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(Big)foot in Mouth: Bigfoot Language

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Human characteristics are attributed to many legendary creatures. As part of this anthropomorphization, these mythological animals are often given language abilities. Fairies, elves, gnomes, goblins and genies of folklore speak human languages, and usually in addition to their own tongues. Many fiction writers have created artificial languages and writing systems for these creatures, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s Elvish languages. As for the undead, vampires retain the language skills they had when they were still alive. Zombies are no longer sparkling conversationalists, but they can still mutter “brains!” In popular paranormal theory, ghosts and spirits are believed to communicate with the living, although they often require a medium, or a device designed to contact the dead.

Cryptids are alleged animals whose existence has not been proven scientifically, like the Loch Ness Monster. According to legend, some cryptids are believed to have language skills too, especially hybrid-human creatures, such as Spring-heeled Jack, the Mothman, mermaids, and monkey men. An early version of the mythical goat-sucking chupacabra could allegedly understand Spanish, although not speak it. There are numerous anecdotal reports that the Indonesian cryptid Orang-Pendek (“small human”) communicates using vocalizations similar to non-human primates. What about the most infamous cryptid of all: Bigfoot?

The evidence for Bigfoot is abundant, but not compelling. There is a wealth of eyewitness and folkloric evidence, while cryptozoologists, Bigfoot hunters and tourists have collected numerous examples of physical evidence, including Bigfoot tracks, samples of hair and blood, and photographs and videos of alleged Bigfoot. However, proving the existence of Bigfoot is not about quantity of evidence, but quality, and the quality of evidence is poor. Photos are blurry and unconvincing, and footprints prove to be pranks. Through DNA testing the physical samples are revealed to come from bears or other animals, and there are never specimens of Bigfoot bodies or bones. Despite the ongoing controversy regarding the authenticity of the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film, the evidence for Bigfoot is invariably revealed to be cases of mistaken identity, or hoaxes.

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.

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.

Images: Top: frame 352 from the Patterson-Gimlin film taken on October 20th, 1967, claiming to depict Bigfoot/Sasquatch/Colton. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Beao. Other three images, by the Author.

Karen Stollznow About the Author: Karen Stollznow is a linguist, columnist and the author of God Bless America, Haunting America and Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic. She received her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of New England, Australia, and she lives in Denver, Colorado. Follow on Twitter @karenstollznow.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 17 Comments

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  1. 1. Jerrold Alpern 1:59 pm 07/24/2013

    Take a look at “Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie and Other Famous Cryptids” by Donald Prothero and Daniel Loxton. Also Prothero’s recent post “Bigfoot DNA? It’s Playing Possum” on Skepticblog, http://www.skepticblog.org/2013/07/10/bigfoot-dna-bogus/. Together, they thoroughly demolish the last shred of credibility for Bigfoot. Even in a humorous context, what is the point of allowing the possibility that Bigfoot could exist? Would you grant the possibility that creationism is science, and should therefore be taught in science classrooms? I doubt it. It’s the identical situation except that creationists pose a major threat to public school education worldwide. Bigfoot advocates represent the same danger, but their small numbers allow you to trivialize it.

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  2. 2. Percival 6:21 pm 07/24/2013

    “Nelson has created… 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.”

    Well, the IPA is designed to transcribe the sounds of spoken *human* languages. It is not unreasonable to assume that Bigfoot has vocalizing hardware somewhat different from that of humans and would therefore make a different range of sounds, including some that humans would have trouble replicating exactly.

    But yeah, it would be nice to have their hardware on hand to examine.

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  3. 3. kienhua68 8:01 pm 07/24/2013

    It’s all imagination.

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  4. 4. Mythusmage 11:24 pm 07/24/2013

    Jerrold, was it an honest assesment, or self serving?

    As to discovery, methinks finding bigfoot is going to take two steps. first, finding the evidence; second, accepting the evidence?

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  5. 5. way2ec 2:56 am 07/25/2013

    I put Bigfoot in the same camp as the elves and fairies. There are millions of people who “believe” in elves and fairies and all the rest and don’t pose a threat to science. They, the elves and fairies and gnomes and trolls enrich our lives, right along with Bigfoot and all the dearly departed ghosts and goblins. The science crossovers are Superman, Batman, Flash Gordon, Transformers, WonderWoman, Star Trek, etc. and most of all Martians, and aliens of all sorts. I knew about the Martian canals before I knew anything else about the Red Planet. What would my life be without ALL the myths and legends from all over the world. Working through problems such as how did all the animals and their food (and don’t forget every kind of plant on the planet, the plants aren’t mentioned in the Bible) fit onto the Ark, AND how did all those plants animals get back to all the continents, did more for my science education than reading about Madam Curie dying of radiation poisoning. Genetic bottlenecks? Adam and Eve, their surviving son Cain, followed by another bottleneck with Noah’s family, and now 7+ billion people? Jesus has to be some kind of clone with only two grandparents instead of four unless God in his “wisdom” used some kind of sperm, an XY was or wasn’t present. Let’s not forget dinosaurs, my personal favorite is that the fossils were put in the ground to test our faith, followed by they died and were buried in Noah’s Flood (guess he decided not to put them onto the Ark), and or were created on one of the six days of Creation but just didn’t get written into Genesis, but Adam and Eve would have seen them. Here in this article we have the incredible multilingualism of everything from genies to Bigfoot let alone how ghosts might both remember their languages and be able to register their “voices” on our ears. And we haven’t even mentioned angels! It’s just all so wonderful. Dick Tracy’s watch to Star Trek, how to have the First Day without yet a sun and a planet, what to do with all the water from the Flood, are viruses really alive and when did God create them, I would so LOVE to have Bigfoot’s genetic code from a hair, a toenail, anything… right up there with waiting for evidence of life on Mars. Sorting out creationism from science facts and theory is no more difficult than sorting out billions of galaxies expanding into “nothingness” for 13+ Billion years after the unimaginable Big Bang or going the other way and cutting a Plank length “in half”.

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  6. 6. Richard Freeman 7:56 am 07/25/2013

    This is an appallingly poorly researched piece of writing. Spring Heeled Jack, Mothman. monkey-man and mermaids are not the remit of cryptozoology. It seems you have selected them to make cryptozoological researchers look like mad men. Thylacines, giant anaconda, yeti these are some of the creatures that fall under the cryptozoological remit. Cryptozoology is the study of unknown animals not urban legends or fairy tales.
    I’ve been studying orang-pendek for ten years. No one suggests it has a ‘language’. I’ve heard it’s vocalizations many times. They are the calls of an ape.
    Also, were you aware that Lars Thomas of Copenhagen University has examined orang-pendek hair and concluded that its owner was related to but distinct from Pongo abelii and that there was ‘a large unknown primate in Sumatra’.Before you make judgements on things try living in the Jungles of West Sumatra for a bit.

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  7. 7. jgrosay 3:49 pm 07/25/2013

    OK: ‘god bless America’, yeah!, but which god? what kind of god? are all those who present themselves as ‘god’ truly divine? Because ‘god’ comes from a root meaning ‘the one which is invoked’, and you can invoke many beings, from minutemen to the local police. In putting yourself under someone else’s protection, you must be fully sure who you’re dealing with, and nobody has ever seen the one who made heaven and earth.

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  8. 8. Falstaffe 12:23 am 07/26/2013

    I haven’t picked up a copy of a Skeptic journal in a couple of decades, but evidently I don’t have to in order to be exposed to the Skeptics’ agenda and fallacies.

    When I last picked up a Skeptic journal, it was full of articles by MDs trying to discredit “the competition” – so-called New Age healers and alternative medicine practitioners. The chief fallacy the MD-Skeptics employed was the closed shop fallacy: “I have a degree and you don’t, so I can dismiss any statement of yours arbitrarily.”

    Karen Stollznow uses the same fallacy in trying to discredit her “linguistic competitor”, R Scott Nelson. “Bilingualism (speaking two or more languages) and working as a translator doesn’t qualify someone to identify or describe undocumented languages,” Karen says. Why not? Because they don’t have Karen’s degree? I think someone who has been transcribing and translating multiple languages since about the time Karen was learning to spell would be well-experienced in language identification and description.

    The problem with the closed shop fallacy is its black-and-white quality: if I have a degree in a subject, I can claim absolute authority for myself and an absolute lack of authority for those without my degree. Such a position ignores questions of quality. I know a recent graduate who received a bare pass – 50% – in one his subjects, yet as a result is now qualified to practice in his chosen field. I also know brilliant amateurs who outperform many people with degrees.

    I find it incredible that a doctor of linguistics would say, “Before we establish the existence of Bigfoot language, we would need to establish the existence of Bigfoot.” Linguists continue to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language without being able to say definitively where the Proto-Indo-European speakers lived, much less who they were – and this without the benefit of an audio recording. If we were to go by Karen’s dictate of establishing the existence of Proto-Indo-Europeans before we establish their language, linguistics would be a very different subject.

    Linguistic theories arise and continue and spark debates quite well without the benefit of definitive empirical evidence, merely on the basis of postulates. Structuralism, generativism and cognitive linguistics, anyone? Definitive empirical evidence would settle the debates which led to the formation of these theories, rendering them and their models unnecessary. It’s precisely because they’re based on postulates that they continue. Similarly, I see no impediment in developing a theory of a language which proceeds from the postulate that Bigfoot exists. I may not subscribe to it, but I can’t say it’s on any shakier ground than Proto-Indo-European or generative linguistics.

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  9. 9. rvanduyse 4:50 pm 07/26/2013

    It is interesting that you site the wide distribution of reports spanning the globe, the Patterson film which no scientific analysis has proved a hoax, how could you not leave open the possibility of this creature? While the claims to language are premature as is your point, the fact that many an ear-witness to such sounds can be found. I myself heard such sounds that could only be formed by human or primate, but far exceeded the range of human ability. This has me in the camp of those who do no longer believe in such a creature, but those who know they indeed exist.

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  10. 10. rvanduyse 5:08 pm 07/26/2013

    Jerrold your skepticism is duly noted, however you have to contend with 1000s of credible eyewitness reports of such a creature, police officers, firemen, folks from all walks of life that have seen this large hairy bipedal through no fault, or concoction of their own. I would point you to the geographical relevance of such sightings to demonstrate that this is not a matter of hysteria, I would challenge you to research the sightings posted on the BRFO and do some link them to Google Earth.

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  11. 11. Daniel Loxton 8:10 pm 07/28/2013

    A great post from Karen Stollznow. It makes a good complement to my new book with Donald Prothero (Abominable Science). No book on the topic of cryptozoology can truly be comprehensive, and one sub-topic not critiqued in the book is that of alleged Bigfoot vocalizations. I’m pleased to see this introduction appear under the Scientific American banner.

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  12. 12. Paleorhino76 8:38 pm 07/28/2013

    Thanks for the plus for “Abominable Science,” Jerrold. However, I think you misread Karen’s post. If you reread it, you will see that she clearly is NOT a Bigfoot believer. She’s just a bit more diplomatic in the way she says this.

    Donald Prothero

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  13. 13. rvanduyse 10:07 am 07/30/2013

    It is ignorance to think you know something does not exist because you cannot prove it does. Real science is not willfully ignorant of the truth. Jeff Meldrum has documented the biological nature of tracks he has eye witnessed, as well as cast. If you say they are all hoaxed you obviously have not read any of his findings, which are conclude proves only your unwillingness to honestly examine the evidence. Religion takes on all forms, and to many of you science is your blind faith to hide behind, your more afraid of the truth than you realize.

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  14. 14. karl 3:03 pm 08/1/2013

    speaking from an authoritative shoe size 13.5 can say that bigfoot sounds are NOT a structured language, rather the nitromethane burning exhalations are used to denote power (I am the first to admit that redneck yelling might cut down on high pitched sounds, but the remaining sample yields no structure other than that proper of an Otto Cycle engine) sources Gravedigger III and the original Bigfoot itself.
    as for the Planet of the Apes extra suit, I have heard that the “hardest” evidences are suspect themselves (the film was made by someone with a semipro cammera, and was close to the guy that made the original Planet of the Apes suits).

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  15. 15. dr_mabeuse 3:51 pm 08/1/2013

    “It is ignorance to think you know something does not exist because you cannot prove it does.” What a preposterous statement! So you’re saying I can’t be sure the tooth fairy doesn’t exist because I can’t prove that she does? Then by the same argument we can’t be sure that elves, brownies, and mermaids don’t exist?

    That’s fine for faith-based knowledge, but science doesn’t work like that. In science, proof of existence is required, either through verifiable empirical evidence, or by necessary inference from other verifiable phenomena. That’s how science separates fairies from facts. I really don’t much care if Bigfoot exists or not, but until I see hard, verifiable evidence in place of dubious, anecdotal, and ambiguous recordings and sightings, I’m going to apply Occam’s Razor and say the simplest explanation is probably the right one: they’re fakes.

    And saying that our ignorance of just who produced strange and cryptic writings doesn’t keep us from studying them is just a false analogy when applied to the study of “Bigfoot-ese”. Because we do know who produced these dead languages: human beings. Whereas with the bigfoot recordings, there’s not even very good evidence they were really produced by bigfoot and not random forest sounds. Imagine trying to develop a lexicon for some mysterious and unknown script that was later discovered to be nothing more than the muddy tracks left by birds as they hopped over the paper.

    No. The burden of proof (or even plausibility) is entirely in the pro-Bigfoot camp. You’d better come up with some proof and it had better be good.

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  16. 16. taffazull 12:54 am 08/2/2013

    There is a type of bigfoot reportedly in Kashmir caleed “Ban Bhuda”(Old man of the forest). It is said to have feet directed backwards and I have heard numerous reports of it calling people loudly by their names. One such report was by a very respected mountaineer and pioneer hiker and Director of winter sports project here who described his encounter on television in an interview ( I think his name was Colonel Kumar). The fact that it knows the names of persons and calls them by their names makes me believe that it is in the same genre as “Ghosts” whatever they are (Hallucinations or psychical phenomena) and can leave no permanent physical evidence of itself.

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  17. 17. justinthorne 5:29 pm 08/17/2013

    Just wanted to note the author states that the people recording never saw the creatures during their expedition. However if you actually read the book or listened to even a small fraction of the samples you would know they briefly saw the creature a number of times as stated in many of the recordings. This kind of ruins the validity of this article to me, as it appears you wrote a lengthy article without actually reviewing any of the evidence. To me this is more of an article about the idea of bigfoot language than the actual recordings. Which I would agree pretty ludicrous, to think a bigfoot could exist and could talk. But I still recommend actually listening and reading the evidence before writing an article about it, or else you look like one of the thousands of idiots that think they actually see this thing.

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