I'm in the early stages of creating an alien language for a personal writing project. I'm trying to avoid the aliens' language having properties that human languages do that are somehow linked to our anatomy. One of the most obvious examples of such a feature is a numerical system with base ten due to the number of digits.

What are language concepts that are linked to our anatomy in comparable ways that I should find alternatives for when creating a language for aliens who are not humanoid? Any references for links between our anatomy and such language concepts or features are much appreciated.

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    "One of the most obvious examples of such a feature is a numerical system with base ten due to the number of digits." Well lots of human languages don't use base 10, and an alien language could use base 10 for reasons other than the number of digits... – curiousdannii Feb 18 '18 at 13:40
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    @curiousdannii you're correct, but those who use that base 10 have likely hand- and finger-based reasons. Cf. math.stackexchange.com/questions/8734 – Helmar Feb 18 '18 at 15:36
  • Also, humans have 20 digits, not 10. I wouldn't consider base-10 necessarily anatomically rooted any more than 20 or 5 or 4 or 8. In any event, if you're not against the aliens' language having properties based on alien morphology, then I would suggest not worrying about humans and focus on the nature of the aliens! – elemtilas Feb 18 '18 at 18:25
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    Re:Anatomy of numbers, It's even possible to have anatomical roots for as seemingly weird bases as 23 or 27, with an extended body-part system as seen in some Papuan highland languages, where one counts the five fingers, then 5 points up the arm (joints and segments), various paths across the face, chest or collarbone, and then 10 more points for the other arm and hand. This system can then be expanded beyond the base by counting backwards again (though many languages instead loan Tok Pisin numerals in practice). – Gufferdk Feb 19 '18 at 9:25
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    I still think this question is too broad. For a discussion see conlang.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/89/… – jk - Reinstate Monica Feb 22 '18 at 20:04

Some obvious ones:

Phonetics, be it of spoken or signed language, is obviously constrained by the body of humans - both in the channels (aural, visual) employed and also in how they are employed.

Metaphors often make use of body parts. Spatial prepositions and adverbs are often derived from relevant body parts: front from face, forehead, nose, chest; back from back or butt; up from head… you get the picture. Basically every organ has been referred to as being the cause of emotions etc as well in metaphors.

Words for directions in particular are also somewhat based on human anatomy. We have lateral symmetry (left-right) but an alien could likely have some form of radial symmetry in their bodies, which would make the concepts of leftness and rightness very weird to them. Aquatic beings would also likely have a different concept of directions altogether, probably based more on the orientation of their own bodies than relative to the ground.

Those are the things that come to mind. However, much more importantly, the inner workings of language as a whole would likely be different from a human’s. There are some things in human language that you really wouldn’t assume to be necessary. Just to make two examples:

It seems pretty clear that humans take the raw audio input, break it into segments (phones) then further abstract those phones into phonemes, which are then in turn used to build more complex words. One could just as well imagine skipping the segmentation step and going directly from audio to meaning. There appears to be evidence however that some songbirds also employ what could be considered phonemes in their songs, so perhaps it is to be expected.

Another thing is in syntax: human language does not appear to allow circular dependencies, that is word¹ A modifying word B, which in turn modifies word A again. From my fairly limited understanding of syntax, human sentences can be structured in a tree structure. It seems plausible that an alien language might have more or less freedom, perhaps allowing cyclic graphs in their syntax… or in the other direction, only linear dependence. An example of an alien conlang playing around with this is Europan, which I personally consider one of the most interesting conlangs I’ve ever encountered.

¹or clause


I think the question is not well formulated. Mostly because "language concepts" (e.g. tense-aspect-mood systems, animacy, verbal valence, case systems...) reflect the workings of the human mind far, far more than they could ever reflect the human anatomy. Anatomy/biology of course influences massive swathes of semantics, but I don't think anything other than pure phonetics or sign language is influenced by anatomy.

Facial expressions and body language probably belong there, but tend to have a huge cultural element. Position of the ears, for example, is not something humans make (or can make) use of, but maybe elves could.

Some more semantics example:

  • We make distinctions useful to us at our given size. We cannot tell apart things by smell, or by UV light the way other animals (or measuring instruments) can. We do not tell apart very tiny things by basic names (e.g. ants, mites, sand). If we could sense, say, gravitic variations or psychic energies, we might have entirely different ways to describe position or time.
  • Time is linear to us, cause precedes effects and so on, we cannot watch again a past event. This obviously affects how language models time and mood. Consider the Observers from Fringe or any other species with a different perception of time. Their possibly utterly alien perception of time may well be the reason their writing is (apparently) indecipherable.
  • "Fish" is not a proper biological class (and whether marine mammals are excluded from it in common parlance is debatable!) because we don't feel a need to be any more precise about it, but we would have better concepts for it if we were a marine species! Similarly, plants are divided, roughly, into, flowers, lianas, grass, trees and shrubs. This system is not even very efficient for Earth ecology!
  • Expanding on the UV thing, color words are constrained by our visual capacity, and typically distinguish a surprisingly limited number of basics. Forget the hierarchy part, nonderived terms usually stop around 6-8 words, why? A species with different color perception would do things differently. Mark Rosenfelder spends an entire chapter on this point in his Conlanger's Lexipedia.
  • As far as number base systems, decimal and vigesimal are most common in humans because we have 10 fingers, and 20 fingers and toes. (although a huge number of bases have been documented, I don't think any languages have a binary or ternary one)
  • Kinship terminology is based off our own reproductive biology (and our gregariousness). What of a species where the embryo must be incubated in a member of a different species? What about a species where reproduction requires gametes from more than two individuals?
  • Thank you for answering what you don't consider a well formulated question. If you have ideas how to formulate it better I'd appreciate it. You make some very interesting points and the Lexipedia sounds very intriguing as well :) – Helmar Mar 1 '18 at 14:47
  • If you're interested in conlang, the Lexipedia the first stop you should be making. – Keith Morrison Mar 1 '18 at 16:28
  • @Heimar I took "anatomy" at face value. Our brain/mind structure clearly has major influence on the way language functions. However, the rest of our body , though it does affect language, doesn't really affect how syntax, word categories, valence operations etc. etc. function in human language as a whole besides the obvious case of phonetics and sign language. – Circeus Mar 1 '18 at 17:57

Just a couple of sci-fi examples:

Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye has a race with two small manipulating arms on one side, and a large "gripping hand" arm on the other. Even the humans pick up the phrase "on the gripping hand" to mean a third alternative to two possibilities.

One of Spider Robinson's Callahan's Place stories has an alien species with trilateral symmetry. Having full 360-degree vision eliminates many ideas about distrust- "Blind-sided", "Stabbed in the back", etc.

And, going the other direction, L.Neil Smith's Converse and Conflict" has a scene where a human is explaining to an alien how Cold-War-ish Earth politics is causing friction among the multi-national human crew, and the alien observes that, if war breaks out on Earth, the captain

"...will have a headache on his hands. Can you really say that? What an amazing language!"

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