Imagine a loanword that comes from dolphin speech. Such a “word” would, by necessity, emerge within the dolphin’s oceanic milieu, a salty-smooth volume of lightened gravity. The word would reflect the dolphin’s own sensory capabilities (like echolocation) and cognitive predispositions—perhaps a particular whistle or sequence of clicks. Yet upon translation into English, the word would leave behind both the oceanic and Delphic bodies of its originary formation. Indeed, if I dredge this word up from the sea, dripping and disoriented, would it even make sense to you, reader, whom I imagine perusing this text in the dry comfort of a chair? Would too much be lost upon the removal of this word from the watery milieu of dolphin sociality, imported into the contexts of human terrestrial habitation? Wouldn’t the translational—or better, transductive—process of making the aquatic word sensible in English be destined for failure?
As Friedrich Kittler wrote over a quarter century ago, “To transfer messages from one medium to another always involves reshaping them to conform to new standards and materials.” Yet if one’s goal is not mimesis or exact similitude—the fantasy of perfect translation—then perhaps there is something to learn from the attempt to imaginatively translate a “word” from dolphin to English. Language is never exact or fully literal, anyway; take for example metaphor (e.g., the ocean of the unconscious), which involves shuttling between two different figures, a matter of transport. Michel de Certeau recounts that in modern Athens, public transportation vehicles are called metaphorai. Thus, “To go to work or come home, one takes a ‘metaphor’—a bus or a train. Stories could also take this noble name: every day, they traverse and organize places; they select and link them together; they make sentences and itineraries out of them.” If metaphors shuttle between places, then perhaps it is as metaphors that we might persist in imagining a loanword from dolphinese. Perhaps a loanword from dolphin might be useful and expressive in contexts that we already figure as aquatic—like media, with its informational flows and floods, its content streaming, and its web surfing. This is the speculative challenge that I take up, with help from marine mammologist Denise Herzing.
In a 2013 TED talk, Herzing recounts the variety of body postures and phonations that dolphins use to communicate—behaviors that she has observed over the course of her twenty years studying Atlantic dolphins in the Bahamas. The two best-studied dolphin sounds are “signature whistles” (which function socially, like a name) and “echolocation clicks” (which function technically, to sense the immediate environs). Dolphins can also “tightly pack these clicks together and use them socially. For example, males will stimulate a female during a courtship chase.” In the talk, Herzing pauses conspiratorially and adds, “You know, I’ve been buzzed in the water. [laughter] Don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret. And you can really feel the sound, that’s my point.” Indeed, “sound can actually can be felt in the water because the acoustic impedance of tissue and water is about the same, so dolphins can ‘buzz’ and tickle each other at a distance.”
I choose the Delphic buzz of “tickling at a distance” as my loan “word,” a noise that stimulates from afar, a vibratory jouissance borrowed from entities that spend their lives in the ocean. I use the notation “~*~” for its visual similarity to sound waves and ocean waves (~), punctuated by (*) to denote the bodies that exists within/through them. Recent studies confirm what many of us already know: you can’t tickle yourself. Rather, it is the unexpected surprise of touch that causes new vibrations of pleasure and discomfort. Thus, the fact that ~*~ has to do with the heard/felt sensation of tickling implies the presence of at least one other being. As I explore here, the verbal/haptic behavior of “tickling at a distance”—or, for us, the synesthetic experience of “feeling sound”—might generatively enter the English lexicon as a way of talking about the capacity of media—wave media, fiber-optic media, all kinds of vibratory transmissions—to affect humans from a distance. As an environment for thought, the ocean opens the door for a new kind of comparative studies between media and the thalassic wild.
However, I am not the first media theorist to wryly turn to dolphins. John Durham Peters develops an expanded definition of “media” with dolphins as his guides, imagining all kinds of phenomena that count as media for dolphins—yet one that avoids instances of dolphin aggression or promiscuity, regarding dolphins as “medieval theologians did angels” in a literal way—as innocents—in addition to being “entities helpful for thought experiments about intelligence in different media.” Although, like Peters, I began with what scientists know about dolphins—Herzing’s observation that dolphins tickle each other at a distance with sound—my goal is not to provide a more accurate portal into what it is like to be a dolphin. I am more interested in the ways that ~*~ transports us from ocean to terrestrial media and back again.
One of the challenges in imagining a pronunciation for ~*~ is that sound propagates differently underwater than in air. If ~*~ means to “feel sound and be tickled by it”—something that we don’t normally think about, except at loud concerts—then what kind of pronunciation could approximate how ~*~ sounds/feels underwater? I imagine ~*~ being pronounced by lightly blowing a stream of air across the sensitive back of one’s hand, a gesture that might make you shiver. In this way, the pronunciation of ~*~ suggests the feeling of being tickled at a distance by someone/something not touching you with their body, an activity without an existing etymological precedent. Indeed, we often lack the language adequate to physical experiences that we have no empirical basis for, like alien languages or breathing through gills. Perhaps Octavia E. Butler puts it best when she has an alien in her novel Dawn try to explain its feeling of grief to a human being: “Move the sixteenth finger of your left strength hand.” Because we lack the etymological precedent for a word relating to the experience of being tickled at a distance, ~*~ is of uncertain grammatical status. Is it a noun or concept, a verb, a preposition, or an entire sentence? I am reminded of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s discussion of whether the command “Slab!” is a word or an entire sentence. “If a word,” he writes, “surely it has not the same meaning as the like-sounding word of our ordinary language, for in (2) it is a call. But if a sentence . . . perhaps it could be appropriately called a ‘degenerate sentence.’ . . . But why should I not on contrary have called the sentence ‘Bring me a slab’ a lengthening of the sentence ‘Slab!’?” Although Wittgenstein’s examples in Philosophical Investigations (1953) are consistently terrestrial (after all, as he famously wrote, to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life), they are still instructive for thinking about questions of dolphin speech. Like “Slab!” ~*~ could be either a word or a sentence. ~*~ both names and performs the phenomena it names all at the same time, an example of what J. L. Austin called “illocutionary” words. Alternatively, it may even be an example of onomatopoeia, the formation of a word that resembles or evokes the sound that it describes.
Initially, I imagined ~*~ like cat’s meow, something one might invoke in a variety of situations or grammatical positions to express a command (Meow! Pay attention!), a question (Meow? Are you OK?), a state of being (Meow. I’m frustrated), and the like. In this sense, ~*~ would be not unlike texting an emoticon, a sign that can be embedded in a variety of context and has no given pronunciation. However, Gregory Bateson—who also uses cats meowing to think about dolphin phonation—takes a different course of argument. Bateson references the cat’s meow as an example of a communication that is not about “things” per se but about relationships:
If we were to translate the cat’s message into words, it would not be correct to say that she is crying “Milk!” Rather, she is saying something like “Ma-ma!” Or, perhaps still more correctly, we should say that she is asserting “Dependency! Dependency!” The cat talks in terms of patterns and contingencies of relationship, and from this talk it is up to you to take a deductive step, guessing that it is milk that the cat wants.
At first glance, Bateson’s passage presumes a kind of species hierarchy (not uncommon in studies of animal communication) by characterizing the cat’s meow as a kind of primitive and simplistic communication. By introducing the example of the cat’s meow, one would guess that dolphin vocalizations could also be primarily about relationships rather than linguistic signs that refer to things outside themselves, and thus may also be seen as somewhat primitive. Could the clue to decoding dolphin come from a better understanding of the relationship happening at particular moments of vocalization? Bateson takes a different course, noting the way we can sense the emotiveness of “meow” but cannot guess at the emotive quality of dolphin phonations:
We terrestrial mammals are familiar with paralinguistic communication; we use it ourselves in grunts and groans, laughter and sobbing, modulations of breath while speaking, and so on. Therefore we do not find the paralinguistic sounds of other mammals totally opaque. We learn rather easily to recognize in them certain kinds of greeting, pathos, rage, persuasion, and territoriality, though our guesses may often be wrong. But when we hear the sounds of dolphins we cannot even guess at their significance.
What strikes Bateson, then, is the opacity of dolphin speech—that one can’t even guess at its emotional content; we have no idea what they are saying, even though we can usually guess (based on paralinguistic cues) what another human being speaking a foreign tongue means. Dolphin speech seems to be of a different order than the cat’s meow.
Yet because this loanword entry is a speculative fiction, my goal is not to decipher dolphinese but rather to imagine how an underwater vibration intended to tickle (pleasurably or uncomfortably) could serve as a metaphor in terrestrial/human contexts. To return to my hypothesis—that a loanword from dolphin might be useful and expressive in contexts that are full of aquatic figurative language, such as the informational flows of media and web surfing—it may help to generate a list of situations in which “tickling at a distance,” or ~*~, might be of use. Consider your phone vibrating in your pocket when you get a text, a light tickling sensation that alerts you to an as yet unopened message. Maybe the text is a GIF, a video that has been roughly looped on repeat to elicit a laugh, that involuntary movement of your diaphragm muscles, a kind of full-body vibration. The Apple Watch even allows you to text your heartbeat. Think of radio, podcasts, music—vibrations mediated by airwaves and cables that cause vibrations traveling over a long distance to resonate in your eardrum. Or think about a video game controller that vibrates in your sweaty hands when your avatar takes on damage. Because dolphins are promiscuous, think about the existence of remotely controlled sex toys, operated by a partner from across the Internet. If we take literally the metaphor that “information is water,” then we might view each of these media as types of propagating channels that carry vibrations over a distance to affect a receiver. Alternately, ~*~ might also operate across global scales, indicating the vibrations of an earthquake, the force of a tsunami, or the rush of monsoon winds—phenomena that transcend individual senses. Indeed, ~*~ might best be used to communicate ecological affects experienced over a distance, evoking synesthetic registers of feeling/hearing.
Another Path: Heyiya
1. See Stefan Helmreich, “Transduction,” Keywords in Sound, ed. David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015).
2. Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990), 265.
3. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 115.
4. Denise Herzing, “Could We Speak the Language of Dolphins?,” TED Talk, February 2013, https://www.ted.com/talks/denise_herzing_could_we_speak_the_language_of_dolphins. My emphasis.
5. See Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Daniel Wolpert, and Chris Frith, “Why Can’t You Tickle Yourself?,” Neuroreport 11, no. 11 (2000): R11–16.
6. John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 56.
7. Octavia E. Butler, Lilith’s Brood (1987; reprint, New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000), 225.
8. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (London: Blackwell, 1953), § 19.
9. J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975).
10. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 372.
11. Of course, one could imagine other situations where the range of emotions in “meow” is much more complex, such as instances of grief.
12. Bateson, Steps, 376.