Do dolphins use language?

Dolphins use words and sentences to speak to each other much like humans do, a new study says. The next step, researchers say, is figuring out how to communicate with them.

Gary Cameron/Reuters/File
A pair of dolphins swim in the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and the US.

The sounds that dolphins make say far more than what meets the human ear: For the animals, those clicks and whistles are a complex chain of words and sentences, allowing them to convey messages with one another in a language that mirrors human communication, according to a new study.

After Russian researchers at the Karadag Scientific Station recorded two Black Sea bottlenose dolphins — Yasha and Yana — talking to one another, they realized that each of the animals would pause to listen as the other spoke, then respond. This pattern of communication isn't so different from the advanced way that humans speak to one another, indicating that dolphins have a language of their own they use to identify themselves, coordinate actions, and maintain relations with the large groups in which they travel. 

The findings were published in the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics.

“The analysis of [sounds] registered in our experiments showed that the dolphins took turns in producing [words and phrases] and did not interrupt each other, which gives reason to believe that each of the dolphins listened to the other's pulses before producing its own,” the study, led by Dr. Vyacheslav Ryabov, said. “Essentially, this exchange resembles a conversation between two people. The fundamental difference between the dolphin exchange of information and the human conversation is in the characteristics of the acoustic signals of their spoken language.” 

Researchers have known for years that dolphins are highly intelligent and able to use distinct sounds, like clicks or whistles, to show their emotions and to respond to their own names, as previously reported by The Christian Science Monitor. But this study found an additional layer to how the animals communicate: By altering the volume and frequency of such sounds, dolphins can form different words and string them together in sentences of up to five “words.”

“This language exhibits all the design features present in the human spoken language, this indicates a high level of intelligence and consciousness in dolphins, and their language can be ostensibly considered a highly developed spoken language, akin to the human language,” the study said.

Understanding the basics of how dolphins call to each other or converse is one step, but working to communicate back in their own language could open new doors. The sounds that dolphins both make and hear are far beyond those within the capabilities of a human’s range, but equipment that mimics the noises dolphins make could allow scientists to respond back to the animals in a way they understand.

Still, researchers have yet to determine what the various frequencies and pitches in the mammal’s language mean.

“For further research in this direction, humans must take the first step to establish relationships with the first intelligent inhabitants of the planet Earth by creating devices capable of overcoming the barriers that stand in the way of using languages and in the way of communications between dolphins and people,” the study said.

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