Dolphins Have Names, Ctd

Linguist Geoffery Pullum calls the latest news item about dolphins’ communication skills “patently obvious twaddle”:

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.

Update from a reader:

Why does he assume dolphins and humans communicate the same way? What if repeating back his own name is simply an efficient way of saying “Yes, I’m here?”

When I first read the story, it seemed like dolphins use their names as message headers the same way pilots do. Whenever a pilot radios someone, she begins the conversation by saying who she’s calling and who she is, and then typically ends the conversation by repeating her own callsign:

Airplane N12345: Tower, November 12345.

Tower: Aircraft calling tower go ahead.

N12345: 345 holding short 22-left, ready to go.

Tower: November 12345, line up and wait runway 22-left, landing traffic one mile final on 18.

N12345: 345 [has received and understood your transmission]

So what’s so “obvious[ly] twaddle” about:

Dolphin 1: Dolphin 1 [calling anyone], just saw some tasty-looking tuna.

Dolphin 2, 30 miles away: Dolphin 2 [here, I have received and understood your song, and I’m coming too].

Dolphin 1: Dolphin 1 [understands you Dolphin 2 and will save some tuna for you].

Seems to me they’re pretty efficient communicators.