Why Raven gave us language

Illustration: Larry Vienneau Jr.

Illustration: Larry Vienneau Jr.

The Ohlone, first people of Muwekma (the San Francisco area) tell us that Raven gave us language so that we might confound ourselves. We could use this shiny tool to tell tales, but we might also lose track of where these tales hinged on actual experiences. Of course this is fine in an imaginal world populated with unseen forces and expressed in emotions and feelings about relationships, but when we need to come to agreements these loose hinges of understanding can become problematic.

Nowhere does this problem become more etched than in the scientific discussions about nature. It is fine to weave the fabric of community relations with the teachings of Coyote and Salmon, Whale and Bear. But when we want to specifically understand – and agree on what the salmon or the whale hears we need to reach into a lexicon more concise than what allegories can provide.

It is thus that I find myself in London this week as the US delegate to the International Standards Organization (ISO) working group on Underwater Acoustics Terminology. This journey began for me over ten years ago when we were collating all published scientific data on hearing thresholds of fish and marine mammals.

What we found in the few hundred papers we reviewed was that there were lots of ways researchers expressed how loud a sound was, and even more ways in how that sound was measured. Some of these terms and measuring methods could be reconciled using conversion factors, or by stripping off superfluous terms, but a lot of the data had to be discarded because it did not relate to any cohesive standard.

Even in the cases where we could reference exposure metrics to a repeatable standards, the ambiguity made the process useless in terms of informing and codifying regulations. Given that the few conservation regulations we have depend on clearly understood impacts derived from unambiguous thresholds, this loose “terminology” situation has been untenable.

Fortunately there are instruments to alleviate these confusions – in the form of national and international standards organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the ISO. So for the past ten years OCR has been participating with other academics, physicists, and stakeholder organizations to codify and dis-ambiguate the language and metrics we use to express how sound works underwater.

This ISO gathering we intend to be the completion of our work on “ISO 18405 Underwater Acoustics Terminology.” This work does not sound as urgent or romantic as “Saving the Whales!” but in the context of our marine socio-economic environment the whales cannot be saved without an indisputable vocabulary to measure and then regulate commercial, industrial, and military practices that would otherwise kill the whales.

Without this concise vocabulary Whale and Salmon may not remain in our ocean into the future to inform our tales and provide continuity to our own lives.


For more on language and communication see Michael’s book Hear Where We Are: Sound, Ecology, and Sense of Place, (Springer 2013) Chapter 2: Song of Creation – The seeds of sound communication and Chapter 5: Communication – Sound into Form

Comments? Please email me or visit the blog at Ocean-Noise.com