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As the topic asks, what could an aquatic civilization use to write on/with?

By aquatic, I mean they live in the oceans, breathe water, etc. -- like mermaids and such. And they are trying to create a way to write in that underwater environment, rather than having a gas pressure dome of any sort.

Edit - additional curiosity: Would tattooing onto skins work?

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    $\begingroup$ Wax tablets perhaps? With a stylus? $\endgroup$ – Bookeater Oct 27 '16 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps with punctures to seaweed rather than with an ink upon it. It might look like braille. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Oct 27 '16 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting Q and A's. Something to note, if the writing is visible then the merefolk live close enough to the surface to have some sunlight or have harnessed bio-luminecence. They may be very bio smart. If the merefolk live deeper the record would more likely be tactile and this could be easiest with scratches. I would just start work on evolving lungs. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Oct 29 '16 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ Yesterday my little brother showed me a waterproof notebook he takes on Scouting trips, on which you can write underwater with a pencil. Something like this: amazon.com/Rite-Rain-Notebook-Journal-393/dp/B001PD28JM/… There are some kinds that you can write on with a normal pencil, or your merpeople can just consider our special pencils normal. $\endgroup$ – MissMonicaE Oct 31 '16 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ yahoo.com/style/live-best-mermaid-life-diy-004000763.html (no endorsement intended!) $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Oct 31 '16 at 19:47

15 Answers 15

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Quipu is an option. This was the Andean "writing" system, which consisted of colored string with coded knot patterns. Supposedly Hawaiians and Chinese also experimented with similar schemes. That ought to work just fine underwater.

It was pointed out in the comments that this would require access to some kind of fiber with which to make string that would hold up underwater. I believe this is likely to be a given though, as any society without access to that would also not be able to make clothes, nets (eg: fishing nets), ropes, or any other kind of cordage. There are semi-aquatic plants (eg: reeds) that have been historically used for this purpose, as well as animal sinew.

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    $\begingroup$ Wasn't Quipu more of an accounting device ancientscripts.com/quipu.html $\endgroup$ – slobodan.blazeski Oct 27 '16 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ @slobodan.blazeski - We aren't sure. That is the one application of it of which we are certain. However, its likely every culture's writing initially started off as an accounting device. There are some uses of Quipu that have not been translated, and it seems a reasonable supposition that those were being used for other kinds of information (since we have the Quipu numbering system translated). $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Oct 27 '16 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ It would be difficult to preserve such fibers in water, let alone acquire them $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Oct 27 '16 at 21:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Zxyrra That would imply they have no way to make any kind of cordage whatsoever. Cordage was one of the critical components of the Mesolithic toolkit. It would be an interesting question if civilization is even possible without that, and what it would look like. $\endgroup$ – T.E.D. Oct 28 '16 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ Quipu was much more than an accounting device. The system of tying strings onto other strings permitted data to be structured in much the way that a hierarchical database does. This permitted an enormous level of sophistication in their recording and transmission of commerce data. This was very important in a civilization with no written alphabet an an empire like Rome's. $\endgroup$ – Walter Mitty Oct 28 '16 at 7:15
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Cuneiform

Cuneiform impressions on hydraulic cement using a fish-bone stylus.

The cement is made by mining (on the continental shelf) portlandite and keeping it inside a waterproof membrane. Heat is then applied to the portlandite to dissociate it into calcium hydroxide solution. Steam bubbles inside the membrane are allowed to escape until the contents become a thick slurry of slaked lime. Then you have a couple hours to write on it before it cools down.

Printing blocks

This concept is the same as movable type, but instead of using the type to print onto paper, the type becomes the text. Useful for temporary writings.

Use blocks like the Harrapan civilization script with symbols inscribed on them. Then you can string the symbols together to form words, as in Chinese, or ancient Egyptian. The symbols inscribed on blocks would be attached to some sort of board to be sent to someone else to read. That other person could then recycle the symbols when he wanted to write a new letter.

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Writing is nothing more than forming characters on a substance. Ink pens work above the water because the ink can dry; not something that's possible in the deep blue sea. However, there is another writing implement that works just as well in the water as out: pencils.

Early writing

Carved rocks are no different above the water than below it; get something sharp and get carving. It takes a while, but it works just fine.

Later writing

Pencils, or indeed any soluble substance that can be smeared on another surface (like clay or lead) will work just fine. Writing surfaces will likely be flat rocks, shells, or bones - anything with a broad, rough surface.

Printing

Printing is a little more difficult; water-soluble ink is simple to make, store, and distribute. Instead, the mer-creatures will need to invent either a non-water-based ink; oil-based is likely the easiest. Once you have an ink, the rest is easy. And, once you have an oil-based ink, you can make ball-point pens.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Once you have an ink, the rest is easy." Not really. Water would get mixed up in the ink while it's being processed, which would mess it up more than air bubbles (in part because gases are compressible and liquids aren't.) $\endgroup$ – MissMonicaE Oct 27 '16 at 19:23
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    $\begingroup$ @MissMonicaE Water and oil simply don't mix; even if they do, just let it sit for a minute and it will separate. $\endgroup$ – ArmanX Oct 27 '16 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ Oil-based printing ink is really stiff, so it wouldn't just separate. (If it did, you might also have to deal with the oil floating up into the "sky.") However, it's possible that when you roll the ink onto your block and/or type, it would be a thin enough layer that the bubbles would be released then. $\endgroup$ – MissMonicaE Oct 27 '16 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ If you (OP) decide to go with oil-based printing (or writing) ink, remember to take into account that you need oil-permeable paper or paper-substitute that won't disintegrate in water. Perhaps this could be achieved by a similar process to regular papermaking that uses oil instead of water? I don't know; I've done a fair amount of printmaking but my papermaking experience is essentially nil. $\endgroup$ – MissMonicaE Oct 27 '16 at 19:42
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    $\begingroup$ Oil won't "float into the sky" unless you tip over the container, which obviously is normally open toward the floor. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Oct 28 '16 at 0:04
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On the back of a flat fish whose skin changes color in response to pressure. Then just shake the fish to reset the skin. A living chalk board.

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    $\begingroup$ Or even: a living Etch-a-Sketch, who would presumably be about as satisfied with his lot in life as all of the Flintstones' appliances were. (Cue tiny mammoth under sink, acting as garbage disposal: "Eh, it's a living") $\endgroup$ – DSKekaha Oct 28 '16 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ Yes! Underwater Flintstones! Awesome! $\endgroup$ – jomki Oct 28 '16 at 22:03
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Carving into stone like many ancient civilizations would still work. Additionally they could make paper like printings using a needlepoint type procedure to embroider text into thin fabric.

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  • $\begingroup$ how would fabric be made underwater? I guess seaweed? but there's no way to cure it? Nothing would last. Hides can't be cured... $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Oct 28 '16 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby One possibility is gold thread like the ancient Egyptians did. Another option, if we're not constrained to earth, is something akin to cotton. A naturally occurring fiber that can be spun and used on a loom wouldn't require a curing process. $\endgroup$ – Mathily Oct 28 '16 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ I mean I am looking at earth as the model--just because that's what we have. There's no naturally occurring fiber that I know of in the ocean that wouldn't just rot away. As for gold thread--do you know how hard that is to do? paternosters.blogspot.com/2008/08/threads-of-silk-and-gold.html $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Oct 29 '16 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ You would be looking for a naturally occurring underwater fiber that lasts in seawater. As far as I know, on earth, there isn't anything like this. You could make up something in that world that does occur like this, but as far as I can tell, in order for them to have fabric, you would have to invent a plant unlike what we have here on earth. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Oct 29 '16 at 13:01
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You haven't stated how technologically advanced your civilization is, but assuming they're similar to present-day Earth, you have several options available:

Some of these might require some extra waterproofing to work underwater, but the concepts should work fine.

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  • $\begingroup$ i'd think it is obvious that any method has to be as low tech as possible allow for a civilization to develop it... $\endgroup$ – Durakken Oct 27 '16 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Durakken The details in the question are very low. Perhaps humans just discovered this civilization, and want to provide a way for them to write. Perhaps we are genetically engineering a new race, but want to make sure they have all the tools before they move into their new habitat. There could be many reasons that aren't addressed in the question. $\endgroup$ – GentlePurpleRain Oct 27 '16 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, but even with that I'd always go with the assumption of lowest tech possible and move up from that. That's just me though. $\endgroup$ – Durakken Oct 27 '16 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ The Boogie Board makes me laugh! I remember “magic slate”. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 28 '16 at 7:32
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Bones, sticks, and rocks tied together like a Marshall Islands stick chart.

Perhaps more sticks and fewer rocks to deliberately make it float, or more rocks and fewer sticks to make it sink, or perhaps just enough to make it neutrally balanced.

The bones and sticks (and possibly, with much more effort, the rocks) could be notched like ogham inscriptions or tally sticks or perhaps carved like Ammassalik wooden maps or oracle bones.

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You could think about approaching it like braille? Have a tablet with lots of buttons arranged like a checkered sheet of paper. Each dot/square can be pushed in to form a letter or word and the sheet can be easily reset by pushing all the buttons back out again.

They could have a tool specifically designed for the purpose of pushing these buttons, with each finger (or whatever they have) controlling one of the mechanisms in the tool, which push in the buttons. Obviously this works best with a language that does not have a tonne of different letters

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I actually really like the tattooing onto skin idea, or even precision scarring.

For instance, the civilization could have a low/slave caste that basically only exist as slates to write on.

Or slightly friendlier an order of scribes that offer their bodies to preserve history and technology.

On death the skin could be removed and cured (Not sure what the process would be to preserve it underwater), then rolled as scrolls or bound into books.

If they don't want to use their own people, maybe use the skin of aquatic mammals like dolphins or seals.

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  • $\begingroup$ It bares asking how long would these skins be 1) readable and 2) preserved? As in how long before the text fades and/or the material begins to break down. Writing on skins would be fairly useless if it can't last a while. $\endgroup$ – Durakken Oct 28 '16 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ Hence why I said "could" and not "would". Worst case scenario text would be passed down per generation (Like in the movie Bulletproof Monk), thus preserving it through the living. There is not enough information on the people, their sea life, or even the raw materials available for (or even the possibility) of tanning underwater. $\endgroup$ – Lu22 Oct 29 '16 at 8:02
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I have been pondering your question and finally came up with a way to make fabric and thread: http://marinelife.about.com/od/glossary/g/byssalthread.htm

This stuff is made from the fibers mussels use to attach to things. There would have to be an abundance of them in order to make as much as would be needed for writing.

All of the other stuff, like seaweed, or leather, can't really be cured properly enough to do that.

The other way that writing would most commonly happen would have to be via carving--using rock and coral.

As to printing, that's far more difficult to do underwater and would have to be developed gradually. I would think a hydraulic press making impressions in stone would be helpful (if, indeed something like that could even work outside the water.

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With

  • Sharpened shark cartilage with squid ink or fish blood
  • Sea Urchin spikes with squid ink or fish blood

On

  • Seaweed, this has the problem that it will rot or crack over time.
  • Sand dollars, this is good but you will need it to be dry when writing
  • Mud tablets, when wet then left to dry, this has the decided disadvantages of being permanent and hard to dry
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    $\begingroup$ Squid ink and fish blood both sound water soluble. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Oct 27 '16 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion until dried $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Oct 27 '16 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ How do you propose drying them if we live in oceans, and wanting to "write in that environment" without a gas dome or somesuch thing? $\endgroup$ – Delioth Oct 27 '16 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Delioth gas domes aren't a bad idea after all. Easy to harvest (at least until humans become common, by which time you better learn electrolysis) and store (oily algae should do) $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Oct 27 '16 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ Gas domes are a bad idea for a species that breathes water. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Oct 28 '16 at 0:01
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Burning, either by chemical means or by naturally occurring geothermal heat sources would be a reliable method of writing.

This would probably take the form of "branding" the writing surface (like cattle branding), maybe with a heated metal stylus.

The act of burning a writing surface also opens up a wide array of writing surface mediums that can conveniently be used.

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  • $\begingroup$ By 'burning', are you referring to oxidation, structural change due to heat, or both? $\endgroup$ – Hohmannfan Oct 28 '16 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ I guess that would be up to the author, and the context of the story. My personal thought out plot-line was that if a civilization were near underwater volcanoes. They may utilize them for not only geothermal energy, but also use the thermal vents to heat their writing instruments. Writing could be done on marine animal skins (as an example) But I guess a lot of that just depends on the overall setting for the civilization. So I guess my idea was more along the lines of structural change, but that is open to interpretation. $\endgroup$ – Terry Oct 28 '16 at 15:22
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Fisher Space Pens work underwater--there's your pen. Obviously, that's only an answer for a technological civilization, though, they will have to have used something else first.

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  • $\begingroup$ This duplicates the answer from 3 hours ago. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 28 '16 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz I do not see what this is a dupe of. Pens are mentioned in some other answers but the Fisher Space Pen takes a totally different approach--it is not based on a solvent in the first place, and thus water-base vs oil-base isn't a relevant concept. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Oct 28 '16 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ It’s been deleted. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Oct 28 '16 at 22:14
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Provided they have access to some rudimentary form of chisel (a particularly hard piece of igneous rock would work, found near an underwater volcano) they could simply chisel characters into stone underwater.

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They could punch shapes into kelp, holding it up to the surface if needed to get light to shine through, or back lighting it while "indoors". The shapes could be based off of a simpler shape like how cuneiform is made from the styled triangles or braille from dots. Longer lasting records just need a hardier material, and permanent ones can use the same writing system carved onto rocks just like on land.

As for your bonus questions - I can't comment on if ink tattooing would work, but there are many other forms of body art that have been around for thousands of years. Scarification always interested me and can often be as complex as tattoos

Scarification

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