Excerpts on Speedtalk

by panglott

Speedtalk, from Robert Heinlein’s novella “Gulf”, is an example of science fiction grappling with the possibilities of “logical language” and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s a bit silly, as most of the best science fiction can be. The story is anthologized in Assignment in Eternity, which has finally come back into print as an e-book.

Speedtalk was a structurally different speech from any the race had ever used. Long before, 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, with the aid of a handful of special words— a hundred odd— for each special field, such as horse racing or ballistics. About the same time phoneticians had analyzed all human tongues into about a hundred-odd sounds, represented by the letters of a general phonetic alphabet. On these two propositions Speedtalk was based.

To be sure, the phonetic alphabet was much less in number than the words in Basic English . But the letters representing sound in the phonetic alphabet were each capable of variation several different ways—length, stress, pitch, rising, falling. The more trained an ear was the larger the number of possible variations; there was no limit to variations, but, without much refinement of accepted phonetic practice, it was possible to establish a one-to-one relationship with Basic English so that one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire word in a “normal” language , one Speedtalk word was equal to an entire sentence. The language consequently was learned by letter units rather than by word units— but each word was spoken and listened to as a single structured gestalt. But Speedtalk was not “shorthand” Basic English. “Normal” languages, having their roots in days of superstition and ignorance, have in them inherently and unescapably 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. For example, the verb “to be” in English has twenty-one distinct meanings, every single one of which is false-to-fact. A symbolic structure, invented instead of accepted without question, can be made similar in structure to the real-world to which it refers. The structure of Speedtalk did not contain the hidden errors of English; it was structured as much like the real world as the New Men could make it. For example, it did not contain the unreal distinction between nouns and verbs found in most other languages. The world— the continuum known to science and including all human activity— does not contain “noun things” and “verb things”; it contains space-time events and relationships between them. The advantage for achieving truth, or something more nearly like truth, was similar to the advantage of keeping account books in Arabic numerals rather than Roman. All other languages made scientific, multi-valued logic almost impossible to achieve; in Speedtalk it was as difficult not to be logical.

Another section:

There were hurrying footsteps moving past his bedroom door. There were two voices, one male, one female, outside the door; the female was Thalia Wagner, the man he could not place.
Male: “tsʉmaeq?”
Female: “nø!”
Male: “zulntsɨ.”
Female: “ɨpbit’ New Jersey.”
These are not precisely the sounds that Gilead heard, first because of the limitations of phonetic symbols, and second because his ears were not used to the sounds. Hearing is a function of the brain, not of the ear; his brain, sophisticated as it was, nevertheless insisted on forcing the sounds that reached his ears into familiar pockets rather than stop to create new ones.

A third except:

“You’re the doctor. Joe. In that case—” A speaker on Baldwin’s desk uttered: “œnIe r nøg rylp.”

Baldwin answered, “nu,” and sauntered quickly to the fireplace. An early-morning fire still smouldered in it. He grasped the mantel piece, pulled it toward him. The entire masonry assembly, hearth, mantel, and grate, came toward him, leaving an arch in the wall. “Duck down stairs, Joe,” he said. “It’s a raid.”

Heinlein, Robert A. (2012-07-01). Assignment in Eternity (Kindle Locations
749-752). Baen Books. Kindle Edition.

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