Hollywood Vs. Science: What If Mermaids Were Real?

Mermaids are not real. Seductive yet dangerous, corporeal yet just out of reach, they personify the ever-shifting nature of water. And while some mythologists speculate mermaids are the anthropomorphization of manatees by (astonishingly pent-up) sailors, as per Smithsonian, the image of a beautiful woman hybridized with a fish is ancient and goes all the way back to antiquity. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus records the story of the Syrian goddess Derceto who in a fit of madness killed her lover. Grief-stricken, she flung herself into a lake, changing into a fish with a beautiful human head.


From there, the mermaid became a particularly popular Middle Eastern export. By the time Hans Christian Andersen wrote the archetypal “The Little Mermaid” in 1837, Pliny the Elder already described Nereids as mermaid-like, early Christian Irish legend gained a mermaid saint called Li Ban, and France had Melusine. Of course Hollywood was going to jump on the bandwagon and ended up diversifying the myth so much that Derceto wouldn’t recognize herself.

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But for giggles, what if mermaids were real? How close does Hollywood get to what a realistic mer-organism would be, one subject to natural selection and evolutionary forces? Animal Planet took the subject on when it broadcasted two mockumentaries, “Mermaids: The New Evidence” and “Mermaids: The Body Found,” that were entirely fictional but done so well that viewers thought mermaids were actually real, reports CNN. Read on to see how close, or far, fiction is to fact.

The Song of the Sea

silhouette of mermaid on rock

For the sake of pacing, most movie mermaids are portrayed as either already knowing a human language (“The Little Mermaid”) or learning one within hours (“Splash”). Neither scenario is likely.


Firstly, mermaids would be so isolated from land that they never would have learned any human language. Moreover “native” mer-speech, and the organs involved with producing and articulating it, would have evolved in water, which the Smithsonian reminds us has a density greater than air. This would put mermaids on par with all other sound-producing sea creatures, none of whom exhibit the wide variety of sounds humans can produce. Dolphins click and “whistle”, whales sing, and some fish species grunt. “Splash” is probably closest to the truth when the mermaid Madison, played by Daryl Hannah, gave her native name in a series of glass-shattering squeaks.

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But Madison learning functional English in less than a day is pure movie magic. EF Education First estimates English would take upwards of 1,120 hours of around-the-clock study to be fluent, or around 46 solid days. So either Madison is the mermaid equivalent of a Star Trek-level supercomputer, or the writers had to figure out a way to get her talking as fast as possible and be funny doing it.


They Aren’t All “Maids”

Merman with hair flowing in water


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