Imagine a society at a medieval technological level, with a fully populated town enclosed by stone walls and including a fort.

One day the population wakes up to find none of them can speak, or make any kind of noise verbally. While there may be clergy or nobles or educated merchants with literacy, almost everyone else cannot read or write.

For the purposes of the scenario, nobody can leave the settlement (it's under siege). Any outsiders entering a zone just outside the walls will also lose their ability to speak, but it returns if they leave again.

How will the population inside the settlement cope with daily life, as well keeping the town defended, and how will this change as the siege could last many months?

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    $\begingroup$ Firstly, the last thing an illiterate population struck mute would think of as a medium of communication is reading & writing. Mass literacy is a recent phenomenon. For most of human history the majority of people have been illiterate. So that won't worry them (written communication, that is) except for the literate. $\endgroup$ – a4android Aug 12 '17 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ Check stackoverflow VLQ review queue :-) $\endgroup$ – Gray Sheep Aug 12 '17 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ At first a lot of pointing and gesturing. Sketch diagrams in the dust. It will evolve into a full language if given a generation. $\endgroup$ – Donald Hobson Aug 12 '17 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ If they're under siege they'd have the basics of a passable language in less than a week. Necessity being the mother of invention. $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 12 '17 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ Simple mime and demonstration. If you want somebody to dig, mime using a pickaxe or shovel. Point where you want the dirt and gesture the shape of a pile. Hold your arms apart to show how deep. Mime putting a post in. Even uneducated and illiterate people are not stupid, they will figure it out. Mime and demonstration will work fine on day 1 and every day; become abbreviated and short to the point of sign language. IRL Sign for "hear" is to tap your ear; Sign for "see" is to tap the bottom of the eye with the forefinger and point toward the distance. I think they could adapt instantly. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus Aug 12 '17 at 18:07

First attempt would surely be to use hand signaling, while not really a deaf language (they are not deaf, after all) it would evolve into one quite rapidly.

This, especially in combat situation, has many drawbacks and would quickly be complemented with some kind of acoustic signals; many armies still have a well defined set of signals given with trumpet or whistles (these are nowadays reminiscence of the ancient times when orders on the battlefields were given exclusively with such means, so your medieval world should already have them). These predefined signals would likely be augmented to cope with present situation.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for remembering that the use of acoustic signals other than voice were not only common but required historically. $\endgroup$ – pojo-guy Aug 12 '17 at 13:03

The citizens of the beseiged city would adapt the same way that institutionalized hearing impaired children did for centuries before standardized sign language - they would invent their own form of sign language. (http://linguistics.byu.edu/classes/Ling450ch/reports/sign-language.html)

it is worthwhile noting that militaries have used signing for centuries when stealth was required. Since this is a seige, I would expect that the local military sign language would become the standard form of communication, and would become enriched into normal day to day life usage.

Some researchers believe that signing predates spoken language, and certainly human infants can learn to sign before they can speak.

  • $\begingroup$ Honestly, I'd need to have words with anybody who thought the phrase "up yours, baby!" wasn't substantiallly predated by an appropriate vulgar hand gesture. $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 12 '17 at 17:49
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, gestures combined with crude drawings, after all this way they identified the guilds and the jobs of people. $\endgroup$ – Alberto Yagos Aug 12 '17 at 20:05

"illiterate" does not necessarily mean "no written symbolic representation." People used "marks" to identify their trade and themselves (thus our modern concept of trademarks). I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of medieval battle plans looked like today's football plays. After all, "a picture is worth a thousand words" and arrows are easy to draw. Therefore, from a socio-operative point of view, they're probably not in bad straits.

The problem comes from the simple things, like calling your children to dinner. Or calling the dog to heel, etc. In fact, now that I think about it, dogs having had a substantial presence in the good ol' days, the human relationship with dogs specifically and animals in general would likely be the largest sticking point. After all the sheep "know the voice of the shepherd."


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