I am going to start with a stereotype. The term stereotype is derived from the Greek words στερεός (stereos), meaning “firm, solid” and τύπος (typos), meaning “impression,” hence “solid impression”. The stereotype of Greeks relating the definition of every word to Greek origin. I know, stereotype in the stereotype, right? The Matryoshka Principle (MP) in effect!
Some people like to generalize a lot. Most of us criticize this behavior but overall it is hard to avoid it. Stereotypes result from peoples’ effort to understand the world by categorizing. As long as the stereotypes are not accompanied by prejudicial or discriminatory reactions I can, sarcastically, use them and self-stereotype.
I enjoy looking into the history, the origin of things, the etymology of words. The word itself derives from the Greek word ἐτυμολογία, etymologia, from ἔτυμον, etymon, meaning “true sense” and the suffix -logia, denoting “the study of”. MP again!
I regularly (quite always) find myself asking people, especially here in the US, where they come from. Where they originally come from, you know, not where they were born but their ancestors origin. In the case that I cannot directly ask people questions, I ask myself.
Where my studies’ subjects come from, where and when cetecean and bioacoustic rese
arch was initiated. You would (not) be surprised to discover that Cetology (from κῆτος, kētos, “whale”; and -λογία, -logia), has Greek origin, and I am not just referring to the word. It was 2364 years ago when the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle published the History of Animals. He was only 34 when he wrote these 10 books! I don’t want to make any comparisons here, it would be inaccurate because I am also younger (!!!!), but just for reference: I struggle with just one publication.
Aristotle was the first to study and record dolphins (from Greek δελφίς (delphís), “dolphin”, related to the Greek δελφύς (delphus), “womb” and referred to as “a ‘fish’ with a womb”) and dolphin behavior. He made observations, he took notes and then he scientifically published them. He even reported his methods! Sounds like what everybody does, right? Well yes, but not 2.5 thousand years ago! It is also startling that he came up with 2 common research methods used nowadays in cetology: photo-identification and tagging. He did not have a camera or any tag equipment, but he collaborated with the fishermen and they would create artificial notches on the dorsal fins of the dolphins that were entangled alive in their fishing nets and then they were able to identify different individuals, monitor their movements and get information on their age and span of their lives.
In his writings, he correctly claimed that dolphins were mammals, he observed that they bore their live young and suckled them, breathed air and communicated by underwater sounds:
“The dolphin has a blow and lungs… it sleeps with the snout above the water and when it sleeps, snores. None produces any eggs but they give birth directly to an embryo like in the case of human and the viviparous quadrupeds. The gestation period lasts for 10 months and gives birth in the summer. The dolphins produce milk and they suckle the young which they accompany for long periods. The caring for their young is remarkable. The young grow up fast and becomes adult at the age of 10 years old. It lives for many years, even above 25 or 30… The voice of the dolphin in air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels, but have difficulties with the consonants.” (Aristotle, HISTORIA ANIMALIUM, 350 BC)
It is interesting to think how much more information we have (or have not) acquired the last couple thousands of years. Especially as far as acoustics are concerned as it was not before the 1950s when new observations were made. In 1949, William E. Schevill and B. Lawrence used their hydrophones (from Greek ὕδωρ = water and φωνή = sound) into the Saguenay River of Quebec to make the first underwater recordings of the sound of cetaceans, belugas in this case, in the wild.
The use of hydrophones started at wartime too, used during WWII by
the submarines to detect underwater targets. Since it became declassified and available, it has been widely used today to study the underwater soundscapes and reveal a non-Silent World. While Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s title was a misnomer, Professor Huxley, in 1869, stated in his essay on the “Physical Basis of Life”:
“The wonderful noonday silence of a tropical forest, is, after all, due only to the dullness of our hearing; and could our ears catch the murmur of these tiny maelstroms, as they whirl in the innumerable myriads of living cells which constitute each tree, we should be stunned, as with the roar of a great city.”
making a point on the information we can get from soundscapes and the essentiality of the right equipment. Thus hydrophones become a favorite tool for cetologists and bioacousticians to record, understand and accurately study the charismatic marine-megafauna.
Being able to hear the whales and dolphins “voices”, opened a discussion whether these intelligent animals can actually talk, use their sounds to communicate with each other in a language context. I’m not sure which is the answer but I don’t see why we should give such an anthropocentric meaning to their vocalizations just to consider them intelligent and worthy of our protection and conservation efforts…
But the languages have further significance even within the human society. Anthropologists, linguists and psychologists have done research around the world and looked into many different languages to understand the importance of the use of certain languages and words in our minds performance. Results of these studies show that the words and language that we use represent and shape what and how we think. Thus who we are! Very cool research has shown that human languages shape the way we think about space, time, colors, and objects. Just like what cetaceans do using sound to navigate and locate food over long distances!
In fact, an interesting example of how words change the way we view the world is this one of Shakespeare who is known to have created a whole bunch of new words and phrases that have unarguably affected the way we sense our surroundings. “It’s all Greek to me” has been introduced by him, but I know that after reading this post this phrase has no use for you! In fact Greek is not really that hard, of medium difficulty. After 44 posts you will be proficient…
I will close by quoting Marcel Proust who said that the real voyage of discovery doesn’t consist in seeking new landscapes but having new eyes. And to paraphrase that, as far as my field of studies is concerned, the voyage of discovery consists in seeking soundscapes instead of landscapes, in listening to the deep sea, deep listening and understanding what we hear of the sounds in the oceans.
Every fourth week of the month I will be sharing with you, thoughts, ideas, everyday lessons and concerns, more related to bioacoustics than the Greek language 😉