Do animals speak regional languages?

11 October 2009

Question

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?

Answer

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 it's 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 that's 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 don't yet know. For example, we also don't know if they could understand each other between these regions. We don't know that yet. Killer whales are another example of fantastic regional dialects. Along the eastern pacific coast of North America, there's 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 it's a transient individual that's coming through or whether it's 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 that's just really fantastic.

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