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Vol. XXVII, no. 2

Gary Leising

It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English—up to fifty words used in correct context—no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.
—Carl Sagan

Surprisingly, they have few words for water, few words for any things. Their language is mostly adjectives. Water can be salty, dirty, clear, blue, deep, even bloody. Their language is not simple; it changes daily. When phrases become too common—the deep blue sea, for example—the wisest dolphins eliminate it from speech, and others follow. They despise cliches, which die out in a month or less.

Their favorite words connect to each other: their sounds flow from another, attach a click and whistle, pull the sentences away from its source the way a wrasse picks sea-lice from a grouper, ingests it, then darts off to a roughy or small shad to do the same. Like this, words seem never to end; sentences go on, echoing throughout the sea.

Why do we not want to speak with them? They lack verbs, and so sound uneducated. Their stumbling clicks and squeals, translated literally, make them sound like a wild-man, raised from infancy by animals in some jungle adventure tale. When brought to civilization, he cannot name things or describe actions: when riding a train, he says, "I in thunder tube." Had we someone to represent their thoughts well in English, she would stand at the edge of a tank, saying, "I knew how to leap with joy before you showed me this hoop. I would break the surface and flip in the air after finding a large school of fish and eating until my insides grew wide like the ocean, not because I wanted a small meal that smelled of human hands."

They like long ways of saying things. To give directions, they describe the shapes of everything permanent—coral or a rusting, sunken metal ship—along the way. They have short ways of naming danger. There are seventy-two one-click words for shark; each gives the size, speed, direction it approaches from, and describes how fierce and hungry the predator appears. Confusion comes in when naming human vehicles: the populations around the world—which are quite mobile—cannot agree on words for propeller, skiff, fishing boat, or net.

They have no word for death; instead, say out of water or in the orca. Young dolphins await the gone one's return to the sea, emergence from the shark's belly. Older ones hope to strike the dolphin dying in a tuna net from their memory the way they do clichés.