In my world, humans encounter an alien species. They want to communicate verbally with each other, so I'd like to know what sounds could be shared by both species.

The species has no/very thin lips, spiked teeth, no uvula, and no nose (and subsequently, no epiglottis). For reference, the spiked teeth I am talking about would look something like this:

An animal with spiked teeth

When looking at the IPA chart, I came up with the following. Red is impossible, blue I'm not sure about, and black are shared by both species.

IPA chart of shared sounds

The question is: Would this be correct?

My rationale is as follows:

  • No lips means no bilabial or labiodental sounds
  • No solid teeth means no dental sounds
  • No uvula means no uvular sounds
  • No glottis means no glottal sounds.

However, I'm questioning what I marked out in blue. Fricative glottal sounds don't actually require the glottis so they should be fine? For vowels, as there's no obstruction required, front vowels could be fine as you wouldn't risk impaling your tongue like with dental sounds.

The nasal sounds, however, are giving me the largest amount of trouble. While yes, without a nose making a nasal sound would be impossible. However, the resonance caused by the nose cavity could be substituted with humming/vibrating the mouth. After all, the resonance in the nasal cavity comes down to really just vibrating an empty cavity. I've tried, but it's very hard trying to shake off pronouncing /m/ and /n/ with my nose instead of my mouth.

But in theory it would be possible, right? It might sound off (lower pitched as the mouth is larger), but it should be distinguishable as its own sounds.

As an aside, I know there's more IPA letters than the charts I listed.

EDIT: To clarify, I meant verbal communication, hence why I included an IPA chart. Sign language or any other means of communication could work, but I prefer the idea of verbal communication. As for the biology: assume the rest of the mouth is similar to that of humans. Hard and soft palate behind teeth, and a flexible and extendable tongue just like us. The only differences are the ones I explicitly listed.

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    $\begingroup$ There is more than one way to produce sounds. For example, my computer's loudspeaker has no mouth at all, no teeth, no tongue, no lips, no glottis and no vocal chords, and yet it can produce all the sounds I can produce, and many more others. The same is true of a parrot. Ah, and if you insist that the alien has a basically human phonatory apparatus, then /u/, /o/ etc. (the vowels on the right of each vertical or slanted line in the vowel chart) are rounded vowels (requiring the lips); and /n/ is a dental (that's why you cannot produce it through the nose without opening the mouth). $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jan 30, 2019 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ Communication has to be via sound? There's also visual, tactile, pheromones or other scents, the possibility of a magnetic sense, telepathic or empathic, an ineffable sense, and potentially anything you can come up with. $\endgroup$
    – Ed Grimm
    Jan 30, 2019 at 5:40
  • $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that those big pink things that make snogging a pleasure aren't intrinsically required to make bilabial and labiodental sounds. The flesh that covers the mouth when closed is. Are you telling us there's no flesh closing the mouth? That the teeth and gums are exposed to the elements? Also, I'd like to point out that if sign language can be taught to chimps (who can't sing anything by Imagine Dragons, thank goodness) that you might need to edit your question to specify that you are only interested in vocal communication - all others are ignored for the purpose of this question. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jan 30, 2019 at 5:49
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, how do theses aliens communicate between themselves? We could always adapt to their ways and create an interface like a keyboard translating to scents or anything $\endgroup$
    – Calaom
    Jan 30, 2019 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the alternatives and additional information. I've edited my post to clarify further. $\endgroup$
    – Thatguypat
    Jan 30, 2019 at 14:41

2 Answers 2


Note: The OP clarified the question in such a way that completely changes my answer. I am leaving my original answer below for reference, as it works well for a similar creature that doesn't have a tongue or closable lips, as the original picture showed and the original text implied.

Your creature could make a fairly wide variety of sounds.

Labial sounds come from the rapid closing and opening of the lips as the air flows to them from the inside, with some sounds possible without air flow. The size of the lips may alter the tenor but not the actual sound. As long as your creature has full and quick control of the lips (or where the lips would be) and the air flow can be completely cut off momentarily, you will have those sounds.

Labial-Dental sounds do not require a tongue but do require front teeth that can fully or partially occlude the air flow while touching the lower lip. If the teeth look like the teeth in the picture, that's not really going to be possible.

Dental sounds require the tongue against the top teeth, though can also be made with the bottom teeth or in-between both sets of teeth. They aren't going to be possible. But few languages have dentals. English is one and we do just fine talking with, say, native Spanish speakers who have good English except they just can't manage a "th."

Alveolar sounds use the tongue at the ridge just behind the top teeth. No ridge means no alveolar sounds, but you might get an approximation.

Palatal sounds come from the tongue interacting with various parts of the hard and soft palate and should be doable, if the teeth don't get in the way.

Uvular sounds come from further back in the throat. If there is no uvula but the throat is otherwise shaped like a human's, these sounds will be either right or pretty close. The actual uvula is not involved in any serious way.

Glottal sounds, and sounds from the throat in the area forward of it, should not be changed.

Vowel sounds and liquids will be impaired if the teeth get in the way of the tongue, which looks likely based on the picture. You assume back vowels are okay and front ones are not, but it's not as easy as that. Tongues are pretty large and teeth like your picture will constrain where the tongue can move.

Imagine someone with a swollen tongue speaking...it might be somewhat like that. If the tongue is smaller within the vocal cavity as compared to humans, it will also change the sound of the vowels, though they are probably still understandable with practice.

Remember, your creature's tongue must be long enough to reach the lips, but somehow not get caught on or stopped by all those teeth. That's going to be difficult. I assume any creature who evolved with both a long and flexible tongue and teeth like that will have both that are functional (I won't frame challenge, but I could...how can that creature use all those teeth with a big tongue in the way? how can that tongue do everything you want it to do without being constantly damaged? Even us humans often hurt our tongues.)

Regardless of how (if) it works, the sounds that rely on the shape of the tongue in particular parts of the mouth are going to come out mangled. With practice, it should still be understandable speech.

How well can we humans understand these creatures? Probably about as well as we understand understand drunk lispers who are chewing gum.

Original Answer:

Nearly every sound on the chart requires a tongue. You can shape a few sounds with just your mouth, assuming you have a good flow of air moving outwards, but no lips and no tongue means that you simply can not approximate a human spoken language.

Your best bet is signed language, if the aliens have at least one arm and hand with fingers (5+ preferred). Two hands/arms are better but one will do.

If you don't want to go that route, if you only want spoken language, you're stuck more or less with what a singer can produce, when only doing notes, not words. Forget almost all consonants (maybe you can approximate a liquid like "l" or "r"). You correctly crossed out dentals and labials but left behind ones that won't work. Alveolars require a hard palate that ends where teeth begin...it's that ridge right behind your top teeth. Palatal requires a palate, velar is soft palate. All of them require a tongue. (Don't worry about nasals, a lot of people can't produce them anyway (anyone with a bad cold, for example) and they're still understandable.)

Granted, your picture and your description do not match. The picture has no tongue or palate (hard or soft), or any way to control the opening to the mouth. Your description does not mention a tongue, states teeth but does not say if they can close off the mouth like human teeth generally can. While you should edit your question to clarify, please do not change the premise of the question without making it clear it's an edit.

While a species could certainly create a language with the physical constraints you have, it is not a language any human currently speaks.

  • $\begingroup$ I changed the picture and added an edit to clarify the question further, but thanks for your input so far. $\endgroup$
    – Thatguypat
    Jan 30, 2019 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ I edited my question to reflect your new information. I hope whoever retracted their upvote will re-read it. Not my fault when a poster changes the premise after I answer! $\endgroup$
    – Cyn
    Jan 30, 2019 at 15:30

What you want is a syrinx like birds.

It's the organ that allows birds to produce such varied sounds despite the fact that they have no lips and don't overly use the tongue to form sound. A separate organ further down the throat to produce sounds, which you can modify as you like in order to produce sounds like glottal stops if you so wish.

Syrinx wikipedia article

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That's actually really interesting as it effectively bypasses all the restrictions I've listed, but requires further changes (no vocal cords but instead a syrinx). However, it still stays true to the heart of the question: verbal communication. If I don't get a satisfactory answer with vocal chords, I think I'll go this route. $\endgroup$
    – Thatguypat
    Jan 30, 2019 at 14:53

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