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Assuming we have a race of creatures that breathe out coloured smoke, how could a system of communication or language develop that is based on the colour of said smoke?

Assume they can form sentences or concepts by breathing more than one colour at a time, and multiple colours in succession. Also assume that the creatures need to be able to communicate simple concepts to each other ( such as "follow me" "where are you going?" and "it will talk to you soon") but also can communicate more complex concepts, like love and life and death, even if simplified to more base emotions and concepts (such as 'death' in this language being 'a state of not moving or talking or breathing')

I have tried to use the colour wheel as a start and trying to break down language into colours but I didn't get father than trying to break down language into requests or questions, statements and emotions or exclamations for Red, Yellow and Blue, and trying to fill in the in between colours, including shades of the colours, with concepts and language somehow, but got to the conclusion that language itself is too complex to break down that way.

Perhaps trying to marry two forms of communication in one? Like the colours and the way programs talk to each other over TCP/IP? I am still unsure.

EDIT: I have had some pretty good answers so far but I failed to mention one thing: If possible, I want to avoid a 1-to-1 relationship between colours and letters. I don't want to make a morse code or hex type language or anything like that....I would prefer to have each colour hue and shade represent something. See the example I gave for breaking down language into questions / requests, statements and expressions or feelings...So, less so language and more a system of communication. Think sign language or Cantonese, where each letter or syllable or movement is a concept, not a letter.

Thank you for your answers.

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  • $\begingroup$ How many colours? If they can manage 2 distinct colours, they can manage morse code. If they can manage 27 distinct colours, they can manage English. $\endgroup$ – Pharap Jul 19 '16 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ I would prefer to avoid something that literal, see my edit $\endgroup$ – OddCore Jul 19 '16 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ Reminder to close-voters... $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jul 19 '16 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ You are aware that spoken language also consists of single phonemes? And a syllable consists of several of those phonemes. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Jul 19 '16 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ If you look at Erik Flint's Mother of Demons, the alien race there uses colors to communicate - changing pigmentation on skin rather than colored smoke, though. Also, the colors are used as a secondary communication rather than primary, more like facial expression and body-language combined (largely depicting emotion and context) - but it might give you a starting point. And, even if you want colors to be your primary communication, perhaps deciding on a secondary method (like our gesturing or expressions) will help you flesh out your communication method. $\endgroup$ – Megha Jul 20 '16 at 12:06
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Colors and Chemicals

Colors and chemicals can be used as an effective combination for communication. Since the colored smoke is obviously some kind of gas. It can be mixed with particular scent molecules to convey particular emotion. For example: Color orange mixed with a scent of carrots could indicate and the same with a smell of pumpkins could be used to indicate pumpkins. Also Scent molecules could be easily dissolved with the colored smoke you intend to use. However if you use this communication approach it is possible that you will clog up your atmosphere with a dozen types of scents and possibly disrupt communication between creatures you think of

Sign languages

If the creatures you speak of have highly agile and manipulable limbs they may be using sign language and colors together to communicate. While one of them conveys the gist the other part conveys the full meaning. For example: Pointing to a part of the body while using red colored smoke can be used to convey intense agony or pain in the particular place

While in the example pointing towards a part of the body conveys that what you wish to communicate concerns the part you are pointing to while the color red (Or anything else you desire) may indicate a particular feeling in that part (Like agony in the above example)

Sounds are not dead yet

Sounds can also be used effectively with color wherein color will be used to speak quickly (Light is much faster compared to sound) and convey the basic part of the communication while sound is used to specify what your talking about

Why Evolution of a completely color based system of communication is Unlikely

Colors if they are wish to be seen require light. Since the animals you speak of are using colored smoke it would be very ineffective at night time or in darkness or even semi darkness. Also complete dependence on color is very undesirable because it puts all the communication load on a single stimulus. Also a redundant method of communication something other than color is necessary so that members of this species who unfortunately can't see are also able to communicate. However the major drawback of this method would be that it would be basically no use in darkness and would have to be complemented by something if it is indeed to be used during nighttime.

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  • $\begingroup$ I will consider it but I was thinking of limiting the language to the colour of the smoke $\endgroup$ – OddCore Jul 19 '16 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ The night problem could be circumvented if they can emit luminescent smoke. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Jul 19 '16 at 16:46
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Let's assume they can breathe out the following colors:

  • Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Indigo
  • Violet
  • Black
  • White

And let's assume they can breathe out up to three at one time without mixing them (they would be left/center/right). And further let's assume that white is a reserved as a space or separator.

This would allow:

  • 8 permutations of 1 color.
  • 56 permutations of 2 colors.
  • 336 permutations of 3 colors.

For a total of 400 permutations. Meaning the language can have a character base of 400 characters.

We can set aside 350 for common words (Example of 300 top most common words in English: http://www.hkjs.edu.hk/~hkjspri/english-sightwords.pdf), and this leaves 50 characters to combine for other words.

White, then, can be used as a pause (space) and a longer stream of white would be a longer pause (typically taken as a period). So you could easily have a very powerful, expressive language.

Edit for Asker's Edit

Just take my answer, but have 400 concepts instead of use any of the combinations used for letters.

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It all depends on the ability not only to generate colours, but also to see colours.

We have the three additive primaries (red, green, blue), the three subtractive primaries which are just mixtures of two additive primaries, and the two achromatic colours black (no colour) and white (all colours). Note the total number of $8 = 2^3$, derived from the presence or absence of each of the primary colours. Of course we can see more colours than that, but due to its essentially binary encoding, this eight-colour system should be quite robust also under many lighting conditions.

If they can generate two colours at the same time, and they don't mix, then assuming you don't have spatial encoding (so you can as easily read the message from behind as from the front), then you'd get 36 different "chromemes" (analogous to our phonemes): 8 single-coloured and 28 two-coloured. That's certainly something enabling quite an elaborate language. Note however that "smoke-speaking" will be inherently slower than sound-speaking, as the smoke needs some time to dissolve (however their smoke might consist of substances that quickly decay into uncoloured gas in order to enable faster communication).

But then, they might be able to see/distinguish more colours than we do. For example, they may be tetrachromats, that is, have 4 instead of 3 types of clour receptors (for example, birds are tetrachromats). Then the same scheme as above would lead to $2^4=16$ easily distinguishable colours, and a two-colour system as above would lead to 136 chromemes, enabling a much faster communication. Indeed, one could even imagine that a species that's so dependent on colours develops five different colour receptors; such pentachromats would be able to easily distinguish 32 different colours, and a two-colour scheme would lead to 528 different chromemes. That should certainly be enough to effectively communicate.

Note that with tetrachromats/pentachromats, humans could not be able to decode the language from just what they see with their own eyes (but they might using technical equipment); different chromemes would look the same to them. This may or may not be useful for your purpose.

Now just as with phonemes, there will be certain chromemes that are easy to emit after each other, and others that are less easy. For example, with phonemes, it's much easier to say "hello" than to say "prklsh". With chromemes, the easiest changes might be those between single-coloured and double-coloured, followed by changes only changing one of the colours. But there may be also differences depending on from what colour to what colour is switched. Assuming the smoke operates strictly on the subtracting model, it would probably be easiest to change between colours that only remove or only add (for example, for the trichromate model with human seeing ability, it would be easier to change from red to yellow, than to change from red to green, or from red to cyan). This would shape the "syllables" of the colour smoke language.

Note that with the pentachromate model, there are up to 278,784 two-chromeme "syllables" (in spoken language, a two-phoneme syllable might be e.g. "re" or "la"). Since almost all English speakers know less than about 30,000 words that's more than enough to have all words covered by two-chromeme syllables, even with restrictions on what combinations are possible.

Indeed, even the combinations of a one-colour chromeme followed by a two-colour chromeme allows 16,896 words, twice as many if the reverse order is also possible. So one-colour chromemes could take the role of vocals, two-colour chromemes the role of consonants, and single syllable words with one vocal and one consonant should cover all common communication needs.

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I'm not sure i can help you on the very complex and the method but a simple communication shouldn't be hard.

White smoke: yes

Black smoke:no

Dark Red smoke: Danger

Lighter red: displeasure, or in some context hate.

Blue: safety

Light Blue: pleasure Or in some context love

Orange: their equivalent of a question mark. Or in some context I don't know.

Yellow: mimic or obey.

Light green: you

Dark green:us

Purple: them or him.

Dark grey: me.

With these basic concepts and ideas you can construct a lot of basic Communications. If you include some basic body language in with you're different colored smoke you are a language can be even more expressive.

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