All languages I know of discretize qualities when trying to describe them. For example, languages generally sample a few words for describing a range of continous things like feelings ('terrible', 'bad', 'neutral', 'good', 'wonderful') or colors ('red', 'blue', 'yellow', etc).

This feature, however, does not seem to be a direct limitation from speech, as we could modulate aspects like pitch, lenght of vowels or volume of words to be able communicate such things in a continous way. Are there examples of languages that do so, or anybody has explanations for why those aren't observed in general?

  • I specifically titled 'to speak of' as I think it is easier to do so through voice, but I'd be curious to see how this idea would extend to writing!
    – lvr
    May 20, 2019 at 3:34
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    For examples (in English), I've heard chefs talk about adding a 'little' bit of an ingredient (using high pitch to reduce the amount), and I've heard people talk about things that are a 'looong' way away or a 'looong' time ago (using duration to increase the amount).
    – amI
    May 20, 2019 at 4:03
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    why those aren't observed in general? - the most plausible explanation is that there is simply no need for that(?) What is established in a language is what the speakers of that language need to cover their basic needs. A colour can be expressed precisely using RGB encoding or its wavelength value in nanometers - professionals use this, most people don't need this.
    – tum_
    May 20, 2019 at 14:23
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    I'm not sure if this counts, but reduplication might be a way of modulation, e.g. in Afrikaans (from Wikipedia): krap = scratch, krap krap krap = scratch vigorously
    – b a
    May 20, 2019 at 14:25
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    @lucasvreis Hmm, IIUC, the lack of a 'fixed reference' is not a problem for tonal languages. Men can speak with women in Vietnamese despite the different pitch. So, if there were a need for such an instrument - humans would develop it, this way or the other.
    – tum_
    May 20, 2019 at 22:18

1 Answer 1


Sign languages.

In English for example, we have the words "wide" and "narrow". We can say "a narrow belt" or "a wide belt", but these are "discretizations", aren't they? In BSL, the distance between your index finger and your thumb show exactly how wide the belt is, as you trace them round your waist. This holds even if that belt varies in width somehow.

  • 4
    Vision has far more bandwidth than sound, and sign languages are famous for exploiting it for all kinds of communicative effects.
    – jlawler
    May 20, 2019 at 22:11

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