I'm making a species of sapient human sized creatures that look and act like insects in many ways (except the majority of their entrails, because scaling up arthropods is probably even harder to achieve than making a functional dragon, but that isn't really the point here). However, while I've given them certain traits that would normally be present in vertebrates but not in arthropods, I don't want to give them vocal cords or a syrinx, yet I wished for them to have a complex sound-based system of communication (they need to be able to interact with other, more human-esque species of sapient beings, the majority of which has a biology and language system much like humans and isn't exactly fluent in "pheromone" or "signaling dance", meaning not being able to emulate a more human-like speech would leave my bug species at the literal mercy of competent translators and/or other communication methods that aren't necessarily as widespread or as practical to use).

As for the alternative means of sound production, earth insects have a series of ways of producing sound, from the simpler adaptations to the legs and wings of crickets to specialized organs like the male cicada's clicking tymbal (which was one of the original inspirations for my concept), and so I planned for them to have specialized structures in their bodies dedicated to producing a number of different tones and sounds that could be structured into something extremely similar to human speech, but I'm not sure if such a complicated concept could actually hold water in this case, especially since, unlike cases like Grey parrots, cases of insects whose vocalizations can sound like human speech is not exactly something that has ever happened in nature, as far as I'm aware.

With that said, my question is the following: within the bounds of our natural world, could an insect-like creature develop structures which are capable of satisfyingly imitating the vocal abilities of a human (as seen in animals like parrots and some corvids) via special changes to their exoskeleton or the development of specialized organs which don't rely on the respiratory system (like seen in cicadas) or am I stuck with having to rely on a larynx or syrinx?

This question is more centered around whether it is possible to achieve such a complex process of sound production to begin with rather than the necessary pressures to originate it. The atmosphere and the planet are both earth like, so soundwaves should work almost exactly like what you'd see on earth.

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    $\begingroup$ Do they need to speak "like humans"? Or do they just need to have a complex language? Can their language consist of clicks and chirps? $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jun 16, 2021 at 0:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew the second paragraph is quite clear - they need to be able to duplicate human speech in order to speak with human(ish) sapients. $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2021 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ Again, what do you mean by "words"? There are human languages that prominently feature clicks. An "insect" might manage something like this, and this is certainly plausible. Conceivably, a human can learn to understand these, but they would sound very alien to, say, a European or an American. (Then there are drum languages...) $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jun 16, 2021 at 1:16
  • $\begingroup$ Short version: if they need to be able to speak "Terran" or "Galstandard West", you may have a problem. If they just need to speak an audible language, that's easy, especially if it doesn't even need to be their "original" language. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jun 16, 2021 at 1:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew traveling to another country when you can't quite speak their language can be a very tricky experience due to the language barrier. If you cannot learn how to speak said language in any way however, you're stuck with either relying on a translator 24/7 or hoping the people are willing to communicate with you via writing. This means that the insectoids would become highly dependent on human translators for most interpecies relations, and is the main reason I'd rather not embrace a language only they can speak. $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2021 at 2:00

3 Answers 3


It depends on what you need them to be able to do.

Do they need to be able to produce sounds that are intelligible to someone that knows only English? Well, that might be difficult.

If they just need to be able to produce something that a) can serve as a complex language, and b) that a human could conceivably learn to understand (but not necessarily speak back)... then absolutely!

To start with, we have the cop-out of having them speak in something like Morse Code (or some other drum language), which requires only the ability to make some repetitive noise. Even without conducive anatomy, your insect people might make do with tapping on a rock. And lest you deem this impractical, the record for Morse code comprehension is apparently 140 words/minute, which is competitive with more "normal" human speech.

But that's boring. If we give them the ability to modulate pitch, that's sufficient for them to speak a whistling language (may change the way you think about birdsong!). Again, humans can and do "speak" such languages.

If you combine the two, you can imagine something approaching a Khoisan language, which again falls squarely into the realm of human potential (at least as far as being able to understand, if not speak, the language, though here one might imagine).

If you're dealing with a first-contact situation, these languages are likely to sound very bizarre, but probably not so much that humans won't figure out fairly quickly that they are a language. Learning that language, on the other hand, may be quite the challenge. They're also going to be very "exotic", but that can be a great plus; embrace it!

The critical aspect is going to be giving your insect-people a frequency range that is compatible with human hearing, but this shouldn't be a serious issue.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm going to disagree with this answer. While the sounds that crickets and cicadas can make are simple and insufficient for a human-like speech, if these mechanisms are scaled up and become more sophisticated, it's not even unlikely that they'd be capable of imitating sounds we find impossible (music to a high degree of fidelity). Multiple simultaneous voices, a wider range of phonemes than we're are capable of, etc. are all plausible to me, or even extremely plausible. And, I should point out, given the volume that crickets can blast, this might be possible even if they remain insect-sized. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jun 18, 2021 at 21:27
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnO, I guess it comes down to whether you are arguing that they can basically act as biological "speakers". On the one hand, I can't comprehend how any animal can possibly manage the mental effort for such a feat. By comparison, the actions us humans do to shape our speech is quite simple. OTOH, some birds manage... but I would still wonder about their repertoire. Maybe you would get something that sounds like early speech synthesis, with distinct "recordings" of phonemes strung together in a rather broken, badly inflected manner. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jun 20, 2021 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ Ultimately, I think the question would be whether the fairly simple mechanisms insects use to produce sound can be made "more sophisticated" to the extent of synthesizing more complex sounds. Note that the question is not entirely unlike "could a musical orchestra produce intelligible speech". I would give those similar plausibility. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jun 20, 2021 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ All we need is a chamber with a mouth through which to vocalize, and it is immediately human-equivalent. Unless you're proposing that such a thing could never evolve in an insect, I don't see what the big deal is. If humans didn't already do this, we might wonder whether that was mechanically possible, but since we are human and do it, we already know that it's possible. My understanding is that the size of these mechanisms wouldn't prevent what is asked, which might be the biggest objection. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Jun 21, 2021 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnO, the OP is specifically looking for something that does not involve a larynx or syrinx. You're also asking for an insect-like species to develop such an organ (which, again, the OP has stipulated is not associated with a respiratory system) spontaneously, for the sole purpose of communicating with other species. Unless you're willing to throw deliberate engineering at the problem, that seems unlikely. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jun 21, 2021 at 13:38

Amazingly, it is possible.

But you need really smart bugs.

Background: a long time ago in a galaxy far away, the only sound a PC could produce was a buzz, i.e. a square-wave that could only be controlled relative to its frequency. Imagine having a long leg with spiny bristles and sawing it against a chitinous carapace - you can control the leg speed, but nothing else. Fast movement, high pitch. Slow movement, low pitch.

Then someone discovered a way of getting more complex sounds out of a very simple sound mechanism. After a while, human voices - well, very distorted human voices - were being generated by a two-level square-wave generator. There was a utility (SPEECH) by an Andy McGuire that was able to produce acceptable phonemic speech synthesis on a 4.77 MHz 8088.

In principle, nothing prevents your bugs from doing exactly the same.

  • $\begingroup$ How much actual research have you done into this method? If I understand it correctly, the biological equivalent would be having a membrane with two states, "in" and "out", and being able to switch between those states with precise timing with a temporal resolution measured in fractions of a millisecond. Is this plausible? Well, birds seem to manage. OTOH, you've effectively given them a bird's sound-producing apparatus, perhaps externally, which seems to be not what the OP wanted? $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jun 21, 2021 at 13:19

Frame Challenge

Your stated objective is for them to be able to communicate readily with other sophonts. So, you have a species that has the mental capacity for intelligent conversation but lacks the physical ability to form speech.

I wonder if any humans have been in this situation.

Your desire for them to be able to "naturally" speak something that resembles European human speech suggests they are capable of understanding the language, which means they need no assistance to listen to someone else speaking. This means our translation process only needs to be one-way, and that they are able to verify the accuracy of any translation.

All a translation device needs, then, is a mechanism for efficient input. Even today, we're nearly at the point of being able to manage real-time translation between spoken languages, so imagining this in a future with multi-species sophonts interacting (which I assume implies interstellar travel) is hardly a stretch. This is especially true if your insect-people have a special language used to "speak" to a translating device that is easier for software to parse accurately. Or if they just use some less ambiguous means of input, like typing. (Keep in mind that "but it's hard to learn!" arguments don't really make sense; they have to learn to speak this language somehow, anyway.)

Yes, they still need a device, but when is an interstellar tourist not going to have access to basic technology? (If you're doing a "shipwrecked" story, there's going to be incentive for the rest of your cast to learn the insect-person language.) They don't need to rely on another sophont, and they can monitor the accuracy of translation themselves. Besides, a malfunctioning translator is a ready-made hook for adding drama to a story.

I read a story once — don't recall the author or title, but almost certain it was published by Baen, probably in one of the free stories collections — about a species that communicated by spitting out colored balls. The translators "learn" from, or were adjusted to, their user. One of the characters' translators breaks and he has to use someone else's, which renders everything in an overly belligerent tone. (Disclaimer: I may have some of these details wrong...)

  • $\begingroup$ I would point out that the setting I'm working on is closer to a more classic fantasy medieval setting. But honestly the only difference between a world with magic machines and one with sci-fi technology is that the former doesn't try to come up with technobabble instead of just admitting that it all works on magic. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2021 at 21:59
  • $\begingroup$ @ProjectApex, ah, that would be an important distinction. Are we also dealing with races that have known about each other for a long time? The usual way of handling this I see in fiction is to use a pidgin that is understandable by all races that need to communicate with each other. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jun 22, 2021 at 12:35
  • $\begingroup$ Well in the lore I created, they would've appeared recently (500 years ago max), and would've entered in contact with other humanoids soon after. The reason I want them to be able to speak properly is so a character from this race didn't suffer from "kenku syndrome" (people usually can't understand what they're saying) and that was able to "catch up" on an already developed world with a common language made without their participation. Was it not for this problematic need I would have already accepted your first answer (even through they do have a language that can't be really translated). $\endgroup$ Jun 22, 2021 at 13:15
  • $\begingroup$ @ProjectApex, that's probably plenty of time for a pidgin to develop, if there's a reason for it to become widespread. (It is absolutely not enough time for them to develop a biological ability that didn't already exist.) Another (low-tech) option, if literacy is wide-spread, would be for them to carry a wax tablet and communicate by writing, although this isn't very efficient compared to speech. Alternatively, you could "cheat" and have the other races already using a language (whistling and/or rhythmic) that your insect-people can reproduce. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Jun 22, 2021 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ I see. Thanks a lot for the advice. I will still wait a while for other potential answers however, simply because now I'm very interested in knowing if such structures could actually develop in an organism like mine. It would help the story in a way or another and give them some extra "flavour" (after all, cicadas evolved to essentially function as living instruments, so who knows?). $\endgroup$ Jun 22, 2021 at 13:32

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