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Some background on the shapeshifters in question:

Shapeshifters can shift between a human form and a single animal form; all the members of a given group of shapeshifters shift into the same species of animal. Animal forms are generally mammals in a similar mass range to humans.

  • Human form - Mostly human physiology, with some adaptations - enhanced vision, hearing, etc.
  • Animal form - Mostly animal physiology, with some modifications - altered brain structure, more nimble digits.

Given as these are shapeshifters, some wiggle room is in physiology is possible if necessary - e.g. modified voicebox, etc.


I am aiming for these shapeshifters to have a shared language between their human and animal forms. Such a language should be reasonably advanced, and capable of handling complex concepts, on a similar level to most human languages. This is intended to be the primary language of the species, but they may also be fluent in other languages (animal or human).

I am aware that fairly complex languages have been documented among animals - the main idea here is to have a cross-species language.

While the shapeshifters reside in a fairly magical world, their shapeshifting is a hereditary ability rather than a learned spell, As such, I am trying to minimize the amount of magic required to make this work.

For the purposes of this question, example animal forms include wolves and deer.

My question is:

  1. Is such a shared language feasible?

    • Is there a logistical limit to how complex such a language could be?
  2. What would such a language be like?

    • Vocalizations - what is the overlap between the phonemes that could be comfortably produced by a human and a wolf? A human and a deer?
    • Body language - how well would it to transfer between quadrupedal and bipedal forms?
    • Other potential features of such a language?
  3. Given the answers to the above, how well would two seperate groups of shapeshifters (where each group has a different animal form) using such a language be able to understand each other?

    • Would it be more like two dialects of the same language, two closely related languages, or two completely different languages?
    • Related: How much variation in vocal range is there between different mammilian species? Body language?

There is a somewhat similar question here, although it approaches the concept from the opposite direction - how would an animal speak an existing human language (rather than designing a language to make it easy for an animal to speak).

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    $\begingroup$ There's quite a bit here. I appreciate your desire to get it all very neatly in one question, but you may find you get better answers if you separate it into three different questions, linked together. Generally multi-question posts like this grow too broad very quickly. $\endgroup$ – DonyorM Feb 9 '16 at 4:27
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    $\begingroup$ The obvious solution is, of course, magic. Since these shape shifters can change their voice boxes, combine that with a little bit of magic and they can speak any language. However, this doesn't seem to be what you want, so you might want to include that you don't want magic included in an answer, unless absolutely necessary. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Feb 9 '16 at 4:36
  • $\begingroup$ @DonyorM - While I could agree that this is definitely touching on too broad, I broke the question up into separate pieces in an attempt to clarify what I was actually asking - the core of the question is contained within point (2); (1) helps to give a lead-in to the main question, and (3) is mostly just adding more constraints. Perhaps I have a bit of needless complexity in the way I asked the question? $\endgroup$ – Runic-Scribe Feb 9 '16 at 4:55
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    $\begingroup$ Is there a real need for it to be the same language? It seems like it would be far simpler for humans to speak a human language and wolves to speak a wolf language, and for everyone of the species to simply be bilingual. Your main concern would be trying to understand each of a thousand different animals, but you're going to run into that anyways. A deer and a wolf make very different sounds. $\endgroup$ – MichaelS Feb 9 '16 at 5:17
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    $\begingroup$ This is a cool question but there is simply way too much content to cover in a single answer. My best suggestion would be to start with question #1 for a specific human-animal pairing and then ask follow on questions as necessary, though you could probably slide the portion about shared phonemes in as well. $\endgroup$ – James Feb 9 '16 at 19:18
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Animals do not - generally - have voice boxes as complex as those of humans. Scientists believe that our ability to speak complex sounds played a major role in our becoming the dominant species on the planet.

And so, asking us what a shared language might sound like, or be vocalized as is not an answerable question. Simply put, animals such as dogs/cats/wolves/deer cannot reproduce human speech.

That being said, your "animals" are actually shape-shifted humans.

Personally, I think that in animal form these people should not posses the full faculties and personalities of their human shapes, because their animal forms would give them access to a different way of perceiving the world (through a much more enhanced sense of smell, for example), while generally reducing the size of their brains (which is bound to impact intelligence/personality)

If this is the case, then they would not rely on speech in the same way that we do. A certain growl, whine, or barring of the fangs can speak volume between animals.

That being said, their voice boxes don't have to be as rudimentary as that of the species they are mimicking - after all, magic is involved here! Their voice boxes can be somewhere in between that of a human and that of the animal which would allow them significant speaking abilities.

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Animals have, for the most part, more limited selection of vocalizations than we do. Where that holds true, the animal side is the lowest common denominator. Where it's not, the human side might be the limit. Point is, a language needs some scheme for discriminating between meanings and this must be fast*. These must be sufficiently clear** to work, so they must differ between animals.

(*if "look out" takes 15s to say, you got problems. Same with needing to scream "There's danger here, let's be quiet."

**If "Pleased to meet you." sounds like "Aren't you an irritating prig?" you got other problems.)

Single language: Animal forms' sounds are interpreted as equivalent to human form sounds to native shifter speaker ears though these are, in fact, complex encodings that work for each form and may not relate very much.

(If this is a phoneme-level equivalence, they'd even be able to repeat unfamiliar words in both forms, possibly for classification of what they heard.)

These mappings could differ between languages, so a wolf man from Mongolia may well not be able to speak to a wolf man from North America. The languages are one and pronunciation slack covers the form differences. Humans could learn both forms, in that case, but would likely be limited to speaking the human form.

A very related option is that roots of words and modifiers or words themselves are understood as equivalent.

Since native shifter speakers are so bilingual and syntax is identical, they likely would not understand why it's hard to tell "yip low-whine" is the same as "whoo me" unless they study other languages.

Forked tongues: Shifters have a primal tongue that almost matches their animal's native tongue. In this take, their language builds that up.

Certain words and concepts require significantly more time in animal form to convey, because the limits on pronunciation require a form of encoding anything beyond the primal tongue. That keeps the basics fast yet allows further communication options for higher concepts.

The root parts of their human and animal languages would be very similar, s.t. shifters of the same our even similar sorts with different languages would be able to communicate with each other, but higher concepts would be hindered by lack of knowledge of a specific language.

Advanced innate: You could also just assume a more advanced primal tongue for these, which would make learned language exclusively an abstract (possibly academic) thing. That's kinda like saying "it's magic", though.

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You give yourself a huge amount of wiggle room when you say that the physiology in each form may not be exactly "standard", including the possibility of a modified voicebox.

My original thought as I began to read your question was that it would be very difficult, as it is likely that the given animal's voicebox is not capable of producing human speech.

But if you assume that when the werezebra turns into his zebra form he has a more human-like voicebox, I would think the problem pretty much goes away. At that point you simply assert that both the human and animal forms have voiceboxes capable of producing whatever language you want him to produce in your story.

Are we assuming that in the human form they must be capable of reasonably normal human speech? If so, then the animal-form voice box must be close to human, rather than the other way around or something midway.

Body language would be harder. Clearly a zebra-form cannot make the same sort of hand gestures that a human-form can. But does this matter? People are perfectly capable of communicating without seeing each other's body language. Such as when writing, or when talking on the telephone. 

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