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non-humanoid languages

I've long been fascinated by languages that humans either could never speak or would have difficulty speaking. I think I first became interested in such when I started writing a short story with demons as main characters. I cheated at the time with the two demonic languages: I used a cypher called ROT13 for Upper Demonic and random characters ( like *&#$*&#$*&*@#^$ ) for the Lower Demonic language. Of the two, Lower Demonic fascinated me more, because in my mind it was a bunch of screeches, whistles, clicks, and a bunch of other sounds I can't properly describe, woven in a pattern that - with difficulty - a human could recognize as language and even possibly learn to understand, but could never possibly hope to speak it because the mouthparts of beings who spoke Lower Demonic were completely alien, and they couldn't speak humanoid languages. Many couldn't even speak Upper Demonic. (Bs pbhefr, Hccre Qrzbavp vf gur ynathntr gung zber uhznabvq Qrzbaf fcbxr, fb V thrff gung znxrf vg n uhznabvq ynathntr.)

Then later, in my first completed (and published) novel, "I'll Tell You No Lies," the Xazian people - who could also speak verbally - spoke with each other primarily in "chemsigs" - a complex scent-based language. But I didn't even attempt to represent that in anything other than italicized translations.

I tried my first serious attempt at a non-humanoid language with a language called shaokennah, after the species that speaks it. There are clicks, whistles, growls, and lots of other animalistic sounds in it, as well as other interesting sounds, and has similarities to Lower Demonic, but sounds more... I dunno... it sounds softer in my mind than Lower Demonic. Lower Demonic, in my mind, is a monstrous language and sounds like it's spoken by monsters. Shaokennah, on the other hand, sounds softer; feral, but spoken by species that is generally peaceful despite their similarities to velociraptors, and their language reflects that. They also have two voiceboxes, adding to the complexity of their language; and furthermore, their lips don't move much, so the majority of their words are formed in their voiceboxes. But the complexity and my difficulty explaining the sounds involved stalled my efforts to complete this language, or even get very far in it. Maybe if I had access to the kinds of sounds and sound-mixing equipment the makers of Jurassic Park had, I could in time figure out their language. But it's definitely not one that lends itself easily to being expressed in standard alphabets or words.

Anyone else experiment with languages of this nature?

EDITED TO ADD: I forgot to mention in my post before, the Carbon And Silicon storyverse has lots of AI species, many of which have languages humans could never hope to even understand without some kind of implant. And many species speak in radio signals, so humans couldn't hear it with their ears. In fact, most of the species who speak in radio waves use it as a kind of temporary computer network, "speaking" in machine code. And then there are species who exist as collectives...

Oh, and in my Mindeodean storyverse, the Zokek are humanoid but they speak in a form of machine code. They're still individuals, so it's not like the Borg, but they do have implants with which to facilitate speaking in machine code, and they can plug directly into their computers with a neural interface.

*Thinks* Ah yes... and the Na'Voom Da species in my Traipah storyverse can't speak at all without this one species that is symbiotic with them. This symbiont also acts as their "hands." Well... tentacles, really. Without this symbiont, all they have is flippers, and the sounds they can make without the symbiont are pretty much dolphin or whale song, but simpler in complexity. In short, Na'Voom Da are just oceanic mammals that look like pleisosaurs, without their symbionts.

There are suspicions that the Na'Voom Da were uplifted into sentiency by an older species, but even they can't remember.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 30th, 2010 12:23 pm (UTC)
In my own reality I speak one. If I try to speak a human tongue it comes across as growling as opposed to the human speech, which to me sounds like they've always got phlegm in their throats they can't get out. There's also the Cthols who communicate by Bio-luminescence and the Thlal who sound even more growling due to being a species of bipedal reptiles who by convergent evolution somewhat resemble Earth theropods of the Mesozoic era.

My species' languages are a consistent series of growlings in shorter and longer forms, but the languages I am used to speaking Gerete Muashafa and Hata are both complex. Muashafal has a nominative-accusative grammar and 11 forms for nouns and an equally complex form for verbs. Hata is ergative-absolutive and both heavily inflected and polysyllabic.

Jan. 30th, 2010 12:45 pm (UTC)
Jan. 30th, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
I should add that when humans try to speak my languages, it breaks their vocal cords. Because there are certain pitches and tones which if translated properly to a human vocal apparatus simply mean you don't sound quite right afterward because the human apparatus doesn't translate mutually.

But by the same token, there are some human sounds in their entire gallery that my species could never make. The English b and th sounds are two of them from this language, while oddly the click-sounds of the Khoisan languages are easy to do, but some of the sounds of say, the Altaic, Yenesian, Afro-Asiatic, Austro-Asiatic languages are impossible for us to replicate as well. It's why you see some Crewmen with their names having a H'v aspect. Properly rendered into English it would be Revcel Bat Borxixnon but they (and I since I am limited in that as well) cannot speak the phoneme and hence don't bother to write B.

Hence we'd never be able to say anything in English, Russian, Arabic, or Hebrew properly. Though there are some human languages we *would* be able to replicate perfectly, such as Hawaiian. Albeit with Hawaii a US state that's kinda useless.

So it can work both ways.

Jan. 30th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
I don't think scent could work as a basis for a language. It's too slow, taking a while to spread from the commnicator to the recipients, and older scents would remain. I really doubt that scent could ever be used to express concrete thoughts, as opposed to emotional states.

Human-Pteranthropan cross-species communication uses sign language, as both have similar hands. Pteranthropans amngst themselves use a different form of visual communication, combining manual signs with manipulations of special sensory tendrils around their head. The interspecies signed languages are simplifacations of those visual languages. Some clicking sounds are used to add emphasis and emotional information.
Jan. 30th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
Except that most mammals on Earth do communicate by scent which can be as rewarding as speech. >.> The apes and primates as a whole are unique in that to them the world is one of sight, primarily, and not smell. Humans, as the last of the hominins, have developed that beyond what the other apes have, albeit.

Though I would note that impossible-to-speak languages can be as much verbal as some more esoteric means of communication. It's why lions can roar, for instance, where pumas cannot. And why Neanderthals were not able to form some phonemes that the human voice-box is capable of (not that every human culture does so equally, as some languages have over 60 consonants).

Jan. 30th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
Animals don't communicate complex thoughts through scent. They communicate emotional states and the like. For that purpose, scent does work well. For full language? For the communication of complex abstract ideas? I don't believe it could work. It's too slow, too enduring.
Jan. 30th, 2010 03:33 pm (UTC)
Er.....humans do not tend to communicate abstract complex ideas in a day-to-day setting. Most conversation is either immediate small talk or alternately work, taxes, who's fucking who, or something like that. The more complex scents could easily suffice to write the scent-language version of Also Sprach Zarathrustra or On the Origin of Species.
Jan. 30th, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC)
I didn't mean science or philosophy by complex thoughts. I meant anything above the level of "I'm mad", "I'm horny", etc. Even things as simple as who did what to whom are unlikely to be able to be expressed in scent effectively. A conversation would quickly get bogged down by lingering scents. Even simple gossip would be impractical.
Jan. 30th, 2010 04:02 pm (UTC)
Except humans have conversations in crowds without being overly troubled by it. And yet the majority of mammals find it easy to distinguish between scents and remain in conversations together. And if we presume that this occurs in their own context it would avoid things like modern human cities where the humans disregard Canis lupis familaris cultural boundaries. As a species that evolves in this fashion would find our own insistence on what might sound like coughing to them to be rather puzzling. Which could lead to awkward scenarios....
Jan. 30th, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
One big question - could it even be possible to rapidly change scents? Even expressing so simple s though as "Bill caught Bob with his wife and hit them" would require at least a half-dozen morphemes in a very short time span (unless this species uses a very slow form of communication), which scents would mix in the air (and each morpheme would likely be a combination of basic "phonemes", so the number of actual scents would be quite considerable) With crowds, humans are able to filter out sounds (unless, like me, they have processing problems ...) that come from around them. Scent isn't directional, however. There'd be no way to filter out others' conversations. But even if they avoid large numbers, there's still the problem of lingering scent-words and rapid change of scent production. And, for that matter, producing detectable quantities in such ultra-brief periods (granted, they could have noses very sensitive to the types of scent used in language)

I just don't see how scent could communicate anything more than identity, emotional states, and perhaps a few very basic ideas (for example, greeting, thank you, I've found food, etc.)

as a supplement to language, playing the role of body language in humans, sure. But as a primary means of conveying information (by which term I include gossip and the like), I don't believe it would work.

Hmm ... on second thought MAYBE it might work, with a special delivery mechanism. Instead of passive diffusion of scents, some kind of aerosol mist expelled by a special body part. Each burst would express a morpheme, containing a combination of scents. Their scent organ would contain all the basic scents already synthesized ready to be emitted at command. It would still be a slow form of communication, though. And it's hard to come up with a plausible evolutionary pathway to this aerosol mister organ. I'm skeptical that it would be useful even for simple gossip, much less complex ideas, but it might be conceivable.
Jan. 30th, 2010 04:51 pm (UTC)
Except while the phrase "Bill caught Bob with his wife and hit him" requires such in a language like English, in a more inflected language like say, Avestan or Mongolian it may require two or three longer ones. I would think that scent-communication would lend itself less readily to an analytic syntax, but would strongly support something like Hurrian.

I would think that from another standpoint, human speech could be equally implausible as a means of communication. An apparatus which guarantees its user to choke if it attempts to talk and eat? In a world where Big Eaters are standard? Where both the little mammals and the really big ones eat gigantic amounts? Preposterous.

And yet......humans make a very poorly designed mechanism work well. If we can use a larynx which means we can't breathe and eat or drink simultaneously, despite the risks that means, then scent should be no more troublesome.
Jan. 30th, 2010 09:24 pm (UTC)
I said morphemes, not words. Whether isolating or inflecting, you still require some knd of morpheme!

Yes, the human larynx I'd poorly designed, but that doesn't have any relevance for theuse of sound. There are any number of ways a species can produce sounds. My skepticism was not towards any particular method of scent-based language, but towards the feasibility of scent itself as a linguistic basis. I find it very unlikely it could be as effective as sight or sound. Smell is inherently slow.
Jan. 30th, 2010 10:08 pm (UTC)
True, you do require that.

It does if the language we speak of involves speech as humans would recognize it.
Jan. 30th, 2010 10:24 pm (UTC)
I posted the original post to conlangs, and someone brought up a telepathic race of theirs that "spoke" mind-to-mind in *impressions* rather than words, like they'd mentally ask someone to hand them a screwdriver and that person wouldn't even necessarily know the other had "spoken" when they thought, "Gee, he could use a screwdriver; I'd better hand him one." I think something similar could work for a scent-based language. After all, even in humans scents tend to bring up impressions, usually from past associations. It seems reasonable to me that scent-based language could be learned in much the same way audio language is learned - via association. Only, instead of hard sounds like in English, one has impressions. The audio word "Freedom" has a clearly-defined reality in that it is a sound. The sound is a symbol that triggers an impression. A scent could also trigger an impression, so it sounds reasonable to me such a language could work.
Jan. 30th, 2010 11:14 pm (UTC)
They do.

Except nowadays humans disguise apocrine sweat so smell plays a more limited role in human affairs than it used to.

Vishori Heshatani.
Jan. 30th, 2010 10:15 pm (UTC)
Xazians are basically giant sentient molecules with the ability to rapidly produce and process speech chemicals; they also keep stores of commonly-used speech chemicals in their body for quick use. They spray puffs of scents, and these scents grow stale after a minute or so and no longer trouble them. It also helps that they can "smell" with their entire body. And to call it a scent-based language is like saying humans communicate via grunts. I'm sure that to a species that spoke primarily in this chemsig language, sound-based language must have seemed bizarre to them when they first came across it,

Their language was quite interesting to me, and contributed interesting bits to the story. I remember a prominent quote by one of the Xazian freedom-fighters mentioned something about the difference in the taste of the word Freedom depending on who said it - that the word tasted stale when the ruling class said it, but sweet and delicious when spoken by anyone who truly believed in freedom.
Jan. 30th, 2010 11:16 pm (UTC)
If the species is a bunch of giant sentient molecules, what would freedom necessarily mean to them? What it means to a bunch of bipedal apes is not necessarily the same as it would mean to the Xazians.

Vishori Heshatani.
Jan. 31st, 2010 11:23 am (UTC)
I dunno. Interesting thought.

Though I did have a new revelation about them today - they're more complex than I thought. The basic unit of Xazian life is the xell (zel), which is their equivalent of a cell. But the xell is still basically a very complex molecule - cell sized and so complex it makes DNA look simple by comparison.

Xazis, Notingnez, Pogladoo, and Krimatin - as well as other Xazian flora and fauna - are all either single- xellular or multi-xellular. The sentient Xazians are, of course, multi-xellular.

This system, while having similarities to cellular life, has major differences too. Aside from differences mentioned before, xells also have some similarities to viruses, in that while they move around and reproduce under the right conditions, under the wrong conditions they can (usually) go dormant. Xazian xells can survive the vacuum of space for centuries, for example.
Jan. 30th, 2010 10:00 pm (UTC)
Chemsig speech was more complicated than "scent language." It more closely resembled how neurons speak to each other, without the electricity. And Xazians could "smell" with their entire bodies. They usually spoke in it at close range. I imagine they had some kind of sign language for long-distance communication. Though they were also capable of sound-based speech. In fact, I now recall something about a sound-based language they had which was said to be the most beautiful sound one would ever hear.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )


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