• Speakers of this language would communicate through differences in volume, rather than pitch or phone.

  • While speakers might be able to use these features - just as in English we can use can aspirate without changing meaning - it wouldn't change the meaning of the utterance.

  • For practical reasons, it would be relative volume rather than absolute volume, so that speakers would not need to be positioned at specific distances from each other to be sure of their meaning.

What physiological (speakers need not be human), cultural or other reasons might cause a language like this to develop?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The kind of sounds like an Idea Generation question, which could be off-topic. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 17 '15 at 0:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If such speak is heard by two receivers, one a bit further away than the other... Will the further away one (who hears everything less loud) get a different meaning out of it? $\endgroup$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Nov 17 '15 at 8:19
  • $\begingroup$ @fgy added a clarification - relative volume, rather than absolute volume, so that they don't need to be specific distances from each other. $\endgroup$ – jimsug Nov 17 '15 at 8:23
  • $\begingroup$ I see. This will require that at the beginning of each conversation the participants take a short moment to 'tune in' on the volume. Something like short single shouts might thus be impossible. $\endgroup$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Nov 17 '15 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ Well, there's precedent for that in terms of pitch. Tonal languages like Chinese do not require their speakers to have perfect pitch or to all have voices within the same range. It's mostly about rising and falling pitch. The same could be done for volume, though there would be problems like how does one whisper to someone or shout across a loud room without altering the meaning of their words? $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Nov 17 '15 at 14:34

It's like morse code, but with louder or quieter dashes or dots to convey even more information.

It's amplitude modulated rather than frequency modulated. This kind of language would make sense if you communicated by pressing on somebody. In that way, the mechanism for receiving communication is more like touch than hearing. If only a very simply ear were to develop, one more like a simple pressure sensor than a frequency sensor (like the cochlea) then amplitude would be the only way (besides time) to modulate information onto that sensory perception. It's very likely that very early ears on animals worked this way.


A creature with no voice. Sound is made by thumping two parts of the body together--thus it can make only one note. (Think of the noisemakers some insects have.)

  • $\begingroup$ To this end- spiders are very good at detecting vibrations, and it's part of spiders' courting for males to send "good vibes" at the female while dancing. Could such things lead to a volume-based language? I think so. $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Nov 17 '15 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ I would expect something like this to turn into an alphabet really quick based on frequency instead of volume, honestly. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Nov 17 '15 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ @PipperChip - I don't. These are mere signals; the two basic messages the female gets from her web are "I'm prey struggling for my life" and "I'm a male who doesn't want you to eat me, at least until I've done the deed". Similarly to crickets, cicadas etc, the male's call to the female is little more than "I'm here, I'm male, I'm ready for love". Going from this to a fully-developed conversational language without at least developing variances in vibration frequency sounds very implausible to me. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Nov 17 '15 at 21:39
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithS The repetition frequency might be fixed by the anatomy creating it. This could leave the only communications path being something akin to morse code except with loud and soft instead of short and long. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Nov 18 '15 at 3:19
  • $\begingroup$ Stridulation is the term you're looking for here. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Nov 18 '15 at 5:47

Samuel's answer is quite well phrased. In fact the simplest radios use Amplitude Modulation (AM) which is basically a volume-based language spoken and heard between AM transceivers. The motivation for its evolution being that humans in search of a means to electronically communicate via RF radiation had to develop a methodology whereby the equipment of the era could emit a signal identifiable as intentional, amid all the noise any potential receiver would have to discard. In general, a 'noise floor' is identified and any energy received that was too weak would be ignored, all other energy would be routed to the rest of the circuit, possibly for amplification, and then for output via a speaker.


In humans, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't, for the reasons listed at the end of this answer. In other creatures, though, perhaps if the ear simply senses the energy of the sound waves reaching it, and reports that as a fluctuating signal. There would likely need to be multiple "ears", that trap sound from various directions, since it would be impossible to have more than one person talking at once without being able to have the brain focus in on one voice; the overlapping volumes would change the meaning of the speech. The more ears they have, the better the brain would be able to process the input and focus in on individual voices. Perhaps a series of several pits around their head, each one of which senses the relative energy of the sound waves reaching it.

Even then, they would be much more likely to develop a language based on timed pulses, ala Morse code. For the creatures to not develop this, they would have to have a limitation in their ability to sense passage of time. The time sense of these creatures would have to fluctuate wildly, to the point that they would be unable to reliably tell the difference between a dot and a dash. Perhaps their brains are sort of like modern computer processors, which change processing speed from moment to moment as needed, slowing down to conserve energy, and speeding up when decisions need to be made; with the sense of the flow of time adjusting accordingly.

With these limitations, it would rule out the language being based on a constant sound with modulated volume; it would need to be repeated bursts of sound with each burst being at a constant volume throughout, since timing can't be considered. It might take the form of some sort of barking sound, with the barks varying in volume. A conversation might be begun by an individual "barking" a few times to set the initial volume of the conversation. If the other individual wishes to speak (or loses track of the conversation) they might break in in the same way, and wait for the other to make a statement relinquishing control of the conversation before saying their piece.

You are correct that relative volume would be necessary. That could be in one of two manners: volume relative to the previous sound burst, or relative to the initial calibrated volume. Making it relative to the previous burst would require recalibration if the speaker reached the top of their vocal range. One way to do this is being limited to three phonemes (quiter, same, and louder) so that after a long series of louder phonemes one could modulate very far down in volume in one step without changing the meaning.

Still, very significant hurdles would need to be overcome:

  1. Any relative movement between speaker and listener would have to be carefully compensated for, since increased distance would change the volume
  2. Sound is usually somewhat focused; turning your head (or sound generation organ) slightly to the side would change the volume, and therefore the meaning of your statement
  3. Any conversation would have to begin with an exchange of volume calibration noises, and if one got distracted in the middle, non-verbal communication would have to be used to reset the calibration, making extended conversations difficult
  4. Changes in ambient noise can affect the conversants unequally, leading to loss of calibration even in the best situations

Its very very rare to not try to use the full capacity of a communication medium, so you would need an extraordinary circumstance to cause it to occur.

If the human culture is dominated by an apex predator who is capable of detecting pitch or phone, humans may develop a language which is capable of sneaking under the radar of this predator.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Can detect pitch and phone but not volume? I am missing something? $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 17 '15 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi Crazy, yes. The only reason I dare even suggest it is that I have seen some strange signal processing algorithms in my life, so maybe (just maybe) a predator might use one of them. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Nov 17 '15 at 3:40
  • $\begingroup$ You mean like some kind of adaptive amplification that amplifies all sounds to same volume? $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 17 '15 at 4:25
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi yeah. Crazy, but perhaps a creature which has evolved to think about things in such black and white terms that it uses digital communication methods? If you had a system devoted to the use of phase modulation, you wouldn't put a great deal of confidence into the volume aspect of the signal. (I recognize its reaching... I just wanted to give a "yes" answer, as best as I could) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Nov 17 '15 at 4:37
  • $\begingroup$ If it is interesting, I for one am perfectly fine with reaching. A predator that needs to hear small sounds in loud environments could have pretty exotic hearing. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 17 '15 at 14:10

I don't see how humans or any earth animal would develop such a language. It would be like developing a counting system using only the index fingers. The improvements are so obvious that development will take a different direction, combining more aspects into the communication.

What I could see is creatures using literal AM radio to communicate. They are either all crystalline or have some crystal growths for receivers, as well as antennas. Let's take intelligent porcupines with mixed metal and crystalline needles as an example. By directly feeding electricity from their equivalent of a nervous system into the transmitter needles an receiving replies with the crystal needles, they can communicate with each other over long distances.

If the creatures have limited mobility (maybe they're even just sentient crystal formations), this would make a lot of sense. Alternatively, conditions in their habitat might make vocal/visual communication very difficult. A permanent thick fog, dense sound-absorbing foliage and/or the predators mentioned in other answers might drive the creatures to communicate mostly by their own unique AM radio.

  • $\begingroup$ It's not unheard of. Many creatures have bioluminescence, and radio is simply another form of light. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Nov 17 '15 at 20:40

I think such a language wouldn't make a lot of sense for a human being, because:

A) We would only be utilizing our very advanced voice boxes at a fraction of what they're capable of delivering, which doesn't make sense from an evolutionary standpoint.

B) Human hearing is only so sensitive - we can only differentiate so many differences in volume, and thus the "vocabulary" of that language would be very limited

C) A human being can only "yell" for so long before their voice gives out, which might be inconvenient when you're trying to have a conversation over a pint.

D) Did you only ask this question only in order to use the language tag and participate in the fortnightly challenge? :-)

  • $\begingroup$ Well, it's something I've been thinking about for a while (my first degree was in linguistics) and the challenge definitely motivated me, but I really should have mentioned that speakers of this language need not be human. $\endgroup$ – jimsug Nov 16 '15 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ If the speakers are not human then it's totally possible for any sort of communication to exist, the possibilities are endless. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Nov 17 '15 at 3:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.