A theoretical account of whale song syntax: A new perspective for understanding human language structure





linguistics, syntax, animal communication, evolution, language science


It is a common belief among linguists that the use of language is a species-specific phenomenon belonging only to humans. However, there is no doubt that there are non-human communication systems within the animal kingdom that are amazingly complex and share certain properties with human language (Berwick et al. 2011). The current paper – adapted from a more comprehensive undergraduate thesis – calls to attention the intricacy of one such system used among humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Recent findings by biologists and acousticians have uncovered an unpredictable pattern of bidirectional egressive and ingressive sounds in whale songs, leading to questions about song function and the presence of hierarchical structure akin to human language (Mercado & Perazio, 2021). While no conclusions have been unanimously agreed upon, whale song ‘syntax’ has the potential to remedy deficiencies in modern linguistic theory and provide insight into human communication. Drawing from recent literature about animal communication at large, whale singing behavior, and bidirectional sound production, I propose a theoretical, two-channel mechanism for the acoustic and structural nature of whale song. Using the two-channel mechanism, I further present a catalog of possibilities surrounding the potential for whale song compositionality to establish parallels with human language and ultimately argue a structural context for issues surrounding the modeling of paralinguistic computation, parentheticals, and syntactic amalgams. 

Author Biography

  • Cutler Cannon, Emory University

    MSc Ethnobotany Student

    BA Linguistics




How to Cite

Cannon, Cutler. 2023. “A Theoretical Account of Whale Song Syntax: A New Perspective for Understanding Human Language Structure”. Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America 8 (1): 5571. https://doi.org/10.3765/plsa.v8i1.5571.