That mystery language was…

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Last night's "Mystery Language" post has gotten 43 interesting and insightful comments.

The answer, revealed by Doug Marmion, of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies:

The ‘mystery language' audio file was provided by Arnaud Delorme, a neuroscientist who works at the Institute for Neural Computation (INC) in San Diego. Arnaud has been working with a woman who (she claims) has recently began to speak the South American language Yanomami, entirely spontaneously and with no prior exposure to it (and never having left the USA). Arnaud Delorme made contact with Zeljko Jokic, an anthroplogist working here at AIATSIS who has carried out extensive work with the Yanomami and speaks the language. Zeljko didn’t recognise the language of the recording so he asked me to have a listen (I’m a linguist). Like many of the commentators, I thought it sounded vaguely Polynesian, but was probably a sort of glossolalia. Thanks for all the comments and analysis, it’s been very interesting and fun to watch so many sharp minds at work!

Permission to post the audio on Language Log as a "mystery language" was granted both by Dr. Delorme and by the speaker.


  1. Y said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

    Funny, I was just talking today with someone about Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

    [(myl) But contrary to that story's plot, no one would confuse orangutan vocalizations for an unknown but human language .]

  2. Simon P said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 1:47 am

    Glossolalia? So it was a TRICK QUESTION! I am disappoint.

    [(myl) We wanted (a) to leave open the possibility that it would be identified as some real language, and (b) to see whether readers could distinguish it as some sort of glossolalia-like phenomenon (which many did, in one way or another).]

  3. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 1:59 am

    Did I miss the answer?

    So Zeljko Jokic has confirmed that it is not what the speaker claims it to be. But neither he nor Doug Marmion nor Arnaud Delorme have a positive identification of what is, even if it is glossolalia. We do have strong evidence that that’s what it is, namely its apparent features and the fact that it positively isn’t what the speaker claims it to be – but it has not positively been identified as anything in particular.

    Did I understand correctly?

    [(myl) Yes, that's my understanding. The speaker presents it as xenoglossy, but it seems most likely to be some sort of glossolalia.]

  4. Dougal Stanton said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 4:18 am

    I don't believe that people can receive a bump on the head and spontaneously start speaking an unknown language. But assuming this was true, the speaker must know what they're claiming to say. Is it a feature of xenoglossy that the speakers can't translate? I'd expect a speaker to know 'man', 'woman', 'child', 'water' and other human basics which would help in identifying a language or language group.

  5. Aaron said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    Yanomami seems an extraordinarily obscure language to claim to speak. Or is that part of how "xenoglossy" usually presents — they make their claims using the most obscure language they can look up the name of, so that it's less easy for others to disprove it?

  6. Terry Hunt said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 9:27 am

    @ Aaron

    You're presupposing that all such claims must be deliberate deceptions. I have no trouble at all in accepting that some are made entirely sincerely by people suffering some form or another of delusion arising from physiological or psychological causes. However, straying off-topic from the OP.

  7. Darrell Duke said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 11:38 am

    A tangent, I'm sure, parents of twins may describe them as seeming to communicate in some unknown language. Do linguist have a term for this?

  8. Stan Carey said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

    @Darrell: It depends on how complex the communication is. See this older LLog post.

  9. Sili said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 9:00 pm

    has recently began 

    I'm curious what makes people use this construction. Are there dialects where "begun" and "began" sound alike or is it some sort of regularisation phenomenon?

  10. Jason said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

    @Aaron Not quite. Napoleon Chagnon made Yanomani famous for an earlier generation of middlebrow consumers in the same way that Dan Everett has made Pirahã famous for our generation.

  11. Doug Marmion said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 12:10 am

    @Sili, that was just an error on my part.

  12. Jason said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 1:21 am

    What's Doug Marmion's interest in this? I find it hard to imagine that anyone knowledgable thought it was an Australian language, but I'm guessing someone thought it sounded vaguely Melanesian in places (which it does, although something that sounds like an Arabic hā crops up in places, which doesn't sound Melanesian at all to me) and contacted AIATSIS to try to see if was Torres Strait Islander.

    Or did they just spam every linguistics department in the world, which shows remarkable dedication to settle the question!

  13. Jason said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 1:22 am

    Sorry, I see the chain events from re-reading the post itself now! I forgot to reread it from commenting last night!

  14. Sili said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 8:59 am

    Perhaps, Doug, but I see it often enough that it seems something is at play. It's not like "a" and "u" are right next to eachother on the keyboard.

  15. Eric P Smith said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    John Donne: "Let's kiss afresh, as when we first begun."

  16. Asta said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

    It sounds like Javanese (Indramayu).

  17. Doug Marmion said,

    December 20, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

    @Sili, I use the Dvorak layout so "a" and "u" aren't that far apart.

  18. Zeljko Jokic said,

    December 23, 2014 @ 7:55 pm

    Hi everyone,
    I asked Arnaud to give me some more background on this case with the permission from him and the medium Janet that spoke the "mystery language" to put it in the blog and here it is:

    Origin of the language: This language was produce by native english speaker Janet Mayer, who is a medium practicing in the United States. She can utter this language at will since about 20 years ago. She has never travelled outside the United States. The language was recognized 15 years ago by a shaman named Ipupiara as a Amazonian language – this recording is about 15 year old corresponding to that period. Ipupiara was a native of the tribe from Uru-e Wau Wau tribe from northern Brazil. He held a PhD in Anthropology and was also a consultant to the white house in the US at some point. At least one independent witness was present when he recognized the language, and he conversed with Janet Mayer for several years over the phone and translated her recordings as well as took them to specific tribes. The language, if it proves to be one, could have been Tupi or another language of the Amazon as Ipupiara was fluent in several. Since then Ipupiara has passed.

  19. chh said,

    December 23, 2014 @ 11:12 pm

    Looks like some straight-up double charlatanery on the part of Mayer and this Ipupiara fellow.

    Here's a link to the relevant part of Janet Mayer's webiste:

    This is too bad, but it was fun trying to figure out what was going on in the recording.

  20. Zeljko Jokic said,

    December 24, 2014 @ 12:20 am

    Well, its definitely not any of the 4 known Yanomami dialects, nor are they a "dying race". Their numbers are actually increasing!!!

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