Penguin speech is underpinned by the same principles as human linguistics, new research suggests.

While the flightless birds may not be known for their conversational prowess beyond the scenes of Madagascar, they follow two main laws that form the core of human-to-human verbal interaction.

The first is that more frequently used words are briefer, which is known as Zipf's law of brevity.

Longer words by contrast are composed of extra but briefer syllables - Menzerath-Altmann law.

Scientists say this is the first instance of these laws observed outside primates, suggesting environmental pressure has led animal chat to become briefer and more efficient.

Information compression - or cramming large amounts of data into short spaces - is a general principle of human language.

A group of African penguins near Cape Town, perhaps about to indulge in some talking
A group of African penguins near Cape Town, perhaps about to indulge in some talking

The research was led by the Equipe de Neuro-Ethologie Sensorielle of the University of Lyon/Saint-Etienne.

A baby African penguin at Torquay zoo hears adults speaking through speakers
A baby African penguin at Torquay zoo hears adults speaking through speakers
A young African penguin
A young African penguin

Researchers recorded and analysed 590 ecstatic display songs from 28 adult African penguins, belonging to three different colonies in Italian zoos, during the breeding periods in 2016 and 2017.

They found the words used most often by the flightless birds were the shortest, while the longest words were made up of extra but shorter syllables.

The study sets out: "Our results demonstrate that ecstatic display songs of the African penguin follow Zipf's Law of Brevity and the Menzerath-Altmann Law.

African penguins follow Menzerath-Altmann law and Zipf's law of brevity
African penguins follow Menzerath-Altmann law and Zipf's law of brevity

"This is the first compelling evidence for conformity to linguistic laws in vocal sequences of a non-primate species.

"As predicted, we found that the duration of the syllables was inversely correlated with the frequency of occurrence."

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The authors add: "We suggest that relationships between element duration, frequency of use and song size are mainly a consequence of vocal production constraints interacting with selective pressures for intersexual mate choice and territorial defence in dense colonies.

"Importantly, our results suggest for the first time that information compression can coexist with other sources of selection in a non-primate species with a small and relatively fixed vocal system."