DO THE SQUAWKS AND SQUEAKS OF DOLPHINS INDICATE A LANGUAGE?We Have Our Thoughts And A Link To The latest Research Reports for Laymen
Public Domain / Truncatus. bottlenose dolphins group
Those of us who use two way radios a lot often speak of the process of transmitting as "Squawking".
We first wrote about Dolphin Language some years ago after behavioral biologist Denise Herzing gave a widely published speech updating the public on what was then some of the latest research on the squawking of Dolphins. That speech launched quite a bit of very public discussion of the possibility that dolphins may have an actual language. Now there is evidence that certain sets of squawks may be used in "group problem solving" fueling further speculation that the obviously rich and varied signaling systems of the Dolphins may constitute a "Language". (See New Scientist April 15, 2016). Let's revisit some of our previous reporting and analysis on the issue then we'll examine this latest research news. We have to tell you though that as mariners trained in signaling systems designed to get limited but vital information across despite language barriers, as well as signaling systems that are carriers for language; we don't see real language yet. There are those of course who disagree but not linguists, not yet.
"Squawking " and "squeaking" are pretty apt descriptions for the Dolphin communications that fall into the human audible range. That's pretty much what it sounds like to us, patterned and changing clearly carrying information to other dolphins, but mostly "squawking" and "squeaking" to us. But for those of us who have been to sea, and especially been under water with the marine life, and knocked about the world a bit some human parallels come to mind. All Indo-European languages have a familiar sound to them to people born into a different Indo- European language. There is just a sort of ratio of vowel and consonant sounds and an absence of non emotional tonal information that has a familiar ring about it. Down on the heavy on the vowels end of the Indo-European spectrum is French which must have sounded familiar yet unintelligible to the first Polynesians to hear it. The Polynesians have the most vowel laden language in the Pacific Basin.
In Asia there are a number of languages that Westerners find hard to master because they have tonal elements in non emotion laden speech. Tonal elements in addition to vowels and consonants are manipulated to convey information on a routine basis. To the native Indo European speaker these Asian languages with tonal elements seem almost impossible to master due to there being a third source of information transmittal besides combinations of vowels and consonants. To the Asian native tonal language speaker the Indo-European languages are easier to learn in terms of building a vocabulary but with the missing third element of information transmittal they must seem inadequate for many purposes. The Indo European languages are in fact adequate for transmitting just about any sort of information as long as the speaker has a sufficient vocabulary. That level of vocabulary only builds up with long use and exposure to the language. So among humans, East and West have difficulty communicating but we have been able to learn each other languages over time for centuries.
To Human scientists the question of dolphin communications amounting to language is still being debated. We know for example that among the sounds made some are for communications dolphin to dolphin and some are for echo location, biological sonar. We haven't found that any one has asked the question yet if other dolphins can use the return echo of other near by dolphins. That seems likely and if so in any given pod of dolphins doing echo location without any conscious linguistic effort all the information exchanged by a human driver and his / her opposite or back seat companion is being exchanged just without the usual human acrimony. This may not be "conversation" in a linguistic sense, but there could be an awful lot more dolphin to dolphin information being exchanged during echo location "squawking" than previously surmised. We don't think that echo-location squawking can be eliminated from dolphin "language" as defined as the total of means by which dolphins convey information between and among each other. Adding to the difficulty of understanding the patterned squawks and squeaks that we are certain convey meaning is the fact that much of the Dolphin's sound producing and reception ability is out side of the human audible range.
The ancient Polynesians called Dolphins "the people who live in the sea". Science now tells us that these sea mammals have a brain to body mass ratio comparable to humans. Sailors for centuries have known that Dolphins are social and lead complex lives and are very communicative. They live into their middle 50s. Size to brain ratio wise, and in terms of body length and weight they are very similar to us. Socially they live in very complex groups in which scientists detect elements that seem awfully like "politics" . But they live in a completely alien environment from us and if they truly have elevated communications to the level of language, it is very complex and different from ours. Best of all about dolphins according to our young friend who heads up our surfing section is the fact that "They always surf naked dude!". Yea their life style looks pretty good.
In late 2013 an expert gave an address on the subject of Dolphin speech and it is now a video on "TED WEEKENDS' a feature of Huff Post. Click in , watch and listen to this presentation by Behavioral biologist Denise Herzing: HAS THIS EXPERT OBSERVED DOLPHIN SPEECH? Back then we concluded in our related post our thought, that so far the research indicates a very complex and rich signaling system, but a signaling system only. To the mariner non language transmittal signaling systems such as the international signal code can convey very vital information such as "stop your intentions and follow me", "Request pratique" (Permission to hold communications with the shore), "Crew return to ship", "The Captain is not aboard". Some of these signals transmitted by alphabet flag groups, or Morse Code by sound or flashing light can be used in limited but very logical sequences. Only two to three flags or Morse Code letters need to be displayed or transmitted for each of the following sequences. "Stop your intentions and follow me", "Maintain course at slow speed, Prepare to be boarded". At first brush this almost appears to be a "language", but there is no grammar , syntax, sentence structure, or even vocabulary. The basic meanings of the specific signals are understood across all languages by trained mariners and have very limited ability to be combined and recombined into coherent communications of anything other than basic and common information frequently needed in ship encounters. These signaling systems are very different from from language transmittal systems like alphabets or the Morse code which can be used to encrypt true language with all of its complexity. Mariners also understand the difference between signals and symbols. In the International Code of Signals the Oscar flag's universal meaning is "Man Overboard", very important information to convey. But the national flag is a symbol, rich in meaning and even emotion. Dolphins and dogs both are clearly signaling species of some sophistication. Dogs use a variety of vocalizations and body movement signals to convey information even across species. When Your dog barks you can usually distinguish between his "greeting" when you come home and his "alarm" or "hurt bark". Somehow most us of know that when our dog spots us from across the yard and lowers his fore body and raises his hind slowly waving his tail held high back and forth that our dog is signaling a desire to exchange signals, be they commands or play activity. Some people refer to the physical posturing as "of body language", but sailors so used to elaborate signaling systems see "body language" as simply "body signals", that never approach the the utility of actual language. Recently in the NEW SCIENTIST the following was reported: