QOTD: Heinlein’s truth-telling language, Speedtalk

July 14th, 2013
by jodi

Inventing languages is a past-time both of philosophers and science fiction storytellers. It spotlights the relationships between language and thought and language and culture.1

Yesterday I ran across Heinlein’s truth-telling language, Speedtalk. A few lines were really striking:
“In the syntax of Speedtalk the paradox of the Spanish Barber could not even be expressed, save as a self-evident error.”
“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.”

Here’s a longer quote:

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. Compare the pellucid Boolean logic with the obscurities of the Aristotelean logic it supplanted.

Paradoxes are verbal, do not exist in the real world—and Speedtalk did not have such built into it. Who shaves the Spanish Barber? Answer: follow him around and see. In the syntax of Speedtalk the paradox of the Spanish Barber could not even be expressed, save as a self-evident error.

Gulf, as printed in Assignment in Eternity – Robert A. Heinlein - Baen edition

This seemed to me to echo Leibniz’ symbolic language, in the “truthtelling” aspects — perhaps since I wrote a few months ago about Leibniz!2
Leibniz was perhaps the first philosopher to write about a special language for expressing truth or making arguments evident.34

  1. Apparently Wikipedia keeps a list of constructed languages and has nearby discussion on the purpose of some of these. []
  2. For thesis Chapter 1, forthcoming; thanks to some comments from Adam Wyner. Ironically, my BA thesis was on Leibniz monads, but if I’d ever read the “Let us calculate” lines, I certainly didn’t have them in mind when thinking of argumentation! []
  3. For more, see Roger Bishop Jones on Leibniz and the Automation of Reason. []
  4. For references to the original, trace a discussion on the listserv historia-matematica, started by Robert Tragesser 1999-05-23, [HM] Leibniz’s “let us calculate”?, with responses over several months. Michael Detlefsen gives references to several of Leibniz’s writings, and a followup question about which quote is most widely known (1999-07-17, started by “L. M. Picard” with the subject [HM] Leibniz’s “let us calculate”) yields a very useful response from Siegmund Probst, quoting several variants with detailed references. []

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Posted in argumentative discussions, PhD diary | Comments (1)

One Response to “QOTD: Heinlein’s truth-telling language, Speedtalk”

  1. jrochkind Says:

    Did Speedtalk actually exist, are there examples of it? Or just a thought experiment?

    It also reminds me of Ayn Rand’s “A is A”, maybe because Heinlein’s politics also remind me unpleasantly of Rand’s. I think the idea of language that is neccesarily representationally truthful neglects the in fact _neccessarily_ representational and symbolic nature of language. “The map is not the territory,” as Alfred Korzybski said (another guy with ultimately unfortuante politics, heh).

    Analagously, Leibniz’s symbolic langauge (which if it actually existed as more than a hypothetical thought experiment, he neglected to write down, heh) leads to Godel’s Incompleteness Theory (Godel was in fact fascinated by Leibniz’s (possibly hypothetical) symbolic language project).

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