Researchers studying dolphins along the Welsh coast have found that these dolphins have a distinct ‘Welsh’ accent. Their ‘ultra-high’ pitched whistles, which reached up to 40Hz, are much higher than dolphins found elsewhere in the world.
This is a fascinating finding for scientists across a huge range of disciplines. For marine biologists, it gives a wonderful insight into the intelligence of dolphins and their social capabilities. At the same time, for linguists, this discovery reveals that accents, a very ‘human’ phenomenon, may be more universal than we previously thought. Studying their origin in animals, may also be an opportunity to better understand how and why accents form.
Accents, a very ‘human’ phenomenon, may be more universal than we previously thought
It may be misleading to call this phenomenon a ‘Welsh’ accent. The higher pitched whistles don’t resemble the features of a human Welsh accent. I am yet to encounter a Welsh person who speaks in a high squeaky voice. The Welsh accent is formed by a range of grammatical and audio features, something that is not found among dolphins. So, while we unfortunately won’t find a dolphin speaking like a character from Gavin and Stacey, the dolphin’s ‘Welsh’ accent may serve a similar function to that of a human.
An accent is defined as a distinct pronunciation of a language, and is often specific to a region or social class. The fact that the group of dolphins producing this distinct ‘speech’ pattern is found solely on the Welsh coast, means that although they are not speaking like a Welsh person, they have developed the ‘dolphinese’ version of a Welsh accent.
The study was carried out for a BBC series titled ‘Wonders of the Celtic deep.’ Researchers studied 240 Bottled-Nosed dolphins in Cardigan Bay, on the East coast of Wales. Dolphins are very sociable mammals, therefore, the researchers took the chance to record and analyse their communication: their whistles. By analysing the properties of the whistles, they were able to compare them to those of dolphins around the world, revealing the distinguished high pitch of the Welsh dolphins.
Accents are more than differences in pronunciation. They depend on a variety of factors such as where, and even when, you learned to speak. Over time, humans have moved all around the world, forming new settlements and populations. This leads to new accents forming from a mix of those in the new population. This is why, for example, the current Australian accent is similar to a London accent, as many London convicts were among those who colonised Australia.
Accents are more than differences in pronunciation
We all have accents, which convey information about us. What is important, is that they allow humans to establish identity, to blend in, or even to stand out from a group. Could they function similarly among dolphins?
While most animals communicate in some way, the presence of an accent amongst dolphins adds an extra level of complexity to the way they communicate. The whistles are not just about hunting for food or looking after young. They’re a way to demonstrate their belonging to a group. In the same way that Welsh people may feel a sense of pride and community when around others with the same accent.
How is it possible for such a phenomenon to occur? Accents often develop when two populations are in isolation from each other, therefore, it may simply be the fact that the dolphins on the Welsh coast are living away from other dolphin populations. This would mean that over time the dolphins in the isolated population start to sound more and more similar.
While we can’t say the same for humans, having an accent is also a survival benefit for dolphins. If the dolphins can identify others in their group, this allows cooperation between the group members, improving survival prospects. However, it goes beyond survival. A 2020 study found that social and behavioural factors also heavily influence their whistles. Having an accent gives the dolphins in Cardigan Bay a common feature, allowing these highly social animals to bond.
We certainly don’t know everything about why these dolphins have developed an accent and how they use it in communication. However, the discovery opens the door for scientists to continue to understand the nature of animal communication. The fact that dolphin communication shares so many features of human language certainly makes me think we have only scratched the surface of what these brilliantly intelligent mammals are capable of.