Abstract The ability to categorize elements of the environment is a fundamental aspect of information processing. Many experiments demonstrate the ability of birds and non-human primates to classify items according to their perceptual similarities. Few data are available regarding spontaneous classification of items according to a non-perceptual account in non-human animals. Here, we report unexpected results obtained with African grey parrots learning the referential use of French labels. Parrots did not learn the correct labels but they spontaneously produced more labels corresponding to food when a food item was presented to them and more labels corresponding to an object when shown an object item, although they were never rewarded for doing so. These results demonstrate a form of spontaneous categorization by using vocal imitation of the human language.