What humpback whales can teach us about alien languages (Zipf’s Law… do dolphins swear?)

“What? That is a plausible and fascinating scientific question, that someone should dedicate their lives to discovering! … … do dolphins use profanity?
I fucking bet they do! 😀 I imagine they have a few words for ‘sex’… I imagine they have a few words to describe us as well… dolphinese for ‘planet fucker’?”

“Do dolphins rap?”

“The FIRST thing you would want to convey to extra-terrestrials is… 137!… the Universal framework would mathematics and knowledge of the cosmos and atom”

“the extra-terrestrial I met (don’t laugh) didn’t need to say a God damn thing! Pure telepathy… not in words, or images… just BOOM!”

What humpback whales can teach us about alien languages

How to recognize a potential alien language, in two steps.

For decades, a group of researchers on a quest to find extraterrestrial life have been listening patiently to the cosmos. From their hub at the SETI Institute (a.k.a. the “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”) in Mountain View, California, the researchers are searching for a signal, a radio transmission, from an extraterrestrial species.

Though there is a plausible scientific case that other life could exist out there somewhere, it could be a very long time before we detect anything. And in the meantime, there’s an important question they need to figure out: How can we recognize an alien language when we have no idea what it may sound like? How can we be sure the signal we’re receiving is a language, and not just some random noise?

These are the big questions Laurance Doyle, a research scientist at SETI, is dedicated to answering. He believes it will be possible to recognize an alien language as a language. And he bases that belief on his studies on how animals communicate with one another on Earth. Really.

According to Doyle, there are two main steps to figure out if a communication from beyond is a language. All it takes is some know-how of a branch of math called “information theory.” Recently, Doyle walked me through it.

Step 1: Does the communication follow a special pattern called Zipf’s law?

Have you ever heard a humpback whale sing? It sounds like this: squeaky, resonant, and otherworldly. If there’s an analog to extraterrestrial communication on planet Earth, it might as well be whale songs.

Humpback whales sing to communicate with one another. They sing to facilitate hunts, to socialize, and so on. Bottlenose dolphins, on the other hand, make chirpy calls to one another in a pod, and it’s believed these chirps help them work together as a group.
Scientists don’t know what exactly these whales and dolphins are saying to one another. But they suspect what they are vocalizing is, perhaps, a language, because it mimics a mathematical pattern shared by all languages on Earth.

The pattern is called Zipf’s law, named after George Kingsley Zipf, an American linguist who lived in the first half of the 20th century.

Zipf was interested in figuring out which letters and words are the most common in the English language, and in all languages. He started off by analyzing all the letters used in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses — the number of E’s, the number of A’s, even all the Q’s — as Doyle explained to me.

If you plot the frequency of the most common letters to the least common letters on a logarithmic scale (one that increases or decreases exponentially), you get a simple negative sloping line, going down at a 45-degree angle. It means our most common letters (E, A) are used exponentially more often than our least common letters.
The same pattern holds true when you look at words: The most commonly used words in English — like “the,” “a,” and “I” — are used way more often than less common words like “appropriate.” This is true for all other human languages on Earth.


Zipf’s law is a reflection of the careful balancing act a language needs between variety and simplicity. It shows language has syntax: a consistent way to arrange the order of words. We use easy, common words — articles, pronouns, prepositions — to lay the scaffolding of our language. Then we adorn it with more complicated, specific words.
In his work, Doyle finds that the squeaks of bottlenose dolphins follow Zipf’s law, meaning when you record the individual sounds they make — their signals — some are used exponentially more often than others. Humpback whale songs don’t quite hit the same ratio at Zipf’s law, but they come close. This doesn’t mean these creatures are the most intelligent mammals after us (though they very well may be). But it’s a clue there’s a complex system, a complex brain, animating their communications.

Overall, Doyle has found that Zipf’s law “is a necessary, but not sufficient, system for proving complexity” in a communication system, he says. “It’s very quick intelligence filter.”

Which means Zipf’s law would be a good place to start in listening to ET. Analysts at SETI could analyze the patterns of transmissions from the alien source and see if some of the signals occur exponentially more often than others. That would be a big clue that we’re listening to a language.

Step 2: Does the communication contain “conditional probabilities”?

Zipf’s law wouldn’t be enough to determine if an alien transmission is, indeed, a language. A signal following the pattern of Zipf’s law could just be a coincidence.

For a language to be a language, it also needs something called conditional probabilities.
If I give you the letter Q and ask you what letter probably comes after it, you’re likely to say U. That’s a conditional probability, meaning there is a correlational structure to our language. U’s usually follow Q’s. But it also works for whole words. Conditional probabilities mean that if I write you a note with a word smudged out, “How are *** today?” you might guess I meant to write “you.”

Assessing if an alien language has conditional probability isn’t an easy task. But to figure out how, Doyle returned again to humpback whale songs.

He believes the humpback whales have conditional probabilities in their language. When there’s noise in the water, like a boat sound, some of the whale songs get garbled, but they can still understand the song, he says. And they slow down their communication in the presence of noise — but not as much as you would think if they cared about getting every note clearly broadcast.

It’s possible that extraterrestrial life could exhibit a similar pattern to deal with interference in the cosmos, as the whales do. And that’s something you could quantify and measure. With the math of “information theory,” you can potentially figure out how many orders of entropy a language has by listening for how the language deals with interference or noise. A higher-order entropy in a signal would signify a more complex language.

But we first need more data from animals to see if there’s a universal pattern to look out for, one that signals the language contains these conditional probabilities.

The goal: Can we tell how smart a creature is just by recording the patterns of their communication?

Here’s the goal of Doyle’s work on animal communication: It would be nice to build a scale that equates the complexity of an animal’s communication with the size of its brain. If he could do that for animals, he reasons, he could do it for ET. It would be a good way to figure out if an alien transmission is from a species that is much smarter than us or more on our level.

Doyle says this may work similarly to what’s called the “encephalization quotient.” That’s a scale that explains that the intelligence of a given species generally increases as the relative size of their brain increases. Human anatomy devotes more space in the skull to the brain than a chimp’s does. And humans are smarter.

“We think we can come up with a communication encephalization quotient … a measure of the communication intelligence of a species,” Doyle says. This quotient, which doesn’t yet exist, could help us understand that the bee communication traces itself back to a tiny bee brain, and that whale communication traces itself back to a bigger whale brain.
“I’d like to see a full distribution of species of life on Earth and their communication systems,” Doyle says.

Again, even if we had such a quotient at the ready, we wouldn’t know what exactly ET is saying. But we’d know, from analyzing their conversation patterns, how complex their language is, and, therefore, how complex they are.

We could potentially learn that their communications are vastly more advanced than ours — operating with layers of complex rules we couldn’t hope to understand. Wouldn’t that be fun, and a bit terrifying?

“What if an alien says, ‘By this time, we will have to be had done it,’” Doyle says. “We can’t handle it.”

Basically: We could find out that their language is to us, as our language is to a dog. Dogs can understand a few words and follow basic commands. But their brains are not equipped to follow our syntax. (Note: If your dog can understand past participles in English, or in another language, please email me.)

Why this thought experiment isn’t completely pointless

If all of this sounds a bit too hypothetical, well, to a degree it is. We haven’t received any transmissions from the great beyond. And it may seem silly that people would spend so much time thinking about this what-if.

But a lot of people, including serious scientists, believe it would be ridiculous if human beings are the only life, or intelligent life, in the galaxy, or the universe. The late physicist Stephen Hawking said he preferred to believe (though without perfect certainty) that “there are other forms of intelligent life out there,” and they just haven’t noticed us yet.

If something’s out there, trying to reach us, we might as well be listening. And if we’re listening, we might as well try to figure out what to listen for.

In another real way, in recent years, this question of “what’s out there” has become less abstract. In the past 20 years, thanks to exoplanet-hunting missions like Kepler, we’ve learned that there are more planets than stars in our galaxy.

Some are gas giants, like Jupiter or Saturn. Others are small and rocky, like our own Earth or our neighbor Mars. Some, like many of the planets in the Trappist-1 system, are in their solar system’s habitable zone, meaning it’s conceivable for liquid water to flow on their surfaces. We don’t know how many could contain life, but these discoveries inflame our imaginations about what these worlds might be like, and what could live there.

This work is also meaningful because it directs us to look at the world around us and better understand how animals communicate with one another. It’s possible that in deeper study of communication systems on Earth, scientists will find new, interesting patterns separate from Zipf’s law.

Take the slime mold, for example. It’s a superorganism — a single body composed of thousands of individual amoeba-like creatures — that seems to communicate and have intelligence despite the fact that it doesn’t have a single neuron. How does a slime mold communicate? Scientists are still figuring it out. And in figuring it out, they could discover something new and wonderful that could help them better decipher alien communication.

Overall, this work is a reminder that there are many wonderful natural things to study on the Earth, and potentially communicate with. “If humpback has as complex a rule structure as English, we should be to translate English things into humpback someday,” Doyle says. And, heck, if we can learn to talk to whales, we’re one step more prepared to talk to aliens if they were ever motivated to pick up the phone and call.

“We’re looking up in the sky going, ‘Are we alone?’ and there are humpback whales going, ‘Woo-hoo’,” he says. In preparation for a conversation with ET, he says, “we have a million communication systems on Earth to look at.”

Humpback Whale Communication and the Search for Alien Intelligence

Laurance Doyle is using statistical tools to look for patterns in animal communication.
Long before the discovery of the first planet beyond our Solar System, SETI Institute research scientist Laurance Doyle began theorizing about the habitability of planets around other stars, clarifying the conditions needed for a planet to bear life. Relying on his expertise in signal processing, his research has looked for patterns in astronomical data, searching for extrasolar planets.
Doyle uses these same statistical tools to look for patterns in animal communication. Drawing on central concepts of information theory, he and colleagues from the University of California at Davis have precisely measured the complexity of the songs of humpback whales, comparing them with communication in other species—including humans. In the future, he plans to expand this innovative line of research, moving to the next level of understanding animal communication. Not content to understand how much an animal can communicate, he seeks to understand the meaning of the vocalizations of other species.
His current project, supported by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, has several goals:
Develop a comprehensive framework to understand friendship, love, devotion, and trust in non-human groups
Identify the qualities of expertise that are valued and valuable among non-human animals
Identify and investigate intelligences that act or are instantiated over very long distances or time periods
Explore collective behavior and group dynamics over long or short time and length scales that may be forms of group intelligence
Explaining to what extent behaviors we observe in other life forms are indicative of intelligences
A new video, “Humpback Whale Communication and the Search for Alien Intelligence”, explains the project. Says Doyle:
“Our project, funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, is to investigate the vocal and social behavior of humpback whales using quantifying measures such as the mathematics of information theory. One goal includes developing a kind-of intelligence filter for use in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Another goal includes an effort to measure empathy in humpback whales which have been known to save other marine mammals from, for example, orca pods. Finally we wish to understand the individual interaction of socializing and feeding humpback whales and for this study we will deploy a five-element hydrophone array in Southeast Alaska starting in the summer of 2019.”
Although there are only two scientists in the video, there are actually six members of the Team. They are Dr. Laurance R. Doyle, Dr. Fred Sharpe, Dr. Brenda McCowan, Dr. Michelle Fournet, Dr. Jim Crutchfield, and Dr. Frans de Waal.

Humpback whales could hold the key to communicating with alien intelligence, say experts

Alien experts believe humpback whales may hold the key to communicating with beings from outer space. The US-based Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute believe that patterns in whale songs could be adapted to other species to form an emotional bond. As such, they’ve launched a new project to try and use maths to understand what the humpbacks are saying to each other.

‘Our project, funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, is to investigate the vocal and social behavior of humpback whales using quantifying measures such as the mathematics of information theory,’ explained SETI Institute research scientist Laurance Doyle. ‘One goal includes developing a kind-of intelligence filter for use in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.’

The project has several aims, including using the whales as a basis to develop a ‘comprehensive framework to understand friendship, love, devotion, and trust in non-human groups.’ They also want to study collective behaviour and group dynamics over both short and long time periods. They say this could be a measure of group intelligence. The plan is to quantify just how much complexity there is in the communication once the whales start singing to each other.

‘Another goal includes an effort to measure empathy in humpback whales which have been known to save other marine mammals from, for example, orca pods,’ Doyle said. ‘Finally we wish to understand the individual interaction of socializing and feeding humpback whales and for this study we will deploy a five-element hydrophone array in Southeast Alaska starting in the summer of 2019.’

Whales and aliens: the extraterrestrial structure of a language can be unknown

“If aliens had landed from outer space and spoke a language that violates universal grammar, we simply would not be able to learn their language as teaching English or Swahili. We are by nature designed for English, Chinese and other languages people. But we are not conceived for an ideal learning languages that violate universal grammar”.

Supporters of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) estimate that we may encounter aliens in the next several decades. Even if you stick to more conservative estimates say that the probability of meeting with extraterrestrial intelligence in the next 50 years will be a 5% bet for our species will be high. The knowledge that we are not alone in the Universe, is a deep experience, and contact with an alien civilization can produce amazing technological innovation and cultural change.
So, we need to ask the question.
what do you think aliens?
Really, how? Do they have any conscience? How do they communicate?
“the Most complex civilization will be post-biological, in the form of artificial intelligence (AI),” says philosopher Susan Schneider from the Institute for advanced study. Then an alien civilization will take the form of superintelligence: intelligence far beyond the intelligence of human level by any parameters — social skills, General knowledge, scientific creativity.
Meeting with the types of AI that we can learn an alien language? The first obstacle will be his environment. People communicate in the audible frequency range 85-255 Hz and 430-770 THz light. This is unlikely to be true for aliens who evolved as a people. And yet, this issue is mostly technical. For example, a whale song in the accelerated playback (which otherwise inaudible to humans) show that some “alien” signals, you can still pay into a form that can perceive people.
However, the aliens could do without the language. It is possible that an alien civilization could develop only with non-linguistic communication or Prochazka.
Well-Known linguist Noam Chomsky is often said that if Martians visited Earth, they would think that we all speak dialects of one language because all languages are one of the earth’s structure in depth, said Doug Vakoch. “But if the aliens had a language, he would have been similar to ours? This is a great question.”
It is Highly unlikely that alien species will have the same options as men. According to Chomsky, the leading proponent of this view:
“Many scientists believe that alien life exists. For them the question is we will meet with her in the near future or in the distant, and not meet it at all. So let’s imagine that we suddenly come face to face with members of an alien species. What are we to do first? Of course, to communicate and come to a peaceful agreement would be the priority. But can we ever understand each other?”.
The Next thing we would like to share with aliens, it is scientific information. If the laws of the Universe are the same everywhere, and different descriptions of these laws, in principle, should be equivalent. It is repulsed by, for example, the initiative SETI or METI, the task of which search and the relationship with the aliens.
In the case of language more difficult, because it is the only important factor for cooperation between people. That communication allows us to work in surprisingly large groups. For this reason, any flexible and technologically advanced civilization will almost certainly have a language.
A More complex question is whether we ever learn the internal structure of a foreign language. Psycholinguistics is giving two quite different answers.
Generativity approach in which the structure of the language encoded in the brain, suggests that this is impossible. It follows from this that people come with built-in universal grammar, which has a specific set of plants — each represents the acceptable order of words, in which words and parts of words are stacked in any given language system. The language that we hear for the first time, activates one of these installations, and it then allows us to differentiate between right and wrong ways of combining words.
The Key point is that the number of different grammars is very limited. Although the rules of the languages of the people may vary, generativists supporters of the model claim that they differ only in the strict framework. For example, how to build a sentence determines if the verb to follow the subject or Vice versa. In the English language strictly first option (“Bob gave a cake to Alice”), strictly in Japanese second (“Bob gave Alice a cake”).
A Cognitivist approach, on the other hand, considering the semantics (structure of meaning) as more important than syntax (grammar structures). On this approach, sentences like “squaring drinks procrastination” is syntactically well formed but semantically meaningless. For this reason, supporters of the cognitivist approach say that one grammar is not enough to understand the language. Instead, she should marry the understanding of the concepts, which uses the user language.
We can also look at our own world and see that organisms have striking similarities, even if developed in different ways and in different environments. This is called “convergent evolution.” Wings andeyes, for example, have independently emerged from a variety of animals at several times during evolution, and the birds in the environmentally isolated New Zealand has acquired the behavior that is observed in mammals everywhere. Cognitivist approach gives hope that the languages of people and aliens can be mutually comprehensible.
Some also believe that the most advanced human concepts are assembled from basic building blocks, which are available for all types, for example, understanding past and future; similarities and differences; the object and subject. If an alien species is manipulating objects, interacting with their own kind and combines concepts cognitivist approach ensures that we will have similar mental architecture to understand each other. However, it is also possible that an alien species that reproduced by non-biological, just do not understand that such genetically related and unrelated groups.
Which approach is more correct? The study of neural networks show that languages can be studied without any special structures in the head. This is important because you may not need any internal universal grammar to explain language acquisition. In addition, there are languages of people who do not fit into the framework of universal grammar. Although these results are far from final (for example, they cannot explain why the language is only in humans), everything goes to the cognitivist view.
Thus, it is reasonable to assume that people can learn languages of the aliens. Obviously, some aspects of a foreign language will always be inaccessible to us (like poetry). Equally, some species may be in a different mental Universe so that it will be in some ways equivalent to a human. However, we can with optimism to hope that a universal framework for physics, biology and sociology are similar enough to tie the tongues of humans and aliens in a common semantic base.
Would Like to know how to communicate with aliens? Tell us in our


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