it.  
Finally: here is a delightful paper on mynahs.  More specifically: on one mynah, which points you toward my skepticism about the general state of research on verbal birds. 


Some relevant videos from Jeff:

A budgie speaking Japanese

One speaking Russian

A collection of similar videos for miscellaneous languages

Incidentally, in A budgie speaking Japanese… One speaking Russian, the “one” is an instance of what is called “one anaphora.”

I’ll shut up now.

The picture at the top of this post shows the location of the syrinx, the organ that “talking” birds use to produce their vocalizations. It is from this blog post on the Those with Pycnofibres blog.

2 thoughts on “How computational linguists think about birds”

  1. I think you will find “Alex and me” by Irene Pepperberg very interesting, if you haven’t already read it. She has also published this (apparently more technical) one that also looks really interesting: “The Alex Studies: cognitive and communicative abilities of grey parrots”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this recommendation, Iggy. I wasn’t aware of the more technical book. For those of you who aren’t Iggy: Irene Pepperberg is the best-known researcher on the speaking behavior of African gray parrots.


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