I once participated in a contest. People grouped in pairs. The two members of each pair sit back-to-back. They can neither see each other nor what the other is doing. I was the one who opens an envelope, and takes-out a lego-built structure. My peer has the same parts, but the structure was disassembled. I had to give her instructions on how to build the same structure. The only challenge (and a big one!) was to give oral instructions. It was the same as communicating through the telephone, without being able to see or be seen. We could only hear each other.

I attempted to be as clear as possible. I got quite near the solution, but something went wrong along the way. That made me think, if human language can ever evolve to refine the way we convey visual information via words only.

There are few terms to take into account:

  • The language must be visually clearer than the common languages.
  • A richer vocabulary may be needed for better accuracy. Obviously, it is for describing basic visual images. Sentences may base upon those basics to describe more complex images. It is not practical to invent a word for each image.
  • Not using pictures, videos, sign language, hand gestures, etc...
  • The language may be ancient, i.e. may have developed in an era when it was the most needed: when humanity was unable to convey video and audio instructions, printing books and articles were still in their infancy, or when drawing skills were rudimentary.
  • You may assume that the more complex aspects of such a language may be taught at later childhood, early adolescence.
  • Be able to either describe or instruct how to build a simple object, machine or device.
  • May be used to describe people's faces more accurately. As an example, you witnessed a crime and you want to tell the police how the person looks like because you could not take a picture on time.

Obviously, we can convey some visual information via words only, but can we refine our ability to convey such information through language? Is such a language being used by some tribe, society, community?

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    $\begingroup$ I've been chastised in this site before for using colorful language, so yes. Seriously now I think you want language to be more spatial. Have a look at sign languages; they are far more spatial than spoken languages. You may draw some inspiration from them. $\endgroup$ Feb 16, 2019 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ "Can we refine our ability to convey such information through language?" Yes, of course we can. Remember those lessons of composition in primary school? Remember the teacher of English / Romanian / whatever is your mother tongue making you read those boring descriptions in supposedly famous poems and novels? This is exactly the purpose of that effort. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 16, 2019 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ You're not really describing a "language issue" here so much as a matter of speaker organisation & spatial conceptualisation. All languages can express every concept available to the human mind. I suspect your failure was either technical failure on your part (improper or confusing terminology of parts), failure to organise the process in your own mind (not a language issue at all), or else a failure on your partner's end. In the end, I don't see language as the problem nor "evolved language" as the solution. I bet if you did the exercise again, you'd be more successful. Because of practice! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Feb 16, 2019 at 19:52

3 Answers 3


What you're describing is precision of articulation rather than precision of language

I was sitting with a friend in my youth, who's father came into the room and asked 'Where is the thing?'

My friend replied 'Next to the cans'.

The 'thing' was found almost immediately. Why? Because my friend knew his father, knew what he meant by the 'thing' and his father knew where the 'cans' were.

In other words, this was an exercise in context, not language.

Ultimately, language is little more than in information transfer protocol. Provided the two (or more) individuals understand specific terms, information is transferred. This is why jargon works; if two people both 'agree' that a particular word or phoneme means a specific object or concept, then the use of that term transfers knowledge. The difference between jargon and language is merely the size of the population that agree to the meaning of the term in question.

I was asked by a member of my family (over the phone) the other month about where the scissors were. My response was along the lines of;

'The scissors are in the third draw on the left hand side of the sink in the kitchen, to the right of the carving knife between the tea towels and the screwdriver'.

The scissors were found immediately. What, however, is the difference between the first example I gave of language and this one? The use of terms that are more generally accepted within the English speaking community.

I'm a computational linguist by trade; I specialise in the mathematisation of language and the structuring of it in forms computers can understand. As such, I've learned to take visual concepts and articulate them in language in a manner that other people find easy to decode and use to achieve a given objective, like finding the scissors.

As such, in my experience, you don't need more precise language to provide visual information; you merely need to use language more precisely.

To be fair, such precision in the use of language means that you're going to specialise in a specific language. In my case, that happens to be English. I've (on the other hand) heard the works of Pushkin (Russia) as being uninterpretable; in other words, his use of Russian as a language to generate satirical humour is seen as so precise and subtle, that it loses too much in translation into other languages as to be properly interpreted and understood outside the native Russian in which it was originally written.

This is probably true; certainly my experience is that with the many languages I can speak (English, C, C++, C#, PASCAL, BASIC, VBS, Aspect, SAS, SQL, mathematics - the list goes on) there are natural strengths and weaknesses in them all. But, the closer you know a language, the more you can articulate in that language. As such, beyond certain frames of reference (like trying to describe 'yellow' to a person blind from birth) the limiting factor for your ability to articulate concepts is not the language itself, but the understanding of its syntax, grammar and vocabulary.

Believe it or not, verbal languages are entirely capable of describing geospatial and other visual concepts to those who can't see what you're seeing. The difference in capacity to do so is a matter of precision and vocabulary on both the part of the person speaking and the person being spoken to. As such, the answer to your question is yes, and it's already possible if you have the right linguistic skills.


You have perhaps without knowing it identified the AI problem of object recognition.

All spoken languages by nature are sequential. That is, one fact, action, or concept comes after another, just as all current digital computers are sequential. They break any scene up into individual pixels, without reference to any other pixel. They process the world one datum at a time. Noun followed by verb followed by adjective and so forth.

Spatial recognition, on the other hand, is holistic. You see the entire scene at once, and spatial orientations (up, down, left, right, etc.) are immediately and simultaneously evident. Color patterns, contrast, and hue are also immediately simultaneously obvious.

Pattern recognition AI, is best done not with computers but with neural networks. These are a system of connections that allow all pixels to be compared at the same time. The connections are not sequential, but mutually interactive. But these networks are absolutely horrible at number crunching.

So your task is to make something that is holistic and break it down into a linear sequential description, and then the reverse - to take a stream of data that is sequential and transform it into a holistic pattern.

The advantage that the human mind has, over a digital device, is that the mind can envision a holistic scene, and it can place a sequential stream of data into that holistic image. It can build up and see a pattern, not just the pixel.

However, that ability is variable between humans. Some can do it easier than others. For some, the skill comes naturally. For others, it never comes at all. They have no concept of spatial visualization.

An indicator of this, is the difference between poetry and prose. Poetry paints a picture in the mind. It uses very descriptive adjectives and adverbs in sometimes very disjointed semantics, but from which the reader can 'view' what is intended. Prose, on the other hand, conveys a scene through the passage of time. 'He did this then she did that'. There are those who readily grasp the imagery of poetry, and can visualize the stream of words into an instantaneous event or feeling, and those who consider poetry as just a random jumble of incomprehensible words.

So part and parcel of any answer to your question has to be the cognitive structures in the brains of the communicators, and not just the language itself.

That is, a communication format or use of language that is not comprehensible to the communicators is not viable in their situation, even though it might be viable to others with different brain structures.

Just as in your group Lego challenge, there were undoubtedly pairs that were much superior to others in completing the task, even though the language was the same. And I am sure, skilled pairs that had trained in the task would be even more proficient over time. These pairs would, I posit, have brain structures that were better at visualization than other brains, night I suggest, more 'poetic'.


The answer to your question lies not just in the language, but in the ability of the communicators to 'visualize' the language, as opposed to 'interpreting the meaning' of the language. 'Visualizers' can accommodate to the language, but those who can not visualize, will not do so no matter what the language.


Spoken languages are all good at describing things to people who can not see them at the moment. This is an important reason why we evolved to have language in the first place.

How good an individual speaker is depends on practice. You and your contest partner didn't do well with the task because it was new to you. If this was the 100th time you'd done it, it would have gone quickly and correctly, without any change in the language you both speak.

Some languages do describe things differently though, and not just by adding vocabulary. For example, speakers of Iwaidja, an indigenous Australian language, uses spatial frames. A concept they continue to use when speaking English. ("Spatial frames of reference are ways of referring to how things are located with respect to each other."

It is not the language itself, or anything different about the biology of the speakers, but rather, a cultural artifact that the language evolved to express. Both children and adults in that community are exceptionably good at tests that involve spatial knowledge, because looking at the world in spatial terms is part of their underlying culture. something every child learns without thinking of it.

A related Australian language, Guugu Ymithirr, takes a similar approach.

...They use cardinal directions to express spatial information. So rather than “Can you move to my left?” they would say “Can you move to the west?”...Guugu Ymithirr speakers have a kind of “internal compass” that is imprinted from an extremely young age. In the same way that English-speaking infants learn to use different tenses when they speak, so do Guugu Ymithirr children learn to orient themselves along compass lines, not relative to themselves...Speakers of languages that use cardinal directions to express locations have fantastic spatial memory and navigation skills—perhaps because their experience of an event is so well-defined by the directions it took place in...Just because their language doesn’t define directions relative to the people communicating, it doesn’t mean they don’t understand the concept of something being behind them, for example.

All languages are capable of supporting the requirements you delineate. They just may do it in different ways. All languages can and do increase vocabulary over time (and let go of words no longer needed). All languages have different levels of complexity, not just for children vs adults, but for people in specialized tasks vs people who aren't.

A different language is not what you need, but rather practice, vocabulary, and pressure to adapt your current one.


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