Common Tongue

“… when animals speak to each other, these sounds are manifest and significant to them, though they are not known to all of us.”
               - Porphyry, 270 AD

   The Common Myna has been labelled an ‘invasive’ species, where it thrives off the excess opportunities provided by urban cities and towns. Navigating the complex and ever-morphing terrain of the human landscape requires rapid adaptability, inventiveness and physical resilience. This is made possible by tightly-knit and large- scale social networks held together by a shared and highly-diverse vocal repertoire. The whistling, piping and sometimes machine-like calls of the Myna can be heard dominating the acoustic ecology of towns and cities all across VIC, NSW and QLD.

   Despite the prevalence of this species, a long trawl through available research libraries highlights a lack of research aimed at understanding the communicative capacities of the Common Myna. In response, I decided to build a device to potentially resolve this deficit by exploring and unpacking the complex details of their expansive and intricate sound-making capabilities.

   To do this, I gathered several hours worth of field recordings throughout the urban regions of Naarm. I followed Myna birds around the city as they dodged cars, fought for territory, socialised and scavenged on human waste. I then combed through these recordings and manually isolated 44 unique sound units, each ranging between 0.25 to 0.35 seconds in length. I did this by ear and by eye (with the aid of a visual spectrograph) I often slowed down calls by at least 75-50%, a technique which helped to reveal specific timbral and harmonic differences not recognisable at a standard temporal resolution. This resembles the way in which Myna birds are likely hearing their own calls, with recent research demonstrating that songbirds possess much finer temporal-auditory discrimination than we do, allowing them to hear the very complex nuances (e.g. of pitch, timbre and harmonics) contained within their own vocalisations [1]

   Therefore, for the listener’s benefit, every call in this translator is at a half-speed (-50%) resolution. Technically, a change in the speed of a sound refers to a change in both tempo and pitch. You can click on the phonemes below to hear these differences.

  • (original speed)
  • (50% speed reduction)
  • (75% speed reduction)
  • j   (original speed)
  • j   (50% speed reduction)
  • j   (75% speed reduction)
  • (original speed)
  • (50% speed reduction)
  • (75% speed reduction)

   Under close scrutiny, each of the 44 sounds in this translator are individually distinct. Certain calls share similarities (e.g. ‘e’ and ‘ʊəʳ’) although none are identical.

   After locating these distinctive sounds, I paired each of the 44 Myna call units with a corresponding English phoneme, using the International Phoneme Alphabet as a guide. I then collaborated with Xavier Burrow (coding) to create a useable text- to-sound device.

   Below you can hear a real Myna call sequence followed by a passage generated by this translator. The translated sequence has been sped up by 50%, bringing each syllable and therefore the whole sequence to its original ‘real life’ resolution, with the tempo slowed slightly in order to better match the natural rhythm of a Myna call.

  • “Once we listened, we found speech”
    English to Myna translation (50% speed increase)
  • Real Myna Call Sequence
    Recorded February 4th 2019 in Naarm

   With only 44 phonemes, English speakers are able to achieve an essentially limitless level of communication and meaning. Could a similar flexibility be available to the Common Myna? In no way does this application presume to facilitate meaningful conversation between our two species. Instead, my aim is to highlight the inherent complexity of the Common Myna’s vocal repertoire by drawing parallels between the diverse acoustic structure of their vocal repertoire and the phonemic construction of human language.

  • UI Graphics & Concept: Alex Last
  • Coding: Xavier Burrow

   [1] Dooling R, Prior N. (2017) Do we hear what birds hear in birdsong? Animal Behaviour, Volume 124, February 2017, Pages 283-289.