Pullum on dolphin names
Posted: 24 July 2013 03:26 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Pullum rolls his eyes and makes his signature clicking sequence at the BBC’s rewarming of a badly described dolphin story:

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=5453

“Scientists have found further evidence that dolphins call each other by ‘name’,” we are told in the first line. Moreover, says the article, “It had been-long suspected that dolphins use distinctive whistles in much the same way that humans use names.” (It was mainly Dr Janik and the BBC who suspected this; Mark Liberman and Language Log did not.) 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.

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Posted: 24 July 2013 04:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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My immediate thought on this is that Pullum is assuming that dolphin language and ways of thinking would be similar to human language and ways of thinking.  I have also seen articles on this dolphin name thing where they have recorded a dolphin uttering one of these sounds that they are interpreting as a name and altering it so it sounds like* a dolphin that the first dolphin knows.  The first dolphin would respond to these altered sounds.  Then they altered it so it sounded like a dolphin that the first dolphin didn’t know and the first dolphin would completely ignore it.

*I’m not sure that we really know if we are altering these sounds in a way that would be meaningful to a dolphin.

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Posted: 25 July 2013 12:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Not commenting on the original research, but I agree that the specific objection raised by Pullum is also flawed.

OK, for humans in normal situations you would not expect the response to calling a name to be an echo of that name.  However we have the benefit of calling a name and when the response comes (Yes?, here!, What? etc.) establishing a visual recognition to confirm presence.  For dolphins sound replaces light based vision and there is literally a lot of noise around.

Taking a more analogous human situation such as radio communication (i.e. only sound), repeating your “call sign” is a typical response.

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Posted: 25 July 2013 05:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Bear in mind that Geoff Pullum is more interested in venting eloquently than in establishing a rigorous logical argument.  Think of him as the linguistic equivalent of Lewis Black.  (This is, I hope it’s evident, not meant as criticism; I love both Pullum and Black.)

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Posted: 25 July 2013 05:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Tangently related, I ran across this story today, presented in context with the dolphin-name business.

Also found this cartoon related to the above:
cart13.jpg?w=578&h=697

Edit: added cartoon

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Posted: 25 July 2013 09:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I think Pullum is responding, in particular, to the causal statement that dolphins use the distinct whistles in a way “much like” humans use names.  In order for that statement to stand, dolphins would have to actually use their “names” in a way similar to how humans use them, and accusing Pullum of looking at the issue from a narrowly humanocentric standpoint doesn’t really rebut his point, as the comment Pullum is teeing off against was itself humanocentric.

On another note, I think Pullum is not so much arguing that the fact that dolphins repeat their “name” when their “name” is called proves that they DON’T use their clicks and whistles anything like the way humans use names, but that that observation alone doesn’t come even close to proving that dolphins DO use the clicks in a way similar to how humans use names.  FWIW, I agree: I think the observation regarding dolphin behavior is a fascinating one, but it doesn’t prove that the sounds function in a way that bears anything more than a very lose metaphorical resemblance to how “names” function in human languages.

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Posted: 25 July 2013 12:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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The evidence may be weak in supporting the similarity of use, however I have not read the original research or any other related work on order to form an opinion.

But Pullum’s example is also wrong:
“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”

This shows nothing of the sort; we do respond to our name, and do it in a way relevant to our environment.  As I pointed out, in similar circumstances we do repeat our name back. This does not particularly support the dolphin research, but does give lie to Pullum’s dismissal.

I don’t follow LH’s lack of criticism.  Pointless comment just for the sake of sounding good to those who cannot differentiate is a worse “crime” than the very journalism he seeks to belittle.

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Posted: 25 July 2013 08:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Names, and how they are used, are elements of culture and I agree with Pullum if you take his argument to mean that it’s ridiculous to try to label porpoise culture in human terms. We simply don’t know enough about porpoise culture to say that signature whistles are names.

Signature whistles may function in porpoise societies in some ways that are similar to human names, but they could just as easily function in ways that simply don’t exist in human culture. Labeling signature whistles as “names” forces them into a human framework and ignores the fact that porpoise culture is distinct and very poorly understood.

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Posted: 26 July 2013 12:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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There could be all kinds of reasons for what the dolphins are doing. From Wikipedia Procedure word article:

Radio Check[edit]

What is my signal strength and readability; how do you hear me?

5 by 5 is an older term used to assess radio signals, as in 5 out of 5 units for signal strength and for readability. Other terms similar to 5x5 are “loud and clear” or “Lima and Charlie”. Example:

ALPHA 12: X-RAY Two-Three, THIS IS ALPHA One-Two, RADIO CHECK, OVER

X-RAY 23: ALPHA One-Two, THIS IS X-RAY Two-Three, I READ YOU 5 BY 5, OVER

ALPHA 12: ALPHA One-Two ROGER, OUT

US Army correct check:

ALPHA 12: X-RAY Two-Three, THIS IS ALPHA One-Two, RADIO CHECK, OVER

X-RAY 23: ALPHA One-Two, THIS IS X-RAY Two-Three, ROGER OUT

If the initiating station (ALPHA 12 in the example) cannot hear the responding station (X-RAY 23 above), then the initiator attempts a radio-check again, or if the responder’s signal was not heard, the initiator replies to the responder with “NEGATIVE CONTACT, ALPHA 12 OUT”.

The following readability scale is used: 1 = Bad (unreadable); 2 = Poor (readable now and then); 3 = Fair (readable but with difficulty); 4 = Good (readable); 5 = Excellent (perfectly readable).

Read Back for Check[edit]

edit: Sorry, I missed steve_g’s last line in his first post.

[ Edited: 26 July 2013 12:42 AM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 26 July 2013 03:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Now, if Pullum is just complaining about the reporters’ coverage of the story, that’s another matter.  If the original paper just said that the dolphins used the sounds as personal identifications and the reporters turned that into “just like humans use names” I can definitely see his point.  Railing against science reporters misinterpreting scientific papers is an ongoing theme at Language Log.

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Posted: 30 July 2013 01:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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"Hodor!”
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“Makka Pakka!”
“Hodor!”
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“Makka Pakka!”
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“Denny Crane!”
“Makka Pakka!”

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