A study of the chestnut-crowned babbler bird from Australia revealed a method of communicating that has never before been observed in animals.
The bird combines sounds in different combinations to convey meaning.
The findings could help in the understanding of how language evolved in humans, researchers report in the online journal PLOS Biology.
Co-researcher Dr Andy Russell from the University of Exeter said: “It is the first evidence outside of a human that an animal can use the same meaningless sounds in different arrangements to generate new meaning.
“It’s a very basic form of word generation – I’d be amazed if other animals can’t do this too.”