The Speech of Dolphins:
The Theory of a Complex Dolphin Language
Copyright 2015, John Manimas Medeiros
There are strong disagreements among biologists as to how well wild dolphins communicate with one another. There is agreement that there is some communication, and that dolphins use echolocation to "see" the world around them. But no one has yet proven that they have the ability to communicate by means of a complex language, similar to human languages, or are they limited to a restricted set of basic signals without "conversation" or "discussion" as is clearly an intellectual capacity of humans?
I present here a theory of a very complex dolphin language that is astoundingly similar to human language in that it involves the use of letters, words, rules for grammatical structure and punctuation. The first response of biologists, even those who advocate for the exceptional intelligence of dolphins, will be contempt or nervous laughter. How can anyone make such a claim regarding dolphin speech? On what basis? The answer is on the basis of the pervasive human habit of narcissistic anthropomorphism. We persistently expect that intelligence is defined only by what we do and the way we do it. In order to look in the right place for dolphin speech, we must consider, seriously, the possibility that dolphins have skills or senses that exceed ours. And, their method of spoken communication might actually involve brain powers that we do not possess. This possibility is more probable with dolphins than with any other species, because of the brain to body ratio and because of the large body of evidence that dolphins are highly social and cooperative while also showing competitive and self-serving behaviors. That combination is a lot like humans. They do teamwork. Our experience of teamwork is that it requires good communication. In fact, our human discussions of human problems commonly articulate the conclusion that poor results in any human effort can be attributed to "poor communication." How then can we explain the complex teamwork of dolphins without complex communication?
The"clicks" are the key [keys]:
We know that many animals possess sensory perceptions or muscular dexterity greater than ours. The outstanding character of the human organism is apparently our unique capacity to learn and examine everything, including our own learning. We are perhaps the only animal that can examine the examination and contemplate the contemplation. Our consciousness of ourselves, and of the universe, seems to be unique among animals. That high level of awareness combined with a formidable set of sensory and motor skills is what makes us so successful as the one animal that could take care of everything or destroy everything. This is true of us humans even though there are animals that have individual traits that exceed ours: animals that can see better than we can, smell better, run faster, or swim faster, or shred prey with surgical teeth and powerful jaws. Lots of animals can do something better than we can.
Consider the vision of eagles, the sense of smell of dogs and bees, the snakes' sensitivity to temperature and chemical compounds. It is clear that an animal that does not have the exceptional human brain, or even a comparable brain-to-body ratio, can still possess a sensory skill or motor skill that far exceeds ours. Therefore, let us suppose the dolphin has such a skill that is far beyond our own. We already know that the dolphin survives in its environment and meets all of its needs using echo-location as a form of "vision." Let us take this information and go a step further, using our imagination. Here is my hypothesis:
The clicks used for echo-location serve a dual purpose. They are not just sounds that reflect back as a form of sonar. They are also used as a form of complex language. Consider human language. Our complex language is composed of a type of "click." Not sound clicks, but lines, marks on a plain background, straight lines and curved lines. We get so habituated to our own behaviors that we overlook how our most complex behaviors are actually constructed of simple parts assembled quickly by brains that have had a lot of practice. I would argue that human language is constructed of lines instead of clicks, straight lines and curved lines. The lines are arranged in special patterns to form letters. So here already we have complexity in that even a letter is comprised of something smaller than what it is. A letter is a thing that actually is assembled. Even a letter is an assembled object. The letters are then used to assemble words. And linguists and educational pyschologists have advised us, based on research, that when we read we do not read letters, but rather we read words. And, our habitual images of written words are so strong that most humans can read a sentence correctly when the bottom half of the letters is missing or covered. When he have only the beginning of a sentence, in a familiar context, we are likely to be able to complete the sentence. I could go on, but the concept is clear: speech is a skill that begins with simple operations that grows in complexity, is learned by habit, and becomes "second nature" over time. We even have the experience of speaking very fast when we are excited and being able to understand people who have a speech impediment.
My hypothesis continues. Since we build all of our speech with vocalizations that we call vowels and consonants, with phonemes and with letters and words in writing, then what could the dolphins use as a counterpart to assemble letters, and then words, and then sentences? Clicks. What if their sensitivity to clicks is far greater than ours, like the dog's nose is better than ours and the eagle's eye is better than ours and the ostrich legs are faster than ours. I propose that the dolphins do not just hear the echoes of clicks returning, but that each click is different from other clicks. There is a set of clicks, not 26 different types of clicks similar to 26 letters in an alphabet, but the clicks are more like a set of 8 to 16 lines that are used to form letters. Those letters comprised of clicks are then assembled into words, and then into sentences. I am saying what some will deem ridiculous. I am saying that if the dolphins sense of sound enables them to differentiate clicks, both as to the tone of the click and the length of the click, then the dolphins have something very similar to our Morse Code. Today, a person new to Morse Code would be slow and have difficulty "reading" a message composed of dots and dashes. But, with practice and a term of experience, a person can read Morse Code like we read a printed label on a bottle.
We need to detect differences among the clicks:
The times may be right to test this hypothesis, because with recent advances in electronics, measuring instruments have become more precise in all media. If tests show that the clicks are not all exactly the same, but vary in duration and in tone, then we will be looking at the basis of the dolphin alphabet. The essence of my hypothesis is that the clicks serve two purposes in communication. One, they enable echo-location. Two: they serve as the basic structural object to assemble letters, then words, and then sentences. I am saying that dolphins have conversations and discussions as complex as humans do. The stakes in this question are very high. If this hypothesis proves correct, we would most likely be moved to consider whether Earth is their planet too, and whether they have rights similar to human rights.
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