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Here's a description of an imaginary language from the Robert Heinlein story Gulf. I consider this a perfect example of science fiction as a literature of ideas. Not only does it transmit the idea of inventing a language (with a few variations that make it different than, say, Esperanto), it also hints at the idea of a hierarchical language and the distinction between words and reality. And that's just a small part of the story—it's mainly focused on the idea of the genetic superman.

Anyway, here's the part about the imaginary language.

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.


An economical language cannot be limited to a thousand words; although almost every idea can be expressed somehow in a short vocabulary, higher orders of abstraction are convenient. For technical words Speedtalk employed an open expansion of sixty of the thousand-odd phonetic letters. They were the letters ordinarily used as numerals; by preceding a number with a letter used for no other purpose, the symbol was designated as having a word value.

It's not stated explicitly, but I think it's a small step from the idea of numbered words to the idea that the sequence of digits might be a hierarchy, with, say, the first digit indicating the appropriate special field.

For more about vocabulary, see How Many Words?.

Finally, here are the few good bits about words and reality.

The world—the continuum known to science and including all human activity—does not contain “noun things” and “verb things”; …


Paradoxes are verbal, do not exist in the real world …


  See Also

  Base 60
  Expansion Calculator

@ January (2001)