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This is a follow-on question from: How alien can a language be - grammar?

Leaving the grammar behind we can look at how the actual words or concepts are transmitted. Almost all human languages are based around stringing together sequences of phonemes (sounds). There are exceptions (various sign languages for example) but those are used only when sound is not available due to circumstances such as deafness or a need for silence.

So my question is what is the most believable ways, other than stringing together phonemes, that could evolve in a naturally occurring intelligent species? In other words how could they communicate with each other?

Note that this would be the primary communication method so either should have an advantage over using phonemes or a reason why phonemes aren't used.

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What is communicating ? Sending and receiving signals. How can I receive signals ? Thanks to my perceptions.

What are my perceptions ? Humans have 5 senses. They can see, listen, taste, touch and smell. I think some sharks can feel electromagnetic fields too.

Clearly, taste and touch are not so good to communicate as they are difficult to stimulate threw the distance.

EDIT : I figured out thanks to IJoinedCozIcan that touch can be stimulated through distance with heat or vibration. So here's an all new spectrum of possibilities opened. As for the social-colony of livings communicating only by touch. Woaw ! END-EDIT

On Earth, some species communicate with odours (Ants to locate foods, Dogs to mark territory), some others with visual signs (Bees "dance" to communicate, some humans learn Sign language), and some others with sounds (Human voices, Birds singing).

Note that for Morse Code, it is possible to do it with multiple senses. (You can feel it by being touched, you can see it or you can hear it).

Because light is faster than sound, visual signs may be a solution to communicate over long distances (some American Indians did it with fires and little clouds). The counterpart is that the others have to focused on the source, and some obstacles and noise can make the signal uncomprehending.

The advantages of sound is that you hear it even if you don't focus on it. Drums can be heard really far. The counterpart may be that if you have multiple sources emitting at the same time, the messages will collide and potentially be incomprehensible.

I'm ignoring telepathy, because it would be too easy. But that could be a lead.

Thinking about robots, I can imagine some living communicating via radio or even electromagnetism.

EDIT : (trying to answer the question more specifically) I understand your question "How alien can a language be-transmission?" as in "What is the less human but still natural way to communicate-transmission?"

Since Human do communicate by sounds, if you still want some audio-based communication I would suggest you to use some Dolphin-like sentences (plus it works great in the water). While human communication is based on phonemes, I feel Dolphin use more something like elaborate whistling.

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    $\begingroup$ This feels like a good discussion of some possibilities but it doesn't actually have a concrete answer to the question. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Nov 25 '15 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ I'll try to elaborate a more specific answer to your question. My guess is that sounds seem more appropriate, and I'd love to hear alien species communicate like R2D2 does. $\endgroup$ – Kii Nov 25 '15 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, are his beeps and whistlers really any different from our phonemes though? Different noises but same idea. The other examples you give (pheremones, visual, etc) are far more "alien" but also hard to explain as the primary communication medium for a sentient species. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Nov 25 '15 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ "Clearly, taste and touch are not so good to communicate..." Are you sure about that? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 25 '15 at 15:34
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling this is a great link with very interesting question and answers. Thanks for pointing it out ! Though it requires constant contact, a social life-form may (in my opinion) evolve that way. $\endgroup$ – Kii Nov 25 '15 at 16:06
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They could communicate using pigments and lights, such as some squids, cuttlefish and octopuses. Perhaps they have a particular part of their body that's devoted to showing off these constantly changing patterns, and different arrangements of colours/patterns/light intensities signify different things. This could be advantageous if they lived in a very thin atmosphere that doesn't conduct sound well, or if their primary sense was vision. Alternatively, if they had a heat-sensation system similar to the sensory pits of snakes, they could communicate by generating different intensities of heat from different parts of their bodies.

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  • $\begingroup$ I must admit that I did not think of the ability to touch could be stimulated by heat ! And thus, communicating threw distances become possible for this sense. $\endgroup$ – Kii Nov 25 '15 at 16:23
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Asymmetric media might be interesting for a very hierarchical species, where the ascending communication is actually in a different medium than the descending communication. I'm going to suggest a transmission method where the regent communicates using near-field sound fields, and the minions respond with interpretive dance within that sound field. You might think of it like the bee waggle dance, only on a dance floor with a DJ changing the tune while you dance.

Picture a species whose rulers have several mouths (or other noise making sources) and sufficient control over them to start setting up nulls in the soundscape in front of them, communicating not just with sound but sound fields. They communicate with the masses by sweeping these nulls around by varying the phase of each of their sound making organs. The workers are expected to dance around, keeping themselves in sync with these nulls. The message itself is encoded in the directions the nulls are swept. This communication mechanism is very secure because, unlike typical vocal communication, it depends heavily on near field communication that is simply not detectable at longer distances. You may be able to hear the strange screeching song of the regent, but the far field of the song itself contains none of the information content.

I suggest this for a hierarchical species because there's a few neat quirks that show up. First off, there's a neat little feedback loop that lets the masses communicate back. If a minion is not right smack on the null (and, in fact, potentially having to predict ahead where the regent will move it next), the regent has fewer options to communicate, but the messages are easy to understand because the regent is basically shouting as their voice drags the minion this way or that (obviously failure to follow the voice is grounds for execution). However, if the minion gets good at staying in the null, there's room for a bit of choice. Obviously the regent cannot expect a minion to perfectly predict the regent's will before the sounds reach it, but the regent can observe how the minion positions themselves and gain insight into what the minion is thinking. In fact, this forms a 2 way communication remarkably similar to that of a human dance. The regent has complete control over where the dance will go, but it is the minion that adds the spice to the conversation in the form of its sways and shimmies as it communes with it master. This, of course, reinforces the hierarchy. The better you are in tune with the regent, the more you are capable of saying within the language. Sergeants and Lieutenants don't get promoted into rank as much as they simply demonstrate that they have the commune's interest in mind with their dance, so are permitted to say more. Rebellious individuals find themselves in fields of sound which have less room for interpretive dance (and in fact, the worst offenders simply cannot speak at all, for without the regent's sound field to dance in, they literally have no way of speaking).

Inter tribal combat of this species can follow the lines Joe Bloggs suggested: smash. The two reagents begin generated competing sound fields and the minions all dance about (potentially with knives and other weapons) like they were salt granules on a Chlandi plate. Combat ends when one regent can no longer produce a meaningful sound field. Interestingly, this sort of warfare would not be wasteful. Any minions which a regent could trap within their own sound fields as POWs immediately become minions in their own army, by the mere fact that they are dancing to the reagent's tune. Rather than killing a weak regent, opposing rulers might simply siphon off their minions with superior control of the sound fields around them.

Also interesting is that it permits an opening for a promotion to regent. Once in a rare while, we get an opportunity to glimpse the dance of a lifetime. A minion whose dance has become so powerful that they are less of a minion and more of a suitor is in an intriguing position. Consider for a moment, the special case of an alien race with this provocative method of communication where even the minions have the organs to emit sound fields, but only regents are allowed to use them, causing atrophy in the minions. However, the skillset required to dance within the nulls is also the same skillset needed to learn how to practice using their voice without anyone noticing. If your song compliments the trills and tremolos of the regent's song, its hard to tell you're singing at all. This is a chance to exercise those unused vocal chords and learn how to sing on your own.

The dance of ascension is breathtaking to behold. It starts as any dance does, with the only sign that anything special is about to occur being a strange sense of calm in the demeanor of the right-hand-minion who has been called to dance. The regent typically has no idea this dance has started until it is underway. The minion moves in provocative ways, communicating with the dance a vision for the hive which is initially in line with that of the regent, but soon diverges into its own story. At this point, the regent would love to stop, but it's too late. Her song has already brought a sense of awareness and energy to the entire hive as a side effect of dancing with the suitor. To stop now would undo all of her hard work to keep the hive together. She has to keep singing until she can subdue the suitor. Many times, this happens. The suitor tumbles off of the null, and in a heart beat the entire hive descends on his body and shreds it. However, on occasion, this simply doesn't occur. The suitor understands the regent's mind too well, and she simply cannot trap him.

Then, something magical happens. The suitor stops moving. Or at least, perceptibly stops. Now the battle of wits begins. His most imperceptible movements are amplified by the shape of the sound front such that the regent must adjust her song to match his movements or lose control of her hive. However, the suitor seems to be one step ahead. Every time she tries to move the null off of him, his position is perfect to shatter the hive unity if she doesn't converge it back to him. They may stand ostensibly motionless for several minutes, her song crashing all around him, but never able to shake the null he has put himself in.

Then, when she isn't listening, he begins his tune. It's much quieter than hers. While he's been practicing, there's no way to practice true combat volumes without someone noticing. However, this is not a song of brawn. Its a song of finesse. It slowly distorts the sound front around the other hive members who, energized, respond ever so slightly. Then, in a singular moment, the regent bows her head to one side, trying desperately to keep her minions in control under her field by shifting the position of her singing organs. But a head bow is one move within the minion's dance, and it leads to another, and another. The suitor stands still, as the regent once did, while the regent is forced to dance as a minion until she ceases her song entirely. In a show of simultaneity which would leave any drum line or army drill corps to shame, every minion rotates ever so slightly to attune to the suitor's song alone. He is now the regent, having demonstrated that his grasp of the need of the hive far outstripped the dethroned regent. She is now his right-hand-minion.

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  • $\begingroup$ What is near-field sound? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 29 '15 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz Near field is a region of space where you are close enough to the speakers to see noticeable phase shifts and amplitude differences because one speaker is closer to you than the other. Compare that to far field where the relative distances to each speaker are so similar that such phase differences cancel out. Its what we use for thing like Apple Pay, only they use near field RF instead of near field sound. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 30 '15 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ I know what "near field" RF is, but it makes no sense as sound. Your situation is not like Apple Pay (or Android years earlier). If I'm some significant distance from two speakers and not having any reverberation, the phase difference will not "cancel out" and can be any value, and the phase varies with frequency which spans orders of magnitude. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Nov 30 '15 at 5:09
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz Near field exists in acoustics as well, though I had to look it up and you're right... the near field in acousitics is only similar to that of near field in RF. I was trying to come up with an analogy that was sufficiently recognizable (Near Field : that part of a sound field, usually within about two wavelengths of a noise source, where there is no simple relationship between sound level and distance, where the sound pressure does not obey the Inverse Square Law and the Particle Velocity is not in phase with the Sound Pressure. acoustic-glossary.co.uk/sound-fields.htm) $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 30 '15 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ How's that significant to the story? Are we talking about these minyons being a few cm from the (much larger) speaker queen, or subsonic long wavelengths, or what? Given that near-field isn't what you thought it was when that was written, the idea ought to be clarified. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 1 '15 at 0:37
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One potential that actually occurs in ant species:

Open, bloody warfare.

Well, not quite, but the interactions of a hive's contributing parts can fundamentally affect the way that a hive behaves. In common ants the emergence of a long-running threat changes the worker/soldier dynamic in the nest. In the instance of an emergently intelligent hive species, communicating with another hive is simply a matter of bodyslamming your constituent parts together to see what happens. Want to shout louder? Send more minions. Want to change your inflection? Use different minions. It doesn't matter if some die, they're replaceable. You can be in the middle of delivering a love poem, and to other species (say the monkeys in the flying tin cans) it will look like you're engaged in the most brutal form of warfare possible.

This concept is actually explored quite well by Orson Scott Card in the Ender series of books. It seems that the buggers are hell-bent on destroying humanity when actually they're just trying to say 'hello'...

So if you're a hive mind: Communicate via the medium of minion.

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What about a species that communicated entirely in images? An image can convey a complex message much faster than sounds can ('a picture is worth a thousand words', after all); the reason we don't use pictures to speak is mainly because we lack the physiological ability to quickly create rapidly-changing pictures with our own bodies.

An intelligent species that evolved from something with the ability to change color at will, such as an octopus or squid, might very well convey complex information through flashing images across their own skin. Such communication would not only be faster and more efficient than words, it would be much easier for another species to interpret. (They would probably have a very hard time imagining that creatures like us could communicate through sound!)

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The most believable are probably the nearest of what human actually use, and can do.

One possibility is to communicate by sound, but instead of using phonemes, use musical notes. Even humans can make the distinction between different pitches (and some can even recognise them on an absolute scale). So you can simply replace words and sentences by melodies.

One question remains, "why not both phonemes and musical notes ?". Well, for the same reason humans use musical notes in a very restrictive way when they speak.

Note that it is hard to imagine a believable way to communicate other than with sounds, since it has many advantages : not directional, variations are easily to produce and you can encode a lot of information in short period.

I think that the fact sound is not directional is the biggest evolutionary advantage, since it means you can inform all your buddy at the same time that there is a danger.

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I don't think it is far fetched that an intelligent species might develop technology to intercept thoughts using an implant to the head and relay those via radio to another implant. The benefits could be so big that after a couple of generations, that species have both evolved out of regular speaking and culturally made speaking redundant.

Also, imagine a culture where individuals are not allowed to speak to each other. They must speak to the MASTER who will relay their communication.

Going above radio, what if some weird alien race had xray vision&emission&immunity, they could communicate via xray over walls, etc...

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  • $\begingroup$ The question asks for possibilities that could "evolve in a naturally occurring intelligent species". I don't really see how what you propose could fit that criteria. Can you edit to elaborate? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 25 '15 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ Technically this is a naturally-occurring species. As in, the species naturally occurred, then naturally modified itself, then naturally evolved some more. As opposed to being created from the ground up by another intelligent race. Though certainly I could see how evolving because of an artificial implant could be considered non-natural. I think I'd leave it to the OP to decide which definition applies here. $\endgroup$ – MichaelS Nov 26 '15 at 6:07
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly. A "naturally occurring species" - a species that has occurred naturally and then evolved and progressed. Also, evolution changes that result from the introduction of technology are NOT unnatural. Evolution is natural. We evolved for Billions of years of life before technology was a factor. (Actually, everything is natural. Everything comes from nature. Even our computers were created by humans who came from nature. The existence of nature determines the creation of all things) $\endgroup$ – DraxDomax Nov 26 '15 at 12:00
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There is no end to what form an alien language could take - any kind of signal, sound, light or any electromagnetic wave, touch, smell, gravity waves, thoughts, gestures.. The only condition would be that the parts of the signal are somehow related to each other. Also, the composition of the signal can seem like totally random to an external observer.

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  • $\begingroup$ While this is a valid point it would be nice if you expanded upon the suggestions or maybe tried to see how some of these transmission methods are more viable than others. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 11 '16 at 12:13

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