Dolphins using personal names, again

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As we have frequently noted here on Language Log, science stories on the BBC News website are (how to put this politely?) not always of prize-winning standard with respect to originality, timeliness, reliability, or attention to the relevant literature. In fact some of them show signs of being written by kids in junior high school. Way back in 2006 Mark Liberman commented on a BBC News story about the notion that dolphins have and use "names" for each other. He expressed skepticism, but the BBC forged ahead without paying any heed, and today, more than seven years later, we learn from the same BBC site once again that Dolphins 'call each other by name'. Yes, it's the same story, citing the same academic at the University of St Andrews, Dr Vincent Janik. (Mark's link in 2006 was unfortunately to a Google search on {Janik, dolphins}, which today brings up the current stories rather than the ones he was commenting on then.) And you don't need to leave the BBC page to see that the story contradicts itself.

"Scientists have found further evidence that dolphins call each other by 'name'," we are told in the first line. Moreover, says the article, "It had been-long suspected that dolphins use distinctive whistles in much the same way that humans use names." (It was mainly Dr Janik and the BBC who suspected this; Mark Liberman and Language Log did not.) What the scientists did according to this new report was to capture the signature sound (the specific typical whistle noise) of each individual in a group of wild bottlenose dolphins and play the sounds back to the group. And what happened?

The researchers found that individuals only responded to their own calls, by sounding their whistle back.

Now, think about that. If you call out "Geoff Pullum!" in a crowded street, and I'm there within earshot, I'm likely to turn round and look at you. But what I am not likely to do is yell "Geoff Pullum!" back at you.

The very description in the article of what happens when a dolphin hears their own signature whistle reveals that signature whistles do not function anything like names. It sounds analogous to a study of dog behavior finding that if you play Fido a recording of his own bark, he will bark.

As Mark said back in 2006, "It would be stupendous to learn that dolphins use such identifying calls in some of the ways that humans use names, e.g. to call for others by name, to refer to absent third parties by name, and so on." That is how names are used in human communities. But this article clearly refutes the idea that it happens in bottlenose dolphin communities.

What's sad is not just that so many journalists (even in the news section of Nature (8 May 2006), for example) stupidly talked that way in 2006, but that seven years later no one has learned a thing, and Mark's careful explanation on Language Log has not been heeded, and Dr Janik is still attracting press attention with obviously spurious claims about naming behavior, and the BBC is still scouring the junior high schools for interns who will continue to write this sort of popular drivel for them.

Everybody makes stuff up about language, as we have pointed out literally thousands of times here; but dolphinology is meant to fall within biology. To find patently obvious twaddle about communication emerging from a university School of Biology is even more alarming than seeing (as we do every day here at Language Log Plaza) that typically nobody in the media gives any credence to the idea that linguists might know a thing or two about language and communication.

What we know about names in English is briefly summarized in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), pages 515 to 523 (the bit about addressing people by their name is on pages 522-523). Take a look, if you have access to CGEL. It may surprise you. It's intricate, and tricky in syntactic as well as semantic and pragmatic ways. And absolutely nothing the remotest bit like it is found among Tursiops truncatus or any other kind of cetacea.

I should add that the article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that the BBC is talking about, by Stephanie L. King and Vincent M. Janik, is entitled "Bottlenose dolphins can use learned vocal labels to address each other." That really is a ridiculous degree of analogizing to human behavior. PNAS should be ashamed of itself too.

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