19
$\begingroup$

I am trying to make a language for a fictional world and I am wondering how a species without vocal chords could communicate via written language

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ An interesting problem is that they could not have the concept of phonemes. I would think this would make it likely that they end up with a language with a symbol for each word, since the semantics are the fundamental structure now. $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Mar 19 at 16:03
  • 21
    $\begingroup$ Think "sign language". $\endgroup$ – StephenG Mar 19 at 16:07
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ Birds do not have vocal chords and yet they can make all the sounds humans can make, and many other sounds on top. Moreover, there is a great real-world example of a script (almost) completely divorced from the phonetic realization of the language: Chinese characters; they form the basis of a famous thought experiment, the Chinese room, which is often used to exemplify the difference (or lack thereof) between symbol manipulation and comprehension. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 19 at 17:05
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ From evolutionary standpoint, these species must have some signal system that is more primitive than written language. If they are completely unable to produce sounds, it can be sign language, or tapping language - and then written language would develop to complement it. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Mar 19 at 17:30
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ You can find plenty of written-only languages in the science and in engineering. Blueprints or circuit diagrams are really specialized domain-specific languages, but you cannot pronounce them. Mathematical or chemical formulas, Feynman diagrams, programming languages, and all kinds of similar notation systems are other examples. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Keane Mar 20 at 5:48

14 Answers 14

40
$\begingroup$

It may be 2-dimensional as well as 1-dimensional

Speech, sign languages and such transmit a single sign at a time, thus forcing the writing, which is secondary, to also form a sequence of signs that can be read one at a time.

A language made by different species that originates in a written form directly doesn't have to follow this restriction. It's likely to develop from the sights of the body language, and there several signs can be formed simultaneously by different body parts, each being as complex as human facial expressions.

If your species have brains adapted to read such complex poses, their writings will first capture the poses in something like parietal art. And it will get more abstract from that, to the level of modern ideographs or more. But no need may ever arise to linearize it.

So the words or sentences in the language may be based on a graph grammar instead of our conventional string grammars. Graph grammars are usually more powerful at the same level of rule types, a context-free one able to form sentences that only a context-dependent can make in pure one-dimensional text. So a writing that has never passed through speech form has a potential to be something drastically different from human speech and lead to a completely alien way of thinking.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 so much! I can confirm from personal experience this is actually a real problem even for us humans - our speech is linear but our cognition does not have to be. I could express much more of what's in my head were it not for the confines of speech linearity of normal languages. $\endgroup$ – mtraceur Mar 19 at 22:29
  • $\begingroup$ In the end, what you are talking about can be viewed as a linear language with complex metawords. With each word representing many of our words. As all languages reach a limit of what can be expressed in a single instant. $\endgroup$ – Garret Gang Mar 20 at 0:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a mind-blowingly good answer. When you start to think of really excellent painters who succeed in communicating ideas and concepts and emotions through paintings—you realize the difficulty in linearizing that communication. $\endgroup$ – Wildcard Mar 20 at 0:59
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ UNLWS is a fully-worked-out example of this - see my own answer for more details. $\endgroup$ – bradrn Mar 20 at 6:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It is not true that sign languages transmit a single sign at a time. Look up the concept of buoys in sign linguistics. Sign languages have multiple articulators (two hands, face, mouth patterns, shoulder position), which can interplay. $\endgroup$ – TRiG Mar 20 at 11:11
11
$\begingroup$

Purely written languages have already been created! The most famous is probably Unker Non-Linear Writing System (UNLWS), but you can also find others - see here for a collection of links. Here's a sample of UNLWS, to show you what it's like:

UNLWS sample

"I understood from my parents, as they did from their parents, etc., that they became happier as they more fully grokked and were grokked by their cat."

As you can see, this is non-linear; that is, concepts do not always follow each other in a straight line. This is probably the most innovative concept which purely-written languages offer over spoken ones: while sound waves are 1D, a page is 2D, and a written language may be able to exploit this extra dimension, as UNLWS does.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ "The most famous": Circuit schematics. UML. Technical drawings... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 20 at 23:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Yes, but none of those are languages as such, in the same way that e.g. English is. UNLWS is a language in that sense. $\endgroup$ – bradrn Mar 20 at 23:33
5
$\begingroup$

Chalk and slate, charcoal and wood, or clay or wax tablets. (At least to start.) They would have started by scratching characters into the dirt and painting on cave walls, but technological necessity would develop portable tools.

That said, there's a more portable mechanism yet that would likely evolve in parallel - sign language. If the creatures are unable to make any sounds, that doesn't necessitate a written language.

(It goes without saying that advances in writing technology would be adopted as it was developed.)

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Excellent idea, and with some expansion could be a perfect answer. So, if a species develops sign language first...what might its written language look like? I'd imagine it would start as a pictographic representation of whatever appendages they use for signing. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Mar 19 at 16:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith In many sign-languages, the movement of the appendage is just as important as the shape and final positions. That can be rather hard to represent in static images. Certainly for Nouns, an image of the object in question is a more probable starting point. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Mar 19 at 16:23
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Ynneadwraith You May be interested in this. I remember the Conservative party was picked up on being the only major party in the last UK general election not to provide a BSL translation of their (written) manifesto, a concept that confused me so much I spent a day or two researching written sign languages. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Mar 19 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal Very good point. I expect you would need either a representation of movement, or a symbolic representation of the whole appendage movement that's divorced from the actual movement itself. I'd expect that would be a later development. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Mar 19 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs Yeah BSL differs quite a lot from English, especially in grammar. Certainly enough to require translations between the two! $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Mar 19 at 16:34
2
$\begingroup$

A language could be developed in any manner that conveys information. Sound can be carried in other ways than using vocal cords. Clapping, snapping fingers, clicking claws, sign language. It might even develop from facial expressions.

A written language might be assumed to start from pictures such as hieroglyphics, but it could also be symbol based. For instance, if the language started from sign language, the written language may mimic the shapes of the sign language. If the language were based on the tapping of sticks together, the written language may somehow show the beat (like music for drums).

How the language is conveyed may bias the society toward being more mathematical (from rhythms) or being emotional tuned to each other if based on facial expressions.

While it doesn't have to, I see no reason to think that the technology couldn't follow the same path as our technology, assuming they have hands or something similar once a language is invented to manipulate tools the same way.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Writing developed from pictures to pictograms to ideograms. In a species with spoken language it can then move to phonetic scripts such as syllabaries and alphabets. But in a species that does not speak the next step would reasonably a featural script describing whatever method they used to communicate without writing.

What form that takes is really up to you. For sign language it would be stylized representations of the gestures. For color based communication, it would be just the colors. Or bunch of lines of different lengths corresponding to different possible colors. Which would also work for scent or radio based communication.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

My understanding is that pictographs like hieroglyphics are developed before an alphabet takes form. Once the alphabet forms, your fictional species could use bioluminescence to communicate in a style similar to morse code. A certain sequence of blinks would represent a written letter. Certain colors could also express different emotions.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Actually when it reach the aplabet stage, than leters may be anything "random but distinct" - alphabet also have no relation to how it is spoken (other than wague custom - the same alphabet is spelled differently in different countries and the words are read really different (if read by native, not as try to spoke in other known language)).

So maybe A would be "spelled" as jaws cliks, while B would be spelled as rotation around vertical axes clockwice, C would be spelled as particular pheromone and D would be just decent fluorescence. (And their written form may be the same as in aplhabet, or totally different, it does not matter too, just there should be a way to recognize those "characters" with sences avaiable to the alien race.)

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

You’re conflating two very different questions here: “How would a written-only language work?”, or “How would language work for a species without vocal chords (or, presumably, any alternative capability for complex sounds)?” Which of those constraints do you really want to explore?

If “no vocal language” is what you want to explore, then, “sign language” is a much more natural answer than “written language”. It’s well-documented that human communities can spontaneously invent fully-featured sign languages quite quickly when other language is off the table (e.g. due to deafness), or for other reasons (e.g. as a lingua franca between different spoken languages), whereas the invention of writing is historically extremely rare, and has (as far as we know) always grown gradually out of a pre-existing spoken language.

A written-only language, or more generally a language whose primary form is closer to what we know as “writing” than what we know as “speaking” or “signing” — that’s a more far-fetched constraint, but at the same time probably a more interesting one to explore, as it’s much further from anything we know of in human linguistic history. The other answers give various suggestions for how that might work.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

One main issue here, that human written language represents sounds (most languages). However, what you need here is words representing meaning. (Think of Chinese script as an example). As per the example of Koko, the Gorilla which communicates via sign language, she was smart enough to use "words" signs in their proper context. If a sentient yet "mute" species evolves written language, most likely it would be an abstract representation of its sign gestures.

For that to happen, you must assume the species does not use complex sounds in any form to communicate. (It does not matter whether the sounds come from vocal cords or other organs).

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Gorilla sign language is quite limited though. For example, no gorilla has ever asked a question. $\endgroup$ – RudolfJelin Mar 20 at 18:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That is a good point, but a basic demonstration nevertheless. Think how deaf-born people still communicate efficiently without spoken words. It is quite interesting to study their language skills and link it to their writing skills. $\endgroup$ – Christmas Snow Mar 20 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ I've done some study previously on the deaf people learning thing, so here is somehing to think about: deaf people who didn't learn sign language early enough during the crucial development phases of the brain preform poorly in tasks, involving things like short-term memory and abstract thinking. Deaf people in general also have problems with reading, especially longer sentences, because of the lack of an articulated inner voice. $\endgroup$ – RudolfJelin Mar 20 at 19:58
1
$\begingroup$

Human language began as vocalizations coalescing into concepts to facilitate communication. If you take vocalization out of the equation, the precursor to written language would likely be visual like sign language, dance (think worker bees), or changing color patterns like an octopus warning predators to stay away.

Whichever root you choose to pursue, the language should reflect that origin. To compare, the English language represents the sounds words make. Potato is written that way because it's letters represent a pronunciation of "Po tay toe", a spoken word you associate with a starchy tuber. So for sign language you'd want to have symbols that evoke the positions and motions this alien would perform to convey their ideas in their natural sign language. For dance, something that evokes the flow of their natural dance. For color shifting, you could argue that naturally they would have began making pictures and patterns on their bodies, growing in detail and nuance as communication became more developed until they arrived at a semi-pictorial written language similar to Chinese characters that represents their natural body coloring language.

Though that said you could likely develop this into any origin; communication based on touch, on scent, on Morse code-like tapping, on electric impulses, on telepathy, on writing messages into genetics, or anything your wild imagination can conceive. You'll simply want to make the written language evoke elements of that communication technique.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

Chinese people sometimes draw out characters on their palms with their finger. The written language is such that it's not too difficult to visualize the result of their invisible finger writing.

Chinese characters are ideographs, as in each one represents an idea. Most are combinations of simpler ones. For example there is a simple character representing a tree, and a forest is simply three of them packed into the space of one character (all characters are the same size). There is also a fixed stroke order, i.e. the order in which the lines that make up the character are to be drawn in is prescribed. These factors make it easier to visualize characters from finger movements on the palm. Phones support it as an input method and people can so do without looking at the screen.

Another hand based solution would be something like a chording keyboard on the fingers. Chording keyboards have a small number of keys, say 4 or 5 to match the number of fingers available, and characters are selected by the combinations of keys pressed simultaneously. It's kinda like playing a chord on a piano.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

One more extra example - there are written laguages, which are used to transmit elaborate ideas, constructions and commands for readers, who does not have vocal chords. And those languages are not ment to be directly spoken (usually are even mechanically obsure so cannot be directly spoken), just written and read.

The recipients are typically able to sense tactile informations, light even outside human visible spectre, sometimes also preasure, moisture, also magnetic and gravity directions and force and usually express itself in movements, emiting lights, sometimes sounds or music, but usually does not spoke, but many times they express themself by elaborate series of electric pulses.

Yes, I am talking about programming languages for Arduino, or CNC, or any other manufacturing robots, maybe even for "typical" computers :)

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

Many human beings already work extensively with a language which is purely written: computer code. Almost all of all the programming languages in existence are basically impossible to express vocally, turning into a mindless stew of vocalised punctuation marks or explicitly expressed whitespace. You could argue that this is because the 'entity' we're 'communicating' with doesn't natively have ears or vocal cords. Yes, that's because we built them that way, but it still reflects the reality.

As a consequence, trying to express complex concepts in this purely-written language has resulted in some of the features that other posts have described: non-linear 'flow' is a good example. Another notable feature is recursion and abstraction: the ability to describe a complex meaning and 'assign' it to a compact representation, and particularly to incorporate recursion into that meaning.

When thinking about the evolution and development of such a language system, you could explore the history of programming languages, which began as an extremely literal translation of the physical 'movement' of the hardware, and developed much more meaning and abstraction over time, eventually shifting to some of the not-text-based programming 'interfaces' we see today. Certainly while your alien race's language might develop from anatomical roots (sign language or a limited palette of sounds), it won't remain so simplistic, it will develop according to the intelligence of the creatures.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

It's very likely that they would not develop written language first. The most likely cases are either:

  • They develop a pure sign language. I know of no known cases of this happening in real life.
  • They develop a mixed sign language utilizing a combination of visual signals and whatever vocalizations they are already capable of making. Most primates and cetaceans have some level of language like this, and arguably most other vertebrates do to varying degrees too.
  • They develop a phonetic language like most Earth languages, but with a different set of phonemes. There's nothing that says a language can only use sounds a human can make, or that it has to have some minimal number of sounds (and there's huge variety in real life, English has up to 28 vowel sounds depending on dialect, while Spanish has only 5).

From there, they may eventually develop a written language, though if humanity is any indication, it will probably take a very long time, and possibly an agrarian lifestyle.

As far as the written form of such a language, it's hard to say. It really depends both on which of the the type of language they develop, as well as further details of the language itself:

  • If it's a pure sign language that only uses a 1:1 mapping between ideas and signs, you'll probably end up with a logographic writing system similar to Hanji or the classical Mayan writing system, most likely originating as stylized depictions of the signs themselves.
  • If it's a pure sign language that utilizes something like an infix system (that is, each root 'word' has a sign, then other signs are used to signify derivations, similar to how Esperanto works), you will probably end up with a compositional writing system still similar to traditional logographies. In essence, something where you have a glyph that indicates the root, and then modifiers that indicate part of speech, 'inflection', tense, mood, and other things.
  • If it's a context-based pure sign language (that is, the same sign can mean different things in different cases), you will probably still end up with either of the two previous cases.
  • If, however, it's a mixed sign language, things get really complicated. A logographic writing system is of course still a possibility here, because it's always a possibility, but you may end up with something that looks more akin to Pinyin, Hepbun, or other alphabetic representations of otherwise non-alphabetic scripts. Essentially, you get a base writing system (probably logographic) mapping the signs to glyphs, and then have extra modifiers that indicate the associated sounds that go with it.
  • Where it gets really interesting though is if you go with the (rather unlikely) possibility of a sign language where sequences of signs map to ideas. In essence, this type of language would be like our own natural languages, just using movements instead of sounds. In this case, they may develop a writing system that wouldn't be too drastically different from ours, except it would almost certainly be purely phonetic in nature initially (unlike most real world languages which typically have a 1:N mapping of symbols to sounds).
  • In the event that they just have a regular phonetic language, there's no reason to suspect they would develop a written language not unlike our own.
$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.