Human language and dolphin movement patterns show similarities in brevity

July 30, 2009
Images: D. Lusseau.

Two researchers from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) and the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom have shown for the first time that the law of brevity in human language, according to which the most frequently-used words tend to be the shortest, also extends to other animal species. The scientists have shown that dolphins are more likely to make simpler movements at the water surface.

"Patterns of dolphin behaviour at the surface obey the same law of brevity as , with both seeking out the simplest and most efficient codes", Ramón Ferrer i Cancho, co-author of the study published in the journal Complexity and a researcher in the Department of Languages and IT Systems at the UPC, tells SINC. The law of brevity, proposed by the American philologist George K. Zipf, along with others, shows that the most frequently-used words are the shortest ones.

Ferrer i Cancho, together with the scientist David Lusseau from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland (although they actually carried out this study while working at the Universities of Barcelona and Dalhousie in Canada, respectively) have shown that when move on the surface of the water they tend to perform the most simple movements, in the same way that humans tend to use words made up of less letters when they are speaking or writing, in so-called "linguistic economy".

The research study includes the case of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The most-used word is the three-letter article "the", while other larger ones, such as "responsibilities" are hardly found at all. Among bottlenose dolphins in New Zealand, the researchers looked at their behaviour patterns at the surface of the water. Each pattern is made up of up to four basic units.

So, the "tail slap" pattern is made up of the units "slap", "tail" and "two", while the "spy hop" pattern is made up of the units "stop", "expose" and "head", and the "side flop" pattern" comprises "leap" and "side", and the "tail-stock dive" only involves the "dorsal arch" unit.

In total, the scientists counted more than 30 patterns of behaviour and their related units, and have shown that dolphins carry out more behaviour patterns made up of just one unit, while those involving four units are used less frequently.


"The results show that the simple and efficient behaviour strategies of dolphins are similar to those used by humans with words, and are the same as those used, for example, when we reduce the size of a photographic or video image in order to save space", says Ferrer.

The researcher says that studies such as this one show that human language is based on the same principles as those governing biological systems, "which leads us to the conclusion that the traditional barriers between disciplines should be removed".

Source: Plataforma SINC (news : web)

Explore further: Environment shapes dolphin noises

Related Stories

Environment shapes dolphin noises

November 19, 2007

Dolphins appear to change their vocalisations depending on their physical and social environments and level of human interaction, new research shows.

Fighting for their attention

April 4, 2007

Mating strategies are straightforward in bottlenose dolphins, or are they? Much of the work carried on male-female relationships in that species to date show that males tend to coerce females who are left with little choice ...

Scientists uncover new dolphin species in Australian waters

November 21, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Marine mammal experts have uncovered a new species of dolphin in Australian waters, challenging existing knowledge about bottlenose dolphin classifications and highlighting the country's marine biodiversity.

Recommended for you

Big brains in birds provides survival advantage: study

September 25, 2017

Given how proud we are of our big brains, it's ironic that we haven't yet figured out why we have them. One idea, called the cognitive buffer hypothesis, is that the evolution of large brains is driven by the adaptive benefits ...

Panda habitat shrinking, becoming more fragmented

September 25, 2017

A study by Chinese and U.S. scientists finds that while populations of the iconic giant panda have increased recently, the species' habitat still covers less area and is more fragmented than when it was first listed as an ...

With extra sugar, leaves get fat too

September 25, 2017

Eat too much without exercising and you'll probably put on a few pounds. As it turns out, plant leaves do something similar. In a new study at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, scientists show ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.