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Picture a race living in a cave with no light. Their entire existence pivots on remaining quiet and scentless enough that the various (and vicious) predators hanging from the roof of the cave don't find and kill them.

These creatures only communicate through physical touch (no pheromone release, however short range, or they'll get eaten), and unless they are touching another member of their species they don't know where other members of their species are. Breeding is pretty much a matter of luck and high numbers of offspring.

Is it possible for a language/method of passing information based purely on touch to develop?

If you've got examples of actual touch-only information transfer that could potentially become a touch-only language, please include them! Michael Kjörling brought up Braille in the comments. If there are any examples where something similar has arisen without first having a long-distance language associated with it then it will be pretty much a perfect answer.

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  • $\begingroup$ Just as a note: The above scenario is mostly to highlight the absolute lack of distance communication of any form. The question is whether a language can develop based purely on physical contact. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Nov 11 '15 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ Compare something like Braille? But you would still have to bootstrap it. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 11 '15 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ That's the question. Can something like braille develop without first having a sonorous or visual language to be based on? In fact I'll add that to the question if that's OK with you? $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Nov 11 '15 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ Your title is misleading, it sounds like you're talking about telephone calls. You should replace the question title with the text you have in bold. $\endgroup$ – Max Williams Nov 11 '15 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ Morse code ftw! $\endgroup$ – Daniel Nov 11 '15 at 16:09
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Helen Keller comes to mind as an example of a human experiencing similar conditions to your creatures. I seem to recall that before being taught sign language, she could still make herself somewhat understood, though that may be because her family could see/hear. So I'm going to throw out this example for the rest of this answer.

Instead, I want to imagine how these creatures would live. For one thing, if they're loners, they're not going to develop language no matter how easy it is, so let's assume they're pack animals. Thus, they will sleep, move, and eat together, and feel terror when they are alone. For these reasons, I imagine that much of these creatures' time will be spent in physical contact with one another (think of people walking in a snowstorm, or WWI soldiers blinded by poison gas in long lines, holding onto each other for direction). It may be possible that a group will never let go of one another, forming lifelong partnerships with the individuals in front of and behind them. They're going to end up knowing a lot about these two people, and should be able to tell their mood just by feeling their body language-- that is, if they have body language at all.

I think rather than a static line, it's more likely that individuals will remain connected, but often switch their place in the group. That way, the alpha can make sure no one is plotting against them, and no one has been left behind. Also, it allows the young to learn from a variety of sources. This way, I think body language will develop, as there are certain things individuals will want to tell each other (for instance, "I don't want to hold your hand", or "don't leave, you're not as sweaty as the other guy"). This may come in the form of hand signals (like soldiers entering a building tapping each other's shoulders), or more subtle cues like posture. Keep in mind that without most senses, these creatures' sense of touch should be much more precise than ours, so they should be able to pick up a variety of cues that we couldn't, such as small changes in heartbeat or hairs standing on end.

Whether or not this all turns into a form of communication that we would call language is debatable, and mostly based on the potential these creatures have for intelligence. However, with the example of Helen Keller again (I know, I said I wouldn't bring her back up, but she didn't hear me when I told her to leave), she learned to understand sign language by feeling it, so sign language could be used by these creatures to communicate as long as they were smart enough to develop it.

As for written language like braille, I think it should develop eventually, just like written languages did for humans. Come to think of it, it may develop earlier: these creatures should already be used to combing the ground for familiar paths and handholds, it shouldn't be too much of a leap to place certain objects with special meaning in places where they will be found. This may start as a way to more easily find places, but could evolve, again based on the intelligence of these creatures.

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    $\begingroup$ You got all the essentials for the answer. They need to be social to communicate and intelligent to develop language. There are actually more options for how: with extended physical contact they could evolve patches of thin skin to exchange chemical signals or even go full Avatar and connect their nervous systems. $\endgroup$ – Cyrus Nov 11 '15 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Cyrus Yes, I would really like to see what these creatures would look like after a few hundred million years. It's certainly the right conditions for making a truly exotic species. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Nov 11 '15 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ That was my first thought as well. Another idea is the social interactions of many insects like ants and termites; they use chemical signals, but also communicate directly through antenna contact. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Nov 12 '15 at 18:36
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This depends on availability of appendages, Helen Keller was able to communicate effectively enough to earn a bachelor's degree with no sound or sight (or pheromones that I know of.) She communicated with shapes and motions of her hands in contact with another person.
If you creatures have some dexterous way to connect with another creature by changing shapes of that appendage they could communicate complex ideas.
Ideas for how to add inflection: Vibration, Changing surface (extending spikes, slime etc), or even adjusting body temp.

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Yes and it has already happened. Julia Brace became deaf and blind at a young age and so she had to learn a language that was entirely based on touch so there have already been languages based on touch.

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  • $\begingroup$ The situation is very different in that languages were already in existence. Julia just had to learn the signs for existing words developed by seeing/hearing people. $\endgroup$ – Cyrus Nov 12 '15 at 7:53

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