August 31, 2011

Dolphin language looks like human language

There's an article at (where else?) physorg today about dolphin intelligence and language. (It's also about alien communication but I'll leave that aside for now.) Although we don't understand the language used by dolphins, it seems to follow the same basic patterns of human speech. Here's an excerpt in case you don't want to read the whole article.
Think of all the different sounds human beings make as they speak to each other, the different letters and pronunciations. Some, such as the letters ‘e’ and ‘t’ or words such as ‘and’ or ‘the’ will occur far more frequently than ‘q’ or ‘z’ or longer words such as ‘astrobiology’. Plot these on a graph, in order of the most frequently occurring letters or sounds, and the points form a slope with a –1 gradient. A toddler learning to speak will have a steeper slope – as they experiment with words they use fewer sounds but say them more often. At the most extreme a baby’s babble is completely random, and so any slope will be nearly level with all sounds occurring fairly evenly. It doesn’t matter which human language is put through the information theory test – be it English, Russian, Arabic or Mandarin – the same result follows.

What is remarkable is that putting dolphin whistles through the information theory blender renders exactly the same result: a –1 slope, with a steeper slope for younger dolphins still being taught how to communicate by their mothers, and a horizontal slope for baby dolphins babbling. This tells us that dolphins have structure to how they communicate.
We're not set apart from the other animals. The differences between us and them are a matter of degree. This story lifted my spirits. There's still so damn much we don't know about ourselves, our planet and the relationships among all of Earth's residents. And yet we feel free to kill any creature and pollute the planet at will, as if we and we alone lived here. We are an infant race, just beginning to understand the complexities of the world around us, and yet our M.O. is so arrogant. This makes no sense. We're babies.

The rest of the article is fun, especially the part about looking for alien intelligence out there. G'wan, go read it. Here's the link one more time.

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