In my world there are bipedal insectoid creatures (think kind of like the grasshoppers from Bug's Life) who are sentient and communicate primarily through pheromone signals, with some body language involved.

Humans have recently discovered this race, however humans are unable to read or emit the pheromone communications used by the insectoid race, and the insects have no vocal chords with which to create human-like speech.

So far the 2 possibilities I've thought of are:

  • Communication through written language, the insectoid race have hands capable of grasping things, so could hold writing utensils, and they have the intelligence to learn human reading/writing.
  • A subsidiary race to act as an intermediary, who evolved alongside the insectoid race and are able to communicate with them via pheromones, but are still mammalian enough that they can use vocal communication with humans

My problem with these solutions is that the former seems somewhat uninspired, and the latter seems like the entire purpose of the race would be to provide intermediary communication between the insects and the humans, which feels like a bit of an ex-machina to me.

What other feasible ways could the 2 species communicate, and/or how could the above ideas be improved?

Edit: To give a little more context, the world is roughly European medieval technology level, and there's no magic, so "babel fish"-esque translation devices are out of the question.

The setting is very much a fantasy setting, but I'm still trying to go for a sort of "low" fantasy setting, so I'm sticking to realism and feasibility where possible (overlooking the fact that human-sized insectoid creatures would have to be significantly different to insects due to size difference).

The insects are subterranean, and tend to keep to their hives, which is why the humans have only recently discovered them. In terms of technology level, they're around late bronze age/early iron age, far behind humans, but have demonstrated that they have an early iron age understanding of metallurgy, and, given that they have evolved beyond the hegemonic hive-mind structure of their ancestors (despite still being very closely bonded to their hive), they have shown their ability to pass knowledge to their offspring, and they have rudimentary education systems in place.

The insectoid race can also make a sort of chittering sound with their mandibles, although while this can be done at will similarly to human laughing, it is usually an instinctive action when feeling angry or threatened.

To answer the question of why they might want to communicate in the first place, the insects would like to communicate with the humans in order to gain knowledge and hopefully advance their own technological understanding, the humans would like to communicate because a specific faction of the humans are particularly interested in communication with and study of new species, many of which are recently and suddenly popping up in the world.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Mayube! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. The question How could pixie to human two-way communication work? might give you some ideas. Have fun on the site! $\endgroup$ – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Jun 26 '17 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ How have the humans discovered this race? It sounds a bit as if they had discovered that they are intelligent, so something must have happened to identify the intelligence? Also please tell us if the bugs have some kind of technology or are just animals that happen to be smart enough to develop stuff in principal but not have done so so far? Do they use any tools? Also note that this discussion happened here before, transmitting complex/abstract messages as needed for about human intelligence via pheromones is rather complicated and unpractical - maybe you should explain that part further $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 26 '17 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ Furthermore, please note that intelligence is a rather human concept and in that regard even a rather western concept. Any way to quantify intelligence so far without considering socialization and culture of the individuals has failed in my opinion. There are several tests for animal intelligence, but they are borderline pseudoscientific. I think you should explain exactly what you mean by intelligence. This might sound stupid, you could say "just like humans", but in that case I would specify this as a "fantasy" setting and different answers are needed $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 26 '17 at 11:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 it is very much a fantasy setting, but I'm still trying to go for a sort of "low" fantasy setting, so I'm sticking to realism and feasibility where possible (overlooking the fact that human-sized insectoid creatures would have to be significantly different to insects due to size difference) $\endgroup$ – Skidsdev Jun 26 '17 at 11:05
  • $\begingroup$ Pictures are probably the easiest way for them to communicate, that way the insects don't need to learn to read. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Jun 26 '17 at 11:13

I think the more important question is: Why even communicate?

If we are dealing with pure scientific curiosity, the level at which communication is taking place would be rather basic. You have already mentioned body language. This is a very popular strategy of how humans have tried to communicate with other species. People that do not speak the same language in general often depend heavily to body language as well in order to get their message across, even though both parties communicate through sound. With some patience, one can communicate on a semi-practical level even, check out contacting "lost tribes". Those of course are not a 100% fitting cases, but cases nonetheless. You might have to live with the fact that a deep, philosophical conversation might be as simple as it is amongst humans.

Things get more complicated though if there is a true need for communications. I want to pick one particular case: A treaty has to be negotiated, be it for trade, exchange, peace or territory. The reason behind it does not matter as much. I do not like the written alphabetical language idea either simply because we write our language in sounds and they would write their language in chemicals. We cannot even decipher some of our own (lost) languages, how are medieval people going to manage that task? I do not say it is impossible, but especially given their tech level the ants might have to invent writing first (depending on what you mean by bronze/iron age).

There however is another way: A pictographic/ideographic written language. Please stay with me, I will tell you in a moment how this does look like without writing. I do not believe that if you want true correspondence between the two races you get to not have a language that can't be made permanent. However, it could be as basic and clear as possible. This is how most likely any written language has developed. Do not confuse this with them having hands to draw. They can paint with their behinds for example, insects like to use their full body for stuff. Since the humans are the more developed race, it would only seem logical that they introduced them to the concept of paper if needed. Also I should note that I am not aware of any human cooperation between different people that has ever done something lasting, positive and worth remembering without writing (maybe partially because nobody wrote it done and now it doesn't matter anymore). Also please note that any contact by humans would be on the basis of what they know and are used to. A medieval guy will not suddenly come up with the most creative approach ever because he was so inspired by the (mediocre) movie "Arrival".

Here is some further, related reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkish

Yes, you explicitly stated you did not want that way, but I hope I explained why you should reconsider. If you hate the idea of writing so much, do not think 2D. Think 3D. A pot can be an actual pot made out of clay (something we used to write on a lot), a cow can be a clay cow. Insects can form those objects because they really like to put stuff in their mouths, chew it a couple of times and then spit it out and make something out of it. So how do you make a 3D treaty? Well, I think this is rather intuitive and maybe even awesome. If this point is unclear, I could elaborate on it.

I would like to give you more details on how I would go about such things, but I feel like at this point one would have to know what the specific reason is those races came in contact with each other initially, stayed in contact for ever since and what reasons they have for communicating now.

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    $\begingroup$ Edit: I'll add my answer to the question of why they want to communicate to the OP for clarity $\endgroup$ – Skidsdev Jun 26 '17 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Mayube At first glance I do not really feel a need to edit and elaborate because I think I covered both reasons. If you think differently, I might change something at one point if I know how to do it $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 26 '17 at 12:33

Can the insectoids hear over a similar range of frequencies as humans? Then they can learn to understand human language, even if they can't speak it. That's half of the problem solved.

If they can't hear human speech properly, then presumably they can at least see. Thus, they could learn to understand human sign languages. Again, that's half the problem solved.

Now, they may not have vocal cords, but are they capable of producing any sounds at all? Then they could create a sound-based code for their language, or a code for a human language (e.g. Morse code) to allow them to speak back to humans. Or, although their hands and arms are unlikely to be of the right shape to perfectly reproduce a human sign language, just as their vocal apparatus is incapable of perfectly reproducing human vocal language, they could still come up with some sort of sign language which humans could watch and understand, even if humans can't produce it.

In short: each side speaks a different language, or a different code for the same language, whether it's sound-based or sign-based, but both sides are able to understand both languages/codes.


Too bad your setting is medieval, Bernard Werber wrote a full passage of an ant-to-human translating machine in La Révolution des Fourmis (the revolution of the ants).

It consists of a tiny machine with two metal things the ant touches with its antennas so the translator can know the position of antennas by standard mesure (in millimeters for example). Then (this is the non medieval part) pheromones are absorbed in a machine to translate them to words.

Although you can handwave the pheromone translator, general translation problem will occur, for example how do you translate "table" to a fully-organic-natural ant?

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    $\begingroup$ The modern scientist in a medieval setting is a very common theme these days though - even if nonsensical. I would not disregard that idea that quickly. $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 26 '17 at 12:29

I do think that developing a pictographic pidgin language a la @Raditz_35 would be the most efficient way. But let's have some fun...

Maybe these insectoids with their faceted eyes have trouble seeing details so small as writing. But they are tops at seeing movement! So the pidgin language that evolves is based on interpretive dance. Each species has its own moves, but they've taught each other to read one another's dance.

  • $\begingroup$ This seems most reasonable. Pheromones set the tone (since they disperse into the atmosphere and hang around ), and "dance" communicates the details. Conversing with humans would be like communicating with an emotionless machine to them. Interestingly, humans can crudely interpret the emotions of insects and other creatures with exoskeletons from their body language (experience with crabs, crayfish, spiders, and mantids) $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Sep 17 '17 at 0:13

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