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I'm imagining a hypothetical lone organism on a planet. Something like Avatar, the movie's Eywa. I am envisioning it as a massive organism covering the entire surface of the planet but biologically one single coherent entity. It was always the only living thing on the planet. Language, to what I understand is a means of communication, be it chemical signaling between two rather un-intelligent bacteria, sign language communication between chimpanzees or advanced vocalization in case of humans - there are always multiple entities involved. This raises few questions, what would the alien's intellect, whatever it would mean for it be like ? From what I have searched from the internet, having a language is not a compulsion for having rational thought, so if presence of other entities is a roadblock in having the urge to 'communicate' and thus develop a language, then communication can be entirely circumvented because there is only one organism here, so there could be rational thought. But even that would be a dubious scenario, would this 'internal language' be like human internal monologue ? There will also be important considerations involved here, being a lone entity will there be a concept of linguistic/ psychological 'I' and 'You' ? Will there be a concept of 'motive' ? What I'm asking it here and not elsewhere is because I'm more interested in investigating the evolution of linguistic artifacts in such a setting rather than psychological ones.

Edit - What I mean by 'language' is any intermediate abstraction regime held inside an organism used to describe and 'make sense of' what the senses give as input tangibly.

The 'multiple' questions asked in the post are just to convey my line of thought. There is just one question - Is such an 'intermediate abstraction' somehow achievable in a lone entity ?

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    $\begingroup$ This kind of speculative question with no definite answer is off-topic here. Maybe Worldbuilding is a better stack exchange for this question. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ conlang.stackexchange.com might also be a more suitable location $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 12:37
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    $\begingroup$ This is a single question @sphennings .. could a single intelligent organism in complete isolation from any others develop a language of its own is the question, that is what, is being asked, just one question but it's a highly speculative one that can't really be answered with any degree of authority, though a yes answer seems very unlikely to me. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings the OP is just trying to elaborate on the background of his thinking that led to the question in the body text to give it context, the question is clearly the headline. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ There are many aspects involving speculative-philosophy here too. We only have examples of organisms developing language when not in-isolation. In evolutionary terms - if there's no pressure to evolve to survive a particular pressure - no problem that language solves to facilitate survival/natural selection processes, then no reason for it to evolve. We can't preclude the possibility that the patterning for it occurs as a result of somewhat more random processes - but no-one can give you an answer for definite. If you want it in your story, just write it like that and don't worry :) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 19:16

8 Answers 8

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For spoken language, short answer no, but...

The entire point of language, especially spoken language, is to exchange information between two individuals. Your single entity has no other individuals to exchange with, so a "spoken" language isn't going to provide any benefit.

However, the information exchange need not be between two individuals, but it can be the same individual, but in different times. So, as others have pointed out, a written language could very well evolve. The problem is that the entity must remember what symbols correspond to what concepts. This means you have a sort of "chicken and the egg" situation, in which the entity must learn a symbol, but the symbol hasn't been created. To our best understanding, intelligences learn through repetition.

If I show you an apple once and call it "ringo," you'll probably remember that for a day or two, but years? For you learning the language, you're fine though, because you have resources to fall back on. You can ask me to tell you what "ringo" means, or you can look it up in a dictionary and cross-reference with a symbol known to you: "apple."

Now convert that to your entity. It decides the symbol "林" refers to the large woody plants that grow around it. That's all fine and good, but it has to then remember that symbol for all time. Unless it's constantly using that symbol, it will forget it.

"Use it or lose it" is going to be the problem here. With language, you're constantly using it because you constantly have to communicate with others, as humans are a social species. Your single entity has no need to communicate, so how is it going to maintain its created language? Sure, it could journal, but in order to journal it has to create the language, but to create the language, it has to journal.

You might say "well it could look at the 林 every day since the 林 are all around it," and sure, that might work for physical nouns, but what about abstract concepts and verbs? For example, how does it represent the concept of "growth?" For that matter, how does it even represent the abstract concepts of "noun," "verb," and "object?" These are the fundamental concepts of language, "meta-language" (i.e. language about language), and they're very difficult to develop in solitude. Your creature might attempt to assign the symbol "生" to the concept of "growing," thus creating a rudimentary sentence: "林生," but how would it be able to remember long term that "林生" means "the tree is growing?" Sure, it could easily associate "林" with the trees, but how does it continue to remember "生" means grow? If your entity forgets that crucial piece of info, how does it recover it? You might say "well you could put together a basic Rosary Stone, say draw out pictures," but how do you represent that concept in a drawing? Things like equals signs are symbols of abstract concepts that have been established over thousands of years of informational and cultural evolution. How does your creature create such a thing? More than likely any attempts to create a language by your creature will be forgotten as there is no one to practice with.

We find this today in isolated humans. Many of them forget how to talk, because they have no need to (there's no one to communicate with). There are also humans who don't have an internal monologue, which begs the question of what would happen to a person with no internal monologue who is isolated? This question is directly applicable to your entity. What we've found through various unfortunate events and nefarious experiments is that humans who are raised without language exposure lose the ability to ever acquire it beyond a certain age, and humans are hard-wired to create and understand language in the first place due to millions of years of evolutionary pressure. What pressures would force your entity to have a similar brain? Human children raised in isolation but together will develop their own rudimentary language, but they promptly forget it once they're exposed to "real" human language. However, human children raised in isolation without language exposure will suffer extreme intellectual deficits (and human infants raised completely in isolation with no human touch and play will actually die). This extreme requirement for social interaction itself is what breeds the extreme requirement for language (that also enables things like advanced intelligence and culture).

So developing a language from scratch, in isolation, is extremely difficult, but written language is even moreso. Keep in mind for the vast majority of human history, written language didn't exist. We've only had it for maybe 5 to 10,000 years of our nearly 1 million years on the planet. It took a very developed concept of spoken language, and the development of civilization, before the first words were ever written down (and in fact, in many parts of the New World, written language was never developed at all until exposure to it from outside cultures). Even then, in its earliest incarnations, only the intellectual and social elite could read and write.

So ultimately, we find that to develop written language, you need an even larger social group than you need for spoken language.

All of this bodes poorly for your isolated creature. In the end, it also makes a case that to evolve to human-levels of sentience, you need language. This makes sense, as language is the fundamental requirement for cultural evolution (i.e. the ability to pass ideas between different generations).

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  • $\begingroup$ "Human children raised in isolation but together will develop their own rudimentary language" have heard it put forth as a theory and seen suggestions such an experiment (particularly in isolated multiples to help identify common results) might prove useful in understanding language development and what (if any) of it might potentially be instinctive in our linguistic arsenal .. but never seen any experimental evidence (accidental or planned) for it? .. if you have I would be more than grateful for a pointer towards it 🙂 $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore circumstantial / partial evidence for stix's assertion is available here: psychology.stackexchange.com/questions/18714/… $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Fhnuzoag "yellow mushrooms make me sick" is itself a symbol for the abstraction it represents. The OP post is about creating that symbol, not the abstraction itself. You can remember and think "yellow mushrooms make me sick" without assigning that symbol to it. I assume that is what people without an internal monologue do. $\endgroup$
    – stix
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ @SarahMesser "a sign language that was largely spontaneously developed by deaf children in a number of schools in western Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s." the references to sign languages developed in isolation are interesting, I'll have to chase those references up some time, thanks 👍 those are probably as close to an actual experiment as we will ever have for that, unlikely to occur again as deaf children are unlikely to be raised in isolated groups by non signing carers nowadays $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore The spontaneous development of "twin talk" where twins communicate with each other using entirely different vocabulary from those around them, while not exactly the same thing, is likely also a significant piece of evidence for what would likely happen with children in isolation. We humans have a big chunk of our brain dedicated to language processing, it will almost certainly find something to do with itself. $\endgroup$
    – Perkins
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 2:01
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Of course, to communicate with its body parts

Consider our own body, which uses several different mechanisms to communicate with its different parts - from electrochemical signalling via nerves to hormones. Of course one might argue whether this is actually a language, but it is certainly communication that is at least as complex as your example of "chemical signaling between two rather un-intelligent bacteria".

Your organism is much more massive, so its means of internal communications are likely to be even more diverse and complex, unless it is mostly an undifferentiated blob. Whats more, the distances involved in a planet-spanning organism induce prohibitive signal transmission delays for direct central control, requiring a great degree of local autonomy for its body parts. This may then lead to communication systems that become even more sophisticated, allowing the transfer of abstract concepts and ideas. I imagine such an organism as a massively decentralized being with specialized workers and a high degree of local autonomous decision making.

To an outsider, it might even look like a collective of individual creatures, which communicate with each other, like a planet-spanning hive of ants.

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  • $\begingroup$ This one. Also one step ahead with the same thought is that our own planet is a single organism, some parts of it though (read us humans) have somehow confused themselves that they were independent creatures. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 7:09
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Addressing just this part of things:

But even that would be a dubious scenario, would this 'internal language' be like human internal monologue?

Given that somewhere between 30% and 70% of humans do not have an internal monologue, there's no reason to believe that one would be "normal" for alien intelligences, particularly not for ones who didn't have other reasons to develop spoken language.

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Yes, for text.

Even a lone being has an use for written records, since such records can be much more reliable and extensive than memory.

So there's a reason for the entity to e.g. record observations, map the local area, record logistics. And over time that would develop into a system of shorthands and symbolic representations that would become a language.

Edit: the other thing to add is languages having a ritual purpose. The earliest examples of Chinese characters are in the forms of pictograms used for divination.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oracle_bone_script

This is something a lone entity could well come up with on their own.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, this seems interesting $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ @AdityaPrakash not really, without the spur of needing to communicate meaning and ideas to others language of any type (written, spoken, whistled, drummed on your stomach or what have you) seems unlikely to develop, the written word as it developed for us is simply an extension of that, a way to communicate meaning to others who aren't there when you make the communication, no one else to communicate with means no need for written words either, no one you need to communicate with to produce a need to invent language still applies, its an issue and a problem this answer doesn't answer. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 18:54
  • $\begingroup$ Why would a lone entity need to develop any of those things? It's far more likely to only ever develop instinctive reactions to its surroundings. The only iconography it might ever develop would be artistic, conveying emotion but not facts. The only reason I think the word "banana" when I want one is because I've spent 50+ years using language and it has supplanted the visual associations of color, smell, and shape in my mind. If a creature never had to develop the word "banana" (having no one else to say it to), it would only ever think of the color, shape, and smell of the banana. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 8:10
  • $\begingroup$ As someone under the age of 50, I also think the word "banana" when I want one. Indeed, as someone who has migrated, I can attest that creating symbolic shorthands has usefulness entirely disjoint to communication, since I maintain personal nomenclature distinct to those I use with people I communicate with. $\endgroup$
    – Fhnuzoag
    Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 10:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore So our written communication developed as a way to communicate with others. But that's not necessarily the only path. The major hurdle for a single entity is going to be it noticing that it doesn't remember everything in the first place. The one thing I can think of that might be a starting point would be finding its way home and the idea of trail markers. Which could develop into trail labels. What would spur the entity to pursue ever more complex thought though, and provide a need for more complex markers and labels to retrace a mental path, is rather a difficult question. $\endgroup$
    – Perkins
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 16:12
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I'm going to answer the core of this question:

From what I have searched from the internet, having a language is not a compulsion for having rational thought, so if presence of other entities is a roadblock, in having the urge to 'communicate' and thus develop a language, then communication can be entirely circumvented because there is only one organism here, still there could be rational thought. But even that would be a dubious scenario, would this 'internal language' be like human internal monologue ?

It makes sense for humans to have developed minds that think in terms of language, because communication is so vital to us as social creatures. Babies are born knowing how to cry and laugh, since communicating their emotional state is important to their survival as they cannot care for themselves. Language is something that grew out of this need to communicate, so it makes sense that language is how humans structure their thoughts. It streamlines the process of communication which is so important to our survival.

So a creature with absolutely no need to communicate would never develop any kind of language, especially not an "internal" one. For what reason would it do this? It has no need to streamline its thoughts into communicable form. That is ultimately the "purpose" of an internal monologue. The "structure" it provides to thoughts is advantageous if you need to communicate those thoughts to another person. You can do it very easily and quickly if those thoughts have already been organized into language.

On the other hand, a monologue is not really a good way to think about images, or smells, or other sense-based information. You can use language to evoke memories of these things in people, but those memories aren't stored as a monologue. If I tell you to think of what a person looks like, you remember their face, maybe their clothes, not a verbal description of them. If I tell you the words "new car smell" you recall the scent, not a description of it. If I tell you the name of a catchy song, you recall the melody, a series of pitched sounds, not words or sentences. We humans use language to help us recall what is stored in our memory, but the actual memories are divorced from language.

The last possible use case for language, then, is a method of storing and recalling information. But this was mainly done to solve the generational problem. Human beings are discrete carriers of knowledge, meaning that any knowledge a human has is lost when they die. The only way to preserve the knowledge that was within a person was to transfer it to something external. Or someone, as was the case in early humanity: teaching. From teaching humans derived the concept of oral traditions for history and other learning, whereby all the collective wisdom of a culture could be passed down to future generations in the form of memorized spoken words.

Writing, then, is just an extension of this function of language. Rather than transferring knowledge to another person, it is transferred into written words onto a physical medium, which can then be easily shared with other people, transported long distances to convey information without it changing, and make it easily copied to spread the exact same information to as many people as possible. All these uses, though, are because there are other people, because writing is fundamentally about communication, even as a store of knowledge.

Even should a solitary being have a need to store knowledge outside of itself, for some reason, there's no reason to suppose it would develop anything like writing, which was an extension of language used as a store of knowledge for being that were already using it to communicate. No communication, no language, no writing.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think you are thinking in terms of phonemic language. But this isn't true for logographic language - these do not have to arise out of an existing spoken language. Rather they can come out of pictoral representations of things that become simplified and formalised over time. $\endgroup$
    – Fhnuzoag
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 19:39
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Yes. There are plausible "theories of mind" that posit a "language of thought". This is intrinsic in the human brain (to a lesser or greater extent), and people use it for advanced cognition before they learn spoken language (or in some cases if they never learn those). There is evidence that corroborates these theories.

Our thoughts are internal to our own neurology, but there is no reason that thoughts need be transmitted only via electrical impulses in nerve tissue. With a novel biology, it might even be audible thought within the human range of hearing. To such an alien, this "internal language" might still seem internal... but then, so would you think that about your thoughts despite the presence of some sort of invasive brain probe meant to eavesdrop.

Such an alien would be unlikely to develop the so-called "internal monologue" which is a faculty that humans evolved to be able to rehearse interactions with other humans and later adapted to be a narrative (after we developed story-telling, people started imagining themselves the hero of their own story). Many people have difficulty realizing that their internal monologue isn't even the greater part of their thoughts (or, god help us, maybe in some cases it is). It is speculated that crows have a similar mental faculty that they use to help them cheat, steal from, and hide from other crows. But a singular world-spanning organism would be unlikely to develop such.

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There are numerous obstacles such an entity would have to leap in order to do this. The first is a sense of "self." This is necessary to divide the world into "self" and "not-self." If there is no not-self, then there is no concept of communication, much less language.

The next step would be the ability to convert concepts into symbols. You might think that this is only necessary if it's a written language, but words are just spoken symbols. There's a part of our brain that does this and, without that one tiny nodule, we can't speak.

For this to develop, the entity has to produce and consume abstractions. It isn't something that comes into existence fully formed.

Your entity might actually come up with an external storage mechanism so it can record things that it might otherwise forget. If it develops a curiosity, it might also use this to record discoveries. In this case, the "self vs other" problem is solved because the other is its future self.

So, yes, there is a mechanism for this to happen, in the form of iconography, but it would only develop into acoustic translations if you could find a way that sound transferred faster than this thing's speed of thought. The examples of non-humans generating this kind of thing has never developed into a language, just into signaling, which is much more limited.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is always "not self" even if there is no other life .. that rock is not self, that water is not self, that sand is not self, the sun is not self, as are all the stars .. so the concept of not self failing to develop is not a problem I would have identified for this. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore, that's your human brain thinking. A significant portion of our brain is dedicated to generating a theory of mind for those others. It's hungry for those others, and will make them up when they aren't there. This is called anthropomorphism. You thinking that a solitary alien would develop theories of mind without other minds to work on is also anthropomorphism. It would amaze you what we take for granted. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 2:27
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Can, maybe. Did she? no.

Genie (feral child) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genie_(feral_child)

The extent of her isolation prevented her from being exposed to any significant amount of speech, and as a result she did not acquire language during her childhood. Her abuse came to the attention of Los Angeles County child welfare authorities in November 1970, when she was 13 years and 7 months old, after which she became a ward of the state of California.[1][4][7]

Psychologists, linguists, and other scientists initially focused a great deal of attention on Genie's case. Upon determining that Genie had not yet learned language, linguists saw Genie as providing an opportunity to gain further insight into the processes controlling language acquisition skills and to test theories and hypotheses identifying critical periods during which humans learn to understand and use language.

Throughout the time scientists studied Genie, she made substantial advances in her overall mental and psychological development. Within months, she developed exceptional nonverbal communication skills and gradually learned some basic social skills, but even by the end of their case study, she still exhibited many behavioral traits characteristic of an unsocialized person. She also continued to learn and use new language skills throughout the time they tested her, but ultimately remained unable to fully acquire a first language.

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  • $\begingroup$ The take-away is that if you're a human (female) older than 13y7m, that's a no. Might be a little longer for males as they develop slower [citation needed?]. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 21:15

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