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I'm working on a story in which there is some sort of planetary erosion of language. Humans lose the ability to communicate verbally (orally and written). They can remember having language, can even remember names for things and people, but they have no way of expressing them outside of themselves. They can still hear and make sounds/talk, but to anyone but themselves it is gibberish - even those who once spoke the same language.

I've been trying to think of a global event that could essentially rewire human brains this way. Some kind of exotic particle? Or perhaps a form of gravity that we haven't encountered yet? (e.g. dark energy is described as fluidlike; maybe it has some kind of effect on the brain?)

One person can actually remember how language worked, and learns to harness the new particle to bring about a new, telepathic way of communicating that skirts the neurological rewiring. [I'm only adding this 'exception' human because I'm not sure how to write a story with characters who can't speak.]

Thank you!

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    $\begingroup$ They tried building a really tall tower and got too close to god. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 22 at 10:23
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    $\begingroup$ And @Separatrix, hahahaha, nailed my inspiration, but in my tale they can't band together based on new shared language groups, because there is no shared language anymore. $\endgroup$ – Sarah Fitzsimmons Feb 22 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Kilisi "Lots of ways of communication that don't include speech" the clues in the title, "Aphasia is an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write. Aphasia is always due to injury to the brain-most commonly from a stroke, particularly in older individuals." : all words & their meanings are essentially scrampled in the brain [Cont.] $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 22 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ Humans are really good at communicating many different ways.Don't bother with a plausible explanation. Just say that it happened, and that the scientists who might figure it out are stuck because they cannot communicate anymore. However, folks tend to fear those with whom they cannot effectively communicate, so you seem to be looking at a pretty violent and dangerous aftermath. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Feb 22 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Kilisi [Cont.] ^ basically you say (write, sign or communicate in any way known to you) the word "Purple", but in your own mind you think you've said "Asparagus", while the guy listening to you, reading your writing or otherwise apprehending the communication (who also has Aphasia) is convinced you said "Dingbats", I don't believe body language & physical cues (such as pointing etc) are effected, it's only actual "language" that gets hit by it, writing is most definitely not a workaround for it though. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 22 at 17:49
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"Some kind of exotic particle? Or perhaps a form of gravity that we haven't encountered yet?"

I'd go way more realistic: make it a virus, (maybe developed by some weird apocaliptic cult), and there you go.

Wikipedia states that

Aphasia is an inability to comprehend or formulate language because of damage to specific brain regions

Which is perfectly achievable for a fungus or virus. Making it "handmade" would explain how it could spread so far/quick.

The few/one normal people could have a natural immunity or could be one of "the chosen few" from the original cult, that had some sort of cure genetically implanted.

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    $\begingroup$ This sounds like it would be a great fit, since in trying to create the anti-virus, one might accidentally alter the brain to allow telepathy (you just have to figure out how the brain could actually send information through the space between people.) $\endgroup$ – Tracy Cramer Feb 22 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ "developed by some weird apocaliptic cult" The new prophet of The Resurrected Church of Babel Southern Orthodox (Reformed), calls upon his followers to help him realize the vision he received from God last Tuesday, "Brothers!.. and sisters of course, goes without saying, it falls on us to do Gods holy work & visit the curse of Babel once again upon the sinners of this world, Hilary! would you please leave the donuts alone while I'm speechifying, yes OK you can have one when I'm done.." $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 22 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ Lost tribes in the Amazon etc? $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 22 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ Real world example: while OP's example is closer to Wernicke's Aphasia, Broca's Aphasia can be caused by bacterial infections (eg: Bartonella henselae). It seems plausible to mutate this to be more aggressive and contagious, and to give the main character a random genetic mutation which makes them immune. $\endgroup$ – Lord Farquaad Feb 22 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ I think there's a Star Trek DS9 episode where a Bajoran doctor develops such a virus. Everybody thinks they're normally talking but it's just words put together at random. $\endgroup$ – wastl Feb 23 at 0:12
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One of the more common symptoms of certain kinds of stroke or TIEs (Transient Ischemic Episodes) is aphasia - for you, this is perfect - you should have a prion disease which selectively targets that brain region, and causes a ton of small bleeders... in specific, the area your prion disease should attack is called Wernicke’s area.

Damage to the Wernicke's area of the temporal lobe may result in a fluent aphasia that is called Wernicke's aphasia; individuals with Wernicke’s aphasia may speak in long sentences that have no meaning, add unnecessary words, and even create new “words.” Individuals with Wernicke’s aphasia usually have great difficulty understanding speech and are therefore often unaware of their mistakes. These individuals usually have no body weakness because their brain injury is not near the parts of the brain that control movement.

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Rather than some disease or mental condition, what if the aphasia was brought about by the collapse of technology?

Imagine that most or all the planet has progressed to the point that everyone communicates by way of a sort of technological telepathy. They have brain augmentations that detect when they are trying to convey a message or expression to someone else. The brain signals are then interpreted and processed into a universal digital language which is then transmitted wirelessly to the recipient(s) augmentation, where it is parsed and fed into the brain in a way that the person(s) are able to comprehend the message. Perhaps the augment even simulates aural signals making it so the recipient actually "hears" the message.

This kind of population would gradually lose the need for verbal and perhaps even written communication since everyone can just "think" at each other. Over time, while some vestiges of individual languages might linger as part of people's long-term memory, the very concept of language itself would fade into a sort of communication singularity.

Then suddenly, this technology stops working. Maybe it's an apocalyptic scenario, maybe some hacker or terrorist cell caused the servers supporting the augments to fail. Whatever the reason, people can no longer use their thoughts to communicate directly and must revert back to verbal communication. The problem is they have been largely mute for decades, so their vocal muscles have atrophied and their understanding of their natural language has been stunted as well as distorted by their reliance on the augment's universal translator. People might remember various words and phrases, but everyone would be speaking as though they were first or second year language students at best.

Also, because people had been relying on the augment's automatic translation capabilities, even people who originally spoke the same language might find it difficult to understand each other due to differences in dialect, slang, or other such linguistic differences. Perhaps the reliance on the augment has even lead to the language portions of the brain developing a distinct "dialect" for each individual person due to the augment interpreting their brain signals slightly differently, leading to a situation where even if someone who once knew a language tried to speak it to someone else who also used to speak the same language, it would still come out as mostly incomprehensible.

And, of course, the only person or people who are still able to flawlessly read and speak are those who rebelled against the augment all along, electing to instead use their natural voice. Those with augments could still understand them due to a legacy feature when the augment was still a luxury rather than a technological staple, but they were rarely interacted with and treated with mistrust since no one "knew what they were thinking". But now that the augments are offline, those who shunned them from the start are the only ones who are able to meaningfully communicate.

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    $\begingroup$ This is pure genius, and I would devour a book with this as its plot. I will seriously consider this, even though I wasn't planning on making tech a central component. It's too juicy not to consider. $\endgroup$ – Sarah Fitzsimmons Feb 23 at 4:45
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They're under the goddamn ground!

I also favor the realistic approach, and I like the idea of a bacteria, but @Hobbamok points out the problem of transmission, which has to be handwaved one way or another. Every developed society while have a WHO or CDC equivalent fighting back against the spread, and we can't have that.

Fortunately, there's a way of giving people diseases that doesn't require them to catch them from someone else: have it come out of the goddamn ground. On Earth, we're running into this problem with diseases like anthrax, which can lie dormant for decades only to awaken at an inconvenient moment and start killing people and animals by the hundreds.

On your planet, there's a similar life form that dwells in the soil. Maybe a sporelike bacterium, maybe a fungus, or maybe (for cool factor) a cyclical brooding insect like cicadas. We have limited understanding what causes spores to leave dormancy, so you don't even necessarily need to explain the trigger. One way or another, this organism comes to life all across your planet, ready to take the next stage in its life cycle. The aphasia you're looking is just an unfortunate side effect the humans happen to intersect.

Possible methods:

  1. If the emergence is bacterial or fungal, it manifests as an infection: everyone on the planet will have breathed in endless lungfulls of the stuff before the first symptoms start showing up, too late for quarantine, vaccination, or cure. By the time people need to collaborate on a cure, it's too late: they can't even talk to each other.
  2. If the emergence is insectoid, you get to have even more fun: take a cue from harmful algal blooms. Decades or centuries of hibernation have provided the insects with plenty of nutrients, and their carapaces have built up an external shell heavy in cyanotoxins, which, among other things, when inhaled, can cause brain damage that can include effects as unusual as aphasia. Imagine, all over the world, swarms of insects exploding out of the earth, blotting out the sky, tiny flakes of their shells raining down in a fine glittering dust from above. Once again, people will figure out you shouldn't breathe the stuff much too late to save themselves from the effect.

The most beautiful part is that even if some fraction of people don't experience aphasia, if no one else understands what they're saying, they might as well be: if a person with aphasia and a person without are locked in a room together, from inside, there's not really a way to tell who's who, after all. Both think the other one is taking gibberish while they are speaking sense.

From a story perspective, this could also let your character run into one or two people who, like them, was spared: the world is aphasiac to them, but they understand each other perfectly.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, @Daniel-B. this is very helpful. I like the spore or algal bloom approach, particularly as with human-caused climate change this is extremely plausible. And having a few characters who can still sort of communicate (perhaps in varying degrees) would be useful, plotwise. $\endgroup$ – Sarah Fitzsimmons Feb 23 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ @SarahFitzsimmons: yeah, I was going to say that a man-made unintentional environmental trigger could be fun. And to have them only have sort-of communication, they could both be non-aphasiac, but speak different but adjacent languages, like Russian and Czech. $\endgroup$ – Daniel B Feb 23 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ Underground's a good idea. Perhaps you can find a way to blame sheeple for this $\endgroup$ – Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 24 at 21:45
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Wernicke's and Broca's areas of the brain are the ones you're looking for.

Regions of the brain associated with language processing

Damage caused to Wernicke's area results in receptive, fluent aphasia. This means that the person with aphasia will be able to fluently connect words, but the phrases will lack meaning. This is unlike non-fluent aphasia, in which the person will use meaningful words, but in a non-fluent, telegraphic manner.

Damage to Broca's area is commonly associated with telegraphic speech made up of content vocabulary. For example, a person with Broca's aphasia may say something like, "Drive, store. Mom." meaning to say, "My mom drove me to the store today." Therefore, the content of the information is correct, but the grammar and fluidity of the sentence is missing.

So your language processing goes basically like this:

  1. Your brain thinks of something it wants to say

  2. Wernicke's area concentrates your thoughts into words and passes them to Broca's area

  3. Broca's area adds grammar and fluency to your sentence

  4. You say your fully processed sentence out loud

Both of those areas process text information in a similar way to speech processing. So if you fully lose either one of those regions, you can still process information from your surroundings and think normally, but you fully lose your ability to comprehend or output language; written, spoken, or otherwise.

If you lose either of those areas partially, the effects differ a bit. With damage to Wernicke's, your sentences sound normal but they don't have any meaningful content, since Wernicke's area cannot fully process what thoughts you want to convey with language. With damage to Broca's, your brain cannot encode the thoughts picked up by Wernicke's to fluent language, so you can burst out single words at best (which do have meaning). The effect works both ways, so it is similar when tried to comprehend received sentences.

Now, if you want to go with gibberish, the obvious solution is to do some damage to Wernicke's region of the brain. This way people will still talk and write, but it will make no sense. Telepathic communication might still be possible, since the actual thought process is not really impaired.

Now, how can you do 'alotta damage' to this specific region of the brain? Easy answers are CRISPR gone wrong, virus, fungus, amoeba, whatnot. But if your story is set into the near future, one nice way would be cybernetic implants. Brain implants are not too far in the future.

enter image description here

Imagine a world where everyone has a cybernetic implant planted into Wernicke's area to store memories digitally. This is at least pseudo-reasonable, since Wernicke's area essentially concentrates thoughts. Now, in a world with everyone having electronics in their head, a catastrophic solar storm could have huge concequenses. The implant is fried and everyone gets their Wernicke's area irrepairably damaged.

What few people might have remained without implants would have no use for their language, since nobody can understand them. Children would be born having their Wernicke's intact, but teaching language to children when you can't understand it yourself would be problematic.

In any case, your protagonist could be someone who did not have an implant, and who therefore survived the catastrophe.

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    $\begingroup$ Oh now this is good, it pulls together everything relevant everyone else has said with nice pictures (or should that be diagrams?) & clear explanations in a fashion compatible with the OP's original desired "event" related to some sort of radiation ~ [+] ~ a pity it came later than others as it probably won't get the attention it deserves. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 23 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore: Probably it won't, but as long as the author sees this, it's fulfilled its purpose. $\endgroup$ – A. McMount Feb 23 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ I'm almost tempted to impose on you by asking for your input on an idea I've been kicking around for a few years now ~ accept that it would be an imposition if I did ~ these sites are (for most people) for dipping into to exercise their own pet interests, exercising someone else's is called "work" $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 23 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ ^ Hmm, to be clear that's not meant to be a thinly disguised request (which it now occurs to me it reads as) but a comment (or compliment?) on what I perceive as clear thinking & clarity of presentation. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 23 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, but given your reply that crossed with mine I'll drop the link ~ do feel free to ignore it if you want though ~ Could bone marrow transplants be used to prevent tissue rejection of trans-species organs? $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Feb 23 at 19:28
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Do not explain.

"You have a sense for the black things, Sparrowhawk," said the Doorkeeper. "You ever did. Say what you think is wrong."

"I do not know. There is a weakening of power. There is a want of resolution. There is a dimming of the sun. I feel, my lords- I feel as if we who sit here talking, were all wounded mortally, and while we talk and talk our blood runs softly from our veins..." The Farthest Shore, Ursula LeGuin

Things can fade and disappear. A person who can do a thing easily then struggles, and then cannot do. Some are frustrated at their loss, and some lose the memory of what was and so are not frustrated. Sometimes there is no explanation. If your story explores what happens with loss, and how what remains can change and develop in the absence of what was, leave the loss unexplained. Instead describe what happens after the loss. Naming a thing makes it smaller; categorizes it - controls it. Leave the central event of your story unnamed and let your readers learn its nature through your characters and their struggles.

This is the idea behind the recent Bird Box movie, in which there are things in the world which, if seen, drive whomever sees them insane. The nature of these things is not explained. This makes the movie more visceral and terrifying.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you, @Willk. I like this approach a great deal in terms of the writing of it! As the author, I need to know what caused it even if I don't share that, because that knowledge will show through the confidence in the presentation, but in terms of presenting the story, this is definitely closer to the way I want to go! $\endgroup$ – Sarah Fitzsimmons Feb 23 at 4:34
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use crispr/cas9 in a gene drive, eg you can give lung cancer to mice by infecting them with a virus that has been altered by crispr. Not too much of a stretch to use crispr to destroy Wernicke's area, or do more subtle things... This can be done in a garage lab. Cheerful thought!

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  • $\begingroup$ How exactly can one use crispr/cas9 on the entire planet population? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Feb 23 at 3:37
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch: This wikipedia page may answer your question in a general sense. I think the critical point is that gene drive insertion results in, "all the gametes of the individual [carrying] the gene drive (instead of 50% in the case of a normal gene)." So given enough generations, the payload of the gene drive may spread to every individual in the population. $\endgroup$ – unutbu Feb 23 at 18:31
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Robots/Nanites do not like language

Some fed up grammar nazi releases robots/nanites that attack people vocalizing or writing things in language.

As for the person whose language is not affected, you could say they were somehow able to hide from the nanites.

This also explains who the person can create telepathy. They would invent a sign language, and teach it to people. Sign language is essentially a form of telepathy, if you define telepathy as the ability to send messages between minds through empty space. For whatever reason, the nanites aren't programmed to attack sign language users, so everything goes back to normal except people use the new form of communication.

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