Logical analysis for whales
Grammatical rules and logical structures similar to those of human language are hidden in the love songs of humpback whales.

Humpback love songs have complex structures, with sentences and themes. Photo: © NOAA.
Humpback love songs have complex structures, with sentences and themes. Photo: © NOAA.

It is well known that animals communicate with one another. But that one of these languages, that of humpback whales, has a grammar and a syntax just like our languages ​​can seem really surprising.
Songs to communicate. The Megaptera novaeangliae is a cetacean known for its melodious vocalizations characterized by "phrases" that are articulated and linked together. These songs vary according to geographical areas and can change over the years. When groups of humpback whales belonging to different populations come into contact with each other, these strange languages ​​influence, overlap or even become extinct. Just like with human languages.
This has been well known since the 1970s, when Roger Payne and Scott McVay first described these songs. Now some researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Maryland, USA) and from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have tried to give a scientific explanation to what so far were only assumptions. They then examined the songs of 16 specimens, analyzed up to the basic structures thanks to ad hoc software. ( Listen to one of the songs ) The algorithm was able to highlight the presence of recurrent structures linked together to form more complex structures.
The hierarchy of words. With an approach that is almost more linguistic than biological, it was discovered that the language of humpback whales, just like human ones, is hierarchical: it is made up of minimum units - corresponding to periods, propositions, phrases, words and phonemes - contained within each other, as in Chinese boxes.
According to scientists, such a complex structure would serve both human beings and humpback whales to facilitate understanding and organize communication.

(News updated March 27, 2006)