‘Imitation is as crucial to the acquisition of speech as it is to learning gesture,’ writes Christine Kenneally in The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. As infants we mimic our parents’ or guardians’ language as part of a natural process of learning our unique version of it, going from babbling to building novel sentences in a remarkably short time. (Birds, bats and dolphins are also said to have a babbling phase.)
As we get older we remain impressed by skilled mimicry, be it impressions of other accents or the more peculiar ability of some animals to make sounds like we do. We are amused and intrigued by any creature that can mimic human speech despite the considerable anatomical differences. Videos of ‘talking’ cats and dogs abound on YouTube, to say nothing of birds and elephants.
A more surprising example is the seal. Kenneally’s book describes the case of Hoover, a harbour seal who became famous for his human impersonations:
Hoover didn’t ‘talk’ until he reached sexual maturity, but once he started, he improved over the years. He spoke only at certain times of the year (not as much in the mating season) and would reputedly adopt a strange position in order to do so. He didn’t move his mouth. Terrence Deacon [Anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley] recounts stumbling across Hoover while walking near the aquarium one evening. He thought a guard was yelling at him (‘Hey! Hey! Get outta there!’).
Harbour seals may seem unlikely mimics, but they have a wide range of vocalisations — especially among sexually mature males. You can read a short account of Hoover’s life story at the New England Aquarium website, which also has a short audio clip of Hoover ‘talking’. It’s a funny, slurring sound, like the gruff scolding of an ill-tempered janitor.
Evolutionary biologist Tecumseh Fitch hosts a few more files of Hoover’s ‘speech’ on his page at the University of St Andrews. Fitch says Hoover’s ability is all the more interesting because ‘vocal learning of complex sounds’ has not been found in any non-human primate, and the animals skilled in such learning — such as song birds and cetaceans — do not use the same organs that we do.
Hoover died in 1985 but his legacy continues in his grandson Chacoda, aka Chuck, who seems to have inherited this remarkable ability.
Update: Another note on Hoover’s vocalisations, and accent, appears in Terrence Deacon’s book The Symbolic Species:
Opinions were mixed on where and how he learned these phrases. Some were convinced that he learned them from the staff, or was taught by them as he began to vocalize in ways that sounded speechlike; but the story that seemed to ring true was that he sounded just like the old fisherman who originally took him in, years before. I thought from the beginning that he had sort of a down-east, old-salt accent.