In my fantasy world, there has been a longstanding presence of underwater civilizations, both alongside and independent of surface-based kingdoms. In the style of Tolkien's Beleriand, various continents have risen and been destroyed over the ages, but the underwater nations (while occasionally devastated by said rising continents) have mostly persisted.

In light of this, I'd like to develop at least one underwater language, whether ancient or otherwise, that can influence my other conlangs as a longstanding, widely-spoken tongue. Sort of like Latin, but with mermaids.

This brings me to my question: What spoken phonemes are most easily recognizable underwater? I imagine some sounds would travel farther and be more distinct, and I'm sure that would have some impact on language, but I'm not sure exactly what sounds, or how much. While I'm not 100% concerned with realism, I'd like my language to be rooted in sounds that could feasibly be used to communicate underwater, with minimal handwaiving. My mermaid species is amphibious, so they need to be able to speak above water as well. Some of them are even part of surface-based civilizations, and speak the languages of said nations, so they can't have an entirely different set of available linguistic sounds (e.g. they can't just sound like dolphins).

EDIT: I meant to mention that answers can feel free to make any necessary assumptions about the vocal construction of said mermaids / merpeople, provided they can still conceivably speak ordinary, above-water languages.

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    $\begingroup$ There is a Stack Exchange for constructed languages. They'd probably eat this one up. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Aug 18 '18 at 7:17
  • $\begingroup$ The human phonatory apparatus does not work when filled with water. As such, the question is nonsensical: no phoneme works underwater, because we cannot make any phoneme underwater. There is a reason that dolphins and whales make the sounds they do. Listen to dolphin and whale sounds, devise a writing system for the sounds which seem prominent to you. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 18 '18 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ I asked this exact question on ConstructedLanguanges.se and got a fairly comprehensive answer. $\endgroup$ – EveryBitHelps Aug 18 '18 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the recommendations to the Constructed Language side of the things! Should be helpful. $\endgroup$ – Enthusiastic Leviathan Aug 19 '18 at 1:52

Vowels are clearly fine, since they're just specific wavelengths. Hard consonants should MOSTLY be fine. The harder the better. Clicks and snaps obviously work very well, that's why cetaceans use them. What WON'T work well are siblants and dipthongs, since those rely on sounds that don't travel well through a liquid medium, or are easily obscured by normal aquatic background noise.


I wasn't able to find any studies related to what noises travel best through water, but I did find some information regarding noise pollution in the water, and would recommend that your language be between 200 and 10,000 hz so that it has less competition from background noise. This would cover most of the human vocal range, but evolving slightly higher pitches than humans would be advantageous. Basically the men would sound like human females, and the women would have even higher pitches.

I suggest you do additional research if you want a more in depth analysis.

  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure you answering the OP's question. The question is about phonemes, not frequencies. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Aug 18 '18 at 9:37
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch I couldn't find any research that would help answer the op's question, so I gave a modified answer that could help him solve the problem through a different route. $\endgroup$ – Clay Deitas Aug 18 '18 at 9:44
  • $\begingroup$ @ClayDeitas: Human language fits quite comfortably within 300 to 3400 Hz. (That is the pass band of old school telephone networks.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 18 '18 at 14:23

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