Science/Tech

Scientists Want to Learn How to Speak Dolphin (And Prairie Dog and Elephant...)

dolphin
Dolphins seem to speak a language made of clicks and whistles. REUTERS/John Gress

Koko the gorilla can understand 2,000 American words, and can speak using American Sign Language. During the 28 years that researcher Penny Patterson has worked with her, she signs not just about food, but feelings as well. Alex the late African grey parrot could say up to 150 words, count up to six, and understand abstract concepts before the time of his death in 2007. On the night of his death, his handler Irene Pepperberg reports that his last words were: "You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you." Dolphins have been understood to have different cultures, and elephants have reportedly had funerals for fallen comrades.

But, as the most intelligent species (ostensibly, to some people), shouldn't we as people be able to understand animals? Wouldn’t it be easier for us to learn their languages than the other way around?

Some researchers are, in fact, attempting to learn how to speak various animal languages, though it has been difficult. After all, some scientists remain unconvinced that animals do in fact have a language. Justin Gregg, a researcher at the Dolphin Communication Project, said to Live Science, "At present, there is no reason to believe that dolphin communication functions like human language, and thus there is no 'language' there for us to learn in the first place."

But other investigators think otherwise. Constantine Slobodchikoff, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University, has spent decades studying and trying to decode the language of Gunnison's prairie dogs, which reside in the American Southwest. While he and his team are not exactly fluent in Gunnison's prairie dogs, they have come to the conclusion that they have a distinctive language.

Slobodchikoff and his team record prairie dogs' calls and film their movements when there is a predator present, and then play them when there is no predator present. Then they watch prairie dogs' reactions.

They found that prairie dogs freak out, with their escapes looking exactly the same as the filmed ones happening earlier. They also found that they have distinct calls for the type of animal and what the animal looks like. For example, if prairie dogs see a tall, thin man wearing red and a short, stout man wearing blue, the calls will sound different. They even develop new calls when they come across foreign objects that they had not seen before, like an alarm clock; and seem to chat about things when there are no predators present. And they have different dialects, appearing not to understand the other four species of prairie dogs.

Dolphins, also, seem to speak a language made of clicks and whistles. They also seem to address one another by name, using a system of what Denise Herzing and her colleagues at the Wild Dolphin Project call "signature whistles."

Only time will tell if the communication that animals have qualifies as language. But it would seem that, if prairie dogs are garrulous enough to talk about "alarm clocks," other animals have that capacity as well.

Below is a video of Koko the gorilla talking (video via YouTube/kokoflix).

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