Nerdgasm – Dolphins Use Grammar (and Scientists Don’t Seem to Notice!)

the_hatWhen I read the news that scientists had captured and separated wild dolphins to investigate their use of “signature whistles” to call out to each other, the sounds that earlier research had concluded was a sort of name that individual dolphins used to identify themselves, I was touched.  After all, it was clearly evidence of a deep and emotional connection between these very intelligent animals.

But, then I realized there was so much more going on. As the article summarizes:

[Dolphins who were captured and held separately] seemed to be using the signature whistles to keep in touch with the dolphins they knew best, just as two friends might if suddenly and unexpectedly separated while walking down a street. Moreover, copying wasn’t exact, but involved modulations at the beginning and end of each call, perhaps allowing dolphins to communicate additional information, such as the copier’s own identity.

I was just thunderstruck.  Dolphins were using “modulations at the beginning and end” of the signature whistles to indicate that they were the names of other dolphins?  These are clearly suffixes and prefixes being used distinguish between the first-person and second-person use of a proper noun.  Folks, this is grammar!  This is language.

But scientists can’t even conclusively state that the signature whistles are proper nouns, much less that their modulations indicate grammatical person. In fact, skeptics insist that individual-specific vocalizations that are copied by other individuals (but only with prefixed and suffixed modification) could mean something completely different … but really, this is such an obvious case of special pleading that it hardly merits scientific attention.

Individual-specific vocalizations among humans that were modified based on whether the individual himself or another is vocalizing would be immediately recognized as proper nouns undergoing affixing to indicate grammatical person.  Let’s apply the same standard across the board, and not cringe from the clear implications of the evidence.

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One comment

  1. From the Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy
    “For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

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