Article image

Human whistling may decode dolphin language

Over 80 human languages employ whistling to communicate over long distances. The whistling form of languages often develops in cultures based in rugged terrain such as mountains or thick forests. In these places, whistles carry further than speech or even shouting, which makes this an effective way for people to communicate over distances. 

In fact, whistle forms of languages are usually understood quite well by those familiar with them. For instance, the whistle form of Turkish can be understood 90 percent of the time. Scientists see parallels between whistling in the human language and bottlenose dolphin communication. 

Dolphins and humans clearly communicate differently. However, some of the ways people use whistling may provide insight into how dolphins convey information with their whistles. Sonograms that capture an image based on sound are not broken into parts by silences between words. 

“By contrast, scientists trying to decode the whistled communication of dolphins and other whistling species often categorize whistles based on the silent intervals between whistles,” noted Dr. Diana Reiss, a psychology professor focusing on dolphins and other cetaceans.

This means that scientists may have to reconsider how they look at dolphin communication. A better approach might be to use a sonogram to look at dolphin communications, comparing it to what sonograms reveal about human communications. 

In order to use human language to decode dolphin whistles, the researchers plan on creating a database. “On these data, for example, we will develop new algorithms and test some hypotheses about combinatorial structure,” explained study lead author Dr. Julien Myer.

There is also the possibility of using AI algorithms to decipher the dolphin language, but further research is needed.

“One of the most striking aspects of this whistled transformation of words is that it remains intelligible to trained speakers, despite a reduced acoustic channel to convey meaning,” wrote the study authors. 

“It constitutes a natural traditional means of telecommunication that permits spoken communication at long distances in a large diversity of languages of the world.” 

“Historically, birdsong has been used as a model for vocal learning and language. But conversely, human whistled languages can serve as a model for elucidating how information may be encoded in dolphin whistle communication.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.    

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day