Animal Languages & Dolphin Discourse

“For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much… The wheel, New York, wars, and so on, whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins believed themselves to be more intelligent than man for precisely the same reasons.” – Douglas Adams

Well, was Douglas Adams joking? We’ve known for some time that dolphins might be some of our closest intellectual rivals on the planet Earth. They have distinct personalities and social behaviours, have creative impulses, can reason and think about abstract things like future events, all of which are arguably precursors to that most human trait of ‘meta-cognition’ – thinking about thinking.

The Simpsons took this cetacean intelligence to dystopian fantasy in their episode Treehouse of Horror XI: Night of the Dolphin”, where Snorky, King of the Dolphins, organises a global dolphin declaration of war on humanity that ultimately leads to the eradication of our species.They did it on porpoise

Fortunately for us, dolphins also show qualities such as empathy, altruism, and attachment. Even if human world domination is probably safe for the time being, there is a strong suggestion that cetacean talents might not end at meta-cognition. Researchers from Florida and Mississippi have discovered that the acoustic behaviour of dolphins when confronted with a difficult challenge proves what was long suspected – that they can communicate to resolve logical problems as a team.

The researchers designed a container with treats such as fish and gelatine cubes inside. Lids at each end were secured with loops that were much easier to open simultaneously – that is, if the dolphins co-operated in the task.

Dolphin communication has long been known to have the capacity for using sound to transmit meaning such as location, motivation, and identity. Similarly, instances of ‘non-verbal’ co-operation, both with other dolphins and human, have been widely reported. However, the significance of this experiment is that it irrefutably linked co-operative behaviour with dolphin communication.

When only one dolphin was working to open the container, it would make sporadic whistles or clicks. When a pair of dolphins was at the task, the frequency of these communications skyrocketed.

Put simply, these dolphins were ‘speaking’ to each other to overcome a challenge.

But is this an example of ‘language’, per se? The American Linguist Charles Hockett published his ‘design features’ of language in 1959, a set of 16 criteria that in conjunction supposedly distinguish all modes of animal communication from the Real McCoy of human language. Some of the most important ones are listed here:

The concept of ‘animal languages’ has fascinated researchers for decades, and a whole array of potential examples has been compiled before these dolphin studies, although none are perfectly convincing. The waggle dance of bee colonies is, as mentioned above, one of the closest analogues to what humans achieve with language. With reference to the position of the sun, honey bees can communicate information to their colony about the direction and distance to good sources of pollen that they have visited. There is, for example, a clear duality of patterning; the dance has two separate phases which correlate with the direction & distance on the one hand, and the perceived importance of the food source on the other. Similarly, the waggle dance shows the property of displacement in action on two levels.

However, this is in no real sense a ‘language’ as we understand the term. The waggle dance is not productive – the levels of information that can be communicated are not open-ended – and similarly, it is not reflexive – the bees cannot dance about dancing.

Another unique example that excited researchers was Nim Chimpsky, the laboratory chimpanzee whom linguists tried to teach basic syntactic structures in American Sign Language.

His name was a pun on Noam Chomsky, whose flagship theory of Universal Grammar claims syntax as a unique and hardwired capacity proper to the human brain. The researchers effectively hoped to disprove this theory by raising this chimpanzee in conditions akin to those of a human child, and constantly exposing him to American Sign Language. While Nim did learn 125 unique signs with specific referents, and managed to combine them into some extremely rudimentary three- or four-unit ‘sentences’, few people were able to argue from the effort-intensive experiment that Nim’s output was anything like human sign language. And it was certainly nothing like the effortless acquisition of multiple languages by a human child in a bilingual environment.

There is, of course, a need for great caution with experimental studies such as these examples, and indeed this most recent dolphin study. We now conclusively know that dolphin vocalization is used in a co-operative way to solve tasks in teams. What we can’t do is simply proclaim that the communication of even these most intelligent mammals is directly akin to a linguistic system like ours. The consensus is that no form of animal communication that as heretofore been thoroughly studied is actually a real language; and as such, the ‘animal translation industry’ will remain in the realm of science fiction for some time. However, the suggestion is that the recent advances in our understanding of dolphin communication could lead to more groundbreaking discoveries about their systems in the future.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

  • Arbitrariness: The lack of an intrinsic or logical connection between a sound form and its associated meaning. The English word ‘ball’ bears no real resemblance to the object it represents, and by convention could be called anything else. The exception to this rule is onomatopoeic words, which display iconicity – a relationship of resemblance between form and meaning.
  • Duality of patterning: Languages are comprised of (at least) two levels of coding; for instance, human language combines meaningless phonic parts to make meaningful words, which are then incorporated into a higher syntactic structure to express a proposition with a sentence.
  • Semanticity: Certain sound patterns are linked to specific meanings.
  • Displacement: The capacity to communicate about things that are not necessarily present, either in space or time. For instance, we can talk about what happened at the battle of Trafalgar, who might headline Glastonbury 2017, or what is occurring in a foreign country right now. The bee waggle dance has a displacement at two levels – through dancing, bees can communicate to their hive information about the direction and distance of new, faraway pollen sources that they have already visited.
  • Prevarication: Our ability to use language to lie, deceive, or otherwise make counterfactual or meaningless statements.
  • Productivity: Sums up von Humboldt’s idea that language ‘makes infinite use of finite means’. Babies do note rote-learn all the sentences they hear and then put them to use; we are constantly generating new structures that have never been heard before, via the application of language-specific syntactic rules.
  • Reflexivity: Language can be used to describe itself, i.e we can speak about speaking.