Fictional utopian languages: Part I – Utopian, Houyhnhnm

In this new three-part series, Nathan Taylor-Gray explores fictional utopian languages and whether they reflect the utopian ideals of their speakers.

Fictional utopian languages: Thomas More's Utopian alphabet reimagined by Fraser Muggeridge and Jeremy Deller, with neon pink background and yellow lettering
Thomas More’s Utopian alphabet reimagined by Fraser Muggeridge and Jeremy Deller

Authors often struggle for the right word, damning the limitations of their language to get across the complex emotions and circumstances of life. Few of them imagine that they, like Shakespeare, can will dozens of words into being by introducing them into common parlance. But some do try to add new jargon or slang relative to their story’s characters and setting, especially when the location or people are alien to this earth, or live in some far future period. Dystopias often make a point of noting changes or even reductions in vocabulary, or alterations in the definitions of common words, often dictated from on high by some despot. Writers understand that words have power, and recognise how much one particular word can change the entire tenor of a passage, especially if it is the wrong one.

It is no surprise then that utopias, seeking to depict a better world, reach for new words to express their ideals, and even resort to inventing whole languages that confront the inadequacies (as they perceive them) of their mother tongue. Despite the relatively large vocabulary of English, its novelists have often tried to contrive new pidgin and patois dialects or new pseudo-technical jargon, as well as entirely new languages to address some of the shortcomings of English, or to create a new lingua franca for their earthly version of heaven. Whereas some modern utopians, who see achieving mankind’s ideals as an imperfect and never ending process, have not been attempting to create a perfect language for perfect people in a perfect world, but a common vernacular which seeks to address some of the unjust and marginalising features of the daily lingo we use to describe our relationships to each-other and things.

In fiction, writers who share these views can imagine how people earthly or alien might address the inequalities they believe are inherent in their own native speech, and speculate how people having a different and better way of expressing themselves might address these problems. The ambiguity and inconsistencies of English is another source of consternation among authors who both benefit and are challenged by it, and is another reason for proposing languages with greater clarity or economy in their vocabulary.

In trying to survey the different language systems which have appeared in English utopian fiction I have tried to limit the list to those books in which there is at least an attempt at imagining a better world. In some cases the story begins or ends with the achievement of that lofty goal, but in many – especially more recent books – it is an aspiration which has been partially achieved and is still being fought for. Some authors take the process of creating their language very seriously, going as far as to change the systems of grammar, alphabets and to imagine pronunciation; whereas others address only the areas where their vocabulary differs and has something to say about the society they are describing. I’ll be looking at both cases and some that don’t quite fall in either camp.

Utopia, Thomas More, 1516

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.” 

– Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, 1891
Colour reproduction of frontispiece to Thomas More's Utopia

Thomas More’s 1516 book, Utopia, was less of a novel and more of a travelogue, with a traveller recounting their visit to the perfect place, without much of a story, but abundant details about how such a society worked. Portraying More’s own ideals (and biases), his imaginary society encompasses many of the features that are still commonly found in utopian literature today.

One distinctive characteristic of this idealised society was the absence of private property, with all land considered common, and meals eaten communally. Workdays were described as much shorter and everyone was involved in the growing of food, healthcare (and even euthanasia) was freely available, and – perhaps in response to his own frustrations as Chancellor in the areas of church and state – in Utopia there was freedom of religion, but no lawyers, and no hereditary hierarchies.

An intriguing suggestion put forth by Jack Weatherford is that More’s writing might have been influenced by accounts of indigenous societies in what is now North America. These societies were characterised by their “harmony and prosperity without the rule of a king”, as well as their “lack of magistrates, forced services, riches, [or] poverty” (Indian Givers, 1988).

More is believed to have encountered Amerigo Vespucci’s accounts, which widely circulated during his time, which described encounters with indigenous tribes exemplifying communal living and a lack of hierarchical structures:

They neither sell nor buy nor barter, but are content with what nature freely gives out of her abundance. They live in perfect liberty, and have neither king nor lord. They observe no laws. They have their habitations in common, as many as six hundred sharing one building.”

Amerigo Vespucci
An illustration of a communal Haudenosaunee Town showing homesteads within an enclosure wall on a green space at the bend of a river
A Communal Haudenosaunee Town (1142 – 1812)

Such narratives could have served as a source of inspiration for More’s portrayal of an egalitarian society in Utopia. However, in other ways More’s Utopia is far removed from modern progressive views, most notably in the presence of slavery in Utopia.

The Utopian language and alphabet

In addition to the social and political aspects of Utopia, More’s work also introduced linguistic innovations. Utopia holds the distinction of being the first utopian work to associate a new language with its ideal island. Originally written in Latin and later translated into English after the author’s death, the book also incorporates a unique vocabulary and alphabet used by the inhabitants of Utopia.

The Utopian alphabet, which appears to have been devised by More’s friend Peter Giles, consisted of 22 letters. It was based on geometric shapes such as circles, squares, and triangles, and remarkably, these letters closely resembled the Roman alphabet of that time.

Utopian alphabet as published alongisde Thomas More's Utopia

Despite the Utopians possessing a distinct language capable of conveying poetic and philosophical ideas, their vocabulary fails to reflect the unique beliefs, perspectives, and practices of their society. With the exception of a few words that have direct Latin equivalents, there is nothing fundamentally distinctive about their language at all.

While the Utopians express lofty precepts and intentions, as evident in the line “Freely I impart my benefits; not unwillingly I accept whatever is better,” their society still maintains hierarchies and a military, as indicated by the Utopian word “boccas” meaning “commander.”

Similarly, despite the absence of private property, they still possess and speak of owning things, including people, as exemplified by the translation of their word “heman mea” meaning “(those which are) mine.” Yet Utopian society maintains a notable absence of ownership within their houses, as “There is nothing within the houses that is private or any man’s own.”

Utopian (Roman Alphabet)Latin TranslationEnglish Translation*
Utopus ha Boccas peu la chama polta chamaan.
Bargol he maglomi baccan ſoma gymnosophaon.
Agrama gymnosophon labarembacha bodamilomin.
Volvala barchin heman la lavolvala dramme pagloni
Utopus me dux ex non insula fecit insulam.
Una ego terrarum omnium absque philosophia
Civitatem philosophicam expressi mortalibus
Libenter impartio mea, non gravatim accipio Meliora
The commander Utopus made me, who was once not an island, into an island. I alone of all nations, without philosophy have portrayed for mortals the philosophical city.
Freely I impart my benefits; not unwillingly I accept whatever is better.
Table 1: Like the Rosetta stone but for fictional utopian languages

*A more poetic English rendition by Ralph Robinson, a 16th-century translator:

My king and conqueror Utopus by name
A prince of much renown and immortal fame
Hath made me an isle that erst no island was
Full fraught with worldly wealth, with pleasure, and solace.
I one of all other without philosophy
Have shaped for man a philosophical city.
As mine I am nothing dangerous to impart,
So better to receive I am ready with all my heart.

However, in English we also continue to use words whose original meaning has passed, and we have repurposed them in new ways, or they remain to describe things and ways of life that are part of our history, but not our modern experience.

While the Utopians’ language showcases linguistic capabilities and the expression of high ideals, it falls short in reflecting the unique aspects of their society. Despite their lofty aspirations, Utopia still exhibits hierarchies, possession of goods (including people), and a lack of privacy within their communal living spaces. These nuances highlight the complexities and contradictions inherent in More’s portrayal of his idealised society.

It would take a couple hundred more years of fiction before an author would propose a language which embodied the ideologies of its society.

Houyhnhnm, Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726

Black and white portrait of Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift established himself as a renowned satirist long before the release of his famous work, Gulliver’s Travels. Like Thomas More, Swift skillfully dissected the reality around him, employing satire to craft a thought-provoking narrative that highlighted the issues of his day. In doing so, he resorted to exaggeration to disguise his critique of the contemporary world, which was fraught with risks for those who openly criticised it.

Through the adventures of Lemuel Gulliver, Swift used absurd tales as social commentary, exposing the flaws and follies of contemporary society. By presenting Gulliver as a traveller encountering extraordinary civilizations and their bizarre customs, Swift aimed to shed light on the darker aspects of human nature, politics, and society’s structures.

It is on heading home, back to England, that Gulliver finds his utopia. Stranded following a mutiny, he is abandoned on an island seemingly inhabited by savage human-like creatures called Yahoos, the worst of all the beings he had encountered. But shortly afterwards, in contrast to these ignoble savages, he meets the Houyhnhnms, a race of talking horses.

Swift presents the Houyhnhnms as having “a general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions or ideas of what is evil in a rational creature; so their grand maxim is, to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it.” They were so logical that they had no “understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught [them] to affirm or deny only where we are certain.”

His equine hosts are so certain of the rightness and goodness of their conduct that they “have no word in their language to express any thing that is evil, except what they borrow from the deformities, or ill qualities of the Yahoos” (that is the irrational humans).

This does not mean they are not without feelings, emotions and attachments however. Their society seems to be a kind one (at least to those of the same kind as them): “Friendship and benevolence are the two principal virtues among the Houyhnhnms: and these, not confined to particular objects, but universal to the whole race. For a stranger from the remotest part, is equally treated with the nearest neighbour; and wherever he goes, looks upon himself as at home.”

The Houyhnhnm language

The Houyhnhnms communicate through a language which, to Gulliver, resembles neighing, but possesses similarities to High Dutch or German, albeit more graceful and infused with profound meaning. Their vocabulary is small and is not written, they “have no letters, and consequently their knowledge is all traditional.” Yet they are able to use their language can comprehend and express beauty and is beautiful in it’s own way, as Gulliver remarks that, “In poetry they must be allowed to excel all other mortals; wherein the justness of their similes, and the minuteness as well as exactness of their descriptions, are indeed inimitable. Their verses abound very much in both of these; and usually contain either some exalted notions of friendship and benevolence.”

Their society is characterised by unparalleled honesty, to the extent that the concept of lying is entirely foreign to them. They lack a word for lying and must resort to phrases like “to say a thing which is not” to convey the idea. Indeed they have no words for concepts that are completely alien to them such as, “Power, government, war, law, [and] punishment.”

In the novel, there are only a few examples of Houyhnhnm words given, but they express the nature of the society they belong to. For instance, the word “shnuwnh” captures the concept of death, its literal translation being “to retire to his first mother.” Another word, “hnhloayn,” signifies an exhortation, as the Houyhnhnms “have no conception how a rational creature can be compelled, but only advised.” And the last words Gulliver hears as he departs, “Hnuy illa nyha, majah Yahoo,” which carry the meaning of “Take care of thyself, gentle Yahoo.” These examples demonstrate how their Utopian language encapsulates the values of Houyhnhnm society.

Colour illustration of Gulliver kneeling in front of a horse in a stable abode. They appear in discussion, presumably using the fictional Houyhnhnm utopian language

If what defines a utopian language is that it has unique words that represent its ideals or lacks words that do not represent them, then Houyhnhnm’s vocabulary qualifies as utopian. Such is the power and beauty of their mare tongue that Gulliver continues speaking their language even when in the company of more primitive horses, rather than speak to his fellow humans.

However, not all fictional utopian languages are as suited to poetry, and some do not originate and evolve naturally, but are constructed with a very different set of goals in mind. In the next article we’ll look at societies that invented their languages in pursuit of their ideals, and how that influenced how they spoke, thought and acted in ways different from our own.

Look out for:

Part II – Speedtalk, Pravic

Part III – Asa’Pili, Láadan

Nathan Taylor-Gray writes as The Peaceful Revolutionary and is a member of the Utopian Book Collective.

3 thoughts on “Fictional utopian languages: Part I – Utopian, Houyhnhnm”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *