The world I am building has two highly intelligent, sapient species coexisting (along with a large number of non-sapient species). One evolved from ape-like creatures and is suspiciously similar to modern-day humans. The other evolved from group-living carnivores. Both have similar levels of intelligence, approximately that of a human. It's the carnivorous one I am interested in here.

Never mind all the discussions about how two intelligent, sapient species will have trouble co-existing. For the purposes of this question, let's just say the two species get along just fine (different niches, different habitats, long established mutually beneficial coexistence of some kind; whatever floats the boat in your cup of tea).

The carnivorous creatures obviously have to have at least one language all of their own. In this case, their language has a quirk compared to human language. Their language is completely devoid of idioms. If one of them told another to pull its own weight, the latter individual would do something seemingly nonsensical but perfectly literal like rig up a pulley and rope, or grab a sled and some weights.

How can I explain that an intelligent species would develop a natural language that is completely literal?

  • $\begingroup$ There is an existing language that could interest you : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirah%C3%A3_language $\endgroup$ – Babika Babaka Jan 29 '16 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ @SpaceLizard I'm getting some inspiration from there, but do you intend to say that Pirahã has no idioms? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jan 29 '16 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon I'm thinking that for the purposes of this question, "idiom" is simply any word or sequence of words the meaning of which differs from a combination of the literal, "dictionary" meaning of those words. (Hence, for example, "pull your own weight" is an idiom because the individual is not actually expected to perform horizontal physical work in order to move something heavy.) Do you think such a definition is actionable enough, or do I need to put more thought into that? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Feb 1 '16 at 10:42
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    $\begingroup$ If we use your definition, from the perspective of a human, I think that's sufficient. If you want that definition to be true from their perspective, some strange mathematical quirks start to creep in which I find rather fascinating. In particular, Tarski's non-definability theorem shows up, affecting all formal languages which contain the truths of arithmetic (1+1=2, 2+3=3+2, etc), and negation, both of which are very useful for such a literal species. His theorem states that such a language cannot define its own semantics and still remain consistent, due to some quirky math. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Feb 1 '16 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ You end up with either having an inconsistent language (such as being able to say "roses are red" and "roses are not red" mean the same thing), an incomplete language (being unable to define the meaning of the word "red" in your dictionary) or one of a handful of other really odd side effects. You could even end up with mandatory perfect telepathy between speakers of the language, just to find a sufficient loophole! I find it fascinating, but it might be overkill for your needs. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Feb 1 '16 at 15:04

No language is completely literal, and the very idea of concepts depends on it. When I refer to Michael Kjörling, I refer to a mapping metaphor, or an abstraction, since the real Michael Kjörling (♦) is an ever-changing collection of atoms and energy states organized in a meta-stable pattern, and thus different from millisecond to millisecond.

Referring to Michael Kjörling (♦!!) by referring to the indices and Heisenberg-adjusted positions of all particles that comprise their body would be somewhat unwieldy in everyday conversation, and the abstraction of a continuing entity makes low-bandwidth lossy communication about that meta-stable pattern possible. Since we can only do lossy, low-bandwidth communication, that's a good thing (c). Same applies to rivers, trees, prey, etc.

However, the species could have an aversion to unnecessary abstraction. English would be a pleasure to learn for ESL people were it not for the tens of thousands of blasted idioms. Could use a dose of no-nonsense carnivorous idiom-purging.

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    $\begingroup$ Millisecond? You are certainly some optimist. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jan 29 '16 at 21:41

I don't think you need to explain it. It could as easily be a cultural thing as anything else. Languages enforce all sorts of things (word order, sounds, letter combinations, phonetics) for no particular reason.

If you do want to explain it then just make them more literal and regimented thinkers. The language is structured around that and has a very rigid and simple grammar. Complex and abstract thought is not well supported by the language and would not be accepted culturally if people experimented with it.

One possible explanation might be if they are pack carnivores with a rigid pack hierarchy, the leader speaks and others obey.

There is unlikely to be a tradition of story-telling for entertainment. Stories would be factual and straightforwards reports of events. Music and dancing could expand to take some of the entertainment properties of storytelling but songs would be unusual or strictly factual. For example you might chant a description of how you won the last battle as you marched, they might sing as they go into battle their intent to destroy the enemy, but even that would be limited without access to metaphor and hyperbole.


Maybe the language is like a legal or treaty language spoken with outsiders. It must be precise, they will not know you well enough to grasp cuktural idioms, and it will be referred back to someone else much later in time.

Maybe they don't have what we would recognise as a language within a clan because communication is much tighter and innate. The language you mention is meant for the difficult non-innate communication with "other".


The trait of linguistic literalism would have to be a part of the carnivore-species mindset.

It is common for humans with autism-spectrum-disorders to be literal and pedantic, which is to say that if someone uses the wrong word when speaking to them, they will respond as if the speaker actually meant the word they said, with the result that they will either respond inappropriately (acting on what they were told, rather than what a neurotypical human would have known that the speaker meant), or will question the speaker ("How can I put water in your elephant when you don't own an elephant?" in response to the speaker holding out a glass and asking, "Can you put some water in my elephant, please?", having just seen a drinking elephant on the nearby television).

This would be 'just the way the carnivore species evolved'. The most likely explanation would be that when hunting in groups in their prehistory, the prey was also sufficiently intelligent that any individual's mistakes meant that the prey would escape and the pack would go hungry. In such situations, precision of language would become imperative, and there would be no room for ambiguity or nuance. This would carry over into their social lives too.

A species with the trait of linguistic literalism might be expected to have no sense of humour when applied to jokes. Humour arises when there is an ambiguity in a phrase that can be parsed in an unexpected way. This is not to say that such a species wouldn't be able to appreciate situational humour, just that you couldn't make them laugh by telling a joke. Bring on the pratfalls...

Our linguistically literal species could also be expected to be open and forward when it comes to mating, however they do it. If verbal communication has anything to do with it, they'll just come straight out and express admiration and a desire to mate with the person with whom they are speaking. The response may be positive, neutral or negative, but will be similarly forthright.

A side effect of this forthrightness would be that the carnivores would actually be a very calm, unflappable species. Any individuals that had a tendency to become agitated when insulted would be at a distinct evolutionary disadvantage, so we can expect the carnivores to be totally unfazed by insults. They may recognise that they're being insulted, but it would be like water off a duck's back:

"Oh, the ape is pointing out my faults again. That is very boring." Yawn.

Or, a conversation between two down-and-out carnivores:

"You are a vaguely attractive female carnivore, I want to mate with you."

"Never, your genitals are diseased and pustulent."

"Oh, yes, thank you for bringing that to my attention, I must do something about that some day. I thought that given that you are not as attractive as many other females, you might overlook my illness."

"I may only be slightly attractive, but I'm not that desperate to be impregnated that I'd risk catching your pox."

"Oh, well, have a nice day."

"You have a nice day too."

Conversely, the excitable, emotional apes may be continuously nonplussed and outraged by the carnivores' forthrightness and honesty, but given that under normal circumstances, a carnivore could probably casually dismantle a physically obstreperous ape, physical attacks would be suicidal, and verbal counterattacks would be pointless, save as an emotional outlet for the ape.

As an example, an ape bumps into a carnivore:

Ape: "Watch where you're going, you overgrown furball!"

Carnivore: "I was watching my path, while you were inattentive since you were preoccupied in your observation of that female ape with the large mammary glands, and struck me. For your information, I am of average size and my fur is of average length."

A: "Go climb a tree, you bloody stupid kitty-cat!"

C: "The trees hereabouts would not support my weight, and my task today precludes my taking the time to make the attempt. Perhaps you need to attend a zoology class, since you seem incapable of distinguishing between a member of my species and a domestic cat. Additionally, my fur is clean and my intellect is equivalent to your own, these being points that a zoology class would also clarify for you."

A: "Oh, get your worthless carcase outta my way! You make me wanna puke!"

C: "I do not have any food with me, let alone any of no value, so how can there be valueless food obstructing your path? Please tell me, how am I inducing the desire to vomit in you, so that I can attempt to mitigate the effect?"

A: "I'm gonna bust your chops for ya, pal, if you don't get outta my way!"

C: "I have told you that I do not have any food here. How could you break that which I am not carrying? Additionally, I am not your friend."

A: "Aagh! Get outta my way or I'll punch your teeth in!"

C, Moving aside: "There is no need to become agitated. Please refrain from physical violence, since if you attack me, my defensive actions will most likely leave you severely injured."

A: "Oh, piss off!" Begins to leave.

C: "Urination in this location is contrary to customarily accepted social conventions, sir!"

A: "Stuff you, you..." The ape's language devolves into profanity unsuitable for a public forum such as WB.SE.

C: "Please moderate your profanity lest you receive a citation for breach of your species' regulations concerning such utterances. I observe a law-enforcement officer approaching his auditory range of you."

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    $\begingroup$ I'd add, unrestrained fights between large carnivores are likely to leave both seriously injured unless they are greatly ritualized. This fits with the above. Once intelligent, either they won't fight or they'll fight as a sport or duel, by mutual consent, with strict rules and a referee. In passing the human tragedy is that we invented lethal weaponry rather than evolving it. Hence no appropriate instincts for dealing with it. $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Feb 1 '16 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ I see no connection between more literal thinking and a total lack of nuanced communication. I also see no connection between simpler languages and lack of emotional response -- your assertion that being easily phased by insults would be selected out by evolution is disproven by looking at real humans among other animals. In fact, I'd say it's quite the opposite. Without our quick tempers, we wouldn't have been nearly as successful in primitive environments. $\endgroup$ – MichaelS Feb 1 '16 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ A primitive environment for a human is one in which several species might turn you into their next meal. A primitive environment for a tiger is one in which it's next meal doesn't have any effective means to fight back. Top carnivores that have somehow become somewhat social and somehow do not suffer from exponential population growth, are better off without quick tempers. Pheromonal fertility suppression? $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Feb 1 '16 at 16:54

Some of those on the autism spectrum have trouble with understanding idioms and naturally do not use them themselves. The carnivores could easily borrow some aspberger traits and be fully functional as a society. It gets easier when society is organised for that kind of mind. I'm no writer, but I imagine that all kinds of interesting portrayals of society could flow from an "aspberger species" premise


When errors and mistakes are costly.

More than a "technical language", nowadays there is a technical "register" (way of use) languages. If you go to a medical conference, or read an scientific article, each word there will have be read and reread until it is sure enough that it will not induce the readers to error.

This is one of the things that makes scientific or technical language so "boring". We were told that if we were writting an article and did need to mention "the INTRO key", each time we needed to refer to it we would have to spell it. Not "that key" or "the same key than above" or "the key with broken arrow". "The INTRO key". If we needed to use the expression a hundred times, so let it be.

Why is that? Because we are to avoid confusion with to the audience. Someone reading our article or listening our conference should (with the required experience) be able to reproduce our actions to see if they get the same results.

That is why technical language (specially Medicine) have so much words. To you the surgeon may have done a cut in your lower back to heal a bone; your surgeon will write in your history that he did a incission in the intervertebral space (vertebrae L3-L4) to reduce a protussion in the distal-cenital area of L4.

So, maybe you may put your species in a habitat that requires close and precise collaboration for them to avoid extinction (or at least at lot of pain). Note that not everything are advantages: such a language would be slow to use, would be less than useful in unexpected/unknown environments and would evolve very slowly.

  • $\begingroup$ "would evolve very slowly" -- sounds somewhat like Icelandic. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jan 29 '16 at 21:10


They have a secret second language or mode which is never used with outsiders present. This may be linked to maintaining a stable relationship to a second intelligent species. There are human societies where it is almost taboo to express particular modes of thought outside of particular social contexts.

They have a language with a large vocabulary augmented by a large range of subtle modifiers and an unusually rapid acceptance of neologisms. The combination means that there is always a right word existing or coined when the need is manifest, so idioms do not exist. The subtle modifiers may be extremely difficult for an outsider to master or they may be a secret. Some might be nonverbal. Without them mutual comprehension is still possible but the outsiders think that the language is far more literal and crude than it really is.

I do not speak Chinese (meaning any of a large family of related languages and dialects). I was told that because of the tonal nature of the language, every single word is a stack of possible puns: the same sound in different tones. Therefore it is almost impossible to talk without indulging in all sorts of subtle wordplay that will be missed if it is not your mother tongue. Anyone Chinese care to comment?

  • $\begingroup$ Hmm. Interesting idea. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jan 30 '16 at 13:26


While carnivores can be social, they tend to also be highly territorial. This could lead to steady levels of border combat especially involving roaming adolescents, as with lions.

There's no space for idiom and hyperbole in combat situations. Everything has to be literal for risk of responding inappropriately. Information has to be passed accurately and clearly. Running back screaming "There're thousands of them!" when there were merely dozens would mean that a response suitable to thousands could be given. For a tribe under pressure this would mean critical resources pulled away from other tasks, leaving other borders unguarded or food not hunted (and the boy who cried wolf would be given such a thrashing). Since flowery use of language would be a disadvantage to the tribe, idiom wouldn't develop.

  • $\begingroup$ Real-world combat is full of hyperbolic and idiomatic phrases. Depending on context, claiming "thousands" might be obviously hyperbolic. If it could be ambiguous, you can simply switch to "millions", "billions" or "gazillions" to mean "I don't know the exact numbers, but there were a lot more than I could handle by myself". $\endgroup$ – MichaelS Feb 1 '16 at 9:54

Where the ratio of communication with strangers compared with communication with friends is much more strongly weighted towards strangers than in our world.

Idioms develop through frequent use among people likely to understand them. If you take that out of the picture (or strongly diminish it) and make communications much rarer and put more weight on the consequences of those communications, then you have a situation where people are careful with their words and they don't develop idiomatic patterns of speech (which would include non-literal expressions).

So you'd be looking at a fairly solitary species; disinclined to keep a constant peer group. Perhaps nomadic on an individual basis rather than a group basis.

The implications of that, though, are fairly large because peer groups and socialisation have tangible benefits which would need to be addressed.


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