Talking seals and the evolution of language

Monday 17 November 2003

Experts at the University of St Andrews hope to develop further understanding of the evolution of language by studying mammals that can imitate human speech.

An international team of biologists and psychologists will study seals, who use similar vocalisation mechanisms and have a larynx, tongue and brain similar to humans.

The team hopes to advance our knowledge of seal vocal imitation in several ways, beginning with understanding the basics of how and why seals make sounds, particularly during underwater vocalisation. They will study what conditions are necessary for a seal to imitate sounds, in nature and with humans. The most ambitious aim is to replicate the famous talking seal case in the USA twenty years ago: by exposing young seals to abundant human speech in an appropriate social context, they hope to learn whether other seals can learn to speak.

Dr Tecumseh Fitch, a specialist in language evolution at the University’s School of Psychology, said:

“The new comparative approach to the evolution of language starts by breaking down language into its many different component abilities: vocal imitation, the ability to generate complex new phrases, the ability to encode and decode meaning, and so on. Biologists can then look for precursor abilities in our nearest ancestors (other primates) or for analogous abilities in more distant cousins: mammals, birds or reptiles.

“Vocal imitation is a crucial prerequisite for spoken language, but we now know that other primates have very little ability to imitate speech or other sounds. In fact, the only nonhuman species which can imitate vocally are cetaceans (dolphins and whales), seals, and many bird species such as talking parrots. Because birds and dolphins have a completely different sound producing system and very different brains from humans, that leaves seals as the only animals who can imitate human speech using mechanisms like our own.”

Scientists know seals can imitate speech based on one famous harbour seal called Hoover, who after being orphaned in 1971 was raised by Maine fishermen. When he grew larger, he was donated to the New England Aquarium in Boston. Much later, when he became sexually mature, Hoover began to speak in plain English, which was both clearly understandable and had an unmistakable Maine accent.

Dr Fitch explained: “This time delay is reminiscent of bird song learning: young birds learn the song in the nest but don’t begin singing themselves until they mature. Unfortunately, there is very little else known about seal imitation, and Hoover has since died”

Dr Fitch will work with fellow experts at St Andrews, as well as at the St Andrews Aquarium, which has three resident harbour seals.

Dr Fitch is a recent recruit to St Andrews from Harvard University, where he researched communication in humans and various vertebrates including alligators, birds and monkeys at the Biology and Psychology departments.

He is author of a number of papers on the evolution of speech including “The evolution of speech: a comparative review” (Trends in Cognitive Sciences) and with Marc Hauser and Noam Chomsky, “The Language Faculty: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?” (Science).


Dr Fitch is an expert in the evolution of cognition in animals and man, focusing on the evolution of communication. Originally trained in ethology and evolutionary biology, he has more recently applied his graduate training in speech science to understanding the physics and physiology of animal vocal communication. He is interested in all aspects of vocal Communication in terrestrial vertebrates, particularly aspects of vocal production that bear on questions of meaning in animal communication systems, including human language. He is particularly interested in the evolution of language, and has stressed the value of a comparative approach to this problem, using data from diverse living species to address this peculiarly human characteristic.

For further information about language evolution see:

Fitch, W. T. 2000. The evolution of speech: a comparative review. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 258-267.

Hauser, M., Chomsky, N. & Fitch, W. T. 2002. The Language Faculty: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science, 298, 1569-1579.

There is one scientific article on Hoover: Ralls, K., Fiorelli, P. & Gish, S. 1985. Vocalizations and vocal mimicry in captive harbor seals, Phoca vitulina. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 63, 1050-1056. And a picture and sounds on the New England Aquarium web site:

Further weblinks: l


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