Jul/Aug 2021  •   Nonfiction


by Evan Silver

Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash

Photo by Solen Feyissa on unsplash

I imagine human language began with hoots and hollers: fur-forward cave dwellers going apeshit for their dinner. A fork in the road for the primates and the hominids; a brief divergence of unbridled consequence. The survival of certain genetic variations: bipedal walking, enlarged brains, and, where one fork leads to an evolutionary highway, the capacity for symbolic thought.

Perhaps it began with hoots and hollers. Over millions of years, successions of hominid lines developed the special properties of human language: sounds to name objects and actions, new vocabulary items in the shrieking dictionary, syntactical phonologies of consonants and vowels, a reconfiguration of the vocal tract, a revision in the means of making sense of auditory signals. And the world took shape as we constituted its myriad parts in words.


Say my wingspan is the lifespan of the planet. Now, with my arms still outstretched, take a nail file and lightly buff the tip of my littlest fingernail. Take a good look at the residue in the grooves. That is the smudge of our celestial species in space-time, a cosmic speck. 


The Japanese great tit uses complex combinations of sound to communicate. For example, the bird has a call to scan for predators ("Be careful, it's dangerous") and a call to approach ("Come to me"). Often, the former is followed by the latter as a kind of composite message ("Check for predators, then come to me"). When called in reverse order, the birds are unlikely to respond at all.

It is widely accepted that many non-humans have what is called referential communication: specific sounds mean specific things to the receiver. Beyond this kind of rudimentary communication, it has long been understood that only humans have the capacity for phonological and compositional syntax, in which individual sounds are strung together into words or phrases that create meaning beyond the limits of their individual components.

Perhaps composite language among Japanese tits developed as a survival technique ("Check for predators before you move toward me so that you don't stumble into danger on your way here"). Whatever the case, the discovery of what might be the first known example of phonological and compositional syntax among non-humans might provide clues about the evolution of language.


Most musical scales are harmonic. Meaning: in terms of acoustic frequency, every note is a multiple of some fundamental note or pitch. While this still accounts for a great diversity of sounds—from the bright simplicity of the Western major scale to the haunting, more mysterious Hejaz scale of the Middle East—most human musical scales obey the same basic harmonic principles.

A recent study found that 57 of 71 recorded songs of the North American hermit thrush obey these same mathematical rules of harmony. Further, the hermit thrush, like other songbirds, sings not only from one voice box but from two halves of a bilaterally symmetric syrinx, which allow the bird to voice and blend tones independently and simultaneously. The tiny hermit thrush has musicality both akin to and beyond human capabilities.


A few years ago, I traveled to the sparsely populated (as in, Population: 177) but historically noteworthy Isle of Iona in the Inner Hebrides along the western coast of Scotland. As Gaelic lore has it, the island was founded in 563 by the monk Saint Columba, who had been exiled from Ireland due to what can only really be described as a copyright battle with the King. Along with 12 companions, Columba went into exile, founded the monastery, and proceeded to play a decisive role in the widespread Christianization of Scotland.

Something seems to permeate the open-air ruins of the nunnery, the ornate cloisters of the abbey, and the coarse white sands along the shore. On Iona, one might confuse overcast Scottish skies for chaos in that Celtic pantheon Columba worked so hard to overthrow.

One night after a pint at the pub (there is only one pub) with my new Scottish friend (I made only one), I begin to make my way back to the hostel at the other end of the island (only one path, only one hostel). It is 11:00 and shut-eye black. There are no cars or streets on Iona. No nightlife or night-lights to speak of. It is true, bona fide darkness. The kind that recoils from window-lit cityscapes and dances alone at the beach in a star-studded cape.

I feel as though I am the only person awake on the island. So I begin to hum. The melody is natural minor and second-nature.

I am not alone.

The sound, like gravel on a tongue, to let me know he's there ("Hey, it's me—down here!"). And so I continue to hum, the black cat and I walking side-by-side. My newfound feline friend and me: it is as though we have always known one another.

And then I hear it: the call of the corn crake.


The 19th-century English poet John Clare wrote a poem called "The Landrail," in which he mused on the experience of hearing corn crakes: "'Tis like a fancy everywhere/ A sort of living doubt." One is constantly reminded of the corn crake's existence but rarely permitted the luxury of visual confirmation.

I had listened to the call of the corn crake online because I had determined to keep my eyes and ears peeled for Iona's notoriously elusive bird.

The corn crake's call is not pretty. In fact, it is something like the sound of a ribbed wood stick against a cheese grater. There are many accounts in literature in which the corn crake's call is used proverbially to describe a person with an especially irksome voice, and I understand why.

Nevertheless, the corn crake sang its song for me, and it was sublime, if only for its abject sincerity.

It came as no surprise when the sheep, too, began to follow my interspecies invocation. Minuscule, sure, itty bittier than a smudge of nail residue smeared on a scale model of the solar system, but one with the animal kingdom and the universe: that's how I felt, second violin to an orchestra. I don't know what language I was speaking, but I know they understood.


Sarah Earp, a researcher at Emory University specializing in music and neuroscience, recently conducted a study on the neurological responses of male and female white-tailed sparrows to the males' songs. She examined the sparrows both in and out of breeding states, giving particular attention to the activity of EGR-1, a protein encoded in the major biochemical pathways of both humans and birds that activates according to specific stimuli.

She found that the EGR-1 response in both males and females resembled how the human amygdala perceives music. The variation present was that the males' response resembled a human brain responding to subjectively unpleasant music, while the females' neurological responses resembled a human brain reacting to pleasant or beautiful music.

This is not definitive proof that birds respond to music the way that humans do, but it does suggest we may have more to learn from our birdbrained neighbors about music cognition than we have previously imagined.


When faced with questions about the nature of birdsong, many ornithologists respond within a biological and/or evolutionary framework (e.g., a bird sings to attract a mate) with scant attention to the musical and aesthetic qualities of the songs. The variance, richness, and complexity of many birdsongs far transcend any biological, functional requirements. How to account for the indulgent improvisations and soaring double-throated arias?


In Norse mythology, the ability to understand the language of birds was considered a mark of sage wisdom. The widely revered god Odin had two ravens who flew around the world and advised him on the goings-on of mortals. Dag the Wise, the mythological Swedish king of the House of Yngling, had a house sparrow who would fly to distant lands and return with breaking news.

Many icons of Greek mythology, including the blind prophet Tiresias, were said to possess the ability to understand the language of birds. There are also characters in the Quran and in folk tales from Wales, Russia, Germany, and Estonia who possess the ability. In Egyptian Arabic, hieroglyphic writing is called "the alphabet of the birds," and in Ancient Egyptian, the form was given the name mdw-ntjr, literally meaning "words of the gods" or "divine language." Maybe, just maybe, the sky is trying to tell us something.


Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending paints a vivid picture of the lark: a silvery violin rising through a sylvan sky. The orchestration is dignified and atmospheric, luxurious but without weight, entirely wholehearted in its bucolic extravagance. I don't know who the skylark sings to or why. But the sound takes me somewhere else: outside the mundane logic of gravity and into something beyond words. Listen, listen: the world is singing songs in languages we haven't learned yet. Hoot, holler, hum.