There is a group of people who can shapeshift. They send out hunting parties, scout teams, etc. In a circumstance where a group of ten people can look like ten different species (one human, one wolf, one demon antelope, etc.) is there any way they can communicate effectively across team members without having to change shape back to a species with greater vocalization ranges? Telepathy is excluded as an option.

The best answer would be that which allows for the most complex information to be shared in the most quick and efficient manner. For example, "scent glands" could feasibly be integrated into just about any form a person takes, and used to emit smells for communication, but one weakness as an answer is that it seems difficult if not impossible to convey more detailed information using this method. My benchmark for a useful method would be the feasibility of saying something basic, but with details, like: "two people, north, armed with spears, riding horses."

I should probably also clarify we are talking all generally "person-sized" animals here, not a three-inch-long mouse trying to communicate with a two-story-high dragon. The shapeshifters are limited in the extent that they can re-proportion their mass, and can only turn into physically possible animal species.

Edit: Some clarifications that came up in the comments.

For the purpose of this question, let's use humans as the baseline for the shapeshifters in their natural form, with all the assumptions inherent to them (possessing a developed verbal language, high intelligence, etc.) Any differences that suggest themselves as significant I will try to state and clarify as necessary.

The shapeshifters have some degree of adaptability, but have to start with an existing animal as a blueprint. basically they can't do anything not biologically practical. AKA you can start with a giant cat beast, then proceed to make the fur longer or change its color, change your build a bit, etc., but if it wouldn't be functional on the actual animal, it isn't going to work for you either, and may be prevented due to inbuilt shapeshifting failsafes. You probably can't add unbalanced tentacles to your giant cat, but you can likely make your tail longer.

There is an extent to which the shapeshifter's own inherent internal structure is required to be retained as well. For instance, the biological components (such as a shapeshifting-devoted internal organ, their brain, and their blood) related to the shape-shifting process can't be altered or eliminated. Nor can the shapeshifter's cells turn into anything not a natural organic part of their body. So, they can create hair (or fur), bone, skin, muscle, claws (or horns or tusks or scales) etc. etc. But they cannot turn a part of their body into metal, being non organic, or bark, since, despite being organic, it isn't made from the same sort of materials their natural body is (I think?). So while you might be able to shapeshift a bone exoskeleton or scales as natural armor when fighting, you couldn't turn your arm into a steel sword or your skin to iron.

  • $\begingroup$ Is their shapeshifting "all or nothing"? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Apr 20 '19 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ Are they constrained to existing species, or can do partial/mixed forms? Submitted to your consideration: Isaac Arthur on Alien senses - in particular consider electroreception and magnetoreception. See also Octopus 101 | Communication!. $\endgroup$ – Theraot Apr 20 '19 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ You might be interested in my question What sounds would be common for both forms for a human/wolf shapeshifter? $\endgroup$ – user Apr 20 '19 at 18:44
  • $\begingroup$ @aCVn thanks for the link. limited to wolves only, compared to what I'm looking for, but still an interesting and informative topic $\endgroup$ – MarielS Apr 20 '19 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ Please edit your question with clarifications. Never assume people will read through the comments before answering. Along with your clarification to @L.Dutch's question, please explain how these creatures communicate when in their native form and whether or not telepathy is permissible for an answer. Finally, note that "something basic" isn't basic at all. Useful communication requires a fair number of verbs and nouns (e.g., "spear"). How intelligent is this species? $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 20 '19 at 19:40


You could have them shape shift into what they are trying to communicate, in the example you used, a shape shifter would turn into: a person, the number two, a compass pointing north, a spear and a horse.

However, this seems too comical and does not feel like it is in the spirit of what you are asking. Instead, i propose a more serious answer:

Morse Code

Perhaps one of the easiest forms of communication, it is simply a series of short stimuli and long stimuli. This could take the form of anything, the flashing of a light, the noise from the tapping on glass, even tapping on someone’s shoulder so they can feel it. With morse code you can say literally anything in the English language (or any language really, assuming you have sequences that correspond to all of the letters in its alphabet).

One issue with Morse code though is it takes a long time to communicate a message, every sentence is made up of a number of words, each word is made up of several letters, each letter is made up of several short and long stimuli. In short, it takes a long time, you want sentences to be as short as possible to be communicated as fast as possible.

Abbreviated Morse Code

As Morse code takes a long time to communicate, you could instead have codes for words or phrases. You would need a list of common words that your shape shifters would communicate and attach codes to them. For example “... - - - ...” means SOS. In English, SOS is not a word, it is however an abbreviation of Save Our Souls, indicating someone is in danger and needs help.

In your case, you may have abbreviations such as SRD (sword), SPR (spear) MAN/MEN (person/people), HRS (horse) etc. If you then string several of these abbreviations together, you can communicate phrases quite quickly.

You may even have secret phrases communicated through abbreviations. For example, “XRT” may mean “Be alert, the king has left the castle, ready your archers” but there is no possible way you could have guessed that is what XRT meant, not in the same way you could guess SPR means Spear. Only those who were told what the code meant would understand it, preventing spies from intercepting it.

An image showing the sequences and their corresponding letters or numbers for international morse code https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morse_code

Here is a chart for International Morse Code so you can create your own abbreviations and know how to communicate them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Unrelated to your answer per se, but SOS is a prosign, not three distinct letters. Sent properly in Morse code, it's ...---... with no extra spacing (not ... --- ..., as if it were three letters), but with the "dashes" elongenated to be clearly distinguishable from the "dots". Writing it out as SOS is just convention; for example VTB would also come out to ...---... if sent as a prosign. $\endgroup$ – user Apr 20 '19 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ Thoughtful answer. You are right that a form of morse might be time consuming, but I think this is a good idea that might work well, especially if their version of morse was specifically developed with short abbreviations and team communication in mind. It also has the capacity to be pretty quiet if necessary, which could be handy for stealth. $\endgroup$ – MarielS Apr 20 '19 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I just see Morse code as something that would pull me out of the fantasy setting and just seems odd for shapeshifters to use. $\endgroup$ – JYelton Apr 21 '19 at 1:01
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    $\begingroup$ There's no reason it would have to be real-world Morse code; it could be a completely fabricated system that just so happens to work on the exact same principles. $\endgroup$ – Unrelated String Apr 21 '19 at 7:37

Ultrasonic clicks.

Albeit this is much more efficient in a liquid medium (so it's used by dolphins), an acceptable range might be achieved with an ultrasonic "clicking" organ and suitable ears (they needn't be too big).

This could also double as an active echo-location sonar, very useful for scouts.

Once the clicking mechanism is in place, you have a choice between a click-language or using clicks to code another language (this would be Morse code for example).

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    $\begingroup$ This could perhaps be combined with Liam Morris' answer for interesting results. $\endgroup$ – MarielS Apr 20 '19 at 19:16

Just out of curiosity I've googled 'the minimal number of sounds in a language' and arrived at the Wikipedia page for Rotokas.

The Central dialect of Rotokas possesses one of the world's smallest phoneme inventories. (Only the Pirahã language has been claimed to have fewer.) The alphabet consists of twelve letters, representing eleven phonemes. Rotokas has a vowel-length distinction (that is, all vowels have a short and long counterpart) but otherwise lacks distinctive suprasegmental features such as contrastive tone or stress.

It means, that eleven distinct phonemes is enough for a functional language. If your shapeshifters are humanoid with developed vocal apparatus in their base form, they can communicate normally in this form. So, they need only a secondary, limited, purely functional code-like language for their shifted forms. They do not need even that many phonemes for their 'hunting cant'. I think, for the purpose of communicating in the shapeshifted form, they would be able to make do with a language with 5-6 distinct phonemes that is possible to pronounce by all the animal forms. They need only a small dictionary to quickly coordinate in the field, after all, not a developed language to communicate abstract terms - I'm thinking about something similar to the 'battle languages' in Dune.

(Here is an interesting older answer on the topic of animal speech).

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  • $\begingroup$ Alternatively, there could be different sets of phonemes for different animals. Not too many sets, and they all have to be able to hear them all, but a shrill and deep set would work. $\endgroup$ – Mary Jun 15 at 22:19

Option 1

They can shapeshift their skin to mimic the one of some octopi. In that way the skin can act as a screen, where messages can be displayed and read up to a certain distance. This would enable silent communication, which for certain types of mission is or paramount importance.

Option 2

They can keep a human vocal system, so that they can still articulate speech while in another form.

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    $\begingroup$ Option 1 sounds interesting, displaying messages on yourself. Though if you had fur it might be harder! Option 2 I considered, but I'm not sure that the shape of, say, a wolf's head and mouth would allow some kinds of normal speech, even if a human voicebox, etc. was retained. After all, we make a lot of sounds by manipulating our tongue and lips, not just our vocal tract $\endgroup$ – MarielS Apr 20 '19 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ @MarielS A possible work around for that is to use a bird-like voice box, parrots can famously make noises that sound like human speech and they do not posses lips or a tongue like a human’s (even if the noise is not a perfect mimicry of a human’s voice). This may not work in your shape-shifting system though. $\endgroup$ – Liam Morris Apr 20 '19 at 19:59
  • $\begingroup$ @LiamMorris You're right, they can! Food for thought $\endgroup$ – MarielS Apr 20 '19 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ @MarielS - Also, you could make up a language that consists of squeaks of various relative loudnesses, pitches and durations. Basically a human modem. :D That would require just the right kind of vocal cords and nothing else, I think. $\endgroup$ – Vilx- Apr 21 '19 at 0:06

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