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(Big)foot in Mouth: Bigfoot Language

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.

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

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