Do animals have regional accents?

09 October 2018

Talking Puffin

Talking Puffin

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Question

Do any other animals, apart from humans, have regional dialects?

Answer

We received this question here from Sam. We know that humans speak regionally, they have accents and things as well. Do animals do this? Jacob Dunn from Anglia Ruskin University was able to communicate an answer

Jacob - I’m happy to do a howler monkey and a spider monkey on national radio but there’s no way I’m attempting any kind of a regional accent.

In short, yes. There are two, I guess, different ways that we can explain this. In lots of animals, any given species will have a pretty limited repertoire of sounds that they make. So a species will make a grunt and a click and a sneeze or whatever it might be and they’re the three sounds that they might make. But even though their repertoire is limited to just a few sounds, in different places those individual calls might sound slightly different. So that would be evidence for a kind of regional accent even though it’s within the same sound.

So I say a word one way and somebody in Newcastle says it a different way and somebody in Birmingham says it slightly different, but we’re saying the same word. So that’s kind of a regional accent if you like. And there’s lots of evidence for that in birds and mammals and it seems that this can even be predicted by genetics and there’s some element of learning.

Chris - Weren't scientists at St. Andrews showing that marine mammals have regional accents that differ globally?

Jacob - Yes. This is where it gets really interesting because some animals, and there aren’t that many, can actually learn new vocalisations, so their repertoire is not limited just to these few sounds that they make. And marine mammals, particularly some whales, are very very good at this, and seals can do this too, and elephants, and songbirds, of course, do this all the time. So famously lyrebirds and so on can just mimic any sound and so they can learn these new sounds and that’s the sort of next level of complexity. They can have in different places of the world very different, not just accents now, but it’s almost like they have a different language because they’re capable of this vocal mimicry.

What’s really interesting for me, because I study non-human primates, and I’m interested in the evolution of speech and language, is that humans are the only primate that are capable of learning new sounds. All the other primates have an innate limited repertoire. And what we’ve seen fairly recently; in fact my colleague and I published something on this fairly recently, is that this seems to be related to neuronal control over the speech apparatus and the other primates don’t have this fine level of control that’s needed in order to learn new sounds.

Chris - So at the moment it’s just us. That’s good - now competition here on the radio yet then. No monkeys for presenters yet although it sounds like on some radio stations.

Jacob - Yeah. I think you need to keep up the good work.

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