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I'm trying to create basically realistic mermaids, and working on developing body language and vocalizations. I have most of the vocalizations I can think of (suggestions are still appreciated), but definitely need a lot more body language. Ideas?

Edit: They are a highly social colony species, so it should be somewhat complex, and interactions between colony members would be especially helpful. I'm also trying to avoid overly human interactions such as kissing or holding hands.

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    $\begingroup$ Divers use hand signals. So a sort of sign language seems realistic. (Putting this a comment because it's not too detailed.) $\endgroup$ – mVitus Mar 17 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ If you haven't read it yet, I heartily recommend Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant It presents an extremely realistic picture of biologically plausible mermaids, including their communication. (Warning: They like to eat people) $\endgroup$ – Arcanist Lupus Mar 18 at 2:15
  • $\begingroup$ Don't forget that it's dark down there. "Sunlight entering the water may travel about 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) into the ocean under the right conditions, but there is rarely any significant light beyond 200 meters (656 feet)." - National Ocean Service $\endgroup$ – Jay Mar 18 at 2:50

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They could use clicks and whistles like a dolphin, or they could also communicate through bioluminescence like a bobtail squid. They could also cummunicate through whale song.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's also worth noting that deep baritone notes (and loud sounds in general) carry for a very, very long way underwater. Much further than in air. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Mar 18 at 16:35
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Sonar

They might have a specialized organ much like porpoises do. It could have bandwidth enough to communicate complex states of mind, to a point where it could be considered a limited telepathy (something of the kind happens with the Tines in Vernor Vinge's A Fire upon the Deep).

Human-like body language has the problem of interfering with swimming. You could render sonar interactions as you wished, though - being to all intents and purposes a sixth sense, mermaids might "hear" it as a voice plus anything else.

Dolphins are social animals and they love to "play" in a variety of ways - some of those appear in David Brin's Uplift cycle, suitably adapted to the uplifted dolphins' increased intelligence.

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The reason we rely on our hands and faces so much when communicating is because they are very good for it. The hands and face have lots of muscles allowing for very precise control. This also means our brains have very good ability to control hands and face. And ability to understand movements of hands and face by others. The two are linked due to mirror neurons.

So unless you want them to be very different from normal humans when it comes to hands and face, which you probably would have mentioned as it is kind of critical, their body language communication would heavily rely on hands and face and work fairly similarly to human body language of hands and face.

Some differences.

If you are floating in water instead of standing on a solid surface large movements will have unintended consequences so body language will avoid large movements and focus on just hands and face. Same applies to physical contact such as holding hands or kissing. I think such would be preserved for private moments when you are entangled and not moving.

Underwater sound carries better and light worse than in air. So there should be clearer distinction between private and close range with hand gestures and facial expressions and with public and extended range without those components.

I think those might be a solid starting point for you. Having, from our point of view, much stronger distinctions between public, private, and intimate modes of communication, possibly to the point where even the vocal language used is noticeably different is good flavour that should be visible in pretty much everything and be fairly simple to highlight without needing boring exposition.

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  • $\begingroup$ But why use face and hands when you could use colours? If a new fictional species is being created, why not add chromatophores? $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Mar 19 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison Well, a typical fantasy merfolk already has face and hands and ability to use them. It is essentially free with the concept unless something else is specified. That said, you are obviously right that chromatophores can be added but there would be no major benefit since you already get the humanoid gesture package for free. Also the ability to control chromatophores would generally evolve from active camouflage so you'd have to assume an evolutionary path that makes sense for that. This is obviously doable but goes beyond what the question justifies IMHO. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Mar 19 at 7:03
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Their body language would be transmitted by sound.

Living in the dark underwater restricts vision to close distances. So visual communication would be like whispering in that it is covert and short range.

These merfolk would have exceptionally precise hearing, because sound travels farther and faster underwater. It's the best way to detect oncoming animals, and if they use sonar, they could see stationary barriers.

This means that they could 'see' people's body language through sound. When you move your hand really fast in the air, you can hear it 'whoosh.' This effect would happen all the time with merfolk. Body language would be subtle sounds of your body moving through the water.

As for the content, do the merfolk inhabit a similar world to ours? Because unless they have some hyperadvanced humanlike modern civilization underwater, they probably have to deal with the various predators or prey they interact with, resulting in primal emotion communication.

Since they are basically fish in terms of their movement, they might convey emotions of fear or aversion by twitch-like motions, reminiscent of a fish darting in response to a predator. A turn of the tail helps rotate you around, so maybe it's a gesture to indicate turning your back on someone, or changing your mind.

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  • $\begingroup$ They're very primitive, basically living in colonies with large underwater territories. And yes, they do have to deal with prey and competing predators, although most things tend not to bother them since they're considered the apex predators in the region. $\endgroup$ – Guest Mar 18 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ "Body language would be subtle sounds of your body moving through the water." The problem then is that you couldn't talk while moving, especially moving quickly. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Mar 19 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison Only body language would be limited by motion – they would still have a method of vocal speech. It's hard for humans to use body language while sprinting. The more focused you are on moving, the less emotion you can convey through gestures. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Hall Mar 19 at 8:30
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I know I'm a bit late to the party, but have you considered bioluminescence and/or the ability to change colors/patterns on the skin (metachrosis)?

This could be means of communication in itself, and bioluminescence could enhance the ability to communicate via gestures or posture over larger distances or murky/dark water.

I guess glowing mermaids might look a bit silly, but the bioluminescence might be limited to certain parts/patterns (especially in combination with the ability to change those) or specific points on the body, a bit like the position lights on an airplane.

Depending on how precise and fast you can control your "glowy bits" you might even be able to use some kind of morse code to communicate over larger distances in the dark deeps, without being heard.

In combination with the possibility of acoustic communication this would give your Merfolk varied means for communication depending on the situation, and hunt(or avoid being hunted) in either complete silence or complete darkness (depending on prey/predator) and still being able to communicate.

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Since their environment of motion is four dimensional, you could consider a complex dance as a means of communication. The bees do in the hive to indicate pertinents about nectar flowers.

These Merfolk are intelligent and presumably sentient people, so the relatively simple dances of their ancestors -- warning of dangers, locations of food sources, approach of other Merfolk -- will have evolved into a means of telling stories, describing the loot to be found in a shipwreck, courtship and any of ten thousand other things they might to dance about.

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A combination of signed language and vocalizations is your best bet. Because both hearing and sight can be compromised under water, a redundant system allows for maximum communication in a variety of situations. I'm envisioning both systems used simultaneously but with communication possible if it's dark or if there is a safety issue where the merfolk have to be quiet (predators, humans), or there is too much ambient noise.

I will also add tactile sign language. This is how (most) people who are deaf and blind communicate and also Deaf people with normal vision who happen to be in the dark or who need to focus visually on something else (a couple at night, friends at the movie theater, etc).

I have very basic sign language skills, and my spouse even less, yet it's remarkably easy to figure out what someone is saying by only laying your hand on theirs. If it's a sign or letter you know visually, you'll get it most of the time tactilely. Obviously someone who uses the skill regularly would be expert in it.

A colony species would be physically close together so communication can spread from one hand to another until everyone gets the message. A human observer might think the merfolk are "holding hands" but, since their hands are touching for communicative purposes, it will have very different cultural meaning and practical applications.

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Semaphore (probably without real flags)

This would be great because it would look like the mermaids were communicating by doing an underwater dance. It could also be expanded to include their tail as a third flag. Note the Beatles spelled out their album's title "Help!" using semaphor.

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If it's good enough for them, why not for the mermaids?

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My idea is some sort of ultrasonic wave communication, using specific pulses of ultrasonic sound waves that are in a range that the normal human can't hear. And they have a special organ to detect these pulses and emit them. This would also be advantageous because they can use it for echolocation by bouncing these waves off of objects to determine speed and position.

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While they may be able to use a combination of body language and/or noises they might also have hyper-developed telepathic ability.

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  • $\begingroup$ We discourage single sentence answers, they tend to get deleted. When you have a moment, take the tour and check-out the help center for ideas about how we work. Welcome to the site. (From review). $\endgroup$ – 011358 smell Sep 14 at 12:15
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The means they use for non-verbal communications is very dependent on the turbidity of the water and the intensity of illumination.

In low visibility conditions, they might snap their tails ultra fast so they cavity and create a popping sound. These will be higher frequency sounds and will not carry extremely far. Lower frequency sound travels further under water than higher frequency sound. They might carry the shells of mollusks so they can clack them together or strike with stones tools to make lower frequency booming signals from the cavity in mollusk shell.

In good visibility conditions, they might swish their tails and bodies in different ways to they don’t actual move but create distinct visual patterns

In close communication with others of their species, their tails and fins would be the natural means of conveying subtext during vocalized talk. Fanning a tail fluke might indicate boredom, or intense interest. Absolute stillness might resemble playing dead to predators and signify disgust or boredom.

It stems from a clear definition of their physiology — tail, flukes, webbing between fingers, back fins, side fins along fish part of body, even to their cloacal slits and gill slits.

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