May 19, 2007

And now dolphin dialects

In our ceaseless quest to keep you informed about interspecies dialogue, here at the Language Log Stupid Animal Communication Stories desk we have noted a report on this site (it appears to be a news blog in Croatia; thanks to Bruce Webster for the tip): "Scientists who study dolphins in the Shannon river estuary [in Ireland] believe that these animals can develop a dialect of their own."

Yes, a dialect. The evidence for this appears to be simply that there are certain noises made by the dolphins of the Shannon river estuary that are not made by other North Atlantic dolphins. That's it, really. But never mind if the evidence is a bit weak: just serve it up anyway, the general public will believe anything about language.

They will soak up stories about telepathic parrots; regional cow accents from the west of England; a 104-year-old macaw still spouting a WW2 repertoire of anti-Nazi obscenities (totally false); dialect-based species differentiation in Scottish crossbills; parrot parents giving names to their chicks; 40-year-old tales of chicken language; research on whale song pattern regularities more regular than the writing of the scientific prose written about it; anything, anything. The public will drink it up.

Until you start telling them that split infinitives are not ungrammatical and never were; then for some reason people who will believe any fantasy about animals suddenly go all skeptical and won't believe a single thing.

Pretty strange creatures, the general public. And do you know, they have parasites living amonst them, called "science journalists", who write up and feed them these stories? They're an extraordinary and fascinating species. I wonder if they have a language.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 19, 2007 03:29 PM