Thursday, May 04, 2023

Telepaths and Language

One panel I attended at this year's RavenCon was about communicating with aliens. I brought up the question of whether a telepathic species would have a spoken language or the concept of words at all, which was then discussed at some length.

Touch telepaths such as Vulcans don't count. A society could hardly exist if people had be touching each other to share feelings or thoughts, so Vulcans naturally have a language. I'm thinking of a species whose members would communicate by short-range thought transmission, needing to be in each other's physical presence or at most within line-of-sight. In my opinion, they would have no evolutionary reason to develop language. They wouldn't need words, let alone speech, because they would form mental images of whatever they're "talking" about. Somebody on the panel raised the issue of what kind of environment would cause them to evolve telepathy as their chief mode of communication. It would have to be a world where both hearing and vision would be unreliable for that purpose.

Stipulating such an unusual environment, why would they develop words? People wouldn't even have names; they would identify each other by mental images of the person they're "speaking" to or about. If they eventually encountered interstellar travelers from Earth, the telepaths would probably consider our mind-blindness a pitiable handicap.

In order to develop science and technology, however, this species would have to invent language sooner or later, if only a written one. A society beyond the hunter-gatherer level requires keeping records, communicating at a distance, and transmitting information to future generations. One panelist suggested a universal mental "cloud" all members of the species could tap into, like a worldwide telepathic mainframe. Such a phenomenon, though, would go far beyond the short-range, person-to-person telepathy I'm considering. A species such as the latter couldn't create what we'd think of as civilization without writing or the equivalent. That step would be harder than simply inventing the alphabet would have been in our world. In a society without spoken language or even the concept of speech and words, the invention of written or electronic communication might require a genius on the level of the creator of algebra or calculus in Earth history.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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