Saturday, May 13, 2006

Individual Dolphins Have Names?

In the "Nation and World" section of my local paper there is an Earthweek section that describes all sorts of stuff -- especially disasters. Today, my wife spotted reference to an article claiming that individual Dolphins have names, that they recognize their names, and two dolphins can refer to a third by his or her name. We are assured that "she stopped short of saying dolphins might have a human-like language." Check you this Yahoo reference.

This article reveals the stunning level of ignorance of the nature of language by the writer, one Deborah Zabarenko, for it is a silly suggestion that the researcher might think this unless they too are silly.

Even if it is true that dolphins have individual names and can signal other dolphins by names, this is about as far from showing that dolphins have something like human language as saying that people who eat round fruits can play Major League baseball. The reason is simple.

The official word from the philosophical world for years, and may still be, is that proper names, which is what we are talking about here, are rigid designators. A rigid designator is something that designates some entity but does not have conventional meaning. Thus, for instance, the name "George W. Bush" is devoid of content. This view is due to the philosopher Kripke. His argument goes like this. Consider
(1) Aristotle might not have been the last great philosopher of antiquity.
(2) Aristotle might not have been Aristotle.
We all know that Aristotle was the last great philosopher of antiquity. Certainly, I know that because I read all of them back in the day. Note, though, that if the name "Aristotle" has meaning in the way that, say "the last great philosopher of antiquity" does, then sentence (1) should be as odd as (2) but its not. Sentence (1) makes an empirical claim; (2) does not. Kripke wrote:
The rigidity of proper names demonstrates that utterances of sentences containing proper names, and utterances of sentences differing from those sentences only in containing nonrigid descriptions in place of the proper names, differ in content.
I took this quote from a section of A Companion to the Philosophy of Language called "Names and Rigid Designation", which you might want to read.

In a way, using a name to refer to a man in the immediate environment is cognitively no different from pointing to him except for the difference between doing something linguistically and physically. Thus, though it is interesting that Dolphins might have names and might refer to to other Dolphins by names -- they don't have fingers so they can't point -- it in no way, shape, or form suggests that they have language at all.

However, the rigid designator theory of proper names doesn't fully fly. Advertisers know this and craft their proper names to exploit the semantic content of the words employed. Should a manufacturer of candy that they sell to children call something "Fruit Squares," the children of the world would be quite surprised to find that they do not contain fruit and are not square. I discussed this in my book on TV advertising making the point that we have "understandings" of the things and people that proper names refer to that are not the same thing as conventional meanings but are functionally equivalent. If I asked you who I am you would reply with some sentences that would reflect your understanding of me and you associate these with my name or moniker "The Language Guy" or "LG."

Advertisers use this fact to exploit us -- especially children. There was and may still be something called "Fruit Stripe" gum. Anyone below the age of four or five or six or seven or eight (who knows?) who sees or hear that name will expect the gum to have some fruit in it and, moreover, that this fruit will come in the form of stripes, as, perhaps, a clever way of bringing fruit flavor to the gum. In fact, the stripes are printed on the gum and have nothing to do with the flavor of the gum. Moreover, the gum has or, at least had when I last looked, no fruit in it at all. It was artificially flavored. Check out this screen shot I took and used in the book:
Notice the stripes on the gum and the mane of the horse (donkey?) as well as the ball on the nose. As I recall, pieces of fruit bounce into the picture and affix themselves to the noses of the animals. It was and probably still is the case that wholly artificially flavored products with names like "Fruit Stripes" and "Fruit Loops" will show pictures of fruit to help sell the kids on the good flavor. This particular ad claims, for instance: "And now our fruit stripes are bigger. And there is more fruit flavor. There's more orange. More lemon. More cherry. More lime. And more fruit flavor makes your mouth taste fine." Given that there is no connection between the stripes printed on the gum and the flavor this is monumentally deceptive. And, of course, there was no fruit in the product at all. This practice is despicable on the part of the advertisers of the product and the manufacturers who hired them. I am tempted to take a fresh look at Saturday morning cartoons. I bet you a nickel nothing has changed.

Putting in a disclaimer that the product is "artificially flavored" won't help much unless mom or pop is around to explain it. I asked my kid, who was seven at the time, "What does `artificially flavored' mean?" and she replied, "Not real." I asked, "What does that mean?" and she said she didn't know. In fact, I suspect there are adults who don't fully grasp this concept. For instance, is a chocolate flavored bar that contains carob, but no chocolate, "artificially flavored" or not? Carob is a natural food. It seems to be healthier than chocolate. So is it naturally or artificially flavored?

Fruit Loops, the last I looked, took the form of loops, as in the case of Cheerios, but the different colors are not associated as far as my taste buds could tell with different flavors. Advertisers use "fruit" in the name of their products because they know that children will believe that the product has some sort of connection to fruit. The kids don't give a damn about the possible nutritional implications of their containing fruit but from eating fruit they are likely to expect the product to taste fruity.

Okay, friends and neighbors, I am going to give you a homework problem. Our fruit stripe ad used fruit names in the singular: "There's more orange. More lemon. More cherry. More lime." Why?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

My understanding is that animals may have elaborate means of communication--I have heard that bees do a fancy dance that transmits information and tells other bees where to find nectar flowers--but even elaborate means of communications don't necessarily count as language.

How can the layman know where the line is between mere communication and actual language? And, if Dolphins actually do have a language, is it likely that we would ever be able to prove it, and even decipher it?

10:25 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

It's a zebra, not a donkey. Strips, remember?

I'd say the words, oranges, lemons, cherry's etc... make children think of real fruit, like something that has to be peeled & sets in a bowl.

Orange, lemon, cherry, etc... brings to mind candy flavor, only. preferable to the childs taste buds.

About the dolphins, i agree w/ptarmign. If they were dogs, they'd sniff, not squeak.

11:21 AM

Blogger DEN said...

The deceptive copywriter wants the reader to supply the object of the verb "is". A truthful writer would have said, "There's more orange artificial flavor." The fruit name is a noun acting as an adjective.

2:26 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

l>t and den get A's for their work. Yes the singular word "There's more orange" is a kind of adjectival use, as in "orange flavor," whereas the plural unambigiously refers to fruit. In a Keebler ad which is too involved to get into here, there is a peddler's cart with fruit on it which later contains cookies and the signs have been changed so that there are two singulars ("orange" and "lemon") and one plural ("coconuts"). Yes, there was coconut in the latter but the others were totally artificially flavored.

ptarmigan, we must, of course, always sharply distinguish communication and language. One can have the former without the latter. Human languages share a wide variety of complex structures though they appear differently in different languages so I would want to see the structure of any putative dolphin language. This is where all the animal languages fall short.

I just mentally flashed on the formulas one sees in Calculus. They seem to have a kind of complexity that one sees in language. So far, we haven't figured out either the right formal languages for describing linguistic form and meaning. I think part of it is seeing the problem the wrong way around, as if linguistics were a branch of applied mathematics as we have often said -- at least back in the day. I think computational models are more appropriate.

4:21 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

OHhh!! I feel so smart. :)

8:33 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

From the OSU Language Files (summaries in parentheses are mine):

All communication systems have some features in common:
1. A mode of communication (signal thru medium; signals may be visual, auditory, tactile or olfactory)
2. Semanticity (signals have meaning)
3. Pragmatic function (signals serve some useful purpose)

Some communication systems exhibit these features as well:
4. Interchangeability (individuals both send and receive messages)
5. Cultural transmission (some aspect of system learned thru communicative interaction)
6. Arbitrariness (form of signal not logically related to meaning)
7. Discreteness (complex messages composed of simpler parts)

True language has, in addition to the above, the following characteristics:
8. Displacement (ability to communicate about objects or events removed in space & time)
9. Productivity (system is open-ended: individuals can produce and understand novel messages)

Bee dance fails as a true language because it is (probably) non-culturally transmitted, is largely non-arbitrary (the angle of the straight line part of the dance is related to the angle of the sun above the horizon, the length of the dance tells the distance, and the degree of body shaking the amount and quality of the food source), and non-productive. (An argument for non-discreteness could probably be made as well.)

After years of research, there is still, to my knowledge, no definitive evidence that either dolphins or whales have anything more than complex communication systems. If they did have true language, it shouldn't be impossible for us to detect its use or learn to understand simple expressions through observation and analysis. (I mean things like, "Yo, they want you to put the red ball through the hoop for a fish, not the blue one." In fact, IIRC there were experiments along those lines, training one dolphin in a particular task and then segregating it but allowing visual and auditory contact with an untrained dolphin, to see if the first could communicate instructions to the second. The results were negative. I'd have to dig for a citation, so omnia cum grano salis, eh.)

Even if they did have language and we could learn to understand and send simple messages, you're right, Ptarmigan, in that the subtleties of the haiku of captive dolphin would probably elude us.

Oh for open seas
and the taste of fishtail chase.
Strange hard water walls...

12:22 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Nice reply, ibadairon.

I wonder what it is that makes languages deciperable. Is deciphering a language an act like deciphering a secret code?

I apologize for my obvious ignorance. All I can seem to do is raise questions.

Well, maybe I can add to our stock of dolphin poetry...

tuna, tuna
burning bright
in the oceans of the night...

1:22 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

As Andrew Martin will be wont to say, "One is happy to be of service."

Theoretically, it should be possible, with a large enough corpus, to analyze a language completely and still have no idea what any of it means. That's why the Rosetta Stone was so important: it provided a translation in Greek, which we could read, that allowed us to decipher the hieroglyphic and demotic versions. It provided the key to the code.

We will face this problem again if we ever start receiving a radio transmission from an extraterrestrial civilization. Without an unequivocal key built into the message, we will never be able to decipher it. And never know if they're just saying hello or letting us know they'll be dropping by for dinner (with us as the main course). (If you've seen Contact, remember how the aliens transmitting from Vega include a basic mathematical sequence in the signal that enables Jody Foster & friends to begin to decipher it.)

Tu-na, or not tu-na:
that is the question.

5:31 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

IbaDaiRon has shamed me. I should have directed everyone to The Language Files from the beginning.

The Language Files is a combo text and workbook, containing short essays and problem sets. There is also a teacher's version that gives the answers. It was the result of someone's noting that all of the teachers of Linguistics 201 at Ohio State were using similar materials as handouts in each class and they should be put in book form and be sold to students. This was costing the department a ton of money since we had a lot of sections of that class, sometimes teaching some 800 students a quarter. These were prepared by grad students and so they created the first book, asking some of us faculty to put in sections they weren't comfortable doing. I wrote at least two of the original files. Over time, the book became a purely grad student project. It was published by the OSU PressIt was used at one time by over 125 schools around the world and became a big money winner. Indeed it kept the OSU Press afloat. The deparmental profits, which I believe we still have managed to keep from the greedy hands of higher administration officials, is used to assist grad students by paying some part of the cost of trips to conferences where they are giving papers.

So, if you want a short course in linguistics get the book. Get the teacher's version if you want to go through the problems.

8:28 AM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

Proper nouns seem to play a prominent role in literature. I'm thinking of the lists of names in the Bible. So-and-so begat so-and-so...etc, and the names of (many) rivers in Ovid and John Ashbery, although there must be a thousand examples.

These signs are often pan-lingual (that is, "George Bush" is the proper designation of that person regardless of which language we are speaking), so that proper nouns offer a much more direct connection between language and the world than common nouns do. At the same time, they are very powerful in evoking a context (George Bush => USA).

I don't understand why they shouldn't have any conventional meaning, though, but maybe I should shut up and read the linked article on the philosophy of language before I ask any questions about it.

8:02 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...



12:04 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


Whistle, chirp-click-chirp.

12:08 AM

Blogger John said...

To say that there were more "oranges" would imply that there are any "oranges" at all. It would be false advertising.

More orange, can be color or taste, not the actual orange.

I think the argument is equal parts legal and linguistic.

6:34 AM

Blogger jojes said...

Whether we want to define dolphin communication as language or not, dolphins:
1) have individual names, and can refer to another dolphin in third person

2)ARE capable of "pointing", and their ability to process gestures in language probably reflects syntactic abilites.

Have a neural structure similar to Broca's area

Zebra finches also appear to have a simple precursor mechanism which may be related to our syntax function: http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/full/23/17/6928

I'm a proponent for the idea non-human language, mostly because up until the discovery of syntactic processes in non-humans, the absence of syntax was one of the primary arguments against it. What's next? T_T

There's also an example of a chimp who was taught to use an artificial language with 200 arbitrary visual symbols. Word order, cues, and symbols...

...and macaques have something equivalent to "baby talk", which is considered to be helpful in teaching language to human children.

9:16 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

1. Referential expressions are just nouns or noun phrases. Not enough for language.
2. A prelinguistic 1 year old human can point. This is a very elementary skill.
3. "similar to Broca's area" isn't good enough.
4. finches "appear to have", "may" -- claims too weak to be probative of anything.
5. You misunderstand what syntax is -- it relates sounds/other signals to meanings. No known animals have the cognitive capacity for a rich enough array of meaning structures nor for complex syntactic constructions.

Being for nonhuman language doesn't make it true. Why people are so unhappy acknowledging that animals have modes of non-linguistic communication, which may be of great interest, I do not understand. I think people just need an education in linguistics. A basic course or two would do the job.

Thanks for the comments.

8:29 AM


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