ConLangs 101: The Biology of Communication

This third post in the ConLangs 101 series is intended to introduce you to the biology of sending and receiving communication as it relates to constructed languages. I'll be covering speech production and reception along with other biological mechanisms capable of participating in the communication process. I'll also be introducing you to the Primordial World Sea People, the ancient species from which my World Sea People, Twilight Sea Old People and Day Sea New People descend.

Sending Communication

Speech Production

Let's start with speech, the most common method of sending communication signals among human beings. We're putting the cart before the horse a bit here, since the very first organ involved in speech production is the brain. But I write about the brain below, so we'll table that discussion for now. Instead, let's take a look at the apparatuses involved in human speech production and how they work.

There are four processes happening in speech production; respiration, phonation, resonance and articulation1. Respiration is, of course, breathing. We do it to live, and we also do it to speak. The only difference between the two is that when we do it to speak, we exhale more slowly in order to control the air we provide to the speech process. Phonation is the rapid opening and closing of the vocal cords in the larynx to create sounds, and three things are influenced by this movement; pitch, which is the frequency of the sound (high pitch = high sound while low pitch = low sound), loudness, which is the intensity of the sound and quality, which is self-explanatory. Resonance is the intensification of vocal tones by the pharynx, oral cavity and nasal cavity. Articulation produces the various configurations that create speech sounds by way of the jaw, lips, teeth, tongue and palate. So a typical speech event begins when we exhale, which drives the vocal cords in the larynx to produce sound, which is amplified by the pharynx, oral cavity and nasal cavity, which is shaped by the jaw, lips, teeth, tongue and palate.

If your characters are human, the biology behind their languages will work like this. However, if they aren't human, you'll need to account for that in the languages you create. For instance, larger lung capacity will almost certainly lengthen speech events, because there will be more air available to power them. Smaller vocal cords will raise the pitch of speech events, but smaller vocal cords might also mean smaller aliens with smaller lungs, which means their voices will not only be higher, their speech events will be shorter. Smaller aliens with smaller lungs and vocal cords may also have smaller oral and nasal cavities, which means the resonance of their speech will change accordingly. Finally, aliens with smaller lips, fewer teeth and a thinner tongue or jaw will articulate sounds quite differently from thick-lipped aliens with rows of large teeth and a thicker tongue or jaw.

Other Biological Structures Capable of Sending Messages

Body Gestures and Sounds: In my last post, I discussed the hand gestures of the Ademre, so we already know that hands can be used to communicate via gesture. Of course, they can also be used to communicate via sound by way of claps, slaps, snaps, etc. Dance is another form of communication with the body, and it works via both movement and sound as well. Body language itself is a form of communication that can tell us as much or more about what people are thinking than their words can. How might body gestures and sounds manifest in the language of your characters? Is body language more or less important to your conlang? If your characters aren't human, how do their alien bodies communicate alien ideas? Answers to these questions can help you refine your constructed language further.

Changes in Skin Color: Chameleons have special cells called chromatophores that contain pigment. These cells respond to brain signals that instruct them to expand or contract, which causes chameleon skin to change color in response to light, temperature and mood2. It wouldn't be a stretch to apply this characteristic to beings with higher-functioning brains; in fact, it's part of the way my Primordial World Sea People communicate and an important component of the Twilight Sea Old People's language still, as a means of adding emotional and intellectual complexity to spoken concepts. How would your alien species use such a biological characteristic? What would be communicated by it, and to whom? Would it find its way into their writing system, and if so, how? If you choose to utilize this ability in your own conlang, you may want to think about these things.

Changes in Smell, Taste & Body Temperature: Pheromones are an excellent example of chemical communication received by means of smell, but any human sense (and indeed any sense you can conceive of) might act as a transmitter or receiver of communication signals. I've just begun reading China Miéville's excellent novel Embassytown, and in it he mentions a species that communicates via the enzymes present in regurgitation. In the case of that species, the message would be transmitted chemically and received via the taste buds or other specialized organs3. Clearly, your imagination is your only limit when constructing language for aliens, so if your own conlang is built on non-human biology, it might serve you well not to limit yourself to the senses we humans use for communication.

Receiving Communication

Speech Reception

Now let's take a look at the human ear, the organ responsible for processing sound.

Human beings hear speech events when the outer ear collects sound waves, which pass through the external auditory canal and are amplified by the tympanic cavity. There the malleus, incus and stapes bones vibrate, and this vibration is carried into the cochlea, where cilia pass it to the cochlear nerve. That nerve carries the vibration on to the brain, where it is interpreted as speech and decoded4.

If your characters are human, their ears will work like this. However, if they aren't human, you'll need to account for that. For instance, a longer external auditory canal, more, fewer or differently-shaped middle ear bones and a larger or smaller cochlea would certainly change what your aliens hear. More, fewer or different nerves would change the way those sounds are transmitted to their brains. So remember that what the recipient of a speech event hears might be quite different from what the speaker transmits. For instance, deaf people cannot hear speech events at all, but they might feel sound vibrations with their hands and bodies. Does your alien species transmit via sound but receive via touch? That isn't outside the realm of possibility.

Pairing Biological Structures

Rather than breaking the body down into biological structures again, let's look at the notion of pairing transmission with reception. Sound waves can be heard, but they can also be felt, so the senses of hearing and touch might conceivably process sounds. Visual signals are seen. Pheromones are processed by the nose, but other kinds of chemical communication might be processed by the tongue or skin. Specialized organs of transmission would require specialized organs of reception, and the two would need to work efficiently together. As I write this paragraph, I'm envisioning a species whose skin contains chromatophoric cells that respond to sound waves by changing color, which would also involve the sense of sight. How would it all work together? Well, that's up to you, but remember that your communication systems should always make sense from a biological standpoint.

The Brain and Communication

The ability of humans to speak and to understand speech requires an enormous amount of brain resources. These resources have to manage information about many thousands of words and many syntactic constructions and their interconnections, not just to one another but to meanings and to the structures that allow us to recognize the sounds of speech and to move the muscles of our mouths to produce speech. This complex combination of brain structures can be called the brain's linguistic system. It allows a person not only to talk and to understand speech but also to read and write. It also gives us the power to think as well as the power to acquire new knowledge and abilities and to learn how to speak in the first place5.

While the biological systems that control the transmission and reception of communication are responsible for what is sent and received, the brain is responsible for how that information is constructed by the 'speaker' and interpreted by the 'hearer'. It's an extraordinarily complex subject I have neither the time nor the expertise to convey in simple terms, so I'm referring you out to a couple of articles I've found helpful:

Neuroscience for Kids: The Brain and Language
Language and the Brain: Neurocognitive Linguistics

Fortunately, you don't need to understand much about neurocognitive linguistics in order to construct a human conlang. Your brain already knows everything it should to create such a language, including its own limitations. But for alien languages, things are a bit different. For instance, the human parser breaks down at a certain level of embedding and can no longer track the ideas being communicated. Consider the following example offered to me by professor of linguistics Dr. Dana McDaniel in 2003:

∗ The elephant chased the pig.
∗ The elephant the dog bit chased the pig.
∗ The elephant the dog the cat scratched bit chased the pig.

Sentence one and two are perfectly understandable, but while sentence three is grammatically correct, it's harder to understand. Further layers of embedding would increase comprehension difficulty until we reached a biological limitation of human language processing. But while the human brain parser breaks down at a certain level of embedding, that doesn't mean an alien parser will. In fact, the brains of my Primordial World Sea People are able to parse embedding far better than ours can, and I use that ability in the construction of Twilight Sea Old People speech events.

Dr. McDaniel's colleague Dr. Wayne Cowart introduced me to the idea that our brains are hard-wired for language such that human beings would never be able to communicate with alien species no matter how hard we tried. He remarked that he would be interested in reading a story about two species that were exactly alike in every way except for their brains; they might be able to pass for one another, but they'd never be able to communicate with one another. Since then, I've come to understand that this theory is in dispute, but I still use it to justify the presence of translators between the Twilight Sea Old People and humanity. These beings, an artificial intelligence collectively known as the Light Singers, have no such biological limitations and can, therefore, bridge the linguistic gap between the species.

Ultimately, the most successful strategies for me in this regard have been to read about the relationships between the brain and communication and imagine how things might be different in alien brains. For instance, my husband's interest in trinary logic led me to create a third lobe in the brains of the Primordial World Sea People that evolved specifically for the purpose of handling the biology of trinary thought and trinary language. As they evolved into World Sea People and then divided into Twilight Sea Old People and Day Sea New People, their languages also divided, but this feature remained because it was based in their fundamental biology. Did I know everything there was to know about neurocognitive linguistics when I created this biological structure? Not at all. Might there be scientific implausibilities in my work? Absolutely. But I read quite a bit of linguistic material before I created my aliens, and then I took the leap from science to fiction. That's what you need to do, too.


I wanted to write a bit about synesthesia in this entry, but it's already quite long, so I'll leave that to your reading and imagination. Again, I'm neither a biologist nor a linguist, but I hope this somewhat rambling tour of communication biology has fueled your imagination a bit and given you some tools to work with. Next time, I'll be writing about the process of turning signals into language, which will likely include an introduction to phonemes, morphemes and perhaps a bit of grammar. Until then, tapadh leibh airson a' leughadh, agus qapla!