Ever wondered what it would be like to talk to dolphins? Or aliens? One Leeds academic can tell you. Neil Hudson met up with Dr John Elliott.
It’s not every day you meet earth’s intergalactic representative but when Dr John Elliott, dolphin language expert and member of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) drops into the conversation that, should aliens ever call earth, he’s the linguist for the entire planet, it’s something of a conversation stopper.
The best I can muster is: “Pleased to meet you.”
I’m not sure what a dolphin and alien language expert should look like, but he cuts an unusual figure with his moustache and shoulder-length hair, and looks like he could be both a member of the campaign for real ale and the third member of rock group Status Quo.
Sometimes he wears an Indiana Jones-style hat, complete with leather jacket and looks like the kind of character who would sit comfortably in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which seems apt given one of the books in that opus (So Long and Thanks for All the Fish) had dolphins as the most intelligent lifeforms on the planet.
Dr Elliott doesn’t think they are the most intelligent lifeform but admits they’re not far off.
“Put it this way, they can understand us but we can’t understand them,” says Dr Elliott, who works in the field of intelligence engineering at Leeds Metropolitan University.
Despite this specialisation, Dr Elliott has found his academic path wandering across numerous other fields, including linguistics, artificial intelligence, astronomy, mathematics and computer science and even helping the police catch criminals by analysing patterns in language and behaviour – in the past he has been referred to as a polymath.
It was a childhood fascination with astronomy which drove him to where he is today and resulted in him joining SETI, an independent, non-political group of academics whose aim is to search for signs of intelligent life beyond our planet.
And it was his obsession with SETI which lead him to begin studying dolphins, which, he says, are the closest thing we have to aliens on this planet.
He explained why he believes it will be possible to converse with dolphins in his lifetime and how such a breakthrough would help us if aliens ever did dial earth.
“Because of SETI and realising dolphins were the next thing down on the evolutionary scale, I realised how much potential being able to understand them would bring. They are self-aware, like us, and there’s not a lot else that is.
“We know this from things like the mirror test – unlike cats and dogs, who will attack a mirror, dolphins will look at it and are curious – they will realise it’s them looking back. You can confirm that by putting marks on them, you can watch them going up to the mirror and if you put a mark on their tongue, they will open their mouths to have a look.
“But they live in a medium we are not built for which makes them much harder to study.
“They learn language like we do – in the first year, their young babble and make random sounds until it refines down to the system the adults use.
“When you look at the clicks, squawks etc, the distinguishable sounds that make up their communication (there are about 135), the way they put them together has got the same pattern as us and the relationship of the sounds is also the same.
“In other words, the dolphin language has the same footprint as our own. It implies they have the same way of rationalising things. The next thing to do would be to pair this information with behaviour.
“In terms of understanding them, I believe we are on the brink of decoding their language and once you do that, you would then effectively be an underwater anthropologist, so to communicate with them you would do the same thing people do with Amazon tribes, which is to replicate the sounds back and see what happens.
“It’s the same thing we would do with an alien message.”
But the method of breaking down the dolphin language is somewhat more involved than simply recording it and playing it back through a machine.
Dr Elliott uses computer binary code to break languages down to their most basic level, into a stream of ones and zeros, which is a good way of seeing patterns.
“If you ask linguists how language is structured, they can tell you down to a certain level but I dig beneath that veneer, I look at the sounds we make and the symbols we use, which are arbitrary.
“Languages have chunks of meaning, English is a really easy one because a bit of meaning is a single word but other languages put things together, like German. They are called agglutinating languages, so you can almost have entire sentences or phrases looking like one word. Turkish and Finnish are even more extreme.
“The worst of all for that is the Aboriginal language – Kenny Everett once took the mickey out of it in a sketch, in which he read out one single word and all it referred to in the end was part of a village.
“This approach enables you to say language behaves in a particular way, because the patterns are the same. If you think of two languages which are poles apart, like English and Chinese, when you break them down using binary code and look at the patterns, they are virtually the same.
“If you ignore the veneer, they behave in the same way. If I describe something I see out of a window and a Chinese man does the same, the same blocks of information are going on, nouns, adjectives etc.
“Language is incredibly efficient, it has evolved like that for a reason. As a species, humans haven’t got great armour or speed, we use our brains, so by reasoning and communicating we have been able to get the survival edge.
“Language is key for survival.
“The structure of language is also linked to our cognition and something called the encephalization quotient (EQ), a scale which links brain mass to body mass and affords a reasonable correspondence to intelligence – humans come out at about 9, dolphins 5 and apes 2.5.”
He went on: “We all have the same brains, our limitations are the same. We can remember about nine things in our short term memory and strangely enough our EQ is also nine. That affects the way we put language together, because we all do the same juggling. A dolphin’s EQ is 5 and it turns out the number of things they can juggle is five.
“When it comes to languages, it’s evolved that way for a reason, so if you toy with it, it starts to become unwieldy, so you wouldn’t do it – any other intelligence would have evolved along similar lines, even an alien one.
“From the SETI side of things, if we received a message and analysed it and looked for patterns, we could use it to measure their intelligence, because if they have brains like us then they will have some form of limitation and this is a way of picking that out.”
Dr Elliott says all communication, whether it is that of an ant, a bee, cat, dog, dolphin or man, behaves in the same way and follows the same rules.
He added: “If a signal comes in, it gets passed to me and a few others but as far as SETI is concerned, I’m the linguist for the planet.
“If I get an alien message, one thing I could tell within hours is that it’s language, it’s complex and SETI would immediately tell the world.
“What we wouldn’t be able to say is what it meant, although we would get an idea of their intelligence using EQ, so if it came out at something like 13, that would mean they have way bigger brains that us and were more intelligent, which might be worrying.