Fictional utopian languages: Part III – Asa’Pili, Láadan

Part III of this three part series, in which Nathan Taylor-Gray explores fictional utopian languages and the utopian ideals of their speakers. If you missed them, here are Part I – Utopian, Houyhnhnm and Part II – Speedtalk, Pravic.

Sketch of a bolo, a utopian settlement where the fictional utopian language of asa'pili might be spoken

By the time we reach the 1980s, fictional utopian languages were being invented every year or two. At this point it becomes a challenge to know what to include and what to exclude.

The criteria I’ve applied is to focus on fictional utopian languages that perform specifically idealistic functions, such as describing different ideas of ownership, relationship arrangements, or more equitable systems of economics. I’ve also excluded any language that doesn’t include examples of words in the language. This is why some notable fictional languages don’t qualify.

The Expanse’s Belter patois, the Loonie slang of Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, or even the evolved English of Le Guin’s Kesh in Always Coming Home aren’t particularly ideological, even if some of those using it share a utopian ideology. Likewise, the Newspeak of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is promoted by its fictional society as utopian, but even they admit in secret it was designed for very dystopian ends. Tolkien’s Elvish tongues in The Lord of the Rings were undoubtedly a major influence on the creation of modern fantasy languages. But the Elvish world – while it may be seen as ideal to some – is also exclusionary, with the vocabulary itself not being particularly egalitarian.

The inventors of the two fictional utopian languages to be discussed in this post were intending not just to reflect the ideology of its speakers, as previous fictional utopian languages had done, but to introduce a tool for effecting change in the real world.


The fictional utopian language of Asa’Pili appears in Hans Widmer’s 1983 work Bolo’bolo. The book is an anarchist utopia with a very detailed description of community arrangements, but without much in the way of story.

The book is written in retrospect, after the world has been long organised into autonomus, semi-self sufficient communities called “bolos”. It begins in 1984, when Bolo’bolo pamphlets raising awareness of alternative ways of living spread across the world. This focuses the discontent of many people and soon results in the subversion of established systems of government. By 1987, international capitalist systems collapse. The next year, the whole world lives in bolos.

The book is not only a description of a possible utopia, but gives us a new vocabulary in which to understand how it is organised.

Asa’Pili vocabulary

Altogether, Widmer defines 30-40 words, which it is implied are just some of the words from a new universal language. These don’t just cover the unique concepts of the book, but also common words such as ‘person’, ‘food’ and ‘home’:

  • Ibu – person. Although Widmer translates as ‘man’ he seems to intend to encompass all genders
  • Kana – a group of 15-30 ibus
  • Bolo – about 20 kanas, so 300-500 ibus, plus guests (potentially 30-50)
  • Kodu – the agricultural base of a bolo
  • Sibi – practical buildings of the bolo
  • Ganu – meeting places for the bolo
  • Tega – township of 10-20 bolos
  • Dala – assembly of a tega
  • Dudi – delegates to a dala
  • Vudo – a county, around 400 bolos or 200,000 ibus
  • Vudo’dala – assembly of a vudo
  • Sumi – the largest practical unity for bolos and ibus. Can comprise an indefinite number of bolos, or several million people
  • Sumi’dala – assembly of a sumi
  • Asa – the whole world
  • Asa’dala – assembly of the asa
  • Yalu – food, to which everyone is entitled
  • Gano – a room, to which everyone is also entitled
  • Kana – a permanent home
  • Fasi – travelling, which can be done for as long as one wishes, taking a gano in another bolo wherever one visits, without encountering any borders beyond geographical ones
  • Sila – hospitality and tolerance, afforded to everybody
  • Taku – a container every ibu gets from their bolo, measuring 50x50x100cm, to contain their entire personal belongings. The size is similar to a small suitcase, presumably enabling one person to carry it without much inconvenience
  • Nami – the principle that “Every ibu can choose, practice, and propagandise for its own way of life, clothing style, language, sexual preferences, religion, ideology, opinions, etc., wherever it wants and as it likes”
  • Kene – common enterprises that carry out the distribution of essential resources in addition to those each bolo produces through its agriculture
  • Pili – language

The language combines words to make new ones, such as asa’pili (world language), fasi’ibu (traveller) and yalu’gano (restaurant).

The Asa’pili alphabet

Asa’pili has a much more concise alphabet than English. It is composed of a gang of 18 sounds (+ pause). Some of the symbols seem hieroglyphic. For instance, taku looks like the box it represents, and gano looks like a tent and symbolises housing.

Why Asa’pili?

As for his reasons for coupling his ideals with a new vocabulary, Widmer recollected and explained:

The original idea for creating this weird secret language came up because the European left-wing terminology was no longer viable. Nowadays when people talk about communism, that’s Gulag, no one wants to hear about it. … It is easier to simply say I am for bolo’bolo, and then everyone starts to think of the things all over again, to re-think them. … I invented this language. Bolo’bolo really means nothing other than communism. It is simply the translation”

Although Widmer admitted that Bolo’bolo started as “a mere collection of wishes”, he was hopeful that it could be a practical and realistic solution. “Bolo’bolo can be realised world-wide within five years” he claimed. Maybe those five years are long overdue, but hopefully we have five years left to do so. If society ever does go ahead and create something similar, thanks to Bolo’bolo they will have the words to do so.


The fictional utopian language Láadan was created by Suzette Haden Elgin before she wrote the book that introduced it to the world, Native Tongue. Elgin was a language professor and developed her language with the aim that women could express their unique perspectives and experiences. She felt our patriarchal society had influenced language in ways that disadvantaged women, affecting not only their vocabulary but also their thoughts.

Elgin was also a science fiction writer and extolled sci-fi as a medium for women’s liberation. Native Tongue was published in 1984, with a grammar and dictionary following the year after. Unlike Le Guin’s fictional Pravic, Láadan was intended to be used as a real and unique language.

Elgin said she had the idea because, after speaking about the problems women have with language, she was repeatedly asked “If women aren’t satisifed with the language they have, how come they’ve never made up their own?”. In an interview she explained:

[I] was distressed by that question; I wasn’t aware at that time of the language constructed by Hildegard of Bingen, for example. It seemed to me that it would be useful for me to do a language, and specifically a language designed to express female perceptions – just so that I could say that it had been done.”


The presentation of Láadan in Native Tongue

Native Tongue is set many years after amendments to the US Constitution by conservative Christians have repealed all rights for women. We follow the story of Nazareth Chornyak, a woman who is the most gifted linguist of her age. While such “lingoes” are essential to human/alien communications, women are treated as children by the misogynist society of the time. Once they are too old to give birth, they are retired to the “Barren House”.

It is in the Barren House that Nazareth and her fellow women develop their own uniquely female language. Their purpose is to empower young women to fight against their oppressive culture. In a conversation within the book, a woman named Aquina muses about its potential:

Suppose we begin to use it, as you say we should do. And then, as more and more little girls acquire Láadan and begin to speak a language that expresses the perceptions of women rather than those of men, reality will begin to change. Isn’t that true?

“As true as water,” Nazereth said. “As true as light.”

Native Tongue, p.250

Láadan vocabulary

The language has a multitude of words for women, menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, love and sex. Many words, and all pronouns, are gender neutral, until a gendered suffix is added. Elgin suggested male and female suffixes. Other proponents of the language have since suggested non-binary suffixes, as well as expanding LGBT+ specific terms.

The vocabulary offers other insights into the utopian themes of community, organisation and the unique relationships and connections that form in the subculture described in Native Tongue. For example, their word for community means not just an arrangement or collection of individuals, but also a feeling of belonging. Likewise, their word for family can refer to birth parents and siblings, but also people connected closely who create adopted family relationships.

There are specific terms for homosexual relationships, which are valued within the culture. In other ways it is more traditional: marriage is a monogamous arrangement between men and women, and children are raised by a parent. Yet the word for marriage insists it is something two people do together. As the dictionary states: “Láadan wouldn’t allow ‘X married Y or ‘Y married X’, which presupposes that marrying is something one person can do to another. It has to be a joint action, done together.”

The women are treated as chattel and assigned places to live and work, until they are sent to the Barren House. As such, current property relationships don’t quite apply. But the language still has words for possessing and owning, especially when it comes to personal items.

Clarity of communication

Being understood clearly is very important to the speakers of Láadan. An additional feature of the language is words to indicate the intent of your statement, e.g. whether in jest, in anger, or as a question. It also has words to indicate your own conviction in your statement, and whether or not you have a trusted source for any information you divulge.

Elgin was convinced of the utility of her language. She was therefore disappointed it was not adopted more generally outside of her novel. In a 2007 interview she disclosed that on the basis of Native Tongue being a thought experiement her own hypothesis – that within ten years women would either adopt her language or invent another one – had been disproved. However, Láadan does continue to have a life outside of the book.

Other sources of information about Láadan

As a fully developed language there is more to set out than can be described in this blog post. Look out for a bonus post coming soon with examples of the vocab. More information can also be found at


In the novels covered in this series, the invented languages have specific purposes. The need to find new words to express the ideals of their new society, for instance. Or, the need to rid themselves of negative words from the old society that undermine their new ideals.

This gives the authors a reason to introduce new words that address the inadequacies of English. Especially problems with possessive terms for how humans relate to each other and things, and gendered words that don’t account for the complexity of the identities of their characters, or the dynamics of their relationships.

The future of utopian languages

The increase in fictional utopian languages has come with the increase of new utopian literature. This has been written for a number of reasons, such as:

  1. A new generation has grown up with the utopias of the ’60s
  2. Whereas political groups reacted negatively to earlier utopians or saw them as frivolous (Marx and Engels were particularly critical), there is now more acceptance that positive fictional portrayals of possible futures may inspire and foster greater ideological understanding and even prompt revolutionary action
  3. With the advent of the web and new ways of finding readers, this makes it easier to reach those who share an interest in utopian literature or the ideals related to it
  4. Our own age has specific challenges (or those challenges have become more severe or we are more aware of them) which inspires writers to come up with new solutions (or apply old ones in new relevant ways)
  5. Authors from other cultures and non-traditional backgrounds who now have greater access to potential readers, are seeing it as a means of expression, bringing their own unique viewpoints and voices

For all these reasons and more I would expect the trend of creating new fictional utopian languages to continue, as well as further development of the ones we have into real world constructed languages. Perhaps some of the words these authors have created will yet make their way into slang or even common usage. But even if they don’t, the ideals behind them will continue to prompt new ways of envisaging and building the future. New words will always be part of that utopian process.

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.


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.


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


*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.

Fictional utopian languages: Part I – Utopian, Houyhnhnm

Fictional utopian languages: Thomas More's Utopian alphabet reimagined by Fraser Muggeridge and Jeremy Deller

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.