Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues.
17 RON MOREHEAD and SCOTT NELSON
In his book Voices In The Wilderness (Mariposa, CA; self-published; 2012; see also http://www.bigfootsounds.com), Ron Morehead promotes the view that Bigfoot/sasquatch (the North American equivalent of the Himalayan yeti) not only clearly exists but communicates using oral forms which (while not readily understood) clearly qualify to be described as language, supposedly in the strict sense of this term (but see below).
Morehead presents (not especially impressive) recordings of some such extracts on a CD which accompanies his book, and on the website his associate Scott Nelson presents transcriptions and discussion of lengthier extracts which he does not readily make available in recorded form (hence my comments below relate to his transcriptions and discussion). In addition, Morehead and Nelson appear reluctant to respond to queries regarding this material. I stress that my comments here are subject to modification as and when I do receive more information from Morehead or Nelson.
The fact that these claims involve a ‘cryptid’ (an animal not recognised by mainstream zoology) renders them all the more dramatic. But, naturally, animals as similar to humans as Bigfoot, if real, would be among the most likely non-humans to manifest behavioural and mental patterns of a linguistic nature.
Obviously, Morehead and his associates mainly cite authors who uphold positive interpretations of the non-linguistic evidence. These writers include some rather dubious commentators such as the Bigfoot-advocate Ivan Sanderson (see Morehead p. 14). Morehead also adopts a rather ‘popular’ and negative ‘anomalist’ view of science as practised by mainstream scientists; and in places (see p. 56) he advances the now widespread ‘New Age’ views regarding (for instance) the applicability of quantum physics to cryptozoology.
Morehead, Nelson and other cited commentators on the material are not trained in linguistics. Specifically, they do not offer explicit definitions of the notion ‘language’, and it is not always clear that they are adequately aware of this issue. Morehead himself can be read as equating ‘coherent’ oral communication – and perhaps even phenomena such as the unexplained clicking and quasi-metallic sounds which he and his associates reportedly heard in the Sierra Nevada – with unfamiliar manifestations of language proper. He is also very ready to interpret sounds heard just after he himself has vocalised as deliberate ‘replies’, even when no entity was actually seen; see for example p. 31.
Nelson for his part clearly knows SOME linguistics; but the term ‘crypto-linguist’, as used here to describe him, seems to refer to a person with skills in interpreting (and perhaps analysing) oral linguistic data heard or recorded in difficult conditions, rather than to a person with training or proficiency in linguistics. Such ‘crypto-linguistic’ skills would of course be RELEVANT here. However, there is a major difference between a) the task of interpreting material in a human language with which one is familiar, heard or recorded in difficult conditions, and b) the much more awkward task of analysing short samples of material which is not only recorded in less than ideal conditions but in addition is (if it is indeed linguistic in nature at all) in an altogether unknown language which is apparently non-human in origin – and thus may share far fewer features with any language known to the analyst than even altogether unrelated human languages might share.
Even some ‘pro-Bigfoot’ investigators (whether or not qualified in linguistics etc.) have expressed themselves dubious as to the claims made for auditory material of the kind in question here. For example, the anthropologist Grover Krantz (Big Footprints; Boulder, CO; Johnson Books; 1992), who regarded the existence of Bigfoot as highly probable, found ‘no compelling reason to believe that any of [the recordings in question] are what the recorders claimed them to be’ and indeed was informed by one of the very ‘university sound specialists’ cited in their support by the claimants that humans could easily imitate such sounds (pp. 133-134). While this information is rather anecdotal in character, it does cast further prima facie doubt upon the value of the ‘specialist’ endorsements of the present set of claims.
Nelson uses an idiosyncratic transcription system, the ‘Sasquatch Phonetic Alphabet’ (or more formally the ‘Unidentified Hominid Phonetic Alphabet’), supposedly a ‘variation of the English Reformed Phonetic Alphabet’. I have not been able to identify the system referred to by this last term, and the use here of the term ‘phonetic’ suggests an amateur source (though other interpretations are possible). Neither Nelson nor Morehead has replied to my queries on this matter. It is also unclear to me why Nelson chose to use a system of this kind in preference to the language-neutral International Phonetic Association Alphabet (IPAA), which would certainly be superior for such purposes to any imitated spelling system based on the phonetics of a specific known language such as English.
Nelson’s actual transcriptions and comments suggest a) that he himself does not in fact know enough linguistics for his purpose here and b) that the phonology of Bigfoot-language, if the language is genuine, appears implausibly similar to those of Indo-European languages and in particular to that of English. (This point is, of course, connected with the decision to transcribe the material into imitated spelling based on English orthography.)
Nelson also seems to believe that phonetic data (notably intonation data) in an altogether unfamiliar and ‘exotic’ language can be used as reliable indicators of: a) the emotional state of the vocalising entity (this might POSSIBLY be so but in a cross-species situation it certainly cannot be taken as given) b) whether or not the ‘utterance’ is a question, a command, a ‘direct response’, etc. Intonation patterns characteristically associated with responses, interrogatives/questions and imperatives/commands vary very considerably between human languages (some of which, for phonological reasons, make MINIMAL grammatical use of intonation) and even between accents/dialects of the same language. It is simply not possible to arrive at such judgments with any reliability when the language in question is unfamiliar, and this is again all the more the case in circumstances such as those in question here.
Ideally, what is needed is a series of analyses of all such recordings which are now or become available, by several independent analysts having suitable expertise, training and qualifications. If the proponents of claims such as these show themselves more willing to co-operate with the world community of scholars, this may eventually be achievable, and we may thus come to understand the true nature of this material.
A much expanded version of the above (with extended comments on Nelson’s transcriptions and discussion) is to appear, in two instalments, in the journal of the British skeptical group ASKE (http://www.aske-skeptics.org.uk/).
More next time!
PS: For a most interesting current exhibition (in London) on non-mainstream ideas about many subjects, see http://www.culture24.org.uk/art/painting%20&%20drawing/art439636. An excellent book is available to purchase if you can’t make the show itself.
For my own book Strange Linguistics, see:
Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.