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Talking Whales?? Wha’?

Now when I saw the headline to this story (full link to article here), I was expecting something more like Darwin from seaQuestDSV. The story concerns the apparent human-like vocalisations of a Beluga white whale called ‘NOC‘ who was recorded almost thirty years ago while he was in captivity. The bulk of the evidence that the sounds NOC produced comes from a diver who believed he heard the word ‘out’ during a dive, the fact that the whale’s fundamental frequency during these vocalisations was around 200-300Hz, and that the rhythm of the sounds was similar to that of human speech. All of this certainly suggests that NOC was imitating sounds heard during his captivity, particularly as he was apparently quite a well-trained whale, which would have obviously required a good amount of human contact.

One of the authors, however, says the following comment in the abstract of the paper:

“We report here sound recordings and analysis which demonstrate spontaneous mimicry of the human voice, presumably a result of vocal learning, by a white whale.”

A few things. The first is that this wasn’t (at least for the bulk of the article) ‘spontaneous mimicry’. It certainly might have started out that way, but as the authors point out, NOC was then trained to perform these vocalisations and rewarded accordingly. The second is that ‘vocal learning’ might be overstating the point somewhat. All he seemed to learn was to mimic a very small subset of ‘speech’ (if we want to call it that), since listening to the clips provided on the main paper and the BBC article, it sounds more like scat-singing than actual speech. Third, no other explanation is put forward for how NOC might have learned to produce these sounds (ringers, buzzers, bells, whistles etc, all of which would presumably be part of the acoustic landscape of his environment). And lastly, while it’s reasonably well argued how NOC could produce clicks and so on, it’s not all clear how he would have the physiological ability to produce the kinds of complex articulations which would be needed for a word like out (apparently heard by the diver). There seems to be an element of listener-interpretation going on here.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s very cool that NOC produced sounds that were intelligible to his trainers, but I have to say, it would have been much cooler to have had something like this (skip ahead to the four minute mark).

The Social Linguist

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