Animals that talk ‘could be a nightmare’

Sea speak: As well as copying English, orcas talk to each other using their own dialects.

What if all animals could talk? For the first time, a killer whale has been taught to say words like “hello”. Some think that we will soon be able to communicate with other animals too…

“Hello?” a person asks, before receiving a croaky yet distinct reply. “Amy…” the searching voice asks again: once more a reply comes. The two “voices” count through some numbers before bidding each other farewell: “Bye bye!”

This extraordinary recording is of a scientist “talking” to an orca called Wikie, as researchers discover that the animals can imitate human speech. During the experiment the whales were taught to copy several short phrases and other sounds similar to blowing raspberries.

Orcas now join a growing kingdom of animals known to copy human words, including beluga whales, parrots, and even elephants.

But while Wikie the whale is a good imitator, it is not yet possible to hold an in-depth conversation with her: “We have no evidence that [whales] understand what their ‘hello’ stands for,” says Professor Josep Call.

But that has not stopped us imagining what it would be like to talk to animals — something we have been doing for thousands of years.

The perils of a talking serpent is famously documented in the Bible, but less well known is its description of a talking donkey. In the Old Testament, God grants an ass the power of speech so it can order its master to stop hitting it so hard.

Fast forward two thousand years and a talking (and singing) donkey appears as a more good-humoured companion in the Shrek movies.

This fantasy of human/animal communication often has a happy ending. In the Dr Dolittle films a surgeon uses his power of inter-species speech to treat all manner of animal ailments — including saving the life of a suicidal circus tiger called Jake.

On the other hand, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, pigs use their powers of speech to plot, conspire, and ruthlessly overthrow their human masters.

Whilst this may all seem like outlandish fiction, scientists are working hard to make it a reality. Last year, a report by Amazon predicted that devices allowing humans to talk (understandably) to dogs could be invented within a decade.

So would it be good if humans could talk to animals?

Yik Yak

There would be chaos, some say. Humans already fight and insult each other enough without adding millions more species into the mix. And anyway, even if a dog were to have the power of speech what would it be able to say beyond "walk", "food", and "poo"? Language is one thing, but intelligence something else.

Humans would be closer to nature, others respond. The effects would be far more profound than pets chatting to their owners. Our attitude towards animals has long been one of domination. If we could directly translate the cries of caged birds and the laments of livestock shipped to slaughter, we would finally treat animals with the empathy they deserve.

You Decide

  1. Would it be good to talk to animals?
  2. Should whales be kept in captivity?

Activities

  1. Imagine you had the power to give one animal the power of speech. What animal would you give it to and why? Are there any specific questions which you would ask it?
  2. Do some research into human / animal communication ― use the resources in Become An Expert to start you off. With what animals are we best at communicating? Does this process always involve speech? Will a human and an animal ever truly be able to understand one another?

Some People Say...

“If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Wikie’s mimicking skills were tracked over 17 trials, with 6 independent adjudicators judging how close her sounds were to the original prompts. Throughout the trials she mimicked bothsounds of humans, and those of other orcas. Whilst she mimicked two words at the first attempt, the only human sound she copied successfully more than 50% of the time was the word “hello”.
What do we not know?
We are not completely sure why orcas have this skill, however researchers believe it relates to their ability to communicate in different dialects. Also some have suggested that more rigorous testing is needed, including asking humans to classify Wikie’s calls without the original speech prompts to compare them to.

Word Watch

Orca
Otherwise known as the killer whale.
Elephants
To see this for yourself follow the second link in Become An Expert.
Talking serpent
In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Satan takes the form of a serpent and tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. This leads to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden: an event otherwise known as the “fall of man”.
Master
The prophet Balaam. After he is told off by his donkey, he sees an angel on the road and immediately repents for his sins. The story is told in Numbers 22.
Dr Dolittle
Eddie Murphy popularised the character in the 1998 film. However, the figure first appeared in a series of children’s books by Hugh Lofting, first published in the 1920s.
Animal Farm
Published in 1945. The novel is an extended metaphor showing the descent of Soviet communism into tyranny and corruption.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.