Orca emits speech-like sound; reporters go insane

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Published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B you will find (provided you have the necessary institutional credentials or library membership) a paper entitled "Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca), by José Z. Abramson, Maria Victoria Hernández-Lloreda, Lino García, Fernando Colmenares, Francisco Aboitiz, and Josep Call. The paper is about the conditions under which killer whales can be induced to use their blowholes to imitate sounds that they hear. And it will not be a huge surprise to Language Log readers that the world's newspapers immediately lost their minds. The Daily Mail, a scurrilous Conservative-oriented English tabloid, on its very successful soft-porn-laden website, used the headline "Orca on the blower: Killer whale learns to talk." Hundreds of largely plagiarized stories are springing up around the world under similar headlines (don't make me try to list them). They can do this because when the topic is language, you don't have to maintain any pretense of seriousness. You can just make stuff up. Nobody (other than maybe Language Log) is going to call you on it.

The orca in question has been persuaded to emit two very different noises that sound rather like someone saying "hello". In one version it croaks like a frog; the other is a sort of howl. In response to "Bye bye!" it produces a squeal that doesn't sound much like "bye bye" to me. Its trainer is called Amy, and imagines she can hear the animal saying her name. And when she yells "one two three" it produces what I hear as a fart, a howl, and another squeal. The creature is long on squealing. But anyone with experience with an average parrot would be utterly shocked to hear its performance called imitation of speech.

Even if the beast could imitate words like a parrot, some would think it appropriate to draw a distinction between (i) crude mimicking of sounds by an animal trained by giving it pieces of fish as rewards for desired sounds, and (ii) speaking English. But don't worry about that: the public don't know from such things. You can say or print anything you like. The Daily Telegraph, a fairly serious Conservative-oriented newspaper, used the headline "World's first talking killer whale. And John Humphrys (famous in UK radio news broadcasting for his tough interviewing, his grouchy peeving about "correct" use of English, and his $850K salary) said on BBC Radio 4 this morning that "A killer whale "has been taught to talk human." Seriously. And he said that in a teaser before the 8 a.m. news bulletin, after a scientist interviewed in the previous hour had pointed out that nothing like human speech was going on.

Recordings of the orca in question can be found here. See what you think.



32 Comments

  1. Guy said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 1:10 pm

    "The sounds emerge as parrot-like squawks, shrill whistles or raspberries, but most are clear enough to understand."

    It's pretty bold to write a blatant lie like that after linking to the actual audio. The elision between using language to communicate and parroting sounds is to be expected, but I would have thought that would only come up when the parroting is actually recognizable as specific words. Silly me.

  2. Jeffrey W Percival said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 1:39 pm

    Anyone who remembers seeing "Alvino Rey and his Singing Guitar" on the old Lawrence Welk show knows that sounding human doesn't mean anything. And that's not even including American politics.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

    Not entirely clear what the relevance of "Conservative-oriented" is to this posting. The phrase appears twice, but why a newspaper's political leanings might be thought relevant to its accuracy (or otherwise) of reporting escapes me.

    [Just locating a couple of UK newspapers in the media firmament for American readers. There is an astonishing range of newspapers in the UK — at a supermarkets and gas stations you can see racks with 12 to 15 newspapers on sale, all with different front page headlines. They range from radically right-wing xenophobic (the Daily Express) to overtly communist (the Morning Star), and from intellectually serious political papers (The Times) to trashy rags dominated by soft porn and sports (the Daily Star). American readers won't necessarily know this sort of thing. No implication was intended about whether right-wing or left-wing papers might do better science reporting. That's an empirical question. As it happens, The Telegraph (distinctly conservative) chose "World's first talking killer whale", while The Guardian (left-liberal) chose "Orcas can imitate human speech, research reveals", which seems much more responsible. But you should be the judge on relative journalistic responsibleness. —GKP]

  4. mae said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 3:19 pm

    A particular sheep in a field where I used to walk by would startle me by calling out my name sometimes. Amazing, as I had never been introduced to any of the sheep there or to the farmer who owned them. I thought it was a coincidence (since it's not unusual for sheep to say "maaaa" even with a long ā). But now I know that I should have called in the press!

  5. Rubrick said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 6:00 pm

    The idea that a whale would speak Engllish is preposterous on the face of it, since everyone knows killer whales speak Orcish.

  6. Chris C. said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 6:51 pm

    @Philip Taylor — This may explain things: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGscoaUWW2M

  7. Martin said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 7:15 pm

    This German sketch about a dog that has been trained to speak seems relevant:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=VQ2oX3M8gv4

  8. Mary Kuhner said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 7:16 pm

    The first time we took a particular batch of three cats to the vet, when the car began to move all three screamed "MARY!" at the top of their voices. The driver burst out laughing so hard she had to stop the car. All of the humans who heard them agreed on what they'd said… but these are beasties that can't even learn their own names, and I doubt they know mine either. I just have a very feline-friendly name.

    I am further persuaded by a Dutch friend's cats, who showed up at the kitchen door while we were cooking and screamed "FIIISH!" She pointed out that if they had known what they were saying, they should have said it in Dutch….

  9. Geoff said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 10:43 pm

    If you open the lid of a piano, take off all the dampers, and shout 'Hi!' at the strings, it will say 'Hi!' back. Unfortunately it responds only to vowels, and only one at a time, so conversation is limited.

  10. Don Sample said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 1:38 am

    Orcas are just big dolphins, and people have been getting dolphins to mimic human speech since at least the 1960s. They've also done it with beluga whales.

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 3:19 am

    @ Mary Kuhner: Surely it would be a pretty remarkable cat who could imitate human speech well enough to distinguish English fish from Dutch vis. I wonder how your friends decided their cats were speaking English rather than Dutch…

  12. Doreen said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 3:46 am

    @Martin: Yes, that classic Loriot sketch was exactly what came to my mind too! There used to be a version on YouTube with English subtitles, but I guess it's been taken down.

  13. David Morris said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 4:16 am

    Maybe orcas are 'merely the protrusion into our dimension of vast hyperintelligent pandimensional beings' conducting experiments on humans to find the meaning of life, the universe and everything. (apologises to Douglas Adams, who knew that it was really the mice)

  14. Veronica said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 7:16 am

    I once asked my cat "Who's the very best sweet furry baby kitty in the whole world?" And she looked up and unmistakably said "Meeeee?"

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 7:28 am

    GKP: Thank you, understood.
    Chris C: [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGscoaUWW2M] Thank you, very amusing, especially the closing line :-)

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 7:56 am

    The Daily Mail's headline seems more defensible than what is quoted from either the Telegraph or the BBC 4 fellow. Whether or not it would be desirable to disambiguate between the rather different meanings labeled (i) and (ii) in GKP's original post, the Daily Mail headline is at least ambiguous rather than false, i.e. not clearly inconsistent with (i), whereas the other two are actually less ambiguous because of how strongly they falsely suggest (ii) rather than (i).

  17. Rodger C said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 8:10 am

    I once had a Siamese cat named Merleau who would distinctly say his name when he wanted attention. (And yes, I had another one named Ponty. No luck with her, though.)

  18. Harjas Singh said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 11:23 am

    Even if the beast could imitate words like a parrot, this is controversial.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 11:54 am

    So, what if they could speak (speak a human language, that is) ? And what if it could be demonstrated that they could not only speak, but could use language meaningfully ? Would we (Homo sapiens, that is) continue to hunt them ? I fear, that for some members of our species at least, the answer would sadly be "yes".

  20. Stephen Hart said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 12:56 pm

    Don Sample said,
    "Orcas are just big dolphins, and people have been getting dolphins to mimic human speech since at least the 1960s."

    Indeed:

    http://acp.eugraph.com/cetaceans/lilly.html

  21. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

    They can do this because when the topic is language, you don't have to maintain any pretense of seriousness. You can just make stuff up. Nobody (other than maybe Language Log) is going to call you on it.

    When it comes to the Daily Mail, I have perfect faith in their ability to make stuff up on any subject no matter who will call them on it. They were post-truth before it was cool.

  22. Vance Koven said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 5:46 pm

    I won't be impressed until the whale says "Thank you, madam, but the pain has abated somewhat."

  23. maidhc said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 3:21 am

    I can't resist the temptation to add this old joke.

    Man going into a TV producer's office to try to get him to hire a talking dog.

    How does sandpaper feel? Rough!
    What is on top of a house? Roof!
    Who is the greatest baseball player of all time? Ruth!

    Man and dog get thrown out of TV producer's office.

    Dog: Maybe I should have said DiMaggio?

  24. Graeme said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 4:04 am

    To be fair the BBC World Service reported the story straight. But even then the fact it was a story at all seemed to a assume that there was something unnatural about animal mimicry.

    In the 80s when whale 'song' recordings were popular on LP, my dad used to mimic them well. No story there, but what is the difference?

  25. Margaret Wilson said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 1:27 pm

    Graeme, the real interest here is *which* species can mimic.

    Wilson & Cook, p. 1651: "The difficulty is in deciding exactly what counts as a vocal learner. Parrots are exuberant mimics, frequently and spontaneously imitating non-species-typical sounds. Other species, including African elephants, Asian elephants, white whales, and harbor seals, have been documented mimicking only on an occasional basis, and it is unclear to what extent these species do so as a regular part of their behavioral ecology. Still other species, including bottlenose dolphins and orcas, can be trained to mimic novel sounds, though again regular spontaneous mimicry is less certain."

    Wilson & Cook (2016). Rhythmic entrainment: Why humans want to, fireflies can't help it, pet birds try, and sea lions have to be bribed. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23,1647–1659

  26. ryan said,

    February 3, 2018 @ 11:54 am

    Dutch cats can make an F sound? That IS remarkable to me.

  27. David Marjanović said,

    February 4, 2018 @ 1:35 pm

    Orcas are just big dolphins, and people have been getting dolphins to mimic human speech since at least the 1960s. They've also done it with beluga whales.

    …which are slightly less big dolphins.

    Would we […] continue to hunt them ?

    Nobody hunts orcas…?

  28. James Wimberley said,

    February 4, 2018 @ 6:34 pm

    The anthropocentrism is the saddest aspect. There are far more interesting things to study about orcas, which have complex learned hunting strategies.

  29. Nicki said,

    February 5, 2018 @ 11:54 pm

    Orcish, bahahaha!

  30. MikeyC said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 1:13 am

    Only six examples of "knows few" in COCA, one being "knows few bounds", which though not commonly used, may be at least familiar. How would a more familiar expression work?

    a) Lydia knows few bounds, and so does Peter.
    b) Lydia knows few bounds, and neither does Peter.

    Would that be less distracting?

  31. MikeyC said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 2:18 pm

    *?Madrid's art scene knows few rivals, neither does New York's.

    I'm going scatty. Wish I'd never opened this thread.

  32. Allen Hazen said,

    February 13, 2018 @ 1:34 am

    "to use their blowholes to imitate sounds" is, I think, a bit loose. I.i.r.c., the organs toothed whales (incl. orcas and other dolphins) use to make sounds are some way down the air-tract: the sound doesn't originate at the blowhole on the surface of the head.

    The samples I've heard (from the New York Times website) are admittedly not unto parrot-standard as imitations of human voice, but were good enough to show that (i) the orca could recognize different human utterances and (ii) produce sounds displaying at least some of the phonetic features distinguishing them.

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