It Was a Dark and Stormy Noun...—1985 Edition—The SpecGram Puzzle Elves™ SpecGram Vol CLXX, No 4 Contents EtymGeo™—Weird Little U.S. Towns, Part V—The SpecGram Puzzle Elves™

Speech is an Elaborate Cover for Widespread Telepathy

Will Styler
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Vowels


This article challenges the long-standing “Speech” theory of language: that humans communicate by flapping around bits of meat in their heads and necks, thus creating minute and highly speaker-specific patterns of vibration in air pressure, and then interpreting these vibrations, via little bones and tiny hair cells, as referent to concepts, entities, and propositions in the greater world. In place of this overly-complex and increasingly implausible theory, the author proposes a far simpler species-wide telepathic link, with “speech” serving primarily as a cover-up to prevent widespread persecution of telepathic communicators, as well as to support existing jobs in the telecommunications industry. The field of Linguistics will need to adapt accordingly.

1 Introduction

Linguists have long held that the phenomenon described as “speech” or “talking” forms the cornerstone of human, linguistic communication.

“Speech” can be described as the deliberate flapping of bits of head- and neck-meat while blowing air out of the lungs, in such a way to induce low-amplitude vibrations in nearby air. These vibrations, in the classical model of Speech, then travel through the air, bouncing off of things, until they find their way to a listener’s tympanic membrane, which sends the vibrations through three tiny bones (named by prominent farriers in the mid-1500s), into a little sack of fluid and membranes. This shell-shaped structure, creatively named the “cochlea”, uses hairs and potassium and a variety of fiddly little cellular processes to turn the vibrations into electricity, which is then interpreted into “language” by different regions of the brain (the regions used depending largely on the recency of your neuroscience textbook).

Despite its complexity and the continued confusion in speech-related journals as to the function, perception, and consistency of speech, this “Speech” theory of language and communication is incredibly widespread within the modern linguistic community. Even in our most prominent journals, there appears to be incredible reluctance to call into question this sacred calf of Linguistics.

This paper aims to highlight the ridiculousness of this “Speech” theory of communication, to propose an alternate theory of language (“Widespread Telepathy”), and to discuss the effects of this alternate theory on Language and the Linguistic Community.

2 The Fallacy of “Speech”

The International Phonetic Alphabet lists 107 symbols. These symbols represent patterns of meat-flapping determined by the (largely pro-speech) phonetic community to be ‘meaningful’ in some language or another.1

The currently-adopted symbols range from the straightforward voiceless bilabial stop /p/ (used in the English word ‘Sesquipedalian’), representing a simple closure of the lips, to the absolutely ridiculous voiced labio-velar approximant /w/ (as in ‘What a silly phoneme’), where you’re kind-of-but-not-really closing the lips at the same time that you’re raising the back of your tongue sort-of-towards the velum, but doing it quickly and vaguely enough that you don’t accidentally make a /b/ or an /u/ or some other reasonable sound.

Yet we as a linguistic community are expected to accept that in actual connected speech, all of these cleanly-described articulations vary greatly. These “well-defined” articulations are vulnerable to peer pressure (“... but all my friends are nasalized!”), lenition and other forms of laziness, and moment-to-moment identity crises (c.f. the absurd number of ways to articulate the English /ɹ/). Not to mention that the acoustical consequences of these gestures vary greatly speaker-to-speaker, based on factors so trivial as anatomy and miscellaneous meat-movement mannerisms.

This “speech” process is laid out by the phonetic community as a straightforward bout of articulatory planning with “occasional” coarticulation and blending, but in natural speech, it turns into a veritable free-for-all of variation, misarticulation, “dialect-specific” changes, and, perhaps most brazen of all, “free variation”. This has resulted in a theoretical construct so complex that some poor, misguided graduate students spend years studying speech and speech perception, while still ultimately unclear as to the exact mechanisms at play.

2.1 On Speech Perception

Even more ridiculous is the idea of “Speech perception”, which, despite centuries of study, is still largely indistinguishable from all but the basest forms of magic.

According to research, humans are able to perceive speech in noise, underwater, and using different gases as transmission media (c.f. Chipmunk, Alvin et al., 1958). Speech can be understood when filtered to remove parts of the spectrum, when modified to change the spectral information present, and can even be understood when resynthesized into sine-wave speech.2

In addition, many of the underlying processes of speech and vowel perception have been shown to be present in non-human primates, chinchillas, dogs, and even zebra finches. The continued absence of these other species from the global speech community, despite their ability to distinguish human speech sounds within and across speakers, supports the notion that the ability to perceive speech is unrelated to our present form of communication.3

Finally, we must consider our seemingly miraculous ability to adjust to the massive acoustical differences in speech of children, speakers with different dialects, unfamiliar speakers, and your grandfather whose poor denture-adhesion leads to massive within-speaker within-sentence vocal-tract variation. All of this suggests that this process of “speech perception”, although a touching example of the linguistic community’s innate optimism and desire to believe in magic, is implausible at best.

Given the overwhelming complexity of the “Speech” process and our tenuous understanding (at best) of its possible mechanisms of perception, it is clear that the time for the “Speech” theory of language has come to an end. We must find a simpler solution for the problem that people seem to often vaguely know what other people are getting at when in proximity or on the phone.

3 Widespread Telepathy: A Simpler Solution

Rather than depending on complex patterns of meat-flapping, pressure waves, and hair-vibrations for successful communication, we can instead posit a far less complex idea: That all humans have the ability to transmit information telepathically to other humans, and that speech (or, in some cases, sign) is simply an elaborate ruse designed to hide our frightening mutation from fellow citizens and shadowy governmental agencies, as well as to support the flourishing telecommunication industry.

3.1 Proposed Mechanism

It is, clearly, outside the scope of the present work to provide any evidence in favor of this assertion or detail the exact nature of this mechanism. However, some preliminary details can be given even at this early stage in our research.

Figure 1: Schematic view of the proposed communication process

When a communication is desired, transmitting humans are sending a series of psychosemantic human organized neural emissions (or “PHONE”s, for short), which are then picked up by the emission acceptance regions (“EAR”s) in the temporal region of the receiving human (see Figure 1). Once the PHONEs hit the receiver’s EARs, they are then subjected to a series of linguistic analyses of escalating abstraction from the PHONE level up, first standardizing them to concept-specific unique reifications (“UR”s), then arranging them into greater Normalized and Variable patterns (“NP”s and “VP”s). Once these NPs and VPs are fully parsed, the meaning is placed into a greater communicative context, and the transmitter’s intent and message is understood.

Inconveniently, this process requires a shared language among the two parties in communication. We can only assume from this that speakers of different languages think in fundamentally and incomprehensibly different ways.4 This mismatch can safely be assumed to hinge on cross-language differences in color categorization and the number of terms for ‘snow’.

It is worth noting that our fear of stigmatization is deeply ingrained (which is not unexpected, given the recent “reboots” of the X-Men franchise in which similarly gifted characters face terrible consequences). As such, humans appear unwilling to utilize this telepathy in situations where speech, or in some cases signed communication, are not possible, whether in a direct or electronically mediated context.5

Unfortunately, with this revelation, there will come grave consequences for the field of linguistics, which do merit some discussion.

4 Consequences in the field of Linguistics

Clearly, the strongest waves will be felt in the field of Phonetics, hitherto dedicated entirely to the “Speech” theory of language. However, all is not lost: Phonetics could remain relevant by simply focusing on the description of the nature, production, use, and cross-linguistic variation of PHONEs, as well on their reception and analysis by the EARs.

Phonology will also be strongly affected by this new understanding. Among many changes, Generative Phonology and Optimality Theory will need to completely abandon their present work, instead focusing on the genesis and nature of variations between URs and the actually produced PHONEs. Due to the extensive and admirable efforts already undertaken in completely divorcing the field from speech, Government Phonology will not be affected by this revelation.

The majority of other linguistic fields will be largely untouched, as they’ve never really wanted to think about speech in the first place.

5 Conclusions

Although it brings the author considerable pain to announce, it is time that Linguistics moves past “Speech”. We have fought valiantly to find sense in it, but the insane complexity and mutability of speech, coupled with the ridiculous notion that the wildly variable acoustical signal could be decoded into something even remotely approximating communicative information, indicate that we must put an end to this much-cherished but ultimately silly theory.

Instead, we must adapt a theory far simpler than “Speech”, that is, that we are all incredibly skilled telepaths who are simply too embarrassed to use our skills without covering it up with a clever ruse. Phoneticians and Phonologists must take note and adapt accordingly, and forward-thinking departments should immediately begin the process of hiring for new positions in parapsycholinguistics.6

Although there will be trying times ahead of us, this realization will lead to more straightforward understandings of linguistics, to progress towards true understanding of language, and, eventually, to a new golden age in our field.

1 This quite clearly demonstrates the need for the Chewbacca noise to be ‘borrowed’ into some obscure and yet-undescribed Nilo-Saharan language. Field linguists, the author is talking to you.

2 In this process, speech is reproduced by creating sine-waves which mimic only the primary components of the speech signal, namely, “Overexcited Orca”, “Sliding on Damp Inner Tube”, and “Songbird on Cocaine”.

3 Unless, of course, there was a conscious choice by these species to avoid further interaction with us, likely following accidental exposure to back issues of Speculative Grammarian.

4 Yes, this finally proves Linguistic Relativity. You’re welcome.

5 This is unlikely to change in the face of fierce opposition and lobbying from the telecommunications industry.

6 The author’s CV and several high-quality letters of references are available directly from SpecGram, for the usual head-hunting fee. —Eds.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Noun...1985 EditionThe SpecGram Puzzle Elves™
EtymGeo™Weird Little U.S. Towns, Part VThe SpecGram Puzzle Elves™
SpecGram Vol CLXX, No 4 Contents