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In my world, officials dealing with sensitive information have their tongues amputated.

Naturally writing and a special, government-only sign-language are the main forms of communication, but creating complex audio signals may also be very practical.

What sounds may they use to communicate?

The dependence on instruments is not permitted; it would help to have sounds described in IPA where applicable.

Edit: Writing and signing (the signing in my world being very precise and nuanced) require fine-motor skills which work very well in daily life but are impaired by intoxication or injury, preventing the well-known "get him drunk and see what he leaks" and physical torture. This serves as a means of preventing accidental leakage of information. Additionally, only highly-trained and trustworthy individuals 'sacrifice' themselves to the procedure of having their tongue removed.

The 'spoken' language would be even further limited and constructed to prevent easy decoding, with only simple and emergency signals being taught to all tongueless personnel.

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    $\begingroup$ So... They have their tongues amputated because they're dealing with sensitive material, but they're allowed to use sign language and writing still. And they can still make some sounds with meaning (probably through a pitch-based vocabulary)... Doesn't that sound like the very definition of a bureaucratic epic fail? Admittedly this time the officials have done it to themselves but this goes against everything the Confidentiality, Integrity, Availability (CIA) model of information security stands for and really doesn't limit the transfer of sensitive information at all. $\endgroup$ – Tim B II May 7 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ @TimBII If done badly, absolutely! It would make for an interesting contrast to have a different organisation make a bad job of it. I have, however, elaborated my question to make the purpose of the language a little clearer. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye May 7 at 9:39
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    $\begingroup$ @ALambentEye Your edited question leads me to think: they are special agents that cannot speak and are too stoned to sign and write. So, what do they do during working hours? Dance their names? (I know it's not strictly neccessary for your question to know this, but the whole thing seems kind of absurd...) $\endgroup$ – Elmy May 7 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Elmy They aren't usually under the influence of drugs, I've clarified a little more. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye May 7 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ @ALambentEye Ah, now it makes a whole lot more sense. $\endgroup$ – Elmy May 7 at 10:53
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With substantial training and practice, a tongueless person can learn to speak again. Intelligibly. Your characters may choose not to do that though.

Also, I frame challenge your assertion that people who are drunk/high enough to have fine motor ability impaired can not use sign language. If you're so impaired that you can't sign at all, then you're unconscious (or close to it).

Remember, signers can slur their words just like speakers do. In fact, speaking requires more fine motor control than signing does. This is why bilingual children learning both a signed and a spoken language will learn the signed one first. And why children with motor impairments are often taught basic sign language.

But to answer your question directly, there are various sounds that one can produce without a tongue.

For consonants, there are 3 basic parameters for every sound:

  1. Voiced vs unvoiced
  2. Placement
  3. Movement

Voiced vs unvoiced refers to the involvement of the vocal cords. Put your hand lightly on the front of your throat. Make a long "s" sound. Now make a long "z" sound. Feel the difference? The "z" is voiced; you will feel the throat buzz as the vocal cords engage.

Removing the tongue will not affect voicing.

Placement means where the sound is being made. No tongue greatly restricts the possibility of most consonants because they are made by the tongue (the tip, the middle, the back) in contact with various parts of the mouth.

But several are made without the tongue.

  • Labial sounds like "b" and "p" (the first is voiced, the second unvoiced)
  • Labial-dental sounds like "v" and "f"
  • Some glottal sounds like a glottal stop

Movement is another characteristic of consonants.

  • Stops are quick sounds like "b" and "t"
  • Fricatives are prolonged sounds like "z" and "sh"
  • Liquids are semi-prolonged but where the contact is pretty minimal, like "l"
  • Clicks are faster and harder than stops. They are not present in English, though all English-speakers can produce them (super simple versions) as they are used for other forms of communication and play. Again, placement is paramount. Labial clicks won't be impaired.

While the tongue is involved in most of those movements, it really depends on placement. They can also be made with the lips, the lips in conjunction with the teeth, and with the throat.

Vowels are more complex. They all involve the shape and placement of the tongue during voicing. They're prolonged and don't have substantial contact with other parts of the mouth (beyond just fitting in the mouth).

Even without a tongue though, the mouth can change shape. This can approximate many vowel sounds. Enough for basic communication.

Ditto for some of the consonant sounds.


To sum up...and to offer a massive frame challenge.

While your question about the sounds produced without a tongue is straightforward and reasonable, your premise is full of holes. A lot of "sensitive information" is vulnerable to someone who can't do anything but nod "yes" or "no." Drugging someone with "truth serum" or whatever won't stop them from signing or writing. Slurred signing or writing will still give away secrets. And removing the tongue doesn't stop people from speaking to some degree. It would be enough to compromise security in many cases.

While it's true that removing tongues is used in some fiction as a security measure (the Song of Ice and Fire series has a few cases; though these are people who don't know sign language (one is never mentioned as part of the society) and who are illiterate). Even so, they could give a lot away if motivated to. They don't because they're afraid of losing more body parts or their lives.

It's just not as effective as you think it is. You can't take someone fluent in one or more human language, remove their tongue so they don't involuntarily spill secrets during interrogation, teach them a coded spoken language, then expect that only the coded version will come forward if they're too drugged to control what they say. Honestly, I can't even imagine this.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting! Of course the whole thing would be for naught if the people willingly provide the information, the procedure is more strongly intended to deter people trying to extract information and add a layer of difficulty. I hadn't thought as far as your last paragraph, but I would probably have it forbidden (legally or culturally) to continue trying to speak their original language, or make it not worth the effort. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye May 7 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @ALambentEye This could work if you got your workers as infants and only taught them the coded language (after one generation, the workers who weren't suited to the high level work would become the child caretakers). But that's pretty extreme. And still has failure points. (And you wouldn't need to remove their tongues.) Remember though, if someone is chemically impaired to the point that all their training fails them in giving away secrets, they won't "remember" that they are forbidden from using their native language. $\endgroup$ – Cyn May 7 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ The idea would be that they wouldn't be able to learn the 'important phonemes' of their original language and through that would be unable to speak it, since all their knowledge/experience of speaking that language would be with a tongue. As the madam in the article you linked states, she found re-learning to speak a slow process. If there is no possibility to do this re-learning, I would (perhaps short-sightedly) conclude that the problem would be solved. I suppose I can do very little with the writing and signing, apart from making it extremely delicate. $\endgroup$ – A Lambent Eye May 7 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ Also epiglottal consonant. $\endgroup$ – Akangka May 27 at 8:54
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In Hindi language (India), the alphabets are arranged in order of the way they are pronounced using a combination of tongue, teeths, lips, mouth roof and nose.

Refer this link for pronunciation details.

As per the details present in this link, the sounds described as "Guttrals" and "Labial" are the sounds that one can make without a tongue.

They are:

  1. a, aa
  2. u, uu
  3. ka, kha, ga, gha, ṅa
  4. pa, pha, ba, bha, ma

The third row is tricky (ka to ṅa) as to make this sound the root of the tongue comes in contact with the soft palate and obstructs the air flow.

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  • $\begingroup$ /u/ is a close / high vowel; without moving the tongue from the position of /a/ one can make only something like /ɒ/ (that is, a rounded /a/). $\endgroup$ – AlexP May 7 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ @V.Aggarwal No, you can't pronounce ka kha ga gha ṅa without tongue. $\endgroup$ – Akangka May 27 at 8:45
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP. You probably can't pronounce /u/. But you can pronounce syllabic [βʷ], which sounds similar enough. You will have much harder time pronouncing /o/, which sounds more like [ɵ] than [o]. Epiglottalization helps. $\endgroup$ – Akangka May 27 at 8:55

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