Brgprgpbpaob brghpbaub hprghbuh preurrggbhh

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in speech how like a… beluga whale and/or orangutan?

Today the social media aggregator of sciencey things I Fucking Love Science posted a story based on a PLOS One article about a “speech-like rhythm” in an orangutan call. You can listen to the… performance in this section of the article.

The story on IFLS’s Facebook naturally included a rather hyped up headline: “An orangutan has learned to mimic human speech without being taught.” Even a quick read of the paper’s abstract indicates the conclusions involve rhythm and features of the physical articulation of sounds, not “speech” in the everyday sense of, you know, actual communicative speech. Silly me, I know, but I actually clicked on the link expecting something more like parrot mimicry and less like passionate gurgling.

Anyway, I’m not here only to make fun of science news aggregators, because the orangutan story reminded me of another animal mimic that got some play in the news a little while back: Noc the beluga. You can read more about NOC here and here. Blessedly, both those links have distinct recordings of Noc doing his thing.

Okay, first of all, to my non-acoustics-specialist ear, Noc obviously does better than Tilda. Sorry, Tilda.

Thinking of the two stories together, I’m interested in what factors lead so many people to latch on to these stories and be fascinated by mimicry of human sounds. There seem to be some consistencies in the ways these stories or other findings about non-human animal communication get overblown. For example, writers at Language Log have at least twice taken on stories alleging that dolphins use names just like humans. As Mark Liberman wrote in the earlier of those articles, “nothing pushes people’s buttons like talking animals.” Unsurprisingly, the Smithsonian Magazine article about Noc linked above contains the questionable assertion, “Language, however we might define it, is everything to whales.”

Complexity or sophistication are recurring themes in the language research I like and do. So much of the coordination, skill, practice, and creativity we put into our language use goes unnoticed and is often obscured or silenced. There might be a relationship between our frequent unawareness of the complexity and sophistication of language on the hand and how easily impressed we are by animal mimicry on the other. This would probably be more true for issues like dolphin names or parrots repeating speech than for the articulatory feats of Tilda and Noc. Discussions of these kinds of news stories might be a good source for commentary on what it means to be able to use language. Most of the Facebook discussion on Tilda’s story right now involves Planet of the Apes references, but maybe other discussions could show something different.

In any case, the mimicry that goes on back and forth between humans and other animals is a regular site for humor. What do you readers think? What else can we conclude from interest in mimicry? Here is some other super important data to consider:

  • Two whales swim into a bar…
  • The “goats yelling like humans” thing which got big on YouTube about a year or so ago…
  • … and spawned some amazing remixes of pop songs …
  • … and a reflexive twist on the youtube phenomenon itself.
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