I've been working on a fantasy race recently of sentient bipedal salamanders (sorta) and was talking with a friend about them until one of us realised that since they're amphibians they would breathe through their skin, which means they wouldn't have lungs, which means that they wouldn't be able to speak like we do.

I'm not entirely against revising their biology to give them lungs, even if rudimentary ones, but I'd like to exhaust my options before I do that. My world also has a magic system which could hypothetically be used to communicate but I'd like to avoid using that as well, since if they could do it who's to say that any random animal couldn't.

So yeah, any ideas?

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    $\begingroup$ You may want to give them rudimentary lungs anway, large animals can't breath only through the skin, the square cube laws meas they have a much smaller proportional surface area, a human sized animal breathing only through the skin is impossible even if their atmosphere is almost pure oxygen. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 23 '18 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ "one of us realised that since they're amphibians they would breathe through their skin, which means they wouldn't have lungs" One of you needs to revise their biology. Amphibians do have lungs. $\endgroup$ – Renan Dec 23 '18 at 4:13
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    $\begingroup$ If these aliens are relying entirely on oxygen entering their body for respiration there's an absolute size limit on how big they can be, certainly anything the size of a typical human in earths atmosphere that attempts to breath only through it's skin will die, which is why there aren't any, but then, no reality check tag, so your the author, whatever you want I guess :) $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Dec 23 '18 at 9:18
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    $\begingroup$ The orifice used for taking air into the lungs doesn't have to be the "mouth" in a fictional alien though, it can be entirely separate from the one for eating & doesn't have to have a tongue or vocal chords, just a thought. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Dec 23 '18 at 9:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan: And many amphibians - frogs and toads - do use vocal communication. In many (rural) places, their calls will be the bulk of nighttime noise. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 23 '18 at 19:56

Marvel, reader! Telmatobius culeus, the Lake Titicaca scrotum frog!

scrotum frog


Like your creatures, T.culeus breathes through its skin.


The Titicaca water frog spends its entire life in oxygen-rich water that typically is 10–17 °C (50–60 °F). It mainly stays near the bottom and it does not surface to breathe if the water is well-oxygenated. It regularly performs "push-ups" to allow water to pass by its large skin folds, which absorb oxygen. It occurs even in deeper parts of Lake Titicaca, although the limit is unknown.

Hopefully your creatures also have redundant raisin like folds of skin. I am sure they do. The Shar-Pei of sentient salamanders. Where was I?

Yes; noise. Many (all?) frog males vocalize to call mates. If you are completely aquatic and don't get up into the air this becomes tricky. T.Culeus has figured out how to vocalize underwater.

Silent sounds in the Andes: underwater vocalizations of three frog species with reduced tympanic middle ears (Anura: Telmatobiidae: Telmatobius)

We recorded underwater vocalizations and examined the middle-ear morphology in three species of Telmatobius with different lifestyles... Telmatobius culeus (Garman 1876) (fully aquatic, lacustrine). Males emit underwater calls, which in the three species are simple and stereotyped; they consist of a repeated train of notes, with a low fundamental frequency (309–941 Hz). In each of the three species, the tympanic membrane is absent and the tympanic cavity is extremely reduced or absent, whereas the opercular system is well developed. Our data, along with prior knowledge in other species of anurans, suggest that the species examined here probably perceived sound through extra-tympanic pathways...

So too your aliens. Like the scrotum frog, their ancestors vocalized in the air. When your creatures took to the water, their vocalization apparatus adapted to water use. When they evolved culture and intelligence and language, their underwater vocalization apparatus was ready to serve.

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    $\begingroup$ Even if they had no vocalisation equipment I’m sure they could construct a percussive language out of.. erm... slapping sounds. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Dec 23 '18 at 10:32

Humans often breathe through their nose and yet we talk just fine. Fish breathe through their gills and yet make noise through their mouths (underwater, but still relevant). So, the real question is:

How do your cretaures eat?

If they eat solids, then you need to deal with the gagging/coughing reflex to clear the old food tube (and, if I remember my high school physiology class correctly, you also need to deal with pressure equalization). That means lungs (unless you always use vomit, but all that acid wouldn't be evolutionarily sanguine, ifyouknowwhatImean). Where there are lungs, there is the potential for spoken language.

But! If your creatures don't eat solids (for example, nutrients through fluid/skin contact), then you have a problem. To very strictly answer your question, without lungs you cannot have a spoken language. But, if we opt for the more general audible language, then you can click,1 snap, stomp, clap, and fart your way to all kinds of deep philosophy. We humans make sound with all kinds of body parts. And that begs the second real question:

How do your creatures hear?

If your creatures have ears, then any method they use to create sound can be used to create language. If they don't have ears (the ability to detect vibration in a gaseous medium), then this really doesn't matter, because your creatures must be capable of detecting something going on with their associate or the conversation will be very short.

1When you listen to the aborigine, listen for the mouth noises. The clicks, snaps, slurps, etc.


In our human world, languages can be signed via movement of the arms, hands, and fingers (with the latter two communicating the most information) or they can be spoken with air moving up from the lungs, over the vocal cords, and then shaped by the vocal tract.

Spoken language can be done without air.

Some spoken languages (like the Khoisan languages, the clicking language family of Africa) have consonants that involve clicking the tongue in various ways. Others use glottal stops in the throat or higher up in the vocal tract.

It would be easy to imagine a human language that did those things and also clicked teeth, smacked lips, or made other noises with the mouth.

You say your species is bipedal. Bipedal implies hands that are free to manipulate objects (and likely with some decent dexterity...which may not be a given, but you can add it in).

Hands like that can easily be used to articulate a signed language. While you ask in your title for spoken language, you imply other language forms are acceptable, since "magic" is possible.

There's no reason why a species might not combine signs and sounds as well. It isn't generally done in human signed languages because those languages evolve in Deaf communities. But even there, the occasional sound comes through.

For example, hands and fingers might articulate the structure of words and the mouth sounds could fill in grammar. Think of a language like Hebrew where the root or each word is the consonant sequence and the vowels used to create syllables can change the gender, tense, or part of speech. I can imagine a language where the positions and motions of the hands give the root and the sounds round it out into a full word.


Crickets make noise by rubbing their legs together. Your species could use this for audial speech.


Consider the cuttlefish.

It has chromatophores in its skin, which allow it to change colour and pattern. It uses a combination of colour change, skin texture change, and posture to communicate. It has a wider variety of signals than most animals, which are restricted to a few sound calls.

Visual communication works. Ask any sign language user. It is possible to communicate just using gestures. If we had evolved from cuttlefish we would be able to communicate using the patterns on our skin.

Let us suppose your alien is silent, and has no hearing or vocal apparatus at all. But it can communicate by the patterns that appear on its body. Visual communication is very different from aural communication, if you ask a sign language user you will find that it has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is bandwidth. It would be possible to communicate more rapidly if we were not restricted by the articulation and interpretation of sound. Think how it is possible to scan-read a whole page of text much faster than you could have it spoken to you. But undirected communication becomes harder. It is difficult to get someone's attention if you can't shout at them. This has a whole lot of social impacts that you would have to think out.


You may try to use a fast-twitching muscle that vibrates fast enough to make a biological version of a microphone. The muscle may be located under the skin. You may describe evolutionary reasons for its desired location. Maybe on the back, or shoulders?


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