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The Background

I have a species of intelligent humanoids roughly modelled after bears. They're hulking great grizzly-sized solitary mesocarnivores. Genus Homo and descended from H. sapiens, but significantly different in both biology (size) and psychology (solitary and territorial). Think the varl from Banner Saga, but crank up the solitude and territoriality. Technology is roughly neolithic.

Having read this question on the social structure of intelligent hypercarnivores, I've determined that their 'society' would be highly diffuse. Communication would largely take place via written messages along the borders of territories, stretching from threats against trespass to messages about projects of mutual benefit amongst semi-trusted neighbours (probably those with a degree of relation). The closest they would get to a band would be either mother and children, or perhaps a gang of late-juvenile siblings like you sometimes get with real-world solitary predators.

However, descending from H. sapiens, verbal language is too powerful of a tool to give up. Although avoidance would be preferred there are situations where face-to-face interaction would be unavoidable, either through chance or for mating (females are close enough in size to make forced mating a risky business).

The Question

What aspects of a verbal language might we expect to develop based on the social interactions of this species?

As a starter for ten, I've thought of the following:

  • Excessively formal. In order to avoid physical confrontation trollspeak would be littered with formalities to try and avoid giving offense.
  • These formalities probably wouldn't be based on social structure like a lot of ours (sir/madam etc.) as that structure and hierarchy wouldn't necessarily exist.
  • Manifold and heavily nuanced language to describe actions and intent in order to clearly and very accurately describe what you want to do so the other ettin doesn't get the wrong end of the stick and attack you.
  • On a less grim and gritty note, you might expect some very eloquent speech designed to woo the opposite sex. If physical confrontation is very risky, perhaps courtship language might help provide a strong evolutionary driver for retaining advanced speech.

So yeah, what other features might we expect to arise in the language of intelligent solitary territorial humanoids?

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    $\begingroup$ Have you given any thought to how your language is taught and passed from generation to generation? It seems to me the only opportunity for teaching the language would be from mother to child. I think that's likely to influence the language substantially. Unless mother's go out of their way to teach their offspring how to speak to others they will only practice their informal familial speech. Additionally, I worry the language would diverge rapidly without a community. Pronunciations and definitions will change as if each lineage is developing its own dialect leading to miscommunication. $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Jul 16 '18 at 15:19
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If your individuals are highly territorial and solitary, I think it's hard to get physical proximity which is short enough to enable spoken language. At that distance it would mean only attack or mate.

You can still use a whistled language, like Silbo Gomero.

Silbo Gomero is a whistled register of Spanish used by inhabitants of La Gomera in the Canary Islands to communicate across the deep ravines and narrow valleys that radiate through the island. It enables messages to be exchanged over a distance of up to 5 kilometres. [...] The language is a whistled form of a dialect of Spanish. Silbo replaces each vowel or consonant with a whistling sound. Whistles are distinguished according to pitch and continuity. As with other whistled forms of non-tonal languages, Silbo works by retaining approximately the articulation of ordinary speech, so "the timbre variations of speech appear in the guise of pitch variations"

In this way it's easier to keep isolation and communication, and you could reserve normal spoken language to either mother-child interaction or sexual partners, situations where close proximity cannot be avoided.

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    $\begingroup$ Well isn't silbo fascinating? Some form of long-distance language would definitely be a feature. If anything as something similar to a wolf-howl to establish and maintain territory. I do think there's still a place for spoken (or shouted) language in order to avoid attacks at close distance. At a certain proximity I'd guess there would be inevitable confrontation, but there would be call for defusing mexican-standoff type situations between individuals who stumble upon each other by chance. Perhaps non-verbal communication might suffice for that though... $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Jul 16 '18 at 11:58
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, and very interesting point about language being most useful for interactions between mothers and children, or for mating. That might suggest that language is very much propagated by and tailored towards interactions with females, with nonverbal signs and markings, and howls/whistle-speak for male-to-male (or female-to-female if they're territorial too) interaction. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Jul 16 '18 at 12:02
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Such a language would go to extremes. As Mike Nichols mentions in comments, there would be very little time to learn such a language before cubs left their mothers. As such, one would expect the language to be one which is more instinctual and less formal/nuanced. You'd expect signs which provide simple information ("You not belong here") rather than messages with complex nuanced syntax ("The borders of my territory extend to the banks of the river upon which this sign is placed. I will respond with lethal force.'). In short, you'd expect the messages to be more bear like.

If you want a very formal speech, you will need to take it to the extreme. You will need a formal enough speech that the rules of such speech can be memorized as cubs. Such cubs would go out into the world with nothing but the rules, and perhaps a dictionary of written things (assuming they can carry objects).

As such, my recommendation would be to look at programming languages and other formal languages. Formal languages have a unique mathematical format which can determine whether any utterance is "legal" or not, and most of them also have very clear semantics -- which means the meaning of each sentence is very easy to determine from a set of rules.

Cubs would be taught to memorize a common corpus of valid speeches from history, just like students of the past memorized the Bible. They would use this to anchor them and their understanding of speech throughout their life. By making it memorized verbatim like this, it can retain a remarkable amount of formality despite needing to be transmitted from person to person many times. Bonus points for having some bears keep a written copy. A famous example of this is the Torah. Linguists have found that they can analyze the age of languages by watching how different linguistic patterns form and diverge over time. Hebrew, however, has caused trouble for such linguists. The Jewish people were so extraordinarily careful in their copying of the Torah that there's no where near as many divergences as a linguist would expect from a typical language.

Your language would be mostly regular, with a handful of quirks which extend from the particular corpus of text. For example, you might have a regular way of forming plurals, except for the plural of ocotopus, which could be octopodes because that one loan word found its way into the corpus of text.

As an example speech which I would recommend every cub learn before leaving their mother, check out Guy Steele's famous lecture, Growing a Language. Given that it's a long lecture to memorize (roughly an hour), you can read the transcript. Indeed, I recommend reading the transcript to get a sense for his formal cleverness. I think your bear language might be taught exactly the way Guy Steele puts his speech together.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting points, especially about the need to keep a language very simplistic in its architecture to remain mutually intelligible, and the use of a memorised corpus of text to aid addressing more complex concepts (I've got something in mind that will work well for that). The transcript for the speech is fascinating too, and I'm only halfway through! $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Jul 17 '18 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ First initial thoughts on the language based on what I've managed to read of the transcript so far. It's likely that a architecture for speech would be taught in childhood, offering simple rules for the construction of more complex concepts. So, the language is likely to be highly agglutinative, with complex words being literally made of simple words stuck together. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Jul 17 '18 at 15:56

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