Sing it: whale sound and the science of non-human speech


Whale FM is taking up my time.

Some whale sounds reflect a huge elastic twanging off a planet sized gong. Some sound like a gothic door on an ancient hinge. Some whale songs sound like the most orchestral fart you have ever done. All songs must break the bubble wrap muffler of the ocean. The medium isn’t the message, but it’s got everything to to do with how the songs have evolved.

Whale.fm contains thousands of sound clips of pilot whales in the north Pacific. It is a crowdsourcing project that invites us to match similar sound clips by playing them and watching the accompanying phonogram.

The site does not suggest what we should we looking for. You could match on timbre or length. You could match pulsatile sounds and continuous sounds. The reflex action is to match phraseologies – phrases that play out in a similar sequence of morphemes over similar lengths of time. One common phrase consists of an initial squeal, a high bellow and a sharp decrescendo.

I matched 18 whale sounds like so before I learned that the major understanding on whale song is indeed in the syntax. Not a lot is known about pilot whales, but the closely related orca is known to share syntactical dialects within groups.

The researchers appear to be tracking the evolution of memes between populations – catch phrases that whales pick up from one another, mutating the sequence as it goes along.

Now there are a lot of people who say that there is a huge gulf between the language of humans and the communication rudiments of non-humans. We hear that no animal uses symbols of any kind. It is interesting to read that language itself did not evolve like a hand or an eye, so it looks like the lesser creatures are doomed to wander the earth mutely forever. There are no primitive languages or languages in the making– we are told the gulf is absolute. It is different to the argument on moral codes. In this argument, non-humans have moral codes up to a point, but they are never going to debate abortion or same sex marriage.

But you wonder what the guys at whale.fm are up to. And you read something like this and you get a different take on it. Rather than comparing whale song to our own language, we are admitting that it is simply completely different and we don’t know much about it. We may never interpret it and there may be more important things to do. But we respect its complexity. We don’t rule out that the message is meaningful. I’m down with that.

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One thought on “Sing it: whale sound and the science of non-human speech

  1. Al says:

    This is fascinating. Syntactic grammar in whalesong – I had no idea. Wonder how the dolphins fare in this regard. They recognise their own reflection, I’m sure they have some high level communications… not nearly so mellow to listen too though..

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