People Talk

Dolphins have long been considered among the very intelligent animals on earth. Their impressive array of frequency-modulated whistles, burst-pulsed sounds, and clicks remains a source of great interest for scientific investigation. Not to mention their seemingly great affinity for people.

Numerous stories abound of dolphins rescuing people. A particularly dramatic episode occurred in August, 2007, in Marina State Park off Monterey, California. Ocean-goer Todd Endris was attacked by a 15-foot great white shark — three times! Because his stomach was pressed against his surfboard, he wasn’t fatally wounded when the shark clamped down and sandwiched him to his board. After he managed to momentarily ward off the shark by kicking it in the snout when it subsequently clamped down on his leg — at which point Endris was convinced that he was done for — a pod of dolphins surrounded him, enabling him to make his way back to shore.

With their antics and seemingly ready compliance, dolphins also provide fantastic entertainment.

Now, get ready for this: The Telegraph’s science correspondent Sarah Knapton published an article this past Sept. 11 featuring the groundbreaking research of Dr. Vyacheslav Ryabov, leading researcher at the Karadag Nature Reserve in Feodosia, Russia, which purportedly documents, for the first time ever, a human-like conversation between two dolphins at the reserve, Yasha and Yana. A unique, underwater microphone was utilized to distinguish “voice variation” the dolphins were employing. Researchers noted a seemingly-deliberate altering of volume and frequency in the pulsed clicks, strikingly resembling the human process of word formation and sentence structuring. Amazingly, Yasha and Yana would each listen to the other’s “sentences,” without interrupting, before replying. The only disappointing part was that their sentences contained a maximum of five words. Scientists are far from understanding the content of these conversations, but are hopeful that gadgets in the not-too-distant future will remedy that.

We shouldn’t be too shocked about this discovery. After all, in Chazal we find numerous examples of people who understood the language of animals. And yet, it is perplexing. The Chofetz Chaim strongly emphasizes the fact that the human power of speech is what sets us apart from the rest of the creatures that inhabit planet Earth. It’s the defining characteristic of Adam. So how can it be that some animals’ communications seem to strongly resemble ours? And don’t dismissively shrug it off with an, “Ah, a bunch of clicks; you call that speech?” Lots of languages — to the uninitiated — can sound like nothing more than a bunch of grunts, clicks or clucks. Dismissing them as non-languages would be a gross display of arrogant ignorance, wouldn’t it? Dolphin-talk sounding impossibly foreign to us is not an excuse, then, to write it off as a non-language.

So what of our quandary?

I think — and this is my own supposition, so feel free to take it or leave it — that there really is no question to begin with. Why? Because it’s simply a case of mistaken definition. The assumption was that speech is defined by the ability to generate sophisticated expression comprised of distinct units of words and sentences. But that’s not it at all!

One of the primary sources quoted by the Chofetz Chaim to prove that speech is the defining characteristic of man is the Targum Onkelos on the passuk, “Vayipach b’apav nishmas chaim vayehi ha’adam l’nefesh chayah” (Bereishis 2:7). Torah Sheb’al Peh is replete with references that help us understand what, exactly, this “breath of life” is all about: That it is the most exalted creation that Hashem created; hewn, as it were, from directly beneath the kisei hakavod; far more exalted than the malachim. And what did infusing this holy neshamah, which stands as the apex of Creation, into the body of man, bring about? Targum Onkelos: “v’havas b’adam l’ruach memalela — it made the adam into a speaking ruach.”

Rav Chaim Volozhiner, in Nefesh Hachaim, explains that the ruach component of man is that which bridges our soul with our body. From that connecting point, speech emanates. Speech, then, is not simply the ability to communicate, but is the expression of the ruach, the fusion between body and soul.

Many animals possess communication abilities, perhaps some so sophisticated as to be designated a language, of sorts. But expressions of ruach they do not have. That is the exclusive domain of neshamah-infused humanity. When we express our awe at the grandeur of a magnificent sunset, when we use our words to give concrete and compelling expression to the basic tenets of what it means to live life in a moral and meaningful manner, when we verbalize kindness and empathy, ideation and conceptualization, and, most of all, when we speak the wisdom of Torah words, the ruach memalela is giving forth its expression; we are tapping into our true, defining humanity.

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