Communication About Relationship

As I said earlier, I expect dolphin communication to be of an almost totally unfamiliar kind. Let me expand on this point. As mammals, we are familiar with, though largely unconscious of, the habit of communicating about our relationships. Like other terrestrial mammals, we do most of our communicating on this subject by means of kinesic and paralinguistic signals, such as bodily movements, involuntary tensions of voluntary muscles, changes of facial expression, hesitations, shifts in tempo of speech or movement, overtones of the voice, and irregularities of respiration. If you want to know what the bark of a dog "means," you look at his lips, the hair on the back of his neck, his tail, and so on. These "expressive" parts of his body tell you at what object of the environment he is barking, and what patterns of relationship to that object he is likely to follow in the next few seconds. Above all, you look at his sense organs: his eyes, his ears, and his nose.

In all mammals, the organs of sense become also organs for the transmission of messages about relationship. A blind man makes us uncomfortable, not because he cannot see that is his problem and we are only dimly aware of it—but because he does not transmit to us through the movement of his eyes the messages we expect and need so that we may know and be sure of the state of our relationship to him. We shall not know much about dolphin communication until we know what one-dolphin can read in another's use, direction, volume, and pitch of echolocation.

Perhaps it is this lack in us which makes the communication of dolphins seem mysterious and opaque, but I suspect a more profound explanation. Adaptation to life in the ocean has stripped the whales of facial expression. They have no external ears to flap and few if any erectile hairs. Even the cervical vertebrae are fused into a solid block in many species, and evolution has streamlined the body, sacrificing the expressiveness of separate parts to the locomotion of the whole. Moreover, conditions of life in the sea are such that even if a dolphin had a mobile face, the details of his expression would be visible to other dolphins only at rather short range, even in the clearest waters.

It is reasonable, then, to suppose that in these animals vocalization has taken over the communicative functions that most animals perform by facial expression, wagging tails, clenched fists, supinated hands, flaring nostrils, and the like. We might say that the whale is the communicational opposite of the giraffe; it has no neck, but has a voice. This speculation alone would make the communication of dolphins a subject of great theoretical interest. It would be fascinating, for example, to know whether or not, in an evolutionary shift from kinesics to vocalization, the same general structure of categories is retained.

My own impression—and it is only an impression unsupported by testing—is that the hypothesis that dolphins have substituted paralinguistics for kinesics does not quite fit in with my experience when I listen to their sounds. We terrestrial mammals are familiar with paralinguistic communication; we use it ourselves in grunts and groans, laughter and sobbing, modulations of breath while speaking, and so on. Therefore we do not find the paralinguistic sounds of other mammals totally opaque. We learn rather easily to recognize in them certain kinds of greeting, pathos, rage, persuasion, and territoriality, though our guesses may often be wrong. But when we hear the sounds of dolphins we cannot even guess at their significance. I do not quite trust the hunch that would explain the sounds of dolphins as merely an elaboration of the paralinguistics of other mammals. (To argue thus from our inability is, however, weaker than to argue from what we can do.)

I personally do not believe that the dolphins have any-thing that a human linguist would call a "language." I do not think that any animal without hands would be stupid enough to arrive at so outlandish a mode of communication.

To use a syntax and category system appropriate for the discussion of things that can be handled, while really discussing the patterns and contingencies of relationship, is fantastic. But that, I submit, is what is happening in this room. I stand here and talk while you listen and watch. I try to convince you, try to get you to see things my way, try to earn your respect, try to indicate my respect for you, challenge you, and so on. What is really taking place is a discussion of the patterns of our relationship, all according to the rules of a scientific conference about whales. So it is to be human.

I simply do not believe that dolphins have language in this sense. But I do believe that, like ourselves and other mammals, they are preoccupied with the patterns of their relationships. Let us call this discussion of patterns of relationship the t function of the message. After all, it was the cat who showed us the great importance of this function by her mewing. Preverbal mammals communicate about things, when they must, by using what are primarily ^-function signals. In contrast, human beings use language, which is primarily oriented toward things, to discuss relationships. The cat asks for milk by saying "Dependency," and I ask for your attention and perhaps respect by talking about whales. But we do not know that dolphins, in their communication, resemble either me or the cat. They may have a quite different system.

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