Do dolphins have a language?

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NOTE: This article originally appeared as an episode of The Dolphin Pod.



Do dolphins have a language? This is a fantastically interesting question, and one that researchers at the Dolphin Communication Project are asked on a regular basis. The answer can be a bit confusing unless we are all on the same page with respect to what we actually mean when we use the word ‘language’. So, before we dive head-first into this subject (which is, by the way, perhaps my favorite subject), I think we should clear up any potential confusion.


There are three important definitions or meanings for the word ‘language’ that are relevant to the question ‘do dolphins have a language’.


The first meaning is ‘language’ as a kind of metaphor or simile. When we say ‘the language of love’or ‘the language of dance’ we don’t mean that dance is the same as a spoken language like English or Chinese.. We mean that it is ‘like’ a language without actually being a language, in the same way that we can ‘sleep like a log’ without actually being a log. It is a metaphorical, or perhaps poetic, usage, which isn’t really helpful in answering the question ‘do dolphins have a language’. Surely we could proclaim that we are witnessing ‘the language of dolphins’ when we are charmed by a group of dolphins gliding gracefully through the water underneath our boats. But, this poetic usage is no more useful than referring to ‘the language of gamma rays’ when asked to describe the basic fundamentals of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and its relationship to quantum mechanics. Therefore, if we are talking about dolphin science, then this metaphorical meaning of ‘language’ simply will not do.


The second more formal definition of ‘language’ is that used by linguists and other cognitive scientists.. It is the kind of definition you will find when you look up the word ‘language’ in the dictionary. Something like the following: ‘language’ is defined as an arbitrary set of learned symbols (usually vocal) organized systematically into a logical grammar consisting of small infinitely combinatorial elements, capable of communicating concrete and abstract meaning, and shared by a group. Don’t worry – you won’t need to learn this by heart – we will discuss more about what this definition actually means later on in this podcast. If the question of ‘do dolphins have a language’ is asking if dolphins have anything like this description of language, well then we are posing a good scientific question!


But before going further with this discussion, the third definition should be presented. And, this one causes quite a lot of confusion. This meaning and usage of the word ‘language’ deems language to be any form of communication system. In this sense, it is halfway between the linguists’ definition and the metaphorical meaning. It is a very flexible definition, as I will illustrate with the following examples: scientists sometimes use this version of ‘language’ when they say things like ‘the language of birds or ‘honey bee dance language’to describe animal communication systems. But, this meaning of language can be used to describe any kind of system that communicates something. You have C++, html and java which are ‘computer programming languages’. You have ‘body language’and even the languages of formal logic and math. And, don’t forget artificial languages like Klingon. None of these are ‘true’ languages in the sense that we discussed in the linguists’ definition of language. Sometimes linguists refer to human languages as ‘natural languages’ or ‘ordinary languages’ in order to differentiate them from the kinds of ‘informal’ languages I just listed (like html).


Essentially this ‘informal’ definition of language is simply ‘a communication system’. For the informal version, we could easily say that dolphins have a language. Dolphins, like nearly every living thing on the planet, communicate with each other. So if the question is ‘do dolphins have a communication system’, then obviously the answer is yes. But then we could say that cats have a language, kangaroos have a language, and ants have a language. Even fleas, paramecia and bacteria have a language according to this definition. So do flowers, which are quite excellent at communicating information about their reproductive state to animals like bees. Even the cells in your body have a language – the manner in which skin cells communicate with other skin cells, nerve cells, blood cells, and so on – that is perhaps one of the most complicated communication systems around. Cells in the human body cooperate together to make up the complex combination of tissues that make you who you are. To accomplish this, cells use a complicated system of chemical signals to communicate with both neighboring and even distant cells. Without cell communication, you wouldn’t have a body. This could be called ‘the language of cells’. But, obviously if we are just answering the question ‘do dolphins have a language’ by saying, “Of course! They have a communication system just like skin cells!”, then we are going to be stuck with an exceptionally boring answer. Unless of course you are a cell biologist, at which point the phrase ‘the language of cells’ probably gets the adrenaline flowing. (No disrespect intended.)


Things only really get interesting when we want to know if the communication system used by dolphins is anything like the formal definition of language. What we are really asking is this: do dolphins have anything like a natural human language? Now that is a good question!


Obviously, we can’t answer that question until we have a good idea about what human, or ‘natural’, language is in the first place. Here is my summary of human language in 400 words or less: Human language is a supremely remarkable thing. It is far more than simply a complex system of communication. It is controlled by a mostly unconscious set of rules that allow a human to learn, speak, and understand language; what Steven Pinker calls ‘the language instinct’. Many linguists think that a complex set of language rules are present in the human brain at birth, and as a child grows and is exposed to whatever natural language its parents are speaking, these rules are modified and adjusted; forming themselves around the linguistic input, allowing the child to learn a language. Eventually the child starts developing the ability to produce language sounds, combining them together into words and eventually sentences – all under the control of a set of rules that govern things like phonetics, phonemics, phonology, syntax, prosody, semantics, and all the other systems that let a brain produce and process language. The wonder of it all is that this goes on deep under the surface – I wasn’t aware that my brain has a set of complex rules allowing me to process prosody until I started studying linguistics. Prosody describes the different kind of intonation and stress that we give words when we speak – something that our language-wired brain learns automatically when we learn a language. Clearly my brain was aware of the importance of prosody to human language – probably since (or even before) I was born. Learning a language, unlike the kind of learning it takes to tie our shoes, is something humans do spontaneously. The rules that govern human languages are, deep down, all the same; even though Spanish and Albanian might not be mutually intelligible, the underlying structure of both (and all) languages is universal. (We can thank Noam Chomsky for that little news-flash.)


So what can a human do with this language instinct? Well, some pretty amazing things! First and foremost, humans (as we have seen) can learn a language – that might sound obvious, but it would appear that without a language instinct, learning human language is impossible. Scientists have tried to teach human language to a number of animals – from chimpanzees to parrots. Some of the results have been remarkable, but the scientists have all reached the same conclusion; only a human can fully learn a human language. This isn’t so strange really – if humans were the subjects of experiments by a super-race of pigeons, I am sure the pigeon researchers would have to conclude that humans, no matter how smart we are, just can’t seem to learn to fly.


So, what else can we do with our language instinct? Well, humans can use language to refer to things in our environment – we can talk about the sky, rose bushes, James Bond, the NASDAQ, etc. This is a basic property of human language that is unlike anything found in normal animal communication systems. Although perhaps some animals do refer to things in their environment (like the alarm calls of Vervet monkeys), this ability is very rare, very limited, and not very flexible. Even more impressive, however, humans can also talk about abstract concepts like greed, fire prevention, and secularism. When you combine the “under-the-surface” mechanisms lurking in our brains that make it possible to combine sounds in supremely complex ways, together with the ability to talk about concrete and abstracts things, well then you have the recipe for human language.


Here’s another important note: all language is communication, but not all communication is language. Of course, humans use language to communicate all sorts of things to each other; language was designed by evolution to be a fantastically efficient means of conveying information. Humans can communicate how they feel, what they want for dinner, whether or nor they believe that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 was a terrible idea that prolonged the Great Depression, etc. But, this is only a subset of the kind of communication that humans engage in on a daily basis. Human beings are, in fact, in possession of a huge number of behaviors that we use to communicate with other human beings, none of which rely on language. Think about this; you don’t need language to understand the meaning of the following gestures:


• a hand shake
• a smile
• a laugh
• a shrug
rolling your eyes
• a high-five
sticking out your tongue
• a pout
• a wink


But, non-verbal communication in humans is much more than just gestures. Postures (like folding your arms or slouching), physical contact (like a hug or a punch to the gut), non-language vocalizations (like a scream, a laugh, a sob, or a whistle) – all of these things can be used to communicate without resorting to language. If you have ever visited a country where you don’t speak a word of the local language, you will soon realize how powerful these non-language communication signals can be!

So yes, language is a form of communication, but communication can happen in so many different ways – not just through language.


So, what about dolphins? Well, like all animals, dolphins have evolved a set of behaviors that allow them to communicate. Like humans, they use a variety of kinds of physical contact for communication, for example:


• a gentle nuzzle of the rostrum
• a playful bite to the dorsal fin
• an aggressive bite to the flank
• a soft petting of the melon using the pectoral fin
• a smack to the head with a fluke

They also use visual signals (sort of like human gestures) to convey information. For example, the following signals can convey frustration, threat, or anger:

• a vigorous bobbing of the head
• a wide open gaping mouth
• an S-shaped swimming position
• flared-out pectoral fins
• bubble bursts and bubble clouds


Dolphins, like chimpanzees, birds and many other animals, also use vocalizations for communication. They produce whistles, creaks, chuffs, screams, squawks, pops, chirps– a whole assortment of sounds that scientists have labeled in any number of ways. We will talk more about the ins and outs of dolphin communication in future podcast episodes. Dolphins appear to use these communicative behaviors, vocalizations, physical contact, and postures, to express all sorts of things to each other. They can communicate their emotional state (anger, frustration, contentment, affection), but also convey information about their reproductive state, age, gender, etc. What’s more, dolphins, like many animals, can learn to read each other’s behaviors and communicative signals in order to coordinate activities like feeding on fish, or even just swimming together. Sometimes, like in the town of Laguna, Brazil, dolphins can even communicate with humans in an effort to catch fish, using signals to coordinate their hunting effort. For highly social animals like dolphins, chimpanzees, and humans, the ability to communicate and interpret each other’s behavior is mighty important.


So the question remains, ‘do dolphins have anything like human language’? The simple answer to that is: as far as science has been able to determine, no they don’t.


Well, why not? If they can convey all sorts of information about their emotions and coordinate activities together, they must have something like human language, right? Well, no not really. If you remember all of the things a normal communication system is able to convey WITHOUT language (all of the body language and other subtle social things humans can do), you will quickly realize that typical animal communication systems can convey tons of useful information. I bet if you were trapped on an island with someone of the Watut people from Papua New-Guinea, and assuming you didn’t speak a word of their language (Hamtae), you might still be able to build a shelter together, share a laugh around the campfire, hunt for food, and maybe even fall in love. All of those things require an extraordinarily huge amount of communication, but not necessarily a language.


Well, what exactly are the ‘things’ that make a complicated communication system different from a language? Why don’t scientists take seriously the idea that dolphins speak ‘dolphinese’?


Following from the previous discussion, scientists at this point have no reason to believe that, unlike human language, the natural communication system of dolphins can do the following things:


• Refer to objects in their environment
• Refer to abstract concepts
• Combine small meaningful elements into larger meaningful elements
• Organize communicative elements into a systematic grammar that can produce an infinite combination of meanings
• Refer to things in the past and the future
• Learn and store in memory the meanings of hundreds of thousands of concepts and map them onto specific combinations of vocal patterns


Indeed, it is entirely true that dolphins can be taught artificial communication systems that allows them to do at least some of the things listed above (for example, refer to things in their environment and even abstract concepts). Check out the podcast titled ‘Herman’s dolphin prodigies’ for more information on this topic. But, despite their prowess in these experiments, dolphins don’t seem to use their normal communication system to do any of the human language like things I just listed. In fact, no animal communication system (with one or two small exceptions here or there) are able to do any of these things, and certainly no system other than human language can do all of them.


Of course, science might be wrong – it is entirely possible that all of the chirps and whistles are actually used to refer to things more than just general emotional states – maybe they use them to refer to objects like fish and boats, and maybe, just maybe dolphins are discussing things like Newtonian physics. Half a century ago, some researchers (like John Lilly) believed that dolphins had a communication system that was able to do these things– just like a human language, and that one day we would unravel the meaning of their language. But, scientists have spent many decades trying to find a hint of truth in these predictions, and unfortunately have not found any positive evidence. There is a possibility that some dolphin species use a ‘signature whistle’ that might refer to either themselves or other dolphins. The signature whistle is hypothesized to be a unique whistle that a young dolphin develops soon after it is born, and that might function a bit like a name. The structure and function of signature whistles is still under debate in the scientific world, and will be a topic for a future episode of the Dolphin Pod. In any event, it is generally accepted that dolphins do not have an inborn cognitive mechanism that allows them to create a highly structured grammatical system capable of combining small meaningful elements into larger meaningful elements that can refer to concrete and abstract things. In other words, dolphins don’t have anything like human language.


Scientists who study communication in dolphins (like those working with us at the Dolphin Communication Project) are trying to learn more about the kinds of communication signals dolphins do use, when they use them, in what situations and what these signals might convey for meaning. We have learned quite a lot, but there is so much more to learn! It is important for scientists studying animals to try to understand animal behavior within the context in which it evolved. Asking if dolphins have human language is much like asking if humans can use their nose like an elephant’s trunk. You might indeed find a few similarities (I, for example, can pick up an M&M with my nostril), but it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. You will learn quite a bit about what the differences in the structures are, which can be a useful lesson for sure, but you won’t learn anything about what a dolphin’s natural communication system is designed to do and how dolphins go about using it in everyday life. While dolphins might not have a human language, they do have a communication system that is just as fascinating, and just as much fun to study.



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