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Currently, most, if not, all human languages use sound to communicate. What if, language A, a language much like English in terms of its global dominance and widespread use, on a planet much like ours, used silence instead of sound to communicate. If you don't understand, speak the following sentence:

I am a human and I have a mischievous brother who is in my treehouse.

Instead of listening for sounds, listen for the lack of sounds, rather the silence or gap between words (and sometimes these gaps are within words, like the word high-ranking). But you say, "well, don't all words have the same lengths of silence between them when we say them? Wrong. We actually use different types of inflections and different lengths between words to subconsciously express our emotions." Imagine if language A had the same exact grammar and vocabulary as American English. Instead of listening for sounds, speakers of language A listen for silence and thus understand the same ideas in a completely different way. If the length of these gaps were translated into a 60 letter alphabet, and the speakers of language A were a native tribe (about 2500 members) that lived in relative isolation from other humans, how would language A affect their culture?

Agreed, human evolution hardwires us to listen for sounds, because when you heard what may have been a hungry lion growling, you'll get away from that place as fast as possible or be eaten. If you listened to silence, you wouldn't really understand anything meaningful and you would probably be eaten. But how would language A affect their culture if they had used language A for over 1500 years (written and spoken)?

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Nice questions. Reminds me of how Asians perceive and read words compared to Occidentals. – Kii Feb 10 at 10:55
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If you listened to silence, you wouldn't really understand anything meaningful and you would probably be eaten. Well, you could hear the pause in chirping and know that a predator is nearby. – ANeves Feb 10 at 12:01
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Sounds like a reverse morse code, instead of listening for the sounds you're listening for the breaks. – DasBeasto Feb 10 at 13:25
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trouble is, silence is only measurable by the length of silence - or to put it another way, by the gap between 2 sounds. Ergo your language is actually based on sounds. PS evolution doesn't work like that, cats do not growl or make any noise when hunting prey and a lack of noise does not mean a cat is about to pounce on y – gbjbaanb Feb 10 at 16:21
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11 Answers 11

up vote 29 down vote accepted

You can't quite do a language of only silence, because you need something to punctuate it. If I gave you 60 seconds of nothing but silence, you wouldn't have any way to know if I had intended that to be:

  • A single word, 60 seconds long
  • Two "words" of 30 seconds each
  • A "sentence" with words of length 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 seconds respectively (with a 5-second break before or after, which you also can't distinguish from the rest)

...or just about anything else. There has to be something to disambiguate where one silence ends and another begins.

Most human languages -including, I believe, all languages that use sound at all- use silence to punctuate words and sentences. You could, however, semi-swap the roles played by silence and sound: the silence carries meaning, modified by the sounds that come before and after it. I'm guessing this is what you intended to do when you spoke of the "tone" of silence. The sounds themselves would likely be limited to monosyllables with tones, since they don't carry meaning in their own right, but that's not a hard necessity.

How would a silence-based language affect the culture that spoke it? Since the length of a silence would have to carry greater meaning than the length of a word does in most real languages, that culture would, out of necessity, have to speak somewhat more slowly. Developing a strong sense of rhythm and time would be highly prized, because it would enable people to speak more quickly. But for the most part, I'll leave that speculation to the other answers.

It would also confuse the heck out of linguists, who would generally assume that when there is sound, the sound has meaning. They'd probably spend ages trying to figure out what these "words" of one or two sounds actually mean, then move on to assuming some kind of syntactic structure when it turned out that a given sound could mean totally different things based on the words before and after, and so on. You could have an interesting Eureka moment in your story when a linguist working on this impossible language finally figures out that they should be looking "between the words". Which, technically, is actually looking at the words, but as a first cut of an oversimplified explanation, it gets the job done.

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I still think this is just tooo unlikely. You can always modify the sounds you make as an additional cue. So even if you had a silence language, some dialects would try to shorten words - and you can do this by changing the stopping sounds around the silence. So these would quickly carry meaning too. It is faster and easier, if you want to get attention, you will shout loudly over the noise. Faster and easier will win the language battle in time... – Falco Feb 11 at 10:50
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There are many different, strange languages. Hence, linguist should be - given he's experienced - fluent in how languages can be made. What OP is suggesting is indeed Morse code, or its variation, but that's it. It wouldn't be that hard to find out, especially when you see that there's no pattern in the sounds. Oh, and since creatures tend to be as lazy as possible, they probably wouldn't bother with coming up with sophisticated(they probably wouldn't even consider it sophisticated) ways to break silence. – MatthewRock Feb 12 at 10:27
    
Imho it's better to point out how many sayings there are with silence and speaking - people "shouting" "speak up!" instead of "shut up!", "noise!" instead of "silence!". And assuming that they don't want to be "speaking" 24/7, walking into the city where everyone emits some noise would feel much like encountering zombies. – MatthewRock Feb 12 at 10:29

You're going for a language with a single phoneme varied by length (tone? but it's a silence).

Problem 1) It's going to be really really slow to say anything like for example, "look out for the lion behind you!" in Morse that would be .-.. --- --- -.- / --- ..- - / ..-. --- .-. / - .... . / .-.. .. --- -. / -... . .... .. -. -.. / -.-- --- ..- Though I'd expect more than two options for duration it's an example of how complex it'll be, especially as Morse effectively uses two phonemes, the beep and the silence, each with two durations. The silences separate letters and words, they're not just the gaps between the dits and dahs.

Problem 2) Needing sound to end the silences, it sounds like a very peaceful language initially, but it's still going to be just as noisy.

Advantage 1) Being deaf isn't such a massive problem, since everything is timing based sign language is easy for everyone.

This sounds like a highly inefficient version of tonal. You'd be better off using the silences as a modifier of meaning rather than the entirety of the meaning. This would allow a much greater density of information while still making the language culturally unintelligible to outsiders and their obsession with sounds.

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To be honest, if the language is slow and there's a lion behind your friend, you'd just cry "run" :-) – bilbo_pingouin Feb 11 at 6:50

It's what they speak on Venus when annoyed, actually. Anyone who has ever had a girlfriend from that planet can testify how utterly, devastatingly effective the language of silence is.

My dear, are you upset?

... [sullen silence]

Is it something I did?

... [Well duh silence]

It is, isn't it?

... [Do I really have to say it silence]

Was it the way I looked at that girl?

... [Disapproving silence]

Was it the comment I made about the jeans making you look fat?

... [Glowering silence]

Long story short, 90% of communication is already nonverbal. It may be a bit more challenging with 2 silent partners, but insofar as emotion rather than concrete fact is being conveyed, or the two (non-)communicating parties are British, you should be fine.

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**chuckles** – Cort Ammon Feb 10 at 18:06
    
Don't know if it is an answer that fits the problem, since their culture is still based on talking, reserving the silence for upset situations. I cannot even guess what my wife says when making silence being upset. But certainly you made me laugh. – Luis Masuelli Feb 10 at 21:05
    
This reminds me of the 'chat' between Humphrey and the Hero in Suikoden 2 '...' '...' '...' ... – Mr.Mindor Feb 11 at 22:48

If all that matters is the silence, then there's no need for the sounds to be differentiated in any way. I'd suppose speakers of such a language would just grunt to break up the silences. So a sentence would be, like, "Uh ... uh .. uh .... uh . uh ..... uh . uh".

Hmm, but how can silence have a "tone"? The only thing I see that could differentiate periods of silence would be their length. So your language would be reduced to deriving meaning from the length of each period of silence. Either the speakers of the language would have to be able to distinguish periods of time very finely, as in, oh, that was 1.24 seconds of silence, that means X, while 1.25 seconds of silence means Y. Or more likely, they'd have a very few lengths of silence, like dots and dashes in morse code, and meaning would be derived from the combination.

Frankly it sounds a whole lot less flexible and concise than using silence to break up sound like real-world languages. Not to say that I'm trying to discourage you from using this in a story. But you might want to try to come up with some reason why, for these people (or beings), this is a good idea. Well, I guess for creatures whose physical capabilities are such that they can only make one sound, like all they can do is grunt, then it might make sense: If they can't vary the lengths of the grunts, but they can vary the lengths of the silences, using the latter might actually be more versatile.

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This is the most concise and practically relevant answer here. – underscore_d Feb 11 at 11:09

I would expect such a language would have a different effect than you anticipate.

Making a typical language which exists in the gaps between words is spectrally inefficient. If the words are not important, then all that matters is the starts and stops (and maybe a final tone to each word). If all of the information is conveyed between the stops, it would be inefficient to waste your time on the words themselves. You'd almost instantly start dropping words, because they had no value in the language.

The end result of this would look similar to Morse code. While the content of Morse code is actually in the spaces, we hear the punctuation between them. Each word would be similar to the punctuation at the end of each dot or dash in Morse. Having words would be the equivalent to every single press of a Morse code key being a spoken nonsense word.

There's all sorts of issues there. Morse code depends very much on maintaining a clear even timing. If you were interjecting words, you may drop timing while speaking, making it harder to distinguish the value of the space after it. Morse makes it easy, ever click is just that... a click. There's also bandwidth efficiency. Morse code is slightly more efficient than texting. Can you imagine how slow a culture would communicate if they were limited to texting bandwidth?

Now if we start to explore atypical parts of language instead, we find some interesting results. It is very clear that, in English, the spacing between words matters. People intentionally pause at different places to transmit meaning. Thus we know some information gets transmitted that way, but what information is it? Sure, it might just be "the speaker has chosen to pause, because you can hear the background noise," but sometimes you swear the way your mother pauses lets you know whether you can play for another 5 minutes or get your butt inside!

One might imagine a language for a people who are very in tune with their environment. Speaking is an efficient form of communication, but what if all you needed to do was modulate the sound around you? What if you had enough of a sense as to what environment noises were out there to weave a story using them. There are wonderful stories of pianists coming up behind a child who is pecking away at Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and improvising around them to make the child's song seem magical.

In this sense, their language would be that of a gate. They either let the sound pass (by being silent), or squelch it (by making noise), depending on if that was the sound they wanted to have the listener hear. In theory this is just Morse code all over again, but there's a twist. What if every single squelch changed the sounds around them. If we speak, the birds in the trees shut up, for fear of a predator. What if their speaking changed what the birds chose to say near them. Now they could rely on the birds to speak for them, and merely cultivate their nearby birds to tell the story they want to tell.

Sound crazy? Perhaps. But it strongly resembles how the human brain operates. Many of the most visible effects we see in the human brain are inhibition effects, squelching signals. In fact, many systems which need to amplify a signal do so by inhibiting an inhibitor (a double negative, in effect). Maybe there's something to it after all.

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"If we speak, the birds in the trees shit up"... I really hope this is a typo, or umbrellas will be in very high demand shortly ;) – karhell Feb 12 at 14:53
    
@karhell Fixed! o_0 Though technically I think pigeons do both. And seagulls. Messy birds. – Cort Ammon Feb 12 at 15:20

I am not aware of any spoken human languages that I am aware of that use only the silence between words, and ignore the spoken part. For spoken languages, this doesn't make much sense, but is not completely out of the realm of possibility. A language such as this would most likely not be the speaker's primary language. It would most likely have a specialized purpose.

There are some existing languages which are similar to your idea. There are several "drum languages" which are used primarily to communicate with people far away. The drums are used very much like Morse code over telegraph lines.

Drums in Communication

In Africa, New Guinea and the tropical America, people have used drum telegraphy to communicate with each other from far away for centuries. When European expeditions came into the jungles to explore the local forest, they were surprised to find that the message of their coming and their intention was carried through the woods a step in advance of their arrival. An African message can be transmitted at the speed of 100 miles in an hour.

There are also languages which use whistles, which has many similarities to the type of language you had in mind.

Whistled Language

Whistled languages differ according to whether the spoken language is tonal or not, with the whistling being either tone or articulation based (or both).

Tonal languages are often stripped of articulation, leaving only suprasegmental features such as duration and tone, and when whistled retain the spoken melodic line. Thus whistled tonal languages convey phonemic information solely through tone, length, and, to a lesser extent, stress, and most segmental phonemic distinctions of the spoken language are lost.

In non-tonal languages, more of the articulatory features of speech are retained, and the normally timbral variations imparted by the movements of the tongue and soft palate are transformed into pitch variations. Certain consonants can be pronounced while whistling, so as to modify the whistled sound, much as consonants in spoken language modify the vowel sounds adjacent to them.

"All whistled languages share one basic characteristic: they function by varying the frequency of a simple wave-form as a function of time, generally with minimal dynamic variations, which is readily understandable since in most cases their only purpose is long-distance communication."

Most spoken languages make use of gaps in between words to convey meaning. These gaps are turned into punctuation marks when the language is converted to a written form. These gaps are well documented and the following example shows how they are used (emphasis mine).

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

"Why?" asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"Well, I'm a panda," he says. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

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Eats, shoots and leaves reminds of me this: Let's eat grandma! Let's eat, grandma! Punctuation saves lives. I've seen it on this shirt. – fi12 Feb 10 at 22:56

Lots of answers have focussed on the troublesome fact that silence appears to have only one dimension: the length of it.

But what if the noise that is being interrupted counts?

Suppose there is a world where there is a complex continuous background noise, changing at a speed suitable for this purpose.

Then when the "gzz" sound comes, I interrupt that with silence (in a manner to be invented by the author :) ) that means one thing. But if I interrupt the "gnah" sound, that means another. And if I hold the silence over the transition between "gnah" and "haggh" that means another etc.

This gives you more power/bandwidth to express things, and also hints at various interesting possibilities for what kind of world would have this kind of language...

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well, then you can only say what you want at times when the environment decides you can... and you 'speak' by plugging the recipient's ears or something? it's interesting, but can you elaborate on how it could really work in a practical sense? – underscore_d Feb 11 at 11:09
    
I'd imagined that you "speak" by "jamming the signal". Suppose everyone is listening to noise coming out of a speaker attached to the wire connecting them all together. The only thing they can do is short out the wire, making it silent. This is a "human like" scenario. Another one I suppose is that we're all singing a song - maybe our bodies make this noise unless we supress it - so communication is done by supressing the song of life for a moment. The song is complex but repeating in a relatively short cycle, so you don't have to wait long to get whatever part of it you need.... – GreenAsJade Feb 12 at 0:11
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This is actually a brilliant answer, because isn't this exactly how sight works? There's a constant bombardment of photons of every color, and it's the absorption of certain frequencies that gives something its color (e.g. photosynthesis isn't efficient at absorbing green, hence why we perceive leaves as green). Furthermore sound cancellation is a very real thing, so this may be surprisingly feasible. – NPSF3000 Feb 14 at 12:58

It seems very unlikely that a species would use a language like this naturally - a language of sound-and-silence is basically a binary language, which means that it's purely semantic whether you want to call it a language of sound or of silence.

However, there is one place where this idea has merit: subtext or a secret code. The plain meaning of the conversation is in the sounds, just like our own languages, but the length of the spaces between the words could encode an entirely separate message in binary code. A person could have two completely different conversations at the same time, provided their brains could handle the additional processing.

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you're pointing out a very good point. – fi12 Feb 11 at 12:22

Can it be degrees of silence? I'll invent a reason and cause:

  1. A species of social animals in an environment without predators.

  2. Two lounge valves (for hand-waving reasons) cause them to constantly breathe in and out, with the ability to make a sound. Maybe just a loud murmur? They don't have to be quiet to avoid predators, there are none

  3. Evolved this ability for echo location to find food or look inside nuts. Maybe nuts were their primary food source and they used sound to see if the nut was full/rotten/hollow to measure the effort/reward for using energy to open it.

  4. Food's scarce, constantly making noise to find food.

  5. Making sound is basically the default setting

  6. It's more effort to them to halt sound making than to make it

  7. Civilization evolved with food producing technology, but evolution doesn't necessarily just de-evolve two valves and a constant sound machine for no reason. The constant sound began to be used in social contexts instead

  8. No/less sounds from fellow aliens grabs their attention more than lots of sound, because it represents someone who can't breath, find food well, is sick, wants attention by performing abnormal behaviour

Wheter degrees of silence or just a binary sound/no sound + space is the formula for speech is up to you, this story fits both.

Silence as a cultural/social function could lead to lots of interesting things. A field of dead soldiers is terrifying - it's completely silent like thousands of souls "screaming" from the terror they witnessed in their last hours.

They are apt at working and concentrating in loud environments. The default state of affairs in a city would sound like a full orchestra in a janitor's closet to us

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From an information-theoretic perspective, this would fail. That's because the language uses a unary encoding (the length of the silence). The unary encoding could carry a binary encoding on top of it, which would make it basically equivalent to Morse code.

But in general, a unary encoding is exponentially less efficient than a binary or higher encoding. That's because the digits required to write a number N is proportional to N (it's exactly N). But the digits required to write a number N in base r (with r > 1) is only log_r N. It's the difference between being able to write the number 1000 on a piece of paper or not. In unary, you would write one thousand scratch marks one after the other.

Any creature which used a more complex encoding would be able to transmit information much faster, which would offer an enormous benefit to the creatures trying to communicate in unary. In fact, human language, despite its redundancies, is very efficient. It roughly uses a Huffman encoding for the length of words (common words are short, with infrequently used words being long). Also, using the silence instead of the sound is quite wasteful of the available degrees of freedom. Almost every creature that can make a sound can vary the pitch or amplitude under control. So failing to use these dimensions is an unnecessary handicap. I can't think of a single creature which uses sound to communicate, but fails to use amplitude and frequency to carry information.

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Natural language has happened to use voiceless stops, see the tenuis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenuis_consonant

However, all communication needs signaling elements. If you try to make a language all of silence, your virtual reality might have little appeal: silence is not a signal.

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I agree. The need for a signaling element is absolute. However, even a single-use signaling element is enough to create a unary encoding, so it is possible (even though impractical) to operate close to that limit. – Hohmannfan May 19 at 11:18

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