Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Linquists Battle Over Bigfoot Language

Does Bigfoot have defined phonemes? Phonemes are distinct units of sound, like vowel sounds. 

"The vocalizations are an amateur impression of how a proto-language might sound if it evolved from non-human primates" -- Karen Stollznow of Scientific American on the Morehead/Berry tapes.

We are NOT big fans of lazy skeptics. Good skeptics on the other hand are healthy for our research. Ones that have held our feet to the fire are Sharon Hill of Doubtful News and a Huffington Post contributor and Brian Dunning of Skeptoid. Skeptics, in my opinion, are just like witches in OZ, there are good ones and bad ones.

We are not quite sure what category Scientific America's Karen Stollznow. Ms. Stollznow has  Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of New England and seems to be critical of Scott Nelson's credentials. To catch you up, Scott Nelson retired from the Navy after a 17-year career as a crypto-linguist, intercepting Russian communications and decoding them. While his son was listening to the Morehead and Berry Bigfoot audio recordings (a/k/a Sierra Sounds) he detected patterns and perhaps even language.

After Karen introduces the general public on types of Sasquatch evidence she dives right into the possibility of Bigfoot language and the Morehead/Berry Tapes:
A fascinating category of evidence involves claims of a Bigfoot language. Eyewitnesses report hearing howls, whoops, growls, screams, mumbles, whistles and other strange vocalizations in the wild, and attribute these to Bigfoot. Variant forms of Bigfoot are found across cultures, and the Sasquatch, Himalayan Yeti, Australian Yowie and other alleged creatures are similarly believed to produce vocalizations. Other Bigfoot communication includes the mimicry of wildlife and forest sounds, wood-knocking, rock-knocking and rock-throwing. Bigfoot is also thought to form patterns with sticks and rocks as a kind of writing system. In wilder claims about wild men, Bigfoot are believed to have the ability to communicate telepathically, and use their large feet to send infra-sound communication over long distances. Bigfoot are also claimed to speak and understand human languages, and to have their own Bigfoot language.

There is little evidence to support these claims, other than the anecdotal kind. The Sierra Sound recordings, also known as the Berry/Morehead tapes, are touted as the gold-standard of evidence for a Bigfoot language. During a number of expeditions to the Sierra Nevada Mountains between the years 1972-1975, Alan Berry, Ronald Morehead and their crew captured audio recordings of alleged Bigfoot encounters. They recorded a total of 90 minutes of Bigfoot language and vocalizations using a microphone dangled from a tree branch attached to a reel-to-reel recorder. Over the years they also found 18-inch footprints of Bigfoot, and experienced many sightings…just not during the recordings!

Morehead and Berry (until his death in 2012) staunchly deny that the recordings are a prank. However, for a number of reasons, it is highly probable that the recordings are a hoax, or that the crew were hoaxed. The expeditions were undertaken specifically to hunt for Bigfoot. “Bigfoot” was heard but never seen when the recordings were made. It is obvious that other animals made some of the sounds, such as bears. The wood knocks are easy to re-create, while the “language” itself is unconvincing. The vocalizations are an amateur impression of how a proto-language might sound if it evolved from non-human primates. This “Bigfoot” is likely human, and the Sierra Sounds a combination of hoax and misidentification, like all of the other evidence for Bigfoot.
Sounds like she has already reached a conclusion. What is unfortunate is we were hoping her critique would come more from a linguist perspective, but her conclusion, as you will read below,  is that looking into Bigfoot language is putting the cart before the horse. She thinks we should be looking for a body first. Not only is this a disappointment, because it would have been great to get another linguist's perspective, but it  also a flawed argument. If this was the prevailing logic we would have never tried to decipher the cuneiform text left on clay tablets by the Sumerians.

Here is her non-linguistic based argument:

Self –proclaimed “Bigfoot language expert” R. Scott Nelson has taken the Bigfoot language claims one-step further. As though it is the Linear B of Bigfoot language to be deciphered, Nelson has created a transcription of the Sierra Sound Recordings. He is a retired U.S. Navy Cryptologic Technician Interpreter who speaks Russian, Spanish and Persian. He also believes he can speak “Bigfoot”.

Nelson claims he has identified not only vocalizations such as whistles, grunts, and snarls, but also individual phonemes, i.e., the sounds that combine to create words. Nelson has created a pronunciation key for these phonemes, and he uses the Latin alphabet, diacritics and various other symbols to represent these sounds. He calls this the Sasquatch Phonetic Alphabet (SPA), or the Unclassified Hominid Phonetic Alphabet (UHPA). It is unclear why he doesn’t use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the standardized representation of the sounds of spoken language.

Bilingualism (speaking two or more languages) and working as a translator doesn’t qualify someone to identify or describe undocumented languages. This is an area of anthropological linguistics, although it appears as if many cryptozoological fans confuse “crypto-linguistics” as a field that researches the language of cryptids. The Sierra Sounds are used not only to support the claim of a Bigfoot language, but also to legitimize claims of Bigfoot’s existence. As Nelson argues, “The existence of the Sasquatch Being is hereby assumed, since any creature must exist before his language.” However, there are still prior questions. Does Bigfoot exist, and if so, could Bigfoot speak?

For arguments sake, if Bigfoot did exist, the species would likely have developed its own system of communication, like chimpanzees and Vervet monkeys. Similar to the claims of the (so far mythical) Orang-Pendek, Bigfoot would probably communicate using vocalizations. However, non-human primates don’t have the physiology to produce a wide variety of speech sounds, so it is unlikely that Bigfoot would have developed language, or would be able to speak existing human languages. At any rate, this is all starting off on the wrong (Big)foot. There is no solid physical evidence to support the existence of Bigfoot. Before we establish the existence of Bigfoot language, we would need to establish the existence of Bigfoot.
You can read her full article at the Scientific American Blog


  1. I think, we have to figure out just what Bigfoot is, or purports to be. A monkey/ape with animal vocalizations, or a possible "missing link" with human language skills. Our group has found that howling and knocking on trees no longer works, as even though we are very rural, people now howl and knock on trees back. TV Bigfoot hunting shows have the farmers and backwoods loving folk happily responding to whatever noised the group makes. Part of the problem is also Bigfoot throat structure, what noises CAN they make. So until we find a Bigfoot (even a dead one would allow us to figure out what sounds they would be capable of making), we're stuck with speculation. It's fun, but come on, bring home the Bigfoot!

  2. Being able to speak several languages does not make one a linguist. Having a background in linguistics, I have also listened to Sierra Sounds and fantasized about decoding a Bigfoot language. But, you would need more than more language sample in order to do that. One can not decode a language's morphology and phonology from one sample.

  3. My sister is a Phd. She's an idiot too.

    1. I have a PhD and I can attest that your sister is far from alone.

      Higher education is not about being smart it is about knowing how to play the academic game

  4. She is ASSUMING that Sas do not have the vocal ability based on the anatomy of an ape. They are not mere apes. And I have heard them speak. Seems to me this PhD is just another closed-minded, nay-saying scoftic.

    1. Anon you are full of shit!

  5. I'm disappointed at the Doctor's dismissal of the entirety of Sasquatch evidence. It shows closed-mindedness and a lack of romantic curiosity unfitting of a scientist or researcher.

    Its very easy to say "Sasquatch doesn't exist," because we havent found a body. But as we all understand, Gorillas didn't spring into being the moment a scientist shot one. It takes more bravery to keep an open enough mind to accept the possibility of the otherwise implausible accounts. The whole of human knowledge would be much more limited if everyone held to her mindset.

  6. Dr. Stolznow makes some very good points that are certainly giant holes in the idea of Sasquatch language. Thanks for linking to this, Guy.

    I am surprised that most cryptozoology people are unaware of the podcast Monster Talk that Karen co-hosts with Blake Smith and Ben Radford. They bring in actual scientists to talk about crypto-stuff and it is BY FAR the best crypto podcast out there - that is, if you really want to examine the claims and not just talk about speculation and what you want to be true. They are very fair minded.

    I don't appreciate that commentators just call people they don't agree with names. This happens on the worst of the Bigfoot blogs and has given the field a reputation far removed from respectable.

    Dr. Stoltznow does not dismiss evidence and is not closed minded. She is assessing it based on what we know to be true. To discard everything we know about zoology and linguistics to shoe horn in an unknown like Bigfoot is truly closed minded because it's based on belief, not sound evidence, logic and premises.

  7. Again I feel the need to point out that those supporting the existence of Bigfoot or their abilities by asserting that they, and I am para-phrasing here, are "not mere apes or monkeys", or could be some kind of "missing link or hybrid human" are not helping the discussion being taken seriously by the Scientific Academic communities. Why? Because we Homo sapiens ARE members of the Great Ape family and if the Bigfoot do turn out to be our closest living relatives they TOO would be fellow members of our Family The Hominidae (Great Apes).

    And the idea of a "missing link" is a scientific fallacy that the media loves to perpetuate by not actually doing the proper research or having someone with a scientific background vet their news items. Evolution is a painfully slow and gradual process which is taking place in our cells and DNA constantly without our knowing it, for example it has taken 5 to 7 MILLION years for humans and chimpanzees to evolve into what we are today from our common ancestor. Maybe if we had a representational skeleton of every current species past ancestry, from every 50,000 years or, so we could piece together a fairly comprehensive natural history, but the odds of those surviving to be discovered are very slim. It would be great if someone ends up discovering a human ancestor that also shows traits that would fit with the witness record of Bigfoot, as this could help show that there existence is possible and that we did diverge from a common species at some point. Until we have a much better fossil record spanning many millenia, or a legitimate DNA analysis is brought forth (DNA represents the cellular record of our Evolution), there is no proof of whether or not they are indeed Apes LIKE US, or a totally separate creature that evolved totally independently of any currently living species.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    2. Fuck you admin!

    3. Nadia...Say what thy will. Sasquatch are not apes anymore then humans are apes. If you knew the truth you would understand that these beings exist what ever name you or anyone gives them. There are plenty of reasons why many do not believe they exist etc as we are educated by so called experts that know nothing; but, how to lie and put out disinformation. Seen one so go on whitewashing reality.

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