Fictional utopian languages: Part II – Speedtalk, Pravic

Ithkuil text

Part II of this three part series, in which Nathan Taylor-Gray explores fictional utopian languages and whether they reflect the utopian ideals of their speakers. If you missed it, you can catch up on Part I here.

A textual example of Ithkuil, utopian language based on Robert Heinlein's Speedtalk
Ithkuil, an invented language inspired by Robert Heinlein’s concept of Speedtalk in his novella Gulf.

Speedtalk

The two languages discussed in Part I – Utopian and Houyhnhnm were supposed to be native and natural to the cultures described. Speedtalk is different, as it is the first to be constructed within the fiction by a group with utopian aspirations.

The fictional language ‘Speedtalk’ features in Robert Heinlein’s 1949 novella, Gulf. It is the invention of a group called the ‘New Men’. Intellectually superior to normal humans, the New Men want to keep their technology separate. Ultimately, they plan to create a new species of humans like themselves. Our protagonist Joe, a secret agent, is introduced to the language by love interest Gail, who is one of the New Men [apparently they admit women, ed.*].

The New Men cite as inspiration the real life studies of C.K. Ogden and I. A. Richards and their 1923 book The Meaning of Meaning. “Ogden and Richards had shown that eight hundred and fifty words were sufficient vocabulary to express anything that could be expressed by ‘normal’ human vocabularies,” Heinlein has them say. These fictional New Men set about distilling these words into a “hundred-odd sounds, represented by the letters of a general phonetic alphabet.” Using variations in these sounds, including “length, stress, pitch, rising, falling,” the New Men create a language where “one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire word in the English language, one Speedtalk word was equal to an entire sentence.”

Black and white illustration from Gulf by Robert Heinlein showing a rocket blasting off from a crater marked moonscape

An ideal language?

Heinlein’s New Men have three main arguments for the ideal nature of their language:

  1. In Speedtalk it is difficult not to be logical, whereas supposedly “‘Normal’ languages, having their roots in days of superstition and ignorance, have in them inherently and inescapably wrong structures of mistaken ideas about the universe. One can think logically in English only by extreme effort, so bad it is as a mental tool.”**
  2. The language is incapable of paradoxes because “it did not contain the unreal distinction between nouns and verbs,” and could more accurately express “space-time events and relationships between words.”***
  3. Its efficiency lengthened the mental life of those who spoke, read, wrote and thought in it. Or at least, compressed substantially more intellectual experience into the same amount of time. The New Men claim “Any man capable of learning Speedtalk had an association time at least three times as fast as an ordinary man.”
Black and white illustration from Gulf by Robert Heinlein showing a pair of hands holding and writing on what looks a cannister that will be sent along a pneumatic tube, with a skull floating behind on a black background. Sinister.

New language, new tech

Speedtalk didn’t just speed up thoughts in the human brain. It also required a special new bit of tech to keep up with reading and writing. A “dictaphone-typewriter-printing-press combination. The machine’s analysers recognized each of the thousand-odd phonetic symbols.” This was combined with “a ‘librarian’ machine that could ‘hear’ that portion of Speedtalk built into it as a filing system.” With these innovations, the New Men had no need of writing in the traditional sense at all.

But, for all the progressive aspirations of their language and technology, aspects of the New Men’s society seem backwards and even dystopian today.

Utopian or dystopian?

The New Men consider themselves a “different breed” and better form of humanity. They restrict information, keeping it to themselves rather than sharing it with the rest of the world. They deem the common man to be unready for the truth, including knowledge of the New Men’s existence: “As for keeping our existence secret, it is utterly necessary if we are to survive and increase. There is nothing so dangerous as being the Chosen People – and in the minority.” They argue the common man lacks the intelligence to make democratic decisions about their own futures. “[I]f the race is simply to stay alive, political decisions depend on real knowledge of such things as nuclear physics, planetary ecology, genetic theory, even system mechanics,” they assert.

The New Men’s belief in their own importance isn’t limited to their “supernormal intelligence” either. They alter their bodies and faces through plastic surgery to fit their ideals, too. And their eugenic beliefs would be seen today as racist. They engage in selective breeding to avoid “diffusing their talents through the racial organism,” as they conclude past geniuses had done.

These sentiments are reflected in their invented language, which with its in-built exclusivity is effectively an elite code. Yet Heinlein’s concept of Speedtalk has been adapted by others, such as in the constructed language of Ithkuil, which was invented with the purpose of constructing a logical, unambiguous mode of communication.

Pravic

The fictional utopian language of Pravic appears in Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel, The Dispossessed. This is another language intentionally constructed to achieve certain goals. In this case, not of exclusive super humans but instead a society based on egalitarian ideals.

Pravic seeks to influence the way its speakers understand concepts such as non-hierarchical relationships of people to property, possessions, and other people. Unlike Speedtalk there are no special or difficult means of expression, just single words explaining concepts like we do in English.

The fictional creator of the language Pravic is mentioned only once in The Dispossessed as ‘Farigv’. We learn nothing about him except his aversion to curse words and his reliance on computers for creating the vocabulary: “Farigv didn’t provide any swear words when he invested the language, or if he did his computers didn’t understand the necessity.” The ideals of their society also make swearing difficult, as “it is hard to swear when sex is not dirty and blasphemy does not exist.”

Retro cover art for Le Guin's The Dispossessed, the novel in which the utopian language of Pravic is invented.

Computers still influence the vocabulary, as well as other organisational and distributional processes in society, at least where proper nouns are concerned. Names are assigned by computer at birth, usually following a two syllable pattern: Shevek, Takver, Rulag, Bedap etc.

Founding principles

Pravic is the language of the Anarresti, an anarchist society living on the moon Anarres.**** They live in exhile, having left their Earth, Urras, in order to be able to live according to their ideals. The population on Urras continue to live in a capitalist, consumerist society.

The ideological concepts of Pravic go back to the founder of Anarresti society, Laia Odo.***** Odo was already an influence on how language was used among her comrades before they felt an entirely new language was necessary to convey their ideals. Odo’s ideals are what we would call anarcho-communist as they reject the state, money, property and class. Life is instead organised communally, work is voluntary, and access to the necessities in life is shared freely.

Pravic embodies these ideals in notable ways. As a people who believe property is theft, the way they speak about possessions is entirely different to societies in which private property is the norm. Two of the worst curse words to them are “propertarian” and “profiteer.” The Anarresti don’t assert “this one is mine and that’s yours.” Instead, they say “I use this one and you use that.”

Work and play

The Anarresti lack of possessiveness is not limited to objects but applies to people, too. Even in romantic relationships, although feelings of intense attachment still exist, they ultimately recognise they do not own or have claim on each other.****** Likewise, there is no sense of hierachy in work or civic relationships. Everyone calls each other “Ammar,” a word which could be translated as ‘sibling’ or ‘comrade.’ Work is voluntary, and the same word is used for work and play: “kleggich”. Those with specialist skills might be given assignments in areas where they are needed, but can refuse. Although, such refusal would not come without reputational consequence. The lazy are called “nuchnibi,” a word describing those able to work who refuse to do so. Yet, no-one is denied food or shelter even if they don’t participate or contribute to the rest of society.

The role of language in forming thoughts

Pravic is designed to help form the thoughts of its speakers. As the protagonist Shevek comments, “Nobody’s born an Odonian any more than he’s born civilised!” A child starts out saying “my Mother,” but in time learns to say “our mother” (“mamme” in Pravic). Children are also taught to speak only about matters that interest others; anything else is “egoizing.”

Pravic has four different categories of vocabulary. These seem to correspond to Dante’s four modes of allegory: the literal (physical, technical, verbal), the allegorical, (symbolic, economic), the moral (ethical), and the anagogical (or religious). It comes as a surprise to those Shevek visits on Urras that there is a spiritual aspect to the Pravic language at all, as the Anarresti are atheists. But he chides his hosts for not thinking his people capable of loftier thoughts: “you could not seriously believe that we had no religious capacity? That we could do physics while we were cut off from the profoundest relationship man has with the cosmos?”

The book is full of philosophy, often repeated from Odo’s texts (one of which is even called “Analogy”), but sometimes from Shevek himself, such as “You cannot keep doors open. You will never be free.” This shows the vocabulary is not purely functional, although it may have begun that way. Yet, theatre was always an important part of their society, and, it wasn’t long before they were composing verse too:

“O child Anarchia, infinite promise
infinite carefulness
I listen, listen in the night
by the cradle deep as the night
is it well with the child”

An unregulated language

Unlike other constructed languages (e.g. Esperanto), Pravic is not a regulated language. This is due to the nature of Anneresti society lacking structures of hierarchy. There is a dictionary, probably compiled by a commitee with the help of computers, but no-one is obliged to use it. However, new compound words are possible to get across unfamiliar concepts, as in this example.

The word he used was not ‘wallowing,’ there being no animals on Anarres to make wallows; it was a compound meaning literally ‘coating continually and thickly with excrement.’ The flexibility and precision of Pravic lent itself to the creation of vivid metaphors quite unforeseen by its inventors.”

The Annaresti people are also not averse to using some of the Iotic language spoken on Urras when needed. This is usually in the form of curse words, such as “hell” and “damn,” the meaning of which are now devoid of their religous references. Other words refer to alien concepts such as betting. Shevek explains “It’s an Iotic verb[…]. A game the Urrasti play with probabilities. The one who guesses right gets the other one’s property.”

Despite the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the anarchist Anarres and capitalist Urras, in the end Shevek is able to find others on Urras who share the same ideals and hopes. He even discovers that across different languages some concepts remain unchanged: “‘We are the children of time,’ Shevek said, in Pravic. The younger man looked at him a moment, and then repeated the words in Iotic: ‘We are the children of time.’”

Uses of Pravic

Perhaps no science fiction book better embodies anarcho-communist ideals than The Dispossessed. Although these principles existed long before it was written, it has helped inspire many to accept and share the same outlook. In 2016, as part of events marking the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, the linguist Martin Edwardes taught around 270 pupils the language concepts of Pravic and applied them to English in the form of “Pravlish.” He found that within a couple days students were able to adapt to speaking without pronouns and possessiveness. This supports the theory that if we change the way we speak about the world, we can change the way we understand and live within it too.*******

Pronominal nouns in the utopian language of Pravic

Footnotes

*Probably helps with breeding.
**Although whether logical consistency itself is an ideal is arguable, as it is possible to be consistently logical in a competely incorrect closed system.
***One wonders about their ability to deceive, which they would still seem to require as they have spies. Perhaps they would rely on ‘normal’ languages at such times, while remaining honest with each other.
****The Anarresti refer to themselves as “Anarchists.” A Urrasti commentator refers to Anarres as practising “non-authoritarian communism” and then being “socialists” and “libertarian,” which meant the same thing as anarcho-communism until liberal capitalists co-opted it in the mid-1970s.
*****The word ‘founder’ isn’t used in The Dispossessed, but those sharing Odo’s ideas were initially called Odonians by outsiders then reappropriated the term for themselves.
******Sex is one of the few acts that takes place in private rooms, although they would not consider it their room, just “the bed I sleep in.” They lack any “proprietary idioms for the sexual act.” Their word for sex translates as ‘copulation;’ “It meant something two people did, not something one person did, or had.”
*******In linguistics, this is expressed in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and is also known as linguistic relativity. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf suggest that the structure and content of a language influences the way its speakers perceive and think about the world.

Look out for:

Part III – Asa’Pili, Láadan

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