Happy Birthday in Biaviian?

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As a mid-week diversion, let us put this to you. Language Log has been contacted by a producer for the Howard Stern show to provide an expert opinion on a purported song of alien provenance. Here's a recording:

What you are hearing is another Sirius XM radio host, Riley Martin, performing what he says is a traditional birthday song of the Biaviian aliens, who he says abducted him. Steve Nowicki from the Howard Stern show asked for a linguist who could “decipher the lyrics”. The Language Log team is stumped. Perhaps our readers can help out.

Mark Liberman, at the water cooler, pointed out that the phonetics are pretty straight American English, though maybe Riley Martin is just performing alienese with an American accent. Maybe some Language Log reader will recognize this as a mispronounced rendition of a traditional Cherokee lullaby, or something. So, have at it (but please be civil!).


  1. Mark Meckes said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 8:16 pm

    I'm suspicious, because I have it on good authority that there is no word in Biaviian for "Happy Birthday".

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 8:48 pm

    There's a "Nepal" at 0:14, right in the middle.

  3. Tom V said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 9:00 pm

    It's definitely not Cherokee (l/r contrast)
    I don't speak the language, but I've heard enough to learn what it sounds like.

  4. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 9:10 pm

    Apparently the Biaviians are pretty European in their melodic styles; or maybe European music came about when medieval composers were abducted by aliens?

    [(myl) The Biaviian invention of the diatonic scale is certainly a remarkable instance of parallel cultural evolution.]

  5. Rubrick said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 9:41 pm

    This is sheer poppycock. There's no way Howard Stern is still around, right?

  6. Ray Girvan said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 10:43 pm

    @Mark Meckes: no word in Biaviian for "Happy Birthday"

    It's the nearest translation of "One More Planetary Cycle of Suffering Endured Since You Burst Forth From Your Host's Stomach Day".

  7. Chris C. said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 10:59 pm

    In fact, the Biaviians have 47 different words for "birthday", to indicate "day you were injected into your original host", "day you burst forth from your original host's stomach", "day you pupated", and so on. Combine this with the variant on the lunisolar calendar which the day of the year is reckoned — Biavi has 3 moons, so this can get complicated — and you end up with literally hundreds of variants.

  8. Mark Mandel said,

    January 21, 2015 @ 11:59 pm

    Are you sure "Biaviian" isn't a typo for "Bloviation"?

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 1:56 am

    I thought it was well known that the aliens who abduct people are telepathic and have no need of speech.

    [(myl) But what about song?]

  10. Piyush said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 5:19 am

    @myl: I believe there is evidence for parallel cultural evolution diatonic scales even if look for examples with the Sol system. I am told (I am not an expert, just an amateur listener) that Indian classical music also uses the diatonic scale, though it is not so central to it as it is to European Classical Music.

    In all other respects, the two traditions are quite far apart, and there is no evidence (as far as I know) of a common ancestor that explains the existence of the diatonic scale in both systems.

    [(myl) In my (also limited) understanding, the classical tradition of Indian music (and the Persian music that influenced at least the North Indian variants) have many "scales", a few of which are more or less isomorphic with the diatonic scale. As for the question of possible common origins, there are enough sources of cultural diffusion in deep time that absence of evidence is definitely not evidence of absence. (Though of course human sensitivity to small-integer pitch ratios is also a powerful force for convergent evolution.)

    Given an alien race with acoustic perception, it wouldn't be a surprise for their melodies (if any) to similarly feature small-integer ratios of frequencies. But it ain't necessarily so — birdsong, for example, doesn't show any preference for such intervals, as far as I've been able to determine. And even given an interest in small-integer ratios, there's lots of scope for variation in the number and relationship of pitch-classes chosen.

    So I'd say that the famliar tonality of the song is just as surprising as its familiar phonetic inventory and phonotactic distribution.]

  11. Adrian Morgan said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 7:25 am

    Just to add a religious conspiracy angle to this, if you take the segment between 21.3 and 22.7 seconds (which sounds like "lorlyloo" to my non-rhotic ear) and play it backwards, it sounds a bit like "Holy Lord" (with the initial 'h' omitted). Played forwards, therefore, it's obviously Satanic.

  12. Sally Thomason said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

    Studying pseudolanguage can actually be pretty interesting, though this snippet of song doesn't provide enough data to do much of anything with. Back when I was at the University of Pittsburgh, where the department secretaries always sent the weird phone calls my way, I spent some time analyzing "languages" of reincarnation — that is, pseudolanguage produced by people who were hypnotized and purportedly age-regressed to previous lives. No fraud involved, as far as I could see: the hypnotist who sent me tape recordings and the subjects all seemed quite sincere. I couldn't do much of anything with connected speech or singing; but I sent the hypnotist a Swadesh list of basic vocabulary and had him get three of his hypnotized subjects to translate it into their "Bulgarian", "Gaelic", and "Apache", respectively. It was all pseudolanguage, and the Swadesh-list data made it possible to prove that. Each subject spoke the way she or he imagined a speaker of Bulgarian, Gaelic, or Apache would speak. They had one or two sort of characteristic phonetic features each — the "Bulgarian" had lots of "sht" sounds, the "Gaelic" had lots of nasalized vowels (the "Gaelic" speaker clearly thought Gaelic is a kind of French), and the "Apache" speaker spoke Pidgin English (!). Otherwise their speech sounded just like ordinary American English. Someone speaking Biaviian of course wouldn't have the advantage of any preconceptions about the phonetics of the language, so its completely non-foreign phonetic structure isn't a surprise. Anyway, to test Martin's claim that it's a real language, all we have to do is give Howard Stern a Swadesh list and have him elicit some basic vocabulary from Martin, word by word. And a few extra numerals, to see if Biaviian has a systematic numeral system.

  13. Kai von Fintel said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 4:46 pm

    Sally, thanks for the comment. A couple of questions: (i) the Swadesh lists seem rather human/Earth-centric, so I wonder how they would work for a truly alien language; (ii) could the test distinguish between a natural language and a carefully made up one (like Klingon)?

  14. Sally Thomason said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

    Kai, your guess is as good as mine about whether Swadesh-list vocabulary would work for an alien planet's language. But I would think that even an alien language would have to be systematic in various ways, so the test might work even if the vocabulary is very different; and one could always add words to the list, like, say, "birthday" and "happy". And no, I doubt if the test would distinguish between a natural language and a carefully-constructed language like Klingon or Esperanto: constructed languages (constructed on earth by humans, at least) have features typical of natural human languages, like numerals and Swadesh-type vocabulary and syntax and all that good stuff.

  15. AntC said,

    January 22, 2015 @ 10:53 pm

    @Gregory aliens who abduct people are telepathic and have no need of speech

    You're overlooking http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vogon#Poetry .

  16. Riikka said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 1:37 am

    The first ten seconds have clearly to do with the Bangladeshi capital ("Oh, … Dhaka, … day!") and later on there's some tabloid politics there, too ("nipple" at 14-15, "Tory" at 17 and "taboo" at 21). In general it sounds like the singer's trying to emulate the common Scandinavian perception of Danish – talking with one's mouth full of either pebbles or hot potatoes.

    Also, how sad or traumatic is the Bursting Forth From One's Host's Stomach Day for these Biaviians in the first place? And how do they perceive or understand "happiness"? So many questions!

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 10:10 am

    Updated Wittgenstein: "If a Biaviian could sing, we could not understand him [or it?]."

    [(kvf) That's actually a very intriguing problem to think about and so it's unsurprising that people have. There are some pointers in these wikipedia entries:

    Alien language (which includes that Wittgenstein bon mot)

    Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence

    I have to say that given how many imaginable ways there are to produce perceptible signals, the fact that these Biaviians seem to use spoken language is a bit surprising.]

  18. Alicia said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 11:37 am


    Given that India/Persia and Europe share a linguistic family, it seems iffy to declare any cultural development to be independent. Music is such a universal human behavior that it seems safe to assume the original Indo-Europeans began their diaspora with some kind of musical culture (diatonic or otherwise) already in hand.
    Music in China/Japan/Korea might reasonably be described as having developed independently, I don't know.
    !Kung and Aboriginal musical cultures would be ideal, if we had recordings from first-contact times, but my impression is that music is highly susceptible to syncretism and thus it would be impossible to know whether any diachronism present was indigenous or something they'd "caught" from their colonizers.

  19. bfwebster said,

    January 23, 2015 @ 8:19 pm

    I much prefer this alien language, which, I understand, Milla Jovovich (the actress) and Luc Besson (director) invented for the film:


  20. Roger Lustig said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 12:25 am

    Worüber wir nicht sprechen können, müssen wir singen.

  21. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 5:23 am

    klaatu barada nikto

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