Denise Herzing and her team with the Wild Dolphin project has begun developing a language to allow humans and dolphins to communicate. If successful, the ability to communicate with dolphins would fundamentally change animal intelligence research, animal rights arguments, and our ability to talk to aliens.
Herzing and her team faced two huge problems when it came to talking to dolphins. The first problem is that the current state of animal language research creates an asymmetrical relationship between humans and the animals with whom they wish to communicate. The second problem is that (save for parrots) animal vocal cords cannot replicate human speech, and visa versa.
Most, if not nearly all, animal language research involves either studying how animals communicate with one another, or teaching them a human language to see if they can communicate with us. There is a problem with both methods - humans don’t learn much (if any) animal language in the process.
Think of it this way: how many commands does the smartest dog you’ve met know? Some border collies, like Chaser, can learn upwards of 1000 words. Now how many words do you know in dog? Or parrot? How about gorilla or whale? Know any corvid? I bet you can at least read cuttlefish patterns, right? No?
Of course, I’m being facetious, but with a purpose: up to this point, humans have always attempted to understand animal language by teaching animals how to talk to humans. The glaring flaw in this process of teaching animals to use human language is that it is nary impossible to prove the animal is using language, not merely playing a very complex game of repeater.
There is a second, equally interesting problem. Think about your favorite science fiction series populated by aliens (for me, that’s a toss up between Star Trek and Mass Effect). At some point in that series, an alien has introduced itself as having a very un-alien name, like “Grunt.” The reason? “My real name is unpronounceable by humans.”
That is rarely an actual problem, because as it always works out the other alien species (why do we refer to aliens as “races” btw?) can pronounce our human words. One of the only films I can think of that doesn’t have this common sci-fi fallacy is District 9. Humans and prawn seem to be able to understand the other’s language in a rudimentary way, despite neither species being even remotely able to reproduce the other’s sounds.
Cetaceans pose the same problem: humans cannot whistle, squeak, chortle, or pop the way a beluga or bottle-nose can. Further, the higher squeals of some dolphins and the low rumbles of some whales are beyond the human auditory spectrum. Dolphins can’t say a word in human languages and we certainly can’t do more than parody the spectrum of cetacean sounds.
Which presents quite a question: How in the heck did Herzing figure out a way to both not teach the dolphins an anthropocentric language and ensure the language was speakable by both species?
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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