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Parallels in the sequential organization of birdsong and human speech


Human speech possesses a rich hierarchical structure that allows for meaning to be altered by words spaced far apart in time. Conversely, the sequential structure of nonhuman communication is thought to follow non-hierarchical Markovian dynamics operating over only short distances. Here, we show that human speech and birdsong share a similar sequential structure indicative of both hierarchical and Markovian organization. We analyze the sequential dynamics of song from multiple songbird species and speech from multiple languages by modeling the information content of signals as a function of the sequential distance between vocal elements. Across short sequence-distances, an exponential decay dominates the information in speech and birdsong, consistent with underlying Markovian processes. At longer sequence-distances, the decay in information follows a power law, consistent with underlying hierarchical processes. Thus, the sequential organization of acoustic elements in two learned vocal communication signals (speech and birdsong) shows functionally equivalent dynamics, governed by similar processes.

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