Sperm whale talk

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Animal communication is not a favorite topic here at Language Log, but according to the following account, one project concerning it seems serious and is being conducted by credible scientists.  Although their claims for its ultimate significance may be inflated, I believe the research they are undertaking is worth considering, especially after hearing the clicks and codas of the sperm whales, which do appear to be communicating data.

Can Understanding Whale Speech Help Us Talk to Aliens?

Biologist David Gruber thinks decoding the language of whales could be just the first step in understanding what other lifeforms are saying—in this world and out of it.

Alexandra Marvar, The Daily Beast (5/13/23)

Beginning of the article:

They live in multicultural, matriarchal societies. Their 18-pound brains have neocortexes and spindle cells for higher-order thinking, emotions, memory, language, and love. They could be the most intelligent beings on this planet. We’re talking about sperm whales. And by the way, they don’t just make whale sounds: They speak.

According to City University of New York biological oceanographer David Gruber, sperm whale vocalizations aren’t your typical harmonious whale songs. Their phrases—series of Morse Code-like clicks called codas—sound more like a door slowly creaking open and shut on the deck of a sunken boat. But when researchers really started listening, they found that these codas carry all the hallmarks of a highly evolved language, even regional dialects, passed down from generation to generation. In fact, Gruber has said he believes sperm whale speak to be “perhaps the most sophisticated form of communication that has ever existed.”

[VHM: Listen to the whale speech sounds here, which are of a different nature from the songs they sing.]

In 2021, Gruber officially launched the CETI Project (Cetacean Translation Initiative), a global interdisciplinary collaboration devoted to cracking the code on interspecies interpretation and communication, starting with the resident population of sperm whales in Dominica, in the Eastern Caribbean. The list of partner institutions includes the Dominica government, and about 50 cryptographers, linguists, technologists, and biologists who are heavyweights in their own fields. There’s natural language processing expert Michael Bronstein from Oxford University, Harvard University roboticists who specialize in extremely gentle technology for humane animal research, and Roger Payne—the American biologist who, 56 years ago, discovered for the first time that humpback whales sing, sparking the marine conservation movement. Tech superpowers like Google, Amazon and Microsoft are on board, too.

When data is collected (about four terabytes per month), it’s uploaded from the Eastern Caribbean to the cloud, and CETI’s algorithms start searching for linguistically significant patterns, like recursion (which requires grammar) or displacement (the discussion of things that are not immediately present, physically or in terms of time—only observed in human communication so far).

Scientists are supposed to be “completely objective,” he added, but it’s pretty much impossible to shed the biases about how the world works that come from the sheer experience of being human—breathing oxygen, eating food, amassing and sharing knowledge, living in an environment with gravity.

“We have to keep open to what the data will show us, and what new things will come out,” he said. “And that, I think, will be relevant if we were to meet an extraterrestrial… Honestly, the first question for me is: Are we ready to meet an alien? Say the whale was the alien: When we met it, we harpooned it.”

Full disclosure / disclaimer:  I do not think that investigating sperm whale clicks / codas will help us decode alien speech if and when we ever encounter it, a topic about which we have experienced much squabbling and controversy during the last decade and more on Language Log and in the world of linguistics in general (search "Daniel Everett", "Pirahã", "Arrival", etc. for copious references) .  I simply think that the possibility and nature of sperm whale speech is an intrinsically interesting subject, one that I'd like to know more about.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. AntC said,

    May 15, 2023 @ 6:22 am

    In ‘a major breakthrough’, scientists are using algorithms to identify the clicks, calls and bleeps of marine life, as part of a 10-year project mapping noise under the sea

    Sensibly, these scientists are not claiming toadfish grunts constitute anything language-like. Merely that AI can distinguish the grunts from a shrimp snapping; an oil drill from a passing freighter.

    The sounds help researchers measure the marine impact of noise, … They have looked into whether ships may be interfering with humpback whale calls off Colombia and collaborated with the US navy to study seven US marine sanctuaries, including Hawaii.

  2. Steve Morrison said,

    May 15, 2023 @ 8:13 pm

    This is reminiscent of John Lilly in the 1960s claiming that dolphins were at least as intelligent as humans.

  3. wanda said,

    May 16, 2023 @ 3:57 pm

    Come on. This was a Star Trek movie.

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