5
$\begingroup$

So I had a story idea for an underwater merfolk kingdom, and I wanted to give them gills and lungs so they could breathe above water as well. I was just wondering if anyone knew if it would be possible to have them be able to speak underwater in an audible manner or if it would all have to be non-verbal signals. Would I have to make their hearing enhances as well? Thanks :)

Edit: I didn't think of any whale sonar things so thank you for the offer, but I was thinking more along the lines of actually speaking in English or a language similar, sorry I didn't specify. And thank you for all the help!

$\endgroup$
3
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Umm whale song is a thing? Sonar? Sound tends to travel better underwater then in air. If anything might need to have ability to block sound on demand it can be really noisy underwater. You should have spent more effort on research. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2022 at 22:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ making the sound is an issue, whales need some fairly sophisticated adaptations to make sound underwater without expelling air to do so. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 13, 2022 at 22:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Question : Do they need to be able to speak the same way on land and in water, or can their way of speaking be different? $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Oct 13, 2022 at 23:09

5 Answers 5

1
$\begingroup$

I think it should be possible:

Imagine the species has two internal air bladders and vocal chords (and associated muscles that perform the same vocal functions as tongue and lips, helping them shape the sound). They communicate by passing air from one bladder to the other, through the vocal chords. The vibration passes through their skin and then through the water to the listener. So they don't communicate through mouths but otherwise one could swim up to you and "talk", with all the enunciation and range of spoken English; you just wouldn't see where the sound is coming from. They don't have to keep getting air to produce this sound since it's all an internal system (probably part of a system that also helps regulate their buoyancy and works with the gills as a sort of storage).

Looking like humans and talking like humans (through air expelled through a mouth) would have the problems other people mention. It wouldn't sound right and it's too "air expensive" to do. But I would think a closed internal system would solve the problems and yield something pretty close to what you want.

But yeah, the key point is whatever mouth they have is probably just for eating. The sound perhaps comes from some kind of chest membrane.

$\endgroup$
5
$\begingroup$

Welcome to Worldbuilding, Nat! Do not be discouraged when contributors urge you to do your own research. You will find that frank criticism is far more useful than compliments and ego-stroking when you get down to the serious business of building worlds.

Now to your question. Is it possible? Yes, because you have provided your merfolk with lungs, but it is, in my opinion, cumbersome from an evolutionary standpoint. Why would a creature so well evolved to live underwater as a mer-person use vocalizations evolved for a gas environment in the marine environment?

In this case, I would suggest thinking about common evolutionary adaptations that are readily observable in the world and then expand on them in your own world. Think about the vocal sounds that terrestrial mammals make and why, and then think about the many different ways that marine life communicates without the needs to vibrate a set of vocal cords with a moving gas. Certainly, your merfolk could use something like a highly advanced system of sign and body language, and they probably should, but why stop there? Why not give them special adaptations, like skin with chromatophores (like squid and cuttlefish) with which they can communicate voicelessly through pattern and color? What about bioluminescence? Take some time to study how marine mammals (marine creatures with lungs) communicate underwater to get ideas, such as cetaceans. In the process, don't forget mammals that spend a lot of time in the water, too, such as walrus, seals and otters. The natural world will give you ideas, and then you can layer on your choice of magic or specialized evolution to complete your organism.

Also, I would spend some time thinking about whether your merfolk started life as terrestrial and moved a marine environment, or vice versa. This will help to guide you in your biological designs. Do your merfolk ever come out of the water and converse with terrestrial creatures? If they do, must they speak in words? I understand that they have lungs and gills, so you have addressed the issue of oxygenating their tissues, but do they actually have vocal cords? If they do, this suggests that they were first a terrestrial people that moved to the marine world. If they lack vocal cords and instead have something like chromatophores in their flesh, then this suggests that they began as a marine people and made adaptations that encouraged symbiosis with terrestrial creatures.

Remember, Nat, at all times the study of the natural world will help to inform your creature lab. Hope this helps!

$\endgroup$
5
$\begingroup$

Let's take non-audible off the table for now, because that opens up a whole other line.

To start I am not going to concentrate on how they might talk given those limitations, We should look, instead, at sound underwater. How it travels, how it's different than above the water.

You, as a human, hear things differently underwater because your system of hearing is developed for sound waves traveling in the air.

Take a look at this which is all about why that's so. Jist is basically:

Sound waves actually travel five times faster in water than in air. Underwater those sound waves don’t vibrate the ossicles bones in your inner ear. They go straight to the skull bones, vibrating that heavy bone you can touch just behind your ear...Because of that, you can hear higher frequencies underwater. You lose lower ones. And you can’t figure out the direction sounds are coming from.

So, look at an air-breathing underwater dweller that both talks and listens above waves and in the water. The dolphin.

They have two different mechanisms for listening, their jaw and skull for underwater, and their ear holes for above. Both ways can be used above and below the waves, but each is better suited for one way.

They also "talk" both above and below the waves. Their level of communication is debatable.

But certainly, you can use dolphins as a template, with range, types of sound, and methods of communication.

You specifically asked:

would be possible to have them be able to speak underwater in an audible manner or if it would all have to be non-verbal signals.

And the answer is yes, it absolutely can be audible, up to a point--but you don't say to who it should be audible. Dolphins hear differently than we do, and while we can hear SOME of it, and they certainly hear all of it, a human listening in would likely only understand what they kept in the range of human hearing. So audible to the dolphin folk (which is what I am calling them) but not always audible to a land-dweller like a human especially if dolphin folks do not want to be heard. We have a hertz range that differs. They just have to change the frequency.

Clicks, echolocation, chirps, all these can be put together into a sort of language.

But if you are looking at how "human" they might sound, it's going to be imitative at best, I think, on a more sophisticated level than underwater and above-water animals have done trying to mimic human speech. For that, look at this article, which is all about that and includes orcas that sound like us.

To my thinking, if an animal with these above/below water limitations can make themselves understood by humans, an intelligent version could certainly adjust their speech, especially for trade and such to be understood and to understand.

I would be having a heck of a lot of fun with this, because they will have a line of communication with their fellow fish-folk that would not be able to be possibly even registered/heard by land-folk.

You also asked this:

Would I have to make their hearing enhances as well? Thanks :)

That depends on what you mean by enhanced. If you mean that they would have a range different than human, then yes. But from a dolphin's point of view we are practically deaf, both in and out of the water. Bottlenose dolphins have a range of 75 Hertz to more than 150,000 Hz — well beyond the range of human hearing of 20-20,000 Hertz.

Hope that gives you a push in the right direction as to what questions you might ask the google,I know sometimes it's hard to even know where to start. Welcome to the site!

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Aquatic animals make sounds underwater by basically vibrating their vocal folds. If you are looking for a way to communicate similar to dolphins or other creatures, that's how.

$\endgroup$
1
  • $\begingroup$ Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. $\endgroup$
    – Community Bot
    Oct 18, 2022 at 15:15
1
$\begingroup$

First things first, if you dive in a pool and try to speak you can totally do it. I'm serious! Just try to not swallow in any water, and speak as if you were not underwater.

It's not going to be very effective to communicate with other people, but only because we didn't evolve to communicate in an underwater environment. Many fish communicate by sound, and not in ways related to whales and dolphins' sonar.

I think a mermaid creature with vocal cords similar to ours, but who would also be comfortable with filling in their throat with water, would be able to speak while submersed. But vibrating cords in contact with water takes a lot more energy, due to water being so much denser and viscous than air.

More likely, though, merfolk could have some swim bladder organ just like bony fish do, to help with buoyancy. And like some fish do, they can use that bladder as a resonator for acoustic muscles, just like some piranhas do.

$\endgroup$

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .