Guest Post: Worldbuilding

Please welcome an up-and-coming writer, Logan Kearsley. We connected through LTUE and I was happy to get a post from him on the way he creates worlds. It’s always interesting to get a glimpse into someone’s creative processes. Thanks, Logan!

Worldbuilding can start from a lot of different places.

Consider, for example, how people communicate with each other. Do they speak orally, do they write, do they sign? Each of these modalities shapes the language that they used to communicate with, and the cultures that communicate with them. We may be able to both speak and write in English, but written language is still very different from spoken language, and literate culture is very different from purely oral culture, due to the different strengths and weaknesses of each medium. And signed languages differ as well–the structures of language that naturally fit the signed vs. oral media are quite different, and the cultural expectations around how they are used, how you get and maintain attention, and what is public vs. private are also shaped by the features of the medium.

So what would a world look like populated by creatures using a different medium? And what would the creatures themselves have to be like in order to use that medium?

I recently learned an interesting thing about electric fish. The famous South American electric eel is a solitary hunter, but there are in fact numerous different species of electric fish–that is, fish which not only sense electric fields, but actively produce them. In particular, there are social electric fish which hunt in packs and communicate with each other through electric fields.

Could a creature with human-like intelligence use a proper language communicated entirely through electric fields? Well, it turns out that some electric fish are capable of producing up to three separate AC waveforms simultaneously, and actively modulating their signals on the scale of a couple of milliseconds–so, up to 500Hz, realistically. Human acoustic speech is very complex (due to how we produce it by blowing air through a complicated resonant chamber and restriction points made of squishy flesh and bone, rather than carefully producing individual sine waves), but, as demonstrated by the comprehensibility of sine-wave speech (http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Sine-wave_speech), most linguistic information is contained in only 3 or 4 peak frequency bands at any given time–and 500Hz is comfortably in the middle of the frequency range of human acoustic speech. So if it’s good enough for humans, it ought to be good enough for aliens! (Or monsters, or non-monstrous fantasy creatures, if you prefer.)

Now, it’s worth noting that all electric fish are, well… fish. Many of them can also breathe air, but they don’t hunt on land. And why not? Well, because air is a really bad conductor of electricity! When electric eels shock prey, they actually shock themselves as well–but they rely on the surrounding water to carry a large portion of the current, enough to stun smaller animals without the shock being so large that it damages themselves. Out of the water, electrocytes only harm the owner!

So, our electric creatures are almost certainly aquatic. Furthermore, if they communicate through their electric fields, they are almost certainly freshwater dwellers. Why is that? Well, because freshwater is less conductive than seawater–ad as a consequence of that, marine electric fish tend to produce high current shocks at low voltages, while freshwater electric fish tend to produce low-current shocks at high voltages (up to 600V for the electric eel). “High voltage” is the short engineering term for “high electric field strength”, and stronger fields are detectable over longer distances, making them more useful for communication. Even so, static electric fields don’t propagate over long distances through water the same way sound waves do through air; creatures communicating that way probably would not, therefore, be able to yell at each other across football fields like we can. Communication would be more short range as a rule, making greater use of “runners” (swimmers), memorization, and repetition to disseminate information over smaller distances and to smaller groups of people than our preliterate ancestors had to. (On the other hand, though, their version of a can-and-string telephone is just “any wire of material more conductive than water”!)

Unlike signing or writing, electric communication ends up having a lot of structural parallels to acoustic communication, but the mechanics of producing it introduce a few additional restrictions. For example, we humans can produce high pitch yells and low pitch yells, and high pitch mumbles and low pitch mumbles. But for an electric fish, producing a “louder” (higher amplitude) electric field to be “heard” at a larger distance requires the active movement of charge carriers across electrocyte membranes–and more charge takes more time to move. At the extremes of the range, then, higher volumes will be restricted to lower frequencies, and high frequencies will be restricted to low volumes. Thus, if the creatures’ language makes use of distinctive stress or tone phenomena (as a majority of human languages do), high stress is probably associated with lower tone–exactly the opposite of the human situation, which comes about because blowing air through a paper with more force tends to excite higher harmonics (higher pitch). Electric creatures might, however, still have a human-like association between high frequencies and small, cute things–not because small things vibrate faster (there is no biomechanical reason why a baby electric fish shouldn’t produce the same low frequencies as the biggest, baddest electric fish), but because higher frequencies are more difficult to produce–so when two electric fish get close enough that their fields might start to interfere with each other, messing up their abilty to sense their environment, the one with the lower social status will switch to higher frequencies! (Really!)

Finally, in order to communicate acoustically, we require ears to detect acoustic waves–and because we use that ability to communicate, we pay a lot of attention to our sense of sound (second only to our sense of sight for most humans). Similarly, intelligent electric fish require electroreceptors if they are to communicate through their electricity, and if they do communicate through electricity, they will be paying a lot of attention to that sense. What dielectric constant various things have may be just as important to them as what color something has, or what it sounds like.

So, just as creatures (like us) who communicate through acoustic waves in fluid can’t have evolved in vacuum (not a very stringent restriction, but a restriction nonetheless), creatures who communicate through modulated electric fields are probably restricted to freshwater rivers and lakes. This a very significant restriction on the literal shape and other qualities of the world they inhabit. While their environment is locally more 3-dimensional than ours, on larger scales it becomes largely one-dimensional, with enclosed two-dimensional spans in lakes–and waterfalls would mark the uttermost ends of the world, at least before they develop technology to traverse them. And they must have a sense alien to humans which allows them to perceive that environment in a very different way than we would–in particular, in a way which is important to their survival in that environment and their culture.

Of course, there are plenty more details to be filled out! Different authors could take this idea and run with it in a thousand different ways. But all that comes just from wondering… what if I had a character who communicated through electric fields?

If you want to see more details (specifically of the linguistical variety) of how I have been running with it, visit my own blog.
“Logan Kearsley is a linguist and software engineer with a lifelong
love of science fiction and fantasy. He is currently working on a
practical guide to linguistics for writers–release date TBD. Find him
on Twitter @gliese1337, or on his blog at gliese1337.blogspot.com .”

Header Image by ❤ Monika 💚 💚 Schröder ❤ from Pixabay

5 comments

  1. I created one culture starting with the question, “What if the dinosaurs never died out, and mammals remained small?” Some of the mot intelligent dinosaurs seem to have hunted in packs, so perhaps society would be clan and “pack” centered. How do they communicate? Speech, but assuming that the reptiles maintained similar head musculature, facial expressions would be very limited. OK, how about a frill of sorts, and lots of body language? And those who can control emotion (and body language) tend to be considered leaders, because they are less likely to get the pack in trouble by losing self control? You end up with a society with a pack-like organization where speaking without moving any part of the body is considered a mark of nobility. Lesser sorts can twitch, wiggle, and so on, but to voice strong emotion without moving? That’s the mark of the elite. The lack of facial mobility also means that certain sounds can’t be made, but (again, drawing from some dinosaurs) perhaps resonances in the sinuses and other parts of the skull add inflection and regional accent markers?

  2. Very interesting article, especially the reference to “sinewave speech”. Thanks!

    There may be an analogy to active and passive sonar among submarines. If a creature shut down its “voice”, it might be able to travel in “stealth mode” undetected among its peers, or sneak up on its prey, or “tiptoe” through a region populated by electro-hunters, at the risk of bumping into objects it couldn’t “see”. But if it got too close to another creature, its own unavoidable electrical activity (brain waves, muscle activity) could be detected. Different species would be better at sensing or at stealth. Different members of the same species might compete for social status along these lines.

  3. Thank you! This was a nifty reminder that there are ‘bandwidths’ outside of what humans notice.

    Mice communicate in ultrasonic ranges. Whales. Elephants. Dogs communicate via scent so could that be like a written message that dissolves over time? Insects see past the visible spectrum.

    So many possibilities for communicating.

  4. So, in the culture of the Gymnotis, some speech really is objectively harmful😋.

    I love language-themed SF. My two favorites are Hellspark and Native Tongue.

    Any other reccys?

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