Fungal language

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[Several days ago, I had prepared a post on this topic, but Mark scooped me with his "Mushroom language?" (1/9/24).  His coverage of the counterposed Adamatzky and Blatt, et al. papers is superior to mine, so I will just strip out that part of my post and leave the remaining observations with which I had bookended my discussion of the two contesting studies.]

This is a question that I have often pondered myself, viz., how do colonies of more or less loosely associated cells communicate among themselves so that they can become tissues, organs, and so forth:

Under a microscope, the first few hours of every multicellular organism’s life seem incongruously chaotic. After fertilization, a once tranquil single-celled egg divides again and again, quickly becoming a visually tumultuous mosh pit of cells jockeying for position inside the rapidly growing embryo.

Yet, amid this apparent pandemonium, cells begin to self-organize. Soon, spatial patterns emerge, serving as the foundation for the construction of tissues, organs and elaborate anatomical structures from brains to toes and everything in between. For decades, scientists have intensively studied this process, called morphogenesis, but it remains in many ways enigmatic. (source)

division    specialization    communication    coordination    colonization

How do those flailing cells cooperate with each other to build complexity?

I was born to be a biologist, and so when I was young, I spent hours gathering specimens and peering into microscopes trying to figure out how organelles formed and functioned in amoebae.  Beyond that, I wanted to know how amoebae gather together and for what purposes:

The cells of animals and many other living things are able to migrate together in groups. This collective cell migration plays crucial roles in many processes in animals such as forming organs and limbs, and healing wounds.


It was only by chance that I became a language specialist and a philologist rather than a biologist (I won't go into that here, but will say only that it had something to do with basketball).  After a two decade partial detour into archeology, I'm finally coming all the way back to biology, but wedding it to linguistics.  Now I want to see how organisms communicate internally with sufficient efficiency and precision to stay alive and prosper.  Long ago, I commenced my biological observations with amoebae, which are neither plants nor animals, but eukaryotes.  For my present experiment, I wanted intrinsically similar, but more complex, organisms, because I really wished to grapple with the mystery of LANGUAGE.  So I chose fungi, which are also neither plants nor animals.

How do fungi communicate?

Each fungus may “speak” with many other species— and it turns out they have a lot to say.

By Michael Hathaway and Willoughby Arévalo, MIT Technology Review (April 24, 2023)

As organisms living in complex relations to other life forms, fungi could not exist without communicating. And while they’ve traditionally been viewed permanently fixed in place, mycelia move by extending the tips of their tubes through a substrate, which could be a patch of soil or a fallen log. 

As fungi grow, they are constantly sensing, learning, and making decisions. Fungi are like polyglots: they both “speak” and understand a wide range of chemical signals. They release and respond to chemicals that float through the air and flow through water. Fascinatingly, fungi not only perceive but actively interpret a chemical’s meaning depending on the context and in relation to other chemicals. 

[At this point in my deliberations, I dove into a discussion of the Adamatzky and Blatt, et al. papers, but will skip that here and jump to what follows.]

Andrew Adamatzky, "Language of Fungi Derived from Their Electrical Spiking Activity," Royal Society Open Science, 9.4 (April 6, 2022) |

Michael R. Blatt, Geoffrey K. Pullum, Andreas Droguhn, Barry Bowman, David G. Robinson, and Lincoln Taiz, "Does Electrical Activity in Fungi Function as a Language?Fungal Ecology, 68 (January 2, 2024) | (I'm not surprised to see Geoffrey Pullum among the authors.)

All sorts of organisms and even inorganic systems require means of communication to survive and function, but communication does not equal "language".

We get close to language when we use emojis and emoticons.  The same holds for weather forecast symbols (weather icons), as I discovered today when I had to learn a few new ones:

Hail; Blowing Snow, Blizzard, Snowdrift, Snowstorm; Snow Showers, Flurries; Snow, Heavy Snow, Snowfall; Light Snow; Sleet

There are almost as many weather icons for air-born ice as there are Eskimo words for snow.

We can "read" these symbols, and they convey specific, useful information to us, but they are not language.  For a communicative phenomenon to constitute language, it must have to do with speech (articulate sounds produced by the vocal tract), especially the "tongue" < *dnghu- > "linguistics", "language".  Funghi do not qualify.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Ted McClure]


  1. Viseguy said,

    January 9, 2024 @ 6:13 pm

    > For a communicative phenomenon to constitute language, it must have to do with
    > speech (articulate sounds produced by the vocal tract), especially the "tongue" *dnghu- > "linguistics", "language". Funghi do not qualify.

    Although there's something of an anagrammatic link ("nghu" "ungh").

  2. NSBK said,

    January 9, 2024 @ 9:07 pm

    All this fun fungus talking talk is reminding me of the recent-ish (2018) scifi novel Semiosis by Sue Burke, which I'd highly recommend to anyone interested in these kinds of things. It's about plants (and humans) on an alien planet, not fungi, but still very much about non-animal organisms with a surprising level of sentience.

  3. AG said,

    January 9, 2024 @ 11:04 pm

    What I absolutely can't even start to wrap my head around is how microscopic threads of fungi decide to come together and… create? mushrooms. From what I understand, fungi threads are more or less all the same kind of cell. How do they know who's going to be a mushroom stalk and who's going to be a gill, or whatever?

    …and I'm surprised I haven't seen more mention on here of the cute term used to describe fungal networks that seem to share information and nutrients among trees – the "wood wide web".

  4. bks said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 9:13 am

    Don't sleep on intracellular communication:

    Mitochondria appear to communicate and cooperate with one another, both within and between cells. Biologists are only just beginning to understand how and why.

  5. CCH said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 11:00 am

    >For a communicative phenomenon to constitute language, it must have to do with speech (articulate sounds produced by the vocal tract), especially the "tongue"

    Where does this leave sign languages then? Surely they are languages even if they do not involve sounds produced by the vocal tract. I would be hesitant to class the concept of "language" so narrowly, as that is certainly not how sign languages function or grow.

  6. wanda said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 11:31 am

    ."How do they know who's going to be a mushroom stalk and who's going to be a gill, or whatever?"
    AG, you started from a single cell that just divided a lot. How did your cells decide who was going to be a brain and who was going to be a liver?
    The answer to that question, by the way, has been extensively researched for decades, and we do know the broad outlines of how it happens.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 11:35 am

    I thought much the same about computer languages, CCH, and then wondered whether there are any programmers who do not mentally sound out their programs as they are creating and/or typing them. I imagine that there are : there must surely be 100% deaf/dumb programmers, since the faculties of hearing and speaking would seem orthogonal to the skills required to write correct computer programs.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 11:59 am

    Are sign languages languages?

    What makes them languages?

  9. david said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 2:22 pm

    @AG All multicellular organisms have cells that communicate with each other. A more spectacular case is the slime mold that spends part of its life cycle as free swimming individual cells and, when conditions are appropriate, assembles to become a slug which later turns into a fruiting body with a stalk.. The communication is by releasing molecules and by touching each other. They don’t have an army so they can’t call this a language.

  10. RfP said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 3:34 pm


    I’ll see you and raise you $10 with the first entry in the American Heritage Dictionary:

    lan guage
    a. Communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols.

  11. katarina said,

    January 10, 2024 @ 10:05 pm

    From Wikipedia "Sign Language"":

    "Sign languages are full-fledged natural languages with their own grammar and lexicon.[1] Sign languages are not universal and are usually not mutually intelligible,[2] although there are also similarities among different sign languages."

    The word "language" can have many meanings. For instance, you can talk of a genre of dance as having a language with its own vocabulary, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, allusions. wit, humor, expressing thoughts and feelings. The same with music You can talk of the language of algebra or physics or chemistry or computer science and so on.

  12. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    January 11, 2024 @ 5:28 am

    "Langue" in French means "tongue." Mushrooms have no tongue. So they communicate but they don't have any "language."

  13. Rodger C said,

    January 11, 2024 @ 11:36 am

    I would have assumed that fungi spoke Yuggoth.

  14. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    January 11, 2024 @ 5:21 pm

    Probablement Yuggoth, oui, ces étranges créatures à antennes…

  15. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    January 12, 2024 @ 9:01 am

    Pfft! (or "Ia!" for the Lovecraftians in the audience) — Yuggoth fungi are "_beyond_ speech":
    VIII. The Port

    Ten miles from Arkham I had struck the trail
    That rides the cliff-edge over Boynton Beach,
    And hoped that just at sunset I could reach
    The crest that looks on Innsmouth in the vale.
    Far out at sea was a retreating sail,
    White as hard years of ancient winds could bleach,
    But evil with some portent beyond speech,
    So that I did not wave my hand or hail.

    Sails out of Innsmouth! echoing old renown
    Of long-dead times. But now a too-swift night
    Is closing in, and I have reached the height
    Whence I so often scan the distant town.
    The spires and roofs are there—but look! The gloom
    Sinks on dark lanes, as lightless as the tomb!

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