Whatever Happened To... Talking to Dolphins?

By Susan KruglinskiMay 28, 2006 5:00 AM


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In the 1960s consciousness researcher John Lilly claimed he had trained dolphins to say their ABC's. This research emerged from his dream that humans and dolphins would someday be able to communicate. In the 1950s he set up a research center in the Virgin Islands and tried to coach the animals to speak in a humanlike way. When Lilly died in 2001, he left behind recordings that contain a few eerie instances of dolphins echoing human elocution, but nobody has been able to replicate his claims that the animals knowingly uttered human words.

In the 1980s Louis Herman of the University of Hawaii created gestural and sonic languages to train dolphins in tasks. They responded in ways that showed they could understand simple sentences. "The dolphins were able to account for both the meaning of words and how word order affects the meaning," Herman says.

The dream of interspecies dialogue lives on at the Wild Dolphin Project in Florida. Recordings made there are sent to language experts at Carnegie Mellon University, who use computer programs to synthesize dolphin sounds and to try to interpret the meaning of the whistles and clicks. The researchers find great complexity in dolphin sounds. "Their capacity for communication could range from the level of a dog barking all the way to possible talking," says Robert Frederking of Carnegie Mellon.

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