A species I have been working on (and have asked a few questions about in the past) lives in a mostly oceanic planet and communicates with large, colourful dorsal sails. I was considering designing them to function similar to the skin of cephalopods, with fast, flashy colours and patterns (although much more vibrant). An intelligent species would probably want to develop a written language. I considered pictures and already have a good idea of how it could work but I’m curious about alternatives. Something more unique and challenging to design (as a human). I feel like writing would be important to this species as they have very limited verbal capabilities so a long-distance visual communication would be important. And colours would be hard to write early on, aswell as being difficult to record on a small physical space, if they communicate with hundreds of flashing colours.

I will gladly clarify any details that are needed to help answer this question, including a basic drawing of said creature if that helps answering this question.

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    $\begingroup$ Human writing does not consist of sounds, nor does it consist of sound recordings. Why would writing a language consisting of color patterns be more difficult to write down than a language consisting of sound patterns? (Think of the vowel represented in English spelling by ee: what is the link between the written symbols ee and the acoustic structure of the spoken vowel?) What exactly is it that you find hard to untangle? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 16, 2019 at 6:34
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP I did phrase my question very weirdly. I’m not finding it hard to understand, I’m just looking for something else. One of my first ideas was something very similar to Japanese Kanji. But I’m looking for something that can be more representative of what they see when communicating with eachother. That probably didn’t make anything any clearer which I’m sorry for. It’s very late so I will try to fix some wording once I refresh my mind a little. $\endgroup$ Oct 16, 2019 at 7:14
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    $\begingroup$ Japanese is written with a combination of syllabic symbols (= Kana) and logographic symbols (= Kanji). English is also written with a combination of alphabetic symbols (= letters) and logographic symbols (= digits, +, &, %, °, etc.) Both English and Japanese could be written only with the "phonetic" symbols (Kana or letters), but for practical or historical reasons both retain the use of additional logographic symbols. The difference between English and Japanese writing is not of essence, but simply of degree (English uses about two dozen logographic symbols, Japanese uses a few hundred). $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 16, 2019 at 8:15
  • $\begingroup$ SentiCarter - I love the idea of communicating by visual cues rather than sound. However, I'm having difficulties understanding why the same methods humans applied to writing down a spoken language doesn't apply for a visual language. Just as for real life languages and their script, it can be something like hieroglyphs (draw a small fish-like symbol to convey "fish"), abstract symbols for words (draw say, a cross to convey "fish"), or abstract symbols for the visual elements composing the word (e.g. draw symbols standing for "dark lines" + "blue" + "pattern cycling upwards" to convey "fish"). $\endgroup$
    – G0BLiN
    Oct 16, 2019 at 10:11
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    $\begingroup$ Somebody has to mention the obvious example of logograms from Arrival $\endgroup$ Oct 16, 2019 at 12:47

1 Answer 1


A picture is worth a thousand words...

...and a species that begins by communicating with pictures would likely never stop.

Humans developed writing to imitate the sounds we use to communicate. When we talk, we talk in sequence, placing one simple concept after another. We do this because, lacking chromatophores, we are physically incapable of producing a representation of a complex situation all at once.

These cephalopoids are not so limited. If they are capable of displaying complex images on their skin, they would likely use these to display a clear representation of whatever it was they were talking about. Why make words for "a shark is chasing me" when you can just flash a picture of a shark chasing you on your body? While they would likely develop symbols for more abstract concepts as their society developed, the boundary between a word and the thing it represents would be much less distinctive than they are (by necessity) for humans.

Because of this, they would likely never move on to anything that resembled "writing" in the way we think of it, instead moving directly from crude cave paintings to more sophisticated images. These could be vast murals depicting a story, or smaller, more symbolic pictures, but unlike human writing these images would not be "sequential", rather one could view them all at once.

This will likely affect the way the creatures think. Humans think in sequence because we communicate in sequence. Cephalopoids, being visual communicators, would probably have a more "holistic" way of thinking, their minds encompassing the entirety of a concept at once. It would be very interesting to see how their species might interact with humans or human-like sapients.

As for colors, it bears mentioning that the lack of access to colors in early society is a quirk of the world humans inhabit. Most familiar animals and land plants don't produce pigments in large quantities, apart from dark, light, and red. But the world beneath the ocean is very different; many animals are brightly colored and produce numerous variants of pigments. While this might not be the case on another planet, cephalopods on Earth mainly evolved the ability to change color in order to camouflage themselves against the species in their environment. Therefore, it is likely that any color these creatures are capable of displaying is a color that they can find in their environment, and can probably make paint out of it (though figuring out how to get the paint to stick to things underwater would be a problem of its own).

  • $\begingroup$ See how grammar for many sign languages is parallelised. I was confused for a while by why people needed BSL translations of written documents until I twigged that sign language uses shape of two hands, position of two hands and facial expression to express meaning, and the grammar of the language when written reflects that. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Oct 16, 2019 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ The color pigments are actually not needed to record the color images, you can always create abstract monochrome patterns to fill the shapes, e.g. red is striped, blue is dotted, etc. Also, it's unlikely that ocean creatures would have a script written on a plane, like paper or a rock, or a metal plate, since the ocean creatures live in a real 3D space of water, not just on the surface of the planet, like we. $\endgroup$
    – Yellow Sky
    Oct 19, 2019 at 12:41

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