Dolphin Names, and Yours

Feb 21st 2013

Over the past several years, researchers have discovered that we're not alone in the naming universe. Another species, too, confers names: dolphins.

In 2006, a team of biologists determined that each dophin develops a distinctive whistle pattern that other dolphins use to identify it. (News story; original paper.) Relatives and close group members respond strongly to an individual's whistled name, even when the sound pattern is produced by a synthesizer. Strangers, meanwhile, swim on and ignore it. The name also appears to encode metadata about the dolphin's identity, such as age and sex.

Now, a new study reveals that dolphins don't just recognize each other's identifying whistles, they call them out. A dolphin mother, for instance, may produce the whistle of her calf to attract his attention when they are separated. (News story; original paper.) That sounds like a name, alright.

Dolphin names get me all philosophical. If naming practices of other cultures can give us new perspectives on the nature of names, naming practices frrom a whole other order of mammals must demand a step back for some serious reflection. What does it mean to have a name? What are they for, and what do they tell us? Are human parents, sweating over the perfect name choice for a child yet to be born, engaged in an arbitrary rite of our culture or a profound and universal undertaking?

Here are a few thoughts I've had as I've read more about the world of undersea names. I'm curious where the topic leads you.

"Encoding Metadata"
A name is a lot more than just any string of sounds or characters. Even among dolphins, whistle-names apparently carry side messages like "I'm an adult male." Now think about how much of this "metadata" a full human name can encode. The more complex our societies and cultures are, and the more we're aware of relationships, differences and history, the more information a name is likely to carry.

Culture, Distance and Name Diversity
The breakthrough 2006 dolphin name finding was based on a population of wild dolphins. An earlier study of dolphins living in captivity had found no individual naming, just shared calls.

The broader issues surrounding animals in captivity are far beyond the scope of this site, but from a pure naming perspective this difference is thought-provoking. In the confines of an aquarium, you know everybody and you know exactly where they all are. Names may simply be unnecessary in that environment. In the larger, far-flung community of dolphins off the Florida coast, tracking identity becomes an important challenge.

Do we see the same patterns in people? Consider that surnames are a relatively recent addition to our human identification system. Before that extra layer of identification was added, given names had to carry the whole identification load. Yet given names were far less diverse back then. Around the year 1200, at the cusp of the surname age in England, the top 10 names for boys and girls accounted for two thirds of all babies born. So half the families you know have a William and Alice? No big deal, you know who everybody is in your tank...err, village.

Today, in the internet age, we talk about the "global village." Not surprisingly, name diversity is skyrocketing. The top 10 names for American boys and girls account for just one twelfth of babies.

When Are You Named?
Dolphins' names aren't given, but rather self-created in youth with maternal training. We humans, in contrast, assign names at birth or before. On the rare occasion that we hear of parents who couldn't decide on a name and allowed their child to remain nameless throughout infancy, we're scandalized. Why? Does a name matter to a babe in arms? Perhaps naming at birth helps us as adults to bond with the child, but we seem to give it far more weight than that, as if having a name is essential to being human.

Could we name later? Could we, indeed, wait until the child is able to participate in the process? One obvious problem is that the name you'd choose at age 3 would surely be different from what you'd choose at 10, or at 25. One mother I met addressed this with the unusual solution of encouraging her children to change their names fluidly in childhood. That approach, though, compromises the core identification function of a name. It also strips the name of some of its unique stature, turning it into a personal expression of the moment -- a role already filled by many other choices like clothes and hairstyles.

Perhaps the answer is that adults choose names for children because it takes some perspective on the world to choose well. (NOT because we're prioritizing our own "personal expression" over our children's...right?)

Comments

1
February 22, 2013 2:48 PM

That is so interesting! I never knew that about dolphins.  Since their name contains info about their age, do their names change over time?

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February 23, 2013 4:34 AM

I also found this fascinating, some of that info I knew but not all of it. I also wonder if their names must change?

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February 27, 2013 10:54 AM

SO INTERESTING!  I think it's fine to wait to name a baby...until they're mobile.  Then its important to have a way to call them back to you.  I don't think kids should name themselves or we'd have a an awful lot of  Dora's, Elmo's, ChooChoo's, Banana's, etc.  Then they're stuck with it.  And if they keep changing it as they grow up, we'd be stuck with the impossible task of remembering everyone's current name.

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