I am not a writer. I have never written any story and I have no idea of what it takes to get this idea into any meaningful narrative. It's more of a thought experiment for me and I formally give the go ahead to anyone who wants to steal the idea for anything creative :)

However, I was thinking that it would be cool to imagine a species (on an independent world where they are bound to be the only dominant species) that somehow lacks the physical ability to emit (or perceive?) sounds, yet through ambient manipulation and social collaboration manages to develop a writing system.

  • How slower or faster would they be, compared to humans, in developing a civilization?
  • Would they try to accelerate communication using technology? Would "gifted" individuals able to emit guttural sounds be considered to the likes of the scribes in our past?
  • Would that over time become speech?
  • Can mathematics be developed?
  • Would religious thinking emerge, with any difference from Earthly myths?
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    $\begingroup$ I guess it would be a sign-language alternative to our civilization. I don't really see how speech plays a central part in most anything. $\endgroup$
    – Sheraff
    Dec 20, 2014 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ Excellent question. I tend to be very contrary to @Sheraff as speech developed before writing. Our cognitive development (that sets humans apart from apes) is highly connected to the ability to speak (not saying there's no way around that in the context of the question!). I therefore claim that not speech but language (but language developed along with speaking) plays a dominant role in most anything. I'd argue that most people even think "lingual". Also: "In the beginning was the Word"... $\endgroup$
    – Ghanima
    Dec 20, 2014 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ I posted an answer to try and make my point. :) $\endgroup$
    – Sheraff
    Dec 20, 2014 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ If it did happen, such a civilization might have better chance of learning about its own origins. Written communication is more durable than spoken communication. $\endgroup$
    – kasperd
    Dec 20, 2014 at 23:39

5 Answers 5


I'm a little nervous posting a answer beside Sheraff's wonderfully documented work of art, but here I go =)

If you hold the view that Evolution thinks and invents, a view that one often must take to imagine new worlds, then Evolution doesn't invent a language willy-nilly. It finds the easiest way to solve a problem, and runs with it. This is because Evolution follows a randomized walk, taking the first solution it finds and running with it. Statistically speaking, this means it will almost always find "the easy way out." Rarely will it find a complicated solution when a simple solution does.

To invent written language without speech implies that, for some reason, there are forces that make it easier to write than to speak, so the easiest path takes Evolution through where you want it to go. This is hard because written language has some disadvantages:

  • It is much slower that speech, so there are a lot of situations that it does not fare wlel in.
  • It requires raw materials, paper and ink equivalents. These resources are consumed in the writing process. Speech just requires a scant few extra calories.
  • It cannot be used to communicate with someone who is not paying attention (this is an issue for ASL)
  • It has to be taught. This forms a feedback loop with the first two disadvantages. Speech needs to be taught too, but its faster and requires less material to teach.

You would need something significant to tip the rules in your favor:

  • Deafness - obviously if your creature cannot hear, it will not learn to speak
  • An auditory preditor - If the number one preditor reliles heavily on passive listening, this would strongly suppress any audible communication
  • Separation - Speech only works if two people are in the same area at the same time. If your species rarely does this, written communications last longer.
  • An existing synergy - If it is easy to develop writing, it may happen. Perhaps the creature's favorite prey is easiest captured using a hyponitic movement similar to writing.

Finally, consider the Octspiders of Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke as an interesting middleground. They are silent, communicating via a specialized strip of cromatophores on their skin, letting them effectively write on their face. They have a visual language built around this organ that works rather like a stock ticker on an exchange floor. This may be a middle ground between speech and writing, because it is a visual language, but it is written transiently on the creature's body.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ But evolution doesn't invent anything - nor does it find anything. It just happens or it doesn't. Things aren't always easy, either. Ever since the first fish breathed a gulp of air land animals have had a harder time seeing than those that stayed wet - the eyeball first developed in water. Try picking out colors as easily as a fish can in near-perfect darkness. Still though - I would agree that sound is probably not a necessity for language. $\endgroup$
    – mikeserv
    Dec 20, 2014 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ @mikeserv: I think I agree with your point, but I may not have worded it the best way (I was anthropomorphizing). Wording it a different way to line up with your comment, evolution comes across things through random processes. Unless you build a world which has rules rewarding what we would call "skipping a step," it becomes increasingly unlikely that evolution will end up evolving your way. The trick is nailing down a world where it is not-unreasonable for evolution to find the state you want it to. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 20, 2014 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ I'd be tempted to reword the start of your answer, then, as it supports a common and fundamental misunderstanding of evolution that you clearly don't share (that it is a purposeful process that actively moves towards an optimal solution to a problem, rather than an observable pattern of randomness and chance). $\endgroup$
    – Ant P
    Dec 21, 2014 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ I like that edit you just made to the answer - wish I could upvote it twice. $\endgroup$
    – mikeserv
    Dec 21, 2014 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the critiques. I've updated slightly to reflect them. I decided to keep the idea of a thinking/inventing Evolution because the "what if" games we need to play when inventing new worlds really supports that way of thinking. All that is needed is something to temper that "thinking" to make it more realistic in light of the actual forces. Thank you for your feedback! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 21, 2014 at 17:36

Let me try to show you the importance of language and that its vector (speech or other) has a minimal impact by answering the following question:

Can we think without speech?

The verb "think" refers to any conscious psychic (ie. mindful, not supernatural) activity, meaning the manipulation of abstract concepts [11]. "Speech" is the human symbolic articulated language. According to these definitions, saying that speech is a necessary condition to thought is like saying an aphasic person isn't capable of any conscious psychic activity, which is fundamentally wrong. But if you take "speech" as "language" — a semantical communication mean [11] — then there is an interesting debate.

Broca's area, a brain region responsible for producing language, is also the center of manual activities recognition [3], which suggests that language and tool manipulation emerged on the basis of a common mechanism: thought [5]. At this stage of human evolution, Homo Erectus spoke a proto-language that didn't allow the expression of abstract concepts [2]; yet, as soon as language appeared, the first forms of art developed, proof of a great abstraction ability [7]. A form of thought emerged from the use of language.

This effect can also be observed in the development of language in kids, that will induce a restructuration of their reasoning ability thus allowing to master more complex forms of abstraction [8]. Moreover, transmission of knowledge happens through language — in its pedagogical function — which contributes to developing thought; without this contribution of language, transmission of knowledge between generations would be greatly diminished and thought would evolve this much less over time.

Finally, the use of words — ie. the use of language — allows to densify complex concepts into simple sentences. This allows to bypass the limitations of human short term memory span [1] and to reach higher levels of abstraction and reasoning, only allowed by the use of language. Language is a basic structure allowing a complex thought mechanism [4].

However, you can find some types of thought that aren't related to language: our "technical and instrumental" thought process [10], some highly abstract Asperger's abilities [9], some perception tasks in monkeys [6].

In the end, language frees the mind by allowing for higher levels of abstraction (even though it constrains the thought by its limited set of concepts).

(1) Atkinson R.C., Shiffrin R.M, (1971) The control processes of short term memory, psychology.

(2) Bickerton, D., (1981) Roots of Language.

(3) Bradshaw, J.-L., (2002) Évolution humaine. Une perspective neuropsychologique, De Boeck.

(4) Chomsky, N., (1968) Le Langage et la Pensée.

(5) Dortier, J.-F., (2004) L'Homme, cet étrange animal. Aux origines de la pensée, du langage et de la culture, Sciences Humaines éditions.

(6) Matsuzawa, T., (1985) Use of numbers by a chimpanzee, Nature 315, 57 - 59.

(7) Noble, W., & Davidson, L., (1996) Human Evolution, Langage and Mind, Cambridge University Press.

(8) Simon, J., (1963) Educational Psychology in the USSR

(9) Tammet, D., (2006) Je suis né un jour bleu.

(10) Vygotsky, Lev., (1962) Thought and Language. The MIT Press.

(11) Wilson, R. & Keil, F. (dir.), (1999) The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (MITECS), The MIT Press.

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    $\begingroup$ An excellent answer - but it presupposes that sound is a requirement for language. Sign language and writing on the other hand both show that this is not so... $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Dec 20, 2014 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ I want to second tim's response, and go further. An alien species evolves differently then us. They could easily be capable of complex thought without any language, rather or not we are. In either case a writing system is, by definition, a language. If their writing system developed the same way our speech did then they have a language to drive their thinking. we didn't need to speak to evolve speech obviously. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Dec 20, 2014 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ Removed the discussion of the references. We like to see claims supported by evidence and so the references are a good idea. However it would be nice to see section/paragraph details on the references and it would be even better if there was an internet-follow-able link to them. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Dec 22, 2014 at 12:28
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB Hey you also removed my answer to your comment! Which was something along the lines of: I talk about spoken language in the intro only, the rest is about language without the necessity of sound — which is why I differentiate "speech" and "language" in the intro. $\endgroup$
    – Sheraff
    Dec 22, 2014 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Sheraff Sorry, must have hit that as well by accident. Unfortunately once I've left the page there's no way to undelete a comment :( $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Dec 22, 2014 at 12:36

I think this question poses something of a false dichotomy. It presupposes the only ways to communicate are spoken word and written language.

Developing communication without spoken word is quite plausible. After all sign language has evolved, independently, all over the world. If you want to presume a more alien creature other languages are possible, such as communicating via scents, or light if the creature is able to generate and modify light. They could have subtle body posturing that is as communicative as sign language while leaving their hand-analogs free etc etc.

Perhaps what you would like to ask is if a creature could develop written language before they develop any type of 'instantaneous' language. I consider sign language instantaneous because you can process it immediately, from across the room, without difficulty, but it does not last beyond the moment, I can't go back and see what you signed 5 minutes ago as I could with writing.

In this case I would say it's possible, but unlikely. Language evolves as a means to communicate information in a pack because of an instant need to communicate. When your verbal communication has only evolved to the equivalent of 10 words and a few dozen sentences these sentences tend to be things of vital importance like "danger tiger hunt there", stuff you don't have time to write down. It's hard to think of a situation where evolutionary pressures would push language to be developed, but not push a species to create an instantaneous means of communication.

The only plausible explanation I can think of is solitary species. If these species don't usually see each other or interact together there would be no need, or reason, to develop an instantaneous communication system. However, many solitary creatures already use a sort of proto written system in the form of scent marking, territory marking, and similar tactics to communicate with other's of their species. In theory something like this could evolve and grow into a real written language between solitary species without a need for driving instantaneous communication.

I say in theory because this is still very hard to have happen. There are a few problems with explaining basic marking developing into a full language, which mostly come down to need. Solitary animals don't need to communicate much with other's of their species, because by definition they won't interact with these creatures often. no real syntax or language will develop without something driving the need for more complex communication.

Thus the best way to justify this I can think of is to create a species that lives closely and has a need to communicate regularly, but for some reason will never be in the same place at once. basically any situation where many creatures live in a relatively close area but must not come into direct contact. Perhaps being close together puts them at a much higher risk of predation. Maybe they live in complex cave system, but if too many amass in one place it will draw the attention of the evil spiders that have webs nearby? something where they are in enclosed area and must collaborate together to survive but don't come into sight/hearing/smelling range regularly. I admit I'm hard pressed to come up with a very good reason for that but then I did say it's unlikely such a system would evolve.

Also keep in mind that any species with a written language that live together will almost instantly develop an instantaneous language through simple practicality. If their smart enough to have a full blown language their smart enough to figure out something they can wag, vibrate, or move to communicate in a faster manner.


Consider the cuttlefish and the octopus. These guys are smart- about as smart as invertebrates get so far as we know- and they communicate through pigment changes in their skin. If one were to imagine a species which operates in this way growing more intelligent and capable of abstract thought, it seems quite conceivable that they may make the leap to symbolic messages to communicate more sophisticated ideas as they are capable of using these. With nimble tentacles it would not be difficult for them to recreate these symbols on another surface - it might be more challenging for them to find something to behave as ink in an aquatic environment. Of course they do already have half the solution to that problem, so they are in a place where this would not be an unreasonable leap.


If species is deaf (cannot hear) it needs to live in environment where hearing (of approaching predator) is not necessary for survival. Sound is vibration of atmosphere. So such world would have to lack atmosphere. That would be tough.

Even ants do hear sounds (air vibration) even if they don't use them for communication (they use chemicals, pheromones for that).

So I think that any evolved (not designed) species will have sound-based communication (among others). Sign language/gestures is nice addition but not a valid replacement. Writing is possible when your species advanced quite a bit from animal surviving in a wilderness, avoiding other predators. Without speech, I cannot see how to get to emergence of basic civilisation.


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