For the purposes of this post, "word" is defined as a unit of language such that
- Has some meaning on its own, often relating to the real world.
- Complex utterances can be formed simply by transmitting multiple words.
- There are few enough words for a speaker of the language to know most of them (i.e. less than about a million for humans).
All reasonably bandwidth-efficient, general-purpose forms of communication, real or imagined, seem to have words in this general sense.
- Human spoken and written languages, including unique ones like Pirahã.
- Human sign languages usually have distinct signs that are basically words.
- As far as I know, all constructed languages like Esperanto, Lojban, Ithkuil, Toki Pona, etc.
- Fictional languages like Klingon, Quenya, Dothraki.
- Even the circular language from Arrival has words in the general sense (sentences can be split up into symbols with individual meanings).
- In Max Harms' Crystal Society, there are AI and alien characters that think differently from humans. However, the AIs communicate through concept-representations that are basically words, and the aliens' language uses ~1000 symbols that can be translated into words.
- Programming languages have variables, keywords, commands, etc., the last two of which have intrinsic meanings. When we create a language made entirely of syntax and variables, it is always by assigning meaning to certain concepts e.g.
λfx.xfor the number 0.
However, if we relax the requirement that the form of communication is efficient and general-purpose, I can think of several examples of wordless "languages" whose sentences cannot be easily split up into symbols of any kind.
- Photos and videos are a general-purpose form of communication, but even compressed photos and videos have huge bandwidth requirements, and are thus inefficient.
- Bees have dance communication where the direction, distance and quality of food are communicated simultaneously, not serially. But this is not general-purpose communication.
- Human body language for indicating emotions. But as far as I know, human body language used for general-purpose communication basically becomes sign language.
The idea is to create a version of the "starfish" alien language trope in an advanced alien civilization where the language is actually plausible. Most existing examples just have an exotic medium (body language, music, telepathy), or just handwave the unintelligibility. A strange inherent structure for a well-developed language would be far more interesting, and open up narrative possibilities like a Universal Translator being unable to translate anything an alien says until they are finished talking. So, how would a language whose thoughts cannot be broken down into words work, and how would it feel to be an alien communicating in this manner? If you think it's impossible, why?