So I'm creating an original world with a number of creatures, and original peoples. One of the peoples has a two-speak language. One element, the base of the language, is based off of local mythology, the second a form of sign language. The base of their language would be stories about creation, or explanations of their traditions. The sign language would help specify the story for the instance they are in, and to communicate with one another.

My question is how would this come about? How would it evolve, as in what reasons might cause this to occur over a single speaking language like most cultures have. Would it be too difficult a form of communication, and would it make more sense to focus on one element over the other? Maybe take the spoken language and replace it with clicking/whistling?

Edit: These are humanoids, in fact they are human. They have two arms. Their culture is a mixture between Native American, and African. They live in an oasis within a very large desert. This oasis, is accessed through a cave, from the desert, where the oasis consists of five tribes within this culture. They are very tribal, and do not take to outsiders. They sometimes leave the oasis, where they interact with humanoids that are much faster than them, and stronger. As well as having to deal with large, humanoid-insects, torso human-like, bottom of the insect. (they come in many sizes, and types.) The oasis itself is much like a paradise, and they do not have to worry much, save for bad juju.

The language is one. Not two, but like that of a two tier system. In idea. I got this idea from a Star Trek episode actually. I wanted to further it.

  • $\begingroup$ Is it actually one language with two methods of communication, or those are two separate languages? The latter is less plausible. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ What is a "two-speak language"? This is not standard linguistic terminology, so you must explain. And the sentence "the base of their language would be stories about creation, or explanations of their traditions" has no discernable meaning; if the language is based on stories, then in what language are the stories themselves told or written? Maybe you could provide some examples. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ This would be difficult to evolve naturally. I'd be willing to bet without research that most languages evolved while groups of people were collaborating on some manual labor. Which would involve having your hands full at least some of the time. They would find a better way to communicate than one that can only be done if you drop everything you're carrying $\endgroup$
    – bendl
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 1:48
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    $\begingroup$ You could look at the italian language and its dialects for inspiration. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 13:01

8 Answers 8


My question is how would this come about? How would it evolve, as in what reasons might cause this to occur over a single speaking language like most cultures have. Would it be too difficult a form of communication, and would it make more sense to focus on one element over the other? Maybe take the spoken language and replace it with clicking/whistling?

Spoken language is used because it's more powerful than sign language.

What you need, also given the human stock of your people, is a powerful reason not to use speech except at a bare minimum.

The simpler reasons that come to mind are that either your humans need to communicate often with a subset of themselves who don't have speech (a bit like the Old Language of Ayla by Jean Auel). It doesn't sound very convincing though.

...or using spoken language at length is dangerous. Perhaps, some kind of predator - or a swarm of insects - that hunts by sound?. Sort of like any rhythmic sounds weren't really recommended on the surface of Arrakis, lest you became Shai-Hulud's dinner.

So, your people would need some "language" shorthand with enormous information density, where a whole plan of action could be conveyed with a very short burst of sound referencing a vast corpus of shared knowledge - such as "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" (or more like Asimov's robot-speech used between R. Daneel Olivaw and R. Giskard Reventlov).

This could evolve naturally from recounting past heroes' exploits, and having an eye for recognizing patterns. Then you could have a rough tactical planning session employing almost no sound, and some hand gestures. Like the Tamarians, our humans would just need to state the bare minimum to indicate what scenario they're referring to.

The full spoken language would still be used in the safety of the inner caves (also to teach those stories), and maybe would grow to have an almost holy quality, while the safe, rude and simplistic day-to-day sign language would be used in the open.

They would perhaps develop funny figures of speech - "this is more foolish than making speeches in the light of day" - "he's so paranoid he'd finger-spell in a locked room"


Most communication via spoken language includes more than the spoken component.

Humans already have a non-verbal aspect to our spoken language. Body language, gestures, and facial expressions. If your aliens only used the verbal aspect they'd likely end up as confused as humans can get when we communicate via text only.

Otherwise there are plenty of reasons such a system might evolve. Perhaps they have poor hearing or require touch to be able to verbally communicate. This would mean sign language is for strangers. Perhaps it's a cultural reason. We use latin for medicine because it isn't used by the general public, this way words like "literally" don't suddenly also mean the opposite because of popular misuse. If your aliens use spoken language more loosely but signing is very precise, there is good reason to have both.

  • $\begingroup$ Strap an Italian's arms to his body, get him agitated and watch him talk... :) $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 9:57

The problem is information density

Sound can be manipulated in far more ways than your body can. Consequently, you can convey more information more quickly with sound than you can with body language.

Now, you didn't tell us the tech level of your species nor did you describe their physiology. Let's assume they're human. Humans can process a vast amount of information visually, but we can't wave our hands fast enough to beat speech.

But let's say we have four arms (curse you John Carter!). Now you've doubled the information density of body language. Combine that with a simpler life (e.g., pre-renaissance), and I could suspend my disbelief and accept dual-mode communication.

But, we want flying cars!

Now we need a reason to reduce the information density of the spoken word. One way would be to evolve a tongue or a throat that makes complex sound more difficult. Another way would be to add something to the atmosphere that dampens sound (either making speech beyond a foot hard to hear or that forced the ear to evolve with much less sensitivity to protect itself).

OK, now we have a reason for dual-mode communication and we still get flying cars! But it's not enough! I want to hear that pin drop!

The only thing I can think of would be for the body language mode to not represent a complete language. Instead, it would represent inflection (as we do in spoken speech) such that (e.g.) a hand waving to my left would mean I'm being sarcastic... etc. This would actually add quite a bit of depth to spoken language — right up until you need to communicate with pilots or anyone else via radio, then the body language element would most likely disappear (in a similar manner to cursive writing in U.S. schools, it's simply not needed anymore, so it's becoming an anachronism).


Have an external factor influence their language

[...] the base of the language, is based off of local mythology, [...] stories about creation, or explanations of their traditions.

As you state their spoken language consists of mythological stories, etc. depending on the mythological basis and societal evolution this might even be scripture.

Thus they speak in references. This by itself seems to be fine and interesting enough, but why would they do that instead of talking plainly?

The answer to that is by providing some external force, real or imaginary, that compels them to follow up on this practice. You mention,

[...] they do not have to worry much, save for bad juju.

So let's pick up on the bad juju part. Have their religion/mythology contain a god or similar body that requires them to only ever talk in references/stories when speaking out loud.

Taking the angle from mythology said god would not be almighty and thus might not pick up, or simply not care about other means of communication - so for their daily exchange your people(s) developed sign language(s) to complement their vocal exchanges, so they do not blaspheme.


This reminds me of a novel I read a while ago, but I forget what it was and what the exact context was. But in this novel, there were Neanderthals or something that spent a lot of time in space suits. It made more sense in the book. But, these Neanderthals used a lot of signed language because in space, no you can hear you talk.

So one way to force a society to regularly use two modalities is to figure out some reason why they couldn't speak/hear one another regularly. Going off of your setting, it could be too loud in the desert due to wind (although the sand being blown around might make it hard to see too), or they could use signed language to avoid the beasts with very sensitive hearing them talk while outside.


In most languages today there are actually dual ways of saying things, with a subtly different meaning.

Most latin-based languages have a formal and informal setting. For instance, in Italian:

  • "Lei" means politely 'you'
  • "Tu" means 'you' informally

In Mandarin, inflections in similar sounds (for instance having a stronger 'u' inflection at the end of a word instead of a soft 'u') completely changes its meaning, as another example:

  • "Shu" = yes
  • "Shu`" = rat

What does the above mean? Languages are not consistent, and actually very complex even when you just look at spoken language alone. Saying a similar sound differently may give completely different meaning, or the same meaning can be communicated with different sounds.

Now have a look at the Ancient Egyptian language. Many people don't know there was actually one language but two scripts: hieroglyphics and cursory:

  • Hieroglyphics: Used initially in the early dynasties, become then used by the priests as they became the only ones to learn it, then it became a 'divine' form of writing.
  • Cursory: As hieroglyphics was more convoluted to write, many started to short cut it and write loosely, eventually cursory script becoming the preferred written form.

However, both Hieroglyphics and Cursory writing were still used at the same time for thousands of years, and the spoken language remained the same. It was just that cursory was faster to write. This strange duality of convenience could easily be translated in your case, instead of writing in 2 scripts, gestures in one, and speaking in the other.

It would be easy to imagine physical gestures can be used to supplement meaning in a verbal message - actually the Italians already do that very well today using hand gestures to emphasise their speech (find an Italian, and ask them about their day).

It may actually be an evolution of this, where gestures, instead of inflections in speech or alternate writing, could be used to influence the verbal language for the sake of convenience or formality, as in the examples above.


One thing is if they don't or can't easily read body language or subtle expression.

In the Expanse books the people who live in the belt have a lot of hand gestures for things like nodding, shrugging, etc. because those motions don't work well when you are in a space suit.

There are some humans who don't do well reading emotion or body language because of things like autism. So a way to express intended humor or anger non-verbally but also non-ambiguously would be very useful.

If an entire race had trouble with this, then verbal only communication could be more difficult, and so a secondary sign language could develop to give extra visual meaning around the spoken conversation.


A two part language like this would likely evolve when it is for some reason important to interfere with communication.

Which is kinda counterintuitive, since the point of language is to communicate.

To make it work, in this scenario, there is a spoken language, the one they use to learn these stories/myths, and to speak plainly with each other, there is a sign language likely used for the same reason ours was made (to communicate when speech/sound is impossible or dangerous), there may well be other spoken languages, and/or other sign languages, there are multiple cultures with mythologies, religions, shared stories. They all have to exist as a background for how this two-part language is set up, how it evolves.

This two-part or hybrid language is more difficult to track or understand than either a sign language or a spoken language - one must be looking and listening, one must pay attention to two flows of communication simultaneously, one must intuit how they interact with each other in support, in negation, and in supplement, all at the same time. Not easy, just think about trying to follow three or four conversations at once, and realize losing track of any is likely to mess with understanding the others, as well, since they interweave.

And on top of that, the spoken part of the language is made even harder to understand by generously incorporating references to mythology and stories, culture, etc. This makes it very difficult to follow, only one knowing the right things, paying the right sort of attention, and with enough presence of mind to translate on the fly is going to get, even, most of what the one speaking is trying to say.

In the end, this is set up to be as difficult to understand as possible... and so this kind of language will only evolve if there is a reason to be difficult to understand. A reason like trying to communicate with certain people at the same time/place as needing to not communicate with other certain people, who are there watching. There has to be a reason someone would rather risk misunderstanding or completely miss communicating with their target, just to be sure someone who isn't their target, will not understand.

One reason might be oppression, war, slavery, other similar deadly troubles. A member of an oppressed people may well need to hide their communications, and not only will speaking in metaphor and reference hide depths of meaning, the use of a secondary communication route (the sign language) may let them negate or reverse certain parts of their speech, or emphasize them, or so on, so they can sound like they're saying one thing to those listening, while sneaking a second communication under others' noses. In this case, intercepted communications is a life-or-death matter, so the more layers of misdirection they can come up with, the better.

Another reason, a bit more lightly, might be rivalry between groups, competition, politics, etc. In this case, the references would be different for each group, different mythologies or emphasizing different stories within their mythology, based on which individuals, which stories or lessons their group related to... and the sign language would be different as well, depending on what kinds of things they wanted to reference, and what stories they were weaving their communication into. Intercepted communications may effect status, might spill secrets, might skew interactions between the groups, so it can be quite serious without being deadly.

So, to wrap things up a bit, this double pronged language evolves in a scenario where there are multiple groups, multiple languages, and they are in competition with each other - so this evolution is a way to communicate with members of their own group, and confuse or deny communication with those who are members of different groups. This double language would begin as a pidgin of these two languages, used as a code or encryption, with set call-and-response pairs, to communicate specific things without being overheard, so to speak. Over time, it may evolve into a separate language of its own, a creole or a lingua fraca, even though the base languages would likely also be known, by the same people, for a very long time... by the time this double-language would stand on its own, it would have simplified the mythological references down to the bone, to be easier to understand, so to maintain that extra layer of references the base language must be available for plain speech.


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