If We Could Speak Dolphin


I was fooling around on my newest webpage https://sites.google.com/site/theecletichodgepodge/ the other day and decided to do a post just saying HELLO to everyone so I did some research – just enough to write the post – and learned that to accomplish this in their native tongue I would have to learn almost 2800 languages and that’s not even taking into consideration the various dialogues and colloquialisms which would probably at least double that number.

Anyway in the last sentence of the article I stated

Think I’ll try Dolphin-speak next. Anyone have a translator?

This brings me to the subject of this post. I started wondering if the dolphin, or whale, or any other animal species for that matter actually have what we as humans would consider a language. Yes they obviously can communicate with others of their kind and often with humans and other animals but are they really talking?  Watch this short video before we go any deeper into the question and draw your own conclusions and I’ll tell you what some of the experts say.


OK I think we’d all agree Dolphins can communicate with their own kind but “Things only really get interesting when we want to know if the communication system used by dolphins is anything like the formal definition of language. What we are really asking is this: do dolphins have anything like a natural human language? Now that is a good question.”


Things only really get interesting when we want to know if the communication system used by dolphins is anything like the formal definition of language. What we are really asking is this: do dolphins have anything like a natural human language? Now that is a good question!

Scientists agree

“Dolphins clearly have the means to communicate, and they do so with various sounds, including whistles, burst-pulses, and clicks. Just exactly what they’re saying with all these noises, however, remains a mystery — but after years of study, marine biologists are starting to get a sense.

And scientists believe the clicks are used for echolocation. This allows dolphins to examine their environment through sound, listening to the echoes returning from objects being struck by the clicks. They may also be used for communication, and marine biologists are studying them to understand if this is the case.

Burst-pulse sounds may indicate a dolphin’s emotional state, ranging from pleasure to anger — but we haven’t studied these types of vocalizations very thoroughly, and we still have a lot to learn about them.

And as for the whistles, people are still debating whether, or how much, of whistle communication is intentional as opposed to unintentional (vocalizing stress, for example). But one thing is becoming increasingly clear: The whistles may actually be the names of dolphins.

Or at the very least, whistles may a way for dolphins to identify themselves. One person who is seriously considering this possibility is Princeton’s Tara Thean who has worked with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program. Thean has spent time with bottlenose dolphins trying to get a better understanding of how they might be using their whistles to call out to each other and communicate.

Will we ever learn to speak dolphin?

Thean tells io9 that dolphins may be using their whistles as a means to identify one another. “They are basically stereotyped acoustic signals that identify the caller,” she says. “Dolphins acquire these distinctive whistles as early as one year old.” Exactly how these “signature whistles” emerge, however, remains a mystery.

Even after meticulous listening for weeks on end, Thean noted that the identification whistles were never random and always consistent. In fact, she listened to identification whistles dating back several years and a number of them remained exactly the same as the ones still used today.

Another good place to study dolphin communication is by observing their remarkably complex hunting practices.

Will we ever learn to speak dolphin?

Take spinner dolphins, for example, who work collectively to hunt lanternfish. Groups of about 20 dolphins have been observed approaching concentrations of prey and then pulling into a tight circular formation. At the same time they sequentially swim up and down vertically — doing a kind of “wave,” akin to fans at a sporting event.

The dolphins then continue to tighten the circle and form units of 10 pairs. The pairs at one o’clock and seven o’clock will move in, feed for 15 seconds, and retreat back to the circle. Then the pairs at two o’clock and eight o’clock do likewise. This goes on for about five minutes, during which time each dolphin gets two opportunities to feed. In the midst of all this is a cooperative group rise to the surface to breathe, all the while maintaining the circle. Each dolphin takes one breath, and the process starts again. The cooperation and synchronization is uncanny, as any deviation from the process would cause it to collapse.

Another possible way of cracking the dolphin language code is to use math. In a Wired article from last year, Danielle Venton took a look at the work of Laurance Doyle, a member of the SETI institute. Now, while that might sound like a strange place to study dolphins, the basic idea is that if we can crack the dolphin code, we may very well be able to figure out what extraterrestrials might say to us someday as well.

To do so, Doyle uses information theory, which is a branch of math that looks at the structure and relationships of information. By using information theory, for example, it’s possible to separate binary code from random 0’s and 1’s. It’s through this kind of analysis that researchers know that dolphin calves babble like human babies, but that adults emit actual information. Doyle’s work indicates that there is indeed some linguistic substance to the sounds generated by dolphins, and that they follow basic rules of grammar and syntax.

The next step is somehow decipher this information into something we can understand. Given that we don’t have a dolphin Rosetta Stone, this could be a monumental task.



For 28 years, Denise Herzing has spent five months each summer living with a pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins, following three generations of family relationships and behaviors. It’s clear they are communicating with one another — but is it language? Could humans use it too? She shares a fascinating new experiment to test this idea. You can hear what she has to say here.



 Do Dolphins actually have a language? Will we someday be able to take a course like The Rosetta Stone and be able to actually carry on a conversation with FLIPPER or one of his cousins?  My opinion as one of those tree hugging hippie Goddess worshipers is YES, YES and YES -just as soon as THEY decide we and they  are ready.




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