Scientist identify the phonetic alphabet of whales

Originally published at:


Whale GIF


“we gotta put our best ‘A.I.’ on this! you there! stop counting human fingers and decode these whale songs!” oblig-farside:


unavoidable repost;



Surely “phonetic alphabet” only makes sense in the context of written language? Isn’t “phoneme” the appropriate word? (And is even that somewhat metaphorical, given the differences in human and whale communication?)


“We’ve been trying to contact you about your boat insurance.”


maybe if we’re writing it down, then it becomes an alphabet? i agree though. sounds a little off

i think that’s part of the question. we don’t really know if it’s metaphorical or not yet.

many people have assumed that a whale song is like a bird song, maybe nuanced in emotion but limited in specific information. if so, then it would be metaphorical.

other people have speculated they use song more like we use song. if so, then not so metaphorical.

communicating with an actual alien species is going to be so much work :space_invader:


I’m wondering if it’s strictly accurate to call it a “phoneme” even if these do turn out to be elements of a structured language that’s comparable to that of humans. I don’t know enough about linguistics to know if “phoneme” still covers these specific kinds of vocal elements (or would, if we were willing to extend the definition to non-human speech).


That paper has some beautiful graphs


Which reminds me of my favorite Drunk History segment of all time.
John Lilly and the horny acid dropping dolphin and the woman he loved.

You would need a symbology which represented click language sounds like found in Zulu and Khoisan. But these human languages are still very different to the sperm whale vocalisations. It probably needs a new symbology to represent the timing as well as the individual clicks, because this seems important in the whale communication.

At any rate this is a fascinating piece of research. The only thing which disappoints me is that they are using AI to encode the whale sounds. I feel like it would be a more properly comprehensive study if humans used their own brain power to make sense of it, even if that took more effort.


eric cartman truth GIF by South Park

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Scientists were troubled by high frequency of the letters ‘F’ and ‘U’

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Well, to be fair, they’ve been doing that for many decades now, and they didn’t have a whole lot to show for it. It’s too many variables, too much data to parse without algorithmic help, but once some patterns have been pointed out, then the direct application of human brain power definitely comes into play to make actual sense out of it.

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