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Captive Beluga Was Able To Mimic Speech 103

ananyo writes "'Who told me to get out?' asked a diver, surfacing from a tank in which a whale named NOC lived. The beluga's caretakers had heard what sounded like garbled phrases emanating from the enclosure before, and it suddenly dawned on them that the whale might be imitating the voices of his human handlers. The outbursts began in 1984 and lasted for about four years, until NOC hit sexual maturity. NOC likely learned to imitate humans by listening to them speak underwater and on the surface. The whale's human-like calls are several octaves lower than normal whale calls, a similar pitch to human speech. Researchers trained NOC to 'speak' on command, and determined that he makes the sounds by increasing the pressure of the air that courses through his nasal cavities. They think that he then modified the sounds by manipulating the shape of his phonic lips, small vibrating structures that sit above each nasal cavity. A recording of NOC's speech is embedded in the story. He sounds remarkably like a kazoo."
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Captive Beluga Was Able To Mimic Speech

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  • by Penurious Penguin ( 2687307 ) on Monday October 22, 2012 @07:53PM (#41735361) Journal
    While I've spoken with many Narwhals Orating Cryptically, this is one Narratively Ostentatious Cetacean I'd really like to have a word with.
  • Good for NOC (Score:2, Interesting)

    by slick7 ( 1703596 ) on Monday October 22, 2012 @07:55PM (#41735375)
    If NOC learns to speak like a human, maybe we will be able to communicate. Just think, we can teach him to lie, cheat, steal, revel in the suffering of others. Wait until he gets a load of our politicians. GO NOC!
  • by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Monday October 22, 2012 @08:11PM (#41735523) Homepage

    I see no reason to think from this that the beluga had any comprehension of human speech; the sounds he produced don't seem to have any real meaning, and I'm skeptical that he could have discerned any meaning in the sounds of humans talking to each other from the limited context of them.

    However... given the brain capacity of the animal (greater than a simple mimic like a parrot), I do wonder whether he was actually making a crude, conscious attempt to communicate. He may have been adjusting his pitch and sounds to match what he was hearing, in much the same way that stupid humans will speak their own language with a foreign accent when trying to communicate with someone who speaks another language, or in the same way that humans will bark or meow at pets, in a playful attempt at communicating with them in their own language. That is, he may have figured out that these sounds humans make are a form of (possibly intelligent) communication – much like we figured out the same regarding whale songs – and he was trying to show that he understood that fact by making similar sounds.

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