Drift in communication forms


This word ‘drift’ refers to how communicative sounds can change over time. For example, the English we speak has drifted considerably from middle English which Chaucer spoke and wrote.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye

(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke

That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.


One big change not evident in the written segment from Canturbury Tales is that this was before the great vowel shift; our vowels are very different even if the written letters are the same. Likewise silent letters were generally spoken and verb tenses were marked differently. So changes in both surface structure (phonology), syntactic structures (mapping meaning into or from sound), and even deep structures (some words have different meaning). This shift happened culture wide before Shakespeare came on the scene and his language is still quite different from ours.  Then English peoples spread out a bit and we now have the various English variants from the US and different regions, Canada, Australia, etc.

Musical forms also shift and drift from century to century, say Mozart to Stravinsky, and generation to generation, say Frank Sinatra to Bruce Springsteen. This would seem driven in part by the musical need to be just a little different and new from the old, catchy in other words, otherwise the music is relegated to the background and forgotten.

This brings me to the songs of humpback whales that change in a marvelous and so far mysterious way. In her chapter entitled ‘The Progressively Changing Songs of Humpback Whales: A Window on the Creative Process in a Wild Animal” in The Origins of Music, Katharine Payne tells of research over 32 years that demonstrates that these songs also drift. Male humpbacks sing long complex songs in their breeding grounds. The Atlantic and Pacific populations sing differently but both groups sing songs that continuously change in characteristic ways. At the end of the breeding season they are singing songs that are quite different than those they sang at the beginning and while they do not sing during their trek and time north, when they return to their tropical waters for breeding, they pick up where they left off. Holy mackerel of memory.


The beautiful humpback.  I also note that it was a female humpback in the Pacific who, when divers freed her from entangling ropes sure to kill her, swam joyously and then went and tapped each divers’ mask in a gesture of gratitude.

Now the mysterious part is that the whales sing these songs from widely separate locations taking advantage of the underwater acoustics. This makes identifying the individuals singing each song difficult, but what researchers have found is that when they separate out each song, all the whales in the group are singing the same song but not in unison. And these songs change and drift together in a natural and robust sort of choral matching. The scientists do not know how; they are looking for some whale that might lead the process but that is difficult given the ambient conditions. While they speculate that these songs serve sexual selection (as what does not these days?), everybody singing the same song does not seem the height of competition. Maybe there are nuances here that we are not privy too, like Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen both singing ‘Nature Boy.’ In any event the humpback whales do seem to engage in a group creative sing that changes and drifts according to their own amusement. Thank you, Katharine Payne, for some really beautiful science.

I cannot resist adding two selections of human creativity in linguistic production that have gone mostly unmatched. The first is from Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky.”

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

I say mostly unmatched because the word ‘mimsy’ was picked up and used in a movie a few years ago, The Last Mimsy. And here is a passage from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.


Three quarks for Muster Mark!
    Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark
    And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.
    But O, Wreneagle Almighty, wouldn’t un be a sky of a lark
    To see that old buzzard whooping about for uns shirt in the dark
    And he hunting round for uns speckled trousers around by Palmer-
        stown Park?
    Hohohoho, moulty Mark!

This is the passage that Murray Gell-Mann, the noted physicist, perused as he thought about what smaller units composed elementary particles. So we have quarks everywhere now it seems. The creativity of social communication goes forward in so many ways.

Finally, few books over the years have stood out for their genius in presenting the research, theory, and evolving questions about the roots of our humanity. One is Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience and now I add, even though I have not yet finished it, The Origins of Music. I appreciate so much having the opportunity to read such books. Wow!   Travel on.



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