Why Listening to Dolphins Matters: Looking for Language and Universal Patterns of Communication in Nonhuman Animals
TWCF Number
Project Duration
March 1 / 2020
- February 28 / 2023
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded

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Denise Herzing
Institution Wild Dolphin Project, Inc.

Do other species besides humans have language? How would we recognize a nonhuman language if it existed? And how might we begin to not only assess the structure and patterns of signals, but interpret the meaning of nonhuman communication signals?

Denise Herzing's Diverse Intelligences project seeks to answer these questions. Understanding language is a major obstacle in recognizing the diversity of intelligence across species on Earth. Although we have an extensive understanding of human language across cultures, we have not fully explored nonhuman communication signals to determine if language, or aspects of language, exist. 

Rich communication streams are central to intelligence in many life forms. Researchers have attempted to assess the language potential in nonhuman species communication signals using information theory and other methods. However, the potential details, including structure and meaning, have lacked adequate tools and testing. To fully explore nonhuman communication, we need to not only supplement complementary existing tools (e.g., information theory) but also develop new tools that reveal details of potential order, grammar, and metadata that help us interpret these signals and look for any universal structures that might emerge. 

Many scientific studies in past decades have attempted to discover how other species communicate. Although there have been studies of the cognitive abilities and intelligence measures in dolphins and other species, many researchers may exhibit an a priori belief that language is unique to humans, thus biasing their approaches. Dr. Herzing’s team aims to find true linguistic richness in the vocalizations of dolphins, which would represent nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way we understand diverse intelligence. Answering the question of whether nonhuman language exists will give us a deeper understanding of the world and the intelligence that surrounds us.

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