When we humans think of language it is typically in terms of transferrable meaning – “this sound means this idea or this thing.” This is likely an evolutionary adaptation incorporating our dependence on visuality and the consequences of time – tempered by our ability to point at things and exclaim. This “transferrable meaning” phenomenon is found in many terrestrial animals; prairie dogs, meerkats, ravens and crows, bees, and even termites can convey meaning to kin with sounds and motion.
It is with this framing that much behavioral and linguistic research has wandered into the weeds trying to determine if other animals have a lexicon that we could learn, reproduce, and ultimately use to communicate. There are a number of shortcomings to this strategy, none the least of which involves priorities and perspectives – summed up in by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s enigmatical remark that “if a lion could speak we could not understand him.”
It is clear that humans are not the only critter that has cornered the market on communication, we have just done so in the environmental and societal context within which we live. For us this has evolved into thousands of complex languages with myriads of ways to express our relationships with our surroundings to others who inhabit it with us. But if we are to understand any language – human or otherwise, we must consider how others inhabit their world.
Dolphins are a good case in point (because who would not want to exchange thoughts with these really smart and apparently compassionate creatures?). The discovery that dolphins have individual names and can convey identity information with their “signature whistles” reignited work on teaching dolphins and deciphering phonations with “meaning” in mind.
But signature whistles are just one component of dolphin sonic repertoire, which also includes chirps and echolocation clicks. Viewing the spectral and amplitude characteristics of these various signals reveals some of their complexities. Examining them in the time domain using “wavelets” can reveal even more complexity. For another take on dolphin vocal complexity Dolphin researcher Jack Kassewitz and acoustics engineer John Stewart Reid have been projecting these dolphin sounds into a “Cymascope” – a tool that helps visualize sounds in real time by the way that sound interacts with surfaces.
You can get a feel for this in your own kitchen with a wineglass half full of water (or wine, of course). By rubbing the rim a-la “glass harmonica” the surface of the contained liquid dances with the glass vibrations in beautiful, finely etched patterns. The “Cymascope” is doing the same thing but allows for other sounds to be used and explored.
In this manner Kassewitz and Reid have revealed how dolphin phonations create complex patterns in the water – inferring that these patterns can be manipulated, projected, and read by dolphins much as we would read the visual patterns we see. Kassewitz suggests that it may be the key to dolphin “language.” This may or may not be the exact case, but there is no reason to believe that dolphins would not be able to sense and manipulate the deeper complexities of water-borne vibrations – given that they have been communicating in this sound/water medium for 30 million years.
For a deeper exploration of animal communication from a habitat standpoint see the last two chapters of my book Hear Where We Are: Sound, Ecology, and Sense of Place wherein I explore dolphin and other animal communication in greater detail.