Speaking in Pictures


New research shows evidence of a complex system of communication among dolphins. Also, humans are getting closer to being able to communicate with these creatures.

Jack Kassewitz of the SpeakDolphin.com Research Project presents us with a compelling model of a sono-pictorial language that dolphins use to communicate. Rather than employ symbols, as human language does, dolphin language consists entirely of pictures: dolphins transmit images of existing objects and create their own pictures to communicate.

Using a CymaScope to make sound visible, British research team member John Stuart Reid was able to see the sono-pictorial images that the dolphins created and transmitted to each other. Reid explains below how the images form:

"When a dolphin scans an object with its high frequency sound beam, emitted in the form of short clicks, each click captures a still image, similar to a camera taking photographs. Each dolphin click is a pulse of pure sound that becomes modulated by the shape of the object. In other words, the pulse of reflected sound contains a semi-holographic representation of the object."

Are we capable of imagining a language comprising only pictures? Kassewitz mentions that dolphins "appear to have leap-frogged human symbolic language" and David M. Cole, founder of the AquaThought Foundation, believes that this method of communication "evolved out of the creature’s need to perceive its underwater world when vision was inhibited."

It is also possible that the research suggests a reason as to the unusual size and complexity of the dolphin brain. As an increase in brain volume correlates with the development of language, perhaps dolphins require large brains in order to handle the complexity of a sono-pictorial language.

Image by moophisto on Flickr. Courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing.