Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Dolphin Language

Posted: Jan 22, 2014 14:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 13:01

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The textbook I am using in my grammar class, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English, suggests that humans are unique in that they are the only species known to show abstract language use in the wild (they do mention the example of chimpanzees that have been trained to use sign language).


Very recent research, however, provides a potential counter example: Dolphin names. It has long been known that dolphins communicate with each other verbally. And since the 1960s, researchers have believed that individual dolphins use a “signature whistle” to identify themselves that is recognised by others in their population. What is new, however, is the evidence that dolphins use the signature whistles of other dolphins to refer to them—that is to say, recognise a particular whistle sequence as being symbolic of a particular individual dolphin, distinct from themselves.


This use of arbitrary signals to refer to a specific object, if true, would invalidate the claims in Brinton and Brinton that the symbolic use of language is unique to humans. It would also represent quite a discovery about dolphins. Until now, dolphin “language,” like that of other animals, has for the most part been understood to be indexical rather than symbolic. As one researcher put it:


Deciphering “dolphin speak” is also tricky because their language is so dependent on what they’re doing, whether they’re playing, fighting, or going after tasty fish. It’s no different for humans. Think about when you raise a hand to say hello. Under other circumstances, the same gesture can mean good-bye, stop, or that something costs five bucks. It’s the same for dolphins. During fights, for example, dolphins clap their jaws to say “back off!” But they jaw clap while playing, too, as if to show who’s king of the underwater playground.

“I have not found one particular dolphin behavior that means the same thing every time you see it,” says Dudzinski. “If you like mysteries and detective work, then this is the job for you.” And who knows—maybe someday you’ll get a phone call from a dolphin.


If this new research is correct, however, dolphin “names” would represent an exception: calling an individual dolphin’s signal whistle would appear to mean the same thing—and have the same arbitrary referent—in each case.

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