Having never read Hugh Lofting’s series of children’s novels about an English physician who could speak animal languages, my chosen Doctor Doolittle was real-life American physician, scientist and inventor John C. Lilly, MD.

Lilly’s language experiments with dolphins began, by accident, in the 1950s and became the stuff of counterculture lore a short decade later. At a 1965 conference on verbal behavior, Lilly explained that while researching neurobiology and behavior with a bottlenose dolphin he heard the creature use something akin to words.

English for Other Species

In “Historia Animalium” (circa 350 BCE) Aristotle noted: “The voice of the dolphin in air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels but have difficulties with the consonants.” Yet no one had followed up on that for several hundred years.

Lilly neither cajoled nor convinced that dolphin to learn English—but his account captured in “The Mind of the Dolphin” ignited interest in the possibility of conversing with other species. Spurred on by Lilly’s speculations in that popular work and owing to other influences, a series of other researchers took up the challenge.

With varying degrees of success, several taught first chimpanzees and then other great apes some form of human language: most often American Sign Language or an invented language made of colored shapes. Their attempts led even more scientists to explore the sounds made by large-brained mammals such as elephants, hoping to match sounds to their behaviors.

Armed with improved underwater microphones and synthesizers which could imitate at least some standout entries from wild dolphins’ constellation of vocalizations, researchers who include Denise Herzing, PhD, followed the same approach. 

Listen to the Animals

Herzing has spent decades hoping to learn whether bottlenose dolphins are really talking to one another and, if so, what they have to say. Founder and director of research for the Wild Dolphin Project, she has used underwater video and sound equipment to study a pod of Spotted Dolphins and nearby Bottlenose Dolphins at sea in the southern end of Florida for 35-plus years.

The organization assembled a database to track the relationships between these dolphins who share the same waters, as well as their sounds, behaviors and how those things shift with time. Herzing’s team has applied various tools and approaches to answering questions like: Are dolphins capable of humanlike language? And do they have—or share—a language of their own?

One feature those researchers have found to be common to several larger dolphin species is the use of “signature whistles” or unique sounds which identify them individually much like a name might do in human interactions. Trying to develop a common language, researchers have created dolphin-like sounds to name a handful of toys both natural and manmade.

In 2017 and by way of a chest-mounted, two-way, underwater computer (Think: English-to-Dolphinese translator), Herzing and fellow researchers Adam Pack, PhD, and Fabienne Delfour, PhD, reported hearing a dolphin “say” the “word” they had created for sargassum—a type of seaweed or brown macroalgae the marine mammals tend to favor.

Talk Like the Animals

Herzing, who is also an assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University, took care to point out on the Wild Dolphin Project website: “(T)his is not to say that a dolphin knew what it was saying when it put out this whistle. It may simply be that the dolphin was mimicking this whistle or that the (underwater translator) heard a close approximation to (the sargassum cue).”

Around the same time her team was working on word recognition and translation, researchers in both the U.K. and the U.S. demonstrated that the clicking sounds dolphins make to aid echolocation can be used to form holographic images underwater. Imagine drawing pictures in the air! This, they determined, could very well be the basis of dolphin language.

Researchers at Georgia Technical Institute have been collaborating with the Wild Dolphin Project to apply AI in the search for dolphin speech, using a machine-learning algorithm to search the catalog of dolphin sounds for patterns.

Based in Stockholm, the language technology firm Gavagai AB (an affiliate of Swedish Institute of Computer Science) has been using a text-analysis approach previously used to study 40 human languages to now study dolphin vocalizations in search of signs of concrete language.

Elephantese & Prairie Dog

Dolphins are hardly the only animals being looked at for potential language use. While direct comparisons between brain sizes can be misleading, elephants—which are widely recognized as having extensive and complex communication patterns—have brains which average nearly 5 kg. That would be roughly four times the size of a human’s and with more densely-packed neurons.

Conservationists Joyce H. Poole, PhD, and Petter Granli have decoded hundreds of distinct elephant signals and gestures. They have also deciphered the meaning of rumbling, roaring, screaming and trumpeting sounds elephants make alongside those gestures. In 2017, their nonprofit Elephant Voices joined forces with The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to launch HelloInElephant.com. The website translates simple phrases into elephant gestures and sounds.

Depending on what is meant by “language,” prairie dogs (rodents in the ground squirrel family) may be among the prize-winning speakers of the animal world. Northern Arizona University professor Constantine “Con” Slobodchikoff, PhD, has shown as much, basing his conclusion on four decades of eager listening.

Phys.org, a U.K.-based science and technology news outlet, captured Slobodchikoff as stating that prairie dogs are known to warn others (with a single call) of the type of predator which is on the prowl, its direction and even its color. The researcher told Phys.org that the “words” they use—represented in barks, squeals and squeaks—are understood by all members of the colony.

Animal Language Projects

Four decades-long projects have involved teaching non-human species to speak some form of human language: three with great apes and one with parrots. Of the original subjects, only the bonobo Kanzi is still living. As for descendants, chimpanzee Washoe’s adopted son Loulis (who learned to sign from her) resides in a sanctuary near Montreal.

The Gorilla Foundation and Alex Foundation both continue to work with other subjects.

Chase that Digital Unicorn!

Like what you just read? Follow these select source links:

Edwards, Lin. “Prairie Dogs May Have the Most Complex Language” (Feb. 4, 2010, in Plants & Animals). Phys.org.


O’Leary, Denyse. “Dolphinese: The Idea That Animals Think as We Do Dies Hard: But First It Can Lead Us Down Strange Paths” (Aug. 19, 2019). MindMatters.AI.

Dolphinese: The Idea That Animals Think As We Do Dies Hard

Raffaele, Paul. “Speaking Bonobo: Bonobos Have an Impressive Vocabulary, Especially When It Comes to Snacks” (Nov. 2006). SmithsonianMag.com.

Shaw, Edwina. “Science Shows Dolphins Communicate Holographically: Can We Start Speaking to Dolphins?” (Dec. 21, 2016). UpliftConnect.com.

The Wild Dolphin Project. https://www.WildDolphinProject.org.