Friday, July 1, 2016

Sperm Whale Culture

Interesting article about recent research in the social lives of sperm whales, which are studied mainly through their vocalizations:
Scientists working throughout the world have identified 80 unique "codas," the sperm whale equivalent of words, which they produce by emitting sounds called clicks. Each sperm whale clan has its own dialect, a unique repertoire of codas shared only with the other families who make up their clan. In the Pacific, there are five known dialect clans, and many of them co-exist in the same general regions without ever interacting. Atlantic whales have their own dialects too, and in the Caribbean there are two known clans.

Sperm whale society is very complicated, and every whale belongs to multiple social groups. Individuals spend most of their time in small family units, and multiple families converge to form larger groups. All the groups who share a dialect form a clan, and members of a clan may be so widely dispersed that they never meet one another even though they speak the same language. Families are made up of adult females and calves, while adult males tend to roam widely between clans and sometimes even swim from one ocean basin to the other. But even these general social structures vary a lot between oceans.
Fascinating, although calling different arrangements of of 80 simple sounds "languages" is a bit grandiose. I wonder how much all of this was impacted by the near extermination of sperm whales fifty years ago? Some human societies that have been through drastic population declines have also suffered huge losses of culture.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"Fascinating, although calling different arrangements of of 80 simple sounds "languages" is a bit grandiose."

Actually, it's perfectly apt.

Language is simply the word for how we communicate discrete concepts to one another. Sometimes language is complex, sometimes it is simple. Body language, for example, is comparitively simplistic - but that very simplicity allows it to be more universally understood, across both cultural and even species boundaries. A pet dog doesn't speak, but it certainly has a language which it uses to communicate with you.

Also, you're misunderstanding the nature of the codas as described.

First off, if there were 80 different "simple sounds" being rearranged, then the vocal complexity of sperm whales would actually vastly surpass our own - the entirety of the English language is constructed out of a mere 44 distinct phonemes (and 4 blends), placed into different arrangements. And English is actually on the high end of the spectrum - only a few languages go above it, and even the most complex known human language, the now extinct Ubykh language, had only 84 distinct sounds, which sperm whales would be on par with.

But the article actually doesn't tell us that these whales have 80 "simple sounds". It only says that we've identified 80 different "codas", which are like our own words. These whales emit certain patterns of "clicks", which due to their distinct nature and repitition, we assume must be discrete concepts - although obviously we haven't translated their meanings yet.

Of course, for comparison, the English language contains some million or so different discrete concepts in the form of words - but remember, these are only the 80 sperm whale words we've identified, and who knows how many others are yet unknown. And curiously, even if there aren't that many more words in their language, the number is still relatively on par with some of humanity's simplest spoken languages - the Taki Taki creole language of Suriname consists of a mere 340 words, for example.

And it's also worth bearing in mind that language develops based on need, as well as on interactions with other languages.

English may have roughly a million different words, but huge numbers of those are either borrowed wholesale from other languages; are highly specialized technical terminology (whales don't have much conception of things like "deoxyribonucleic acid", for example); are obsolete or used exceedingly rarely ("obstrigillate", "gnathonize", "sputcheon", "alabandical", et cetera); or are slightly different shades of a single concept (red, crimson, scarlet, vermillion, ruby, cherry, cerise, cardinal, carmine, et cetera).

It's also important to recognize that even though the English language contains a huge number of words, most adult speakers have vocabularies of around 20,000 words rather than the 1,000,000 that are extant - and of those, a few hundred key words are used several to many orders of magnitude more frequently than the others.

And to be honest, I can't imagine sperm whales have all that much need for a terribly large variety of discrete communicable concepts anyway - I would assume mostly words which describe immediate conditions, judgements, and general emotions: yes, no, good, bad, happy, sad, pleasue, pain, this, that, me, you, us, them, et cetera; with perhaps further coverage for more complex concepts like numerology, or the passage of time, or non-immediate locationality.