Thursday, April 05, 2018

Telepaths and Language

I've been reading the early books in the Honor Harrington series. The one I'm into now, ASHES OF VICTORY, includes a conversation about the possibility of teaching the intelligent, telepathic treecats American Sign Language so they can communicate with humans. (A few have empathically bonded with human partners, as in the link between Honor and her treecat, Nimitz, but even so the content consists of emotions and impressions, not language.) One of the greatest difficulties mentioned is that treecats, as a fully telepathic species, don't have a verbal language of their own.

This isn't the first place I've encountered the assumption that telepaths wouldn't develop language. (Those who "speak" freely with members of their own species mind-to-mind, that is, not touch-telepaths like Vulcans or others for whom mental communication depends on a personal bond.) But is that necessarily true? Granted, they wouldn't need to evolve language if they possess fully developed mental communication. Wouldn't they eventually have reason to invent it, though? Once a civilization becomes complex enough to require long-distance communication, it seems that a language composed of words or analogous symbols would be vitally needed. Furthermore, it's hard to imagine how a civilization could advance beyond a certain level without a means of recording information in a permanent form. Also, technology arises from science, and science needs mathematics. Math is a language of a sort. So by the time we made first contact with a society of telepathic aliens, it seems they would probably have a concept of language in some form; they would therefore be open to the concept that we "handicapped" mind-deaf Earthlings need that kind of medium to share information.

The dragon character in Heinlein's BETWEEN PLANETS belongs to a species whose vocal apparatus can't produce the sounds of human languages. He wears an electronic device that translates his speech into English. Something like that might work for telepaths. If their culture is advanced enough to have invented math, they should be able to understand the purpose of a device that shapes thoughts into audible or visual code.

In one STAR TREK episode, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy get captured by highly advanced aliens (again!) and meet a young woman who's empathic and mute. Her innate lack of speech suggests that her species communicates solely through mental channels. We can't tell whether she understands the human characters' thoughts or simply feels their pain.

What do you think? How hard would it be for a telepathic species to grasp the concept of words and syntax, then learn to use them for communication?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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