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This question is a subsidiary of: Shapeshifters - Shared language between human and animal forms There is some of background information in that question, but none of it is critical for this question.


Human languages with as few as 10 phonemes exist.

With this in mind, is there sufficient overlap between the vocal range between wolves and humans to construct a shared language with at least 10 phonemes? For the purposes of this question, assume the wolves have human-level intelligence.

(Note: I am also interested in the same question with respect to humans and other mid-size mammals, but am sticking to wolves for now for simplicity. If you happen to have relevant information for other species feel free to share it in the comments or as a footnote to your answer)

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, languages with very few phonemes exist, but are extremely limited in what they can express. In the example language you point out, the speakers can not even differentiate between mother and father (it's the same word). They also don't have words for numbers, just a word meaning "small quantity" and one meaning "large quantity". So you need to specify how precise communications you expect humans and wolves to have. $\endgroup$ – semi-extrinsic Feb 10 '16 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ Another point to consider is whether wolves are capable of forming both consonants and vowels. As far as I know, no human languages exist that don't have both; having both is what lets the language have syllables. $\endgroup$ – semi-extrinsic Feb 10 '16 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ A third point is whether to allow sign language. That is probably the option most likely to succeed, since scientists have been successful in training animals (with sub-human intelligence) to communicate using sign language. $\endgroup$ – semi-extrinsic Feb 10 '16 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for breaking up your questions Runic, this is much easier to work with. $\endgroup$ – James Feb 10 '16 at 16:12
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I had to think about this one because I wanted to find a way to make it work, but I don't think there is a way to accomplish what you are looking for, at least, not in the way you are thinking.

Having two different species that are that different converse in what we consider a language just isn't possible, though it would admittedly be cool if you could.

I think I have a suggestion if you are willing to adjust your view just a little bit though.

You are approaching this question from two separate perspectives. A wolf perspective and a human perspective.

In the case of your story though these polymorphs would naturally blend their two forms. If they move in and out of their forms regularly from an early age they would be just as comfortable in either skin, so to speak. The point here is that they are not humans that turn into wolves nor are they wolves that can turn into humans. If they are true hybrids and live in both worlds communication between members of the tribe would, by necessity, have to be developed naturally. It would be both wolf and word and probably significantly weighted toward communication methods both can use, mainly sight, touch, gestures.

So I guess I am saying that a hunting or war party from your wolf tribe, not to mention those going about their daily life in the camp/village, would naturally develop a way to communicate with either form and the combination of all those verbal and non-verbal methods could be your language.

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  • $\begingroup$ "This won't work" is still a useful answer. I am becoming convinced that some sort of hybrid approach is likely the best option here. Assuming no other answers in the next few days, I will mark this as the accepted answer. $\endgroup$ – Runic-Scribe Feb 11 '16 at 5:39
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I don't think this can happen. For one thing a wolf has a higher range than a human so the speech would be uncomfortably high for humans and low for wolves. This would over the long term damage the vocal cords. Also the wolves communicate through sign language/body language as much as any sounds. Humans would struggle to mimic this. The best you can get would be a hard to speak, primitive language. If however the wolves are intelligent you could consider a simple writing form based in straight lines. Humans could use writing to tell the wolves things and they could reply by drawing simple straight line characters, it would be slow and primitive but better than trying to talk.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is a actually a moderate overlap between human and wolf vocal ranges. Fundamental frequency range for humans is around 85 - 255 Hz (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voice_frequency), and 21 - 1,003 Hz (mean 274 - 908 Hz) for wolves (flore.unifi.it/retrieve/handle/2158/392852/13343/…) . I would expect the greater difficulty would be in mimicing sounds, but have no concrete evidence one way or the other. $\endgroup$ – Runic-Scribe Feb 11 '16 at 5:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Runic-Scribe Yeah, I guess you could be right. Mimicking sounds would be hard for humans and wolves. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Feb 11 '16 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ Humans and canids hear far more than they can vocalize, so even if dogs are high and humans low, the words could be the same. $\endgroup$ – The Nate Feb 12 '16 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ That and humans can understand their own single-digit-year-old children, whose fundamental frequency is closer to that of canines. $\endgroup$ – Damian Yerrick Apr 16 '16 at 0:35

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