the Little Red Reviewer

Without Words, and then with them

Posted on: May 17, 2012

If you had to communicate without written or spoken words, how would you do it?

Sign language is fine, music and sound is fine, body language, facial movements, whistling, grunting, mewling, crying out, tapping with your fingers and feet,  creating different colors or shapes, wearing different colors or styling your hair a certain way or tattooing different images on different parts of your body all are fine. You can make noise, but you don’t have to. Just no actual words, and nothing that could be construed or translated as what we define as “word”.

A bit like how animals communicate, but upped to the cerebral level of humans.

what non-verbal and non-written methods of communication would you use?


How would our conversations change? How would communication change? Would we lose subtleties? Are subtleties and connotation a direct result of spoken language?   But with no spoken or written language, communication would almost have to be done face to face (no books or signs or internet forums. no libraries.), so perhaps the subtleties would be even more complex? wow, that got badly circular!

would communication sans written or spoken words cause more or less misinterpretation?


on a similar note, but in a different key, how do different styles of written communication change your experience with a piece of writing? Here are some specific examples that got me thinking about this:

Gene Wolfe’s Shadow and Claw – this volume includes Shadow of the Torturer and Claw of the Conciliator, the first two books in Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. I really, really want to read these again, but the print in this edition is infamously small, to the point where it has affected my decision to reread these, as in, I haven’t. Although I did smarten up and purchased the 3rd and 4th books in the series in editions with normal sized print.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 –  focusing on just a tiny bit of the story,  gender has evolved, and part of that evolution is that if someone doesn’t make their chosen gender obvious, it is considered very rude to ask before you know them well. So the book is missing a lot of he’s and she’s, her’s and him’s. Twice I guessed someone’s gender incorrectly.  It was a new way to experience characterization.

China Mieville’s Railsea – I’m not that far in, but he uses “&” instead of “and”. Other than making my eyes trip over the & a bit and using 2 fewer characters, what’s the point of using the ampersand? the visual effect was odd, almost a musical upswing as my eyes scanned each line.

three random little prose tricks, and they all affected my reading experience in different ways.

For one final random question – if we communicated in a non-word based fashion, would everyone experience all communication in same way, since we wouldn’t have any “prose tricks” like using & instead of “and”, skipping gender specific words, or different typefaces and font sizes?

9 Responses to "Without Words, and then with them"

Interesting questions. Here are other ones: how would we even learn communication skills? Would we still have schools? I can’t imagine not having blogs to express thoughts. And what about anyone who is into texting? THAT sure changed communications. Great post!


hmmm, I have no idea, but it’s fun to think about. I would think that all communication would have to be face to face, so texting, e-mailing, and online stuff would be out, probably wouldn’t have been developed in the first place. . . but what kind of quick message sending technologies would work? Super quick sculptures? leaving message through origami? how cool would it be to leave a folded peice of paper that’s a certain color for someone, and have them know exactly what your message was?

schools is way more complex. maybe we wouldn’t have math? I know i certainly wouldn’t have minded not taking Calculus! I suppose learning to communicate would start out the same way babies do it : cry out in certain ways, a parent responds and tries to figure out what the baby needs to feel better.


Regarding Railsea, are you reading the physical book or on a reader? I got a copy through Netgalley to read on my reader and it has the “&” and I thinking it would only be like that in the ebook and the physical copy would have removed them.


I have the physical book. and I was thinking the opposite, that maybe in the e-version it would have “and”.


Um… In this world, there would be no Lies of Locke Lamora Read Along. I’m not comfortable talking about that possibility.

No but really, can I vote for telepathy?


😦 awwww. and laughing a little too.

also, telepathy would ROCK.


my guess is that we’d use pictograms.


Thought-provoking post! I’ve got no idea how our way of communicating would evolve without the (written) word, but I definitely know we’d find a way. It would probably start off with vocal sounds and facial/bodily expressions, if you take a child’s language developement as a template. My youngest is ten weeks old and she obviously can’t talk yet, but she sure can get across what she wants, even beyond I’m hungry/cold/lonely or I need a clean diaper. If madam wants her pacifier she’ll let us know in a very clear manner, just by sounds and faces she makes. If they weren’t to develop beyond this stage into speech, they’d probably diversify in the range of sounds they are able to make, I suppose.


just the other day, I was visiting with a friend and her daughter, who is just a few weeks older than your youngest. and she did exactly the same things: no verbal language of course, but Momma (and to some extent, childless me) knew exactly what the little one wanted and needed based on her body language and facial expressions.

young children are just amazing to me!


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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