Science Questions

Do animals speak regional languages?

Sun, 11th Oct 2009

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Jason Wrath asked:

Do animals speak regional languages? If I emigrated from South Africa to South America and I took my family dog with me, would his bark be understood by South American dogs?


Helen - Good question.  Animals do indeed.  Some of them do have regional accents, if you like, or dialects.  And whether or not your dog would understand another dog might come down to breeds, rather than necessarily where itís living in the world.  But yes, animals do.  We know that some birds have regional accents, some amphibians do, and if you jump into the oceans, there are creatures there that definitely have different languages and accents of their own.  And that is the whales and dolphins, the cetaceans.  And various studies have shown that if you listen to the sounds that some of these great whales are making, you can actually work out pretty well where it came from.  Blue whales are one example and scientists have worked out that there are about nine regional populations of blue whales that seem to have their own distinct languages.  And so, that might be something that has implications for things like conservation.  Maybe we have to think about those nine populations as being slightly separate and different.

Chris -   Is that because the baby whales learn to speak by imitation from parents and thatís how this regionality arises?

Helen -   Probably.  I mean, we know so little really about these amazing creatures, given the huge area of ocean that they live in, things like that.  So these sorts of questions, we donít yet know.  For example, we also donít know if they could understand each other between these regions.  We donít know that yet.  Killer whales are another example of fantastic regional dialects.  Along the eastern pacific coast of North America, thereís been a lot of study of killer whales living around Vancouver and Alaska.  And these guys also have regional dialects.  In fact, you can tell whether or not the individual killer whale belongs to a residential population, whether itís a transient individual thatís coming through or whether itís one from offshore because all these different killer whales basically speak with different accents, a little bit like different accents throughout the UK.  We could tell where someone comes from, from the way they sound.  I think this is fantastic.

They've also shown that there's a genetic link which is fantastic which shows that there seems to be some way that killer whales can tell how related they are to each other.  And therefore, try and avoid problem with things like inbreeding, just by the way that they're talking to each other.  So I think thatís just really fantastic.


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Jason Raath asked the Naked Scientists: Hi Chris, † If I emigrated from South Africa to South America and took my family dog with me, would his bark be understood by the South American dogs? Would animals on different continents speak different languages to each other? This would apply to cats, dogs, birds etc? † Thanks, love your show on Fridays on 702, and try never to miss it. † Cheers, Jason Raath What do you think? Jason Raath , Thu, 10th Sep 2009

Whales have dialects.. I suspect that dolphins would as well. JnA, Sun, 13th Sep 2009

One of the New Zealand Native birds, the Tui has regional dialects. That means that the Tui in Auckland can't understand the ones from Wellington and further south, and vice-versa. It's lucky that they aren't endangered or it would be a bit of an issue for breeding programs! Laura_Kelly, Sun, 13th Sep 2009

"That means that the Tui in Auckland can't understand the ones from Wellington and further south"
What do they know that's worth talking about? Bored chemist, Sun, 13th Sep 2009

Breeding for a start. And their songs are so beautiful and complex. If you want to have a listen, here is a link to an awesome recording of the Tui, , then click on number 7. Laura_Kelly, Tue, 15th Sep 2009

People are animals, so yes! :P Nizzle, Tue, 15th Sep 2009

Well, we've seen evidence above that birds do show regional variation, but these are complex (and often, though not exclusively) learned behaviours.

I would suspect that dogs & cats (and other animals with relatively simple vocalisations) would probably be able to understand each other.  Not to mention the non-verbal communication, (scent, raised hackles, rolling over...) would probably also communicate across regional boundaries - it communicates well enough over species boundaries! BRValsler, Tue, 15th Sep 2009

Sheep in Northeastern Spain speak Baaaaasque.  Geezer, Tue, 15th Sep 2009

I think you mean Speech, not Language, as there's not real proof as of yet that animals use Syntactic (or even Semantic) Language skills (phonemes, morphemes, meaningful segments, etc). Its an important distinction, since its one of the evolutionary qualities that appears to be uniquely human, and a likely indicator of Cognitive function. John G , Sun, 24th Jan 2010

So you are all saying that all animals have language?...Or that their communication differs in dialect like a language would? brea, Sat, 30th Jan 2010

To what extent can the same species of animal living on different land continents be able to understand each other when brought into contact with each other for the first time? I.e. are there different animal languages? Dan, Fri, 10th Aug 2012

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