Let's assume for a moment that humans developed telepathy as part of our divergence from apes and becoming bipedal. Like intelligence, that evolutionary trait was powerful, leading to it quickly becoming ubiquitous.

The telepathy works like your brain. You have ideas, concepts, feelings, but you can "hear" that they come from a different direction and are not your own. Likewise you can broadcast your own thoughts to a group or target them in a certain direction. Different people have different "flavor" to their thoughts - as different people think differently, even about the same things.

Particularly intense thought/feeling can be "heard" without being "spoken", but at a shorter distance proportional to the intensity (let's say ~5-10 meters at most). "Spoken" telepathy has similar range to the human voice. And let's assume that technological development allows people to use their telepathy for "telepathic telephones" and similar analogous technology.

The question is, would people ever develop spoken language in this alternate reality? Why or why not?

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    $\begingroup$ @JohnP (and Ghanima) - I would expect that humans would retain their pre-human vocal cords, even if they were vestigial. As for "would they use them?" that's part of the question. The telepathy has the same range as your or my voice (at sea level, in air, with no wind, etc. etc.). $\endgroup$ – Telastyn Jan 6 '15 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ You would still need some way to articulate your thoughts, even if you don't need to speak. I think in English rather than purely in nebulous thoughts or feelings. In Orwell's 1984, Newspeak was invented to limit the range of thought by limiting the words available for people to use. I'm not sure what form a non-spoken, non-signed language would take, but I suppose a telepathic society could develop one. $\endgroup$ – Molag Bal Jan 6 '15 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ That would be very different world. No way to hide your thoughts. No white lies, no spying, no diplomacy. It could be really hard to develop society because white lies are important, and also the constant "thought noise" - you cannot shut up your brain to stop thinking/broadcasting. They might just kill each other in teenage rage. Maybe they did kill each other (telepathic ones) and we are descendants of survivors of the massacre. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. - stands for Monica Jan 6 '15 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Telastyn, pre-human vocal cords would probably be like ape vocal cords, thought to be not physically usable for speech: "Unlike humans, apes lack the anatomical pre-requisites for verbal language production. The organs within the vocal tract, such as larynx muscles and vocal cords, cannot be moved as freely and coordinated as in humans, especially not at a comparable speed." mpi.nl/q-a/questions-and-answers/why-cant-apes-speak $\endgroup$ – A E Jan 7 '15 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ To aliens that never developed innate ability to detect minute air vibrations, our usage of air waves to wirelessly transfer knowledge over short distance is telepathy, though maybe they will call it teleaerovibe, just to make it sound Greek/cool. $\endgroup$ – Lie Ryan Jan 7 '15 at 13:34

20 Answers 20


Assuming telepathy is a better version of speaking, and there are no disadvantages in comparison, (Range is non-issue, clarity is same or better, ability to control how much others hear, or, just a very understanding society) I don't think there would still be a fully developed language, but I have two topics it may still have an impact on which exist today.

Body Language

One's voice may be used as an extreme extension of "body language." Something extremely painful happens, and they still have the urge to to let out a noise in addition to their normal telepathy. Intimidating sounds might be made when extremely angry or during fights. Laughing may still be a normal, but much more rare and extreme, response to happiness. Language has never been about using the "best" form of communication, but about using "all" available resources to adequately express one's self. They shouldn't be able to communicate completely using their voice, they don't actually need too, but it should supplement their current communication in some way.


There are nearly infinite cultural affinities that could be tied to a person's voice. It could be something that is used during certain religious ceremonies, maybe entertainment in the form of music still exists. Maybe certain types of voices are considered very attractive. Alternatively to the body language section above, perhaps hearing your voice is something very private that only the closest people in your life will ever hear. Or, the opposite, it could be used only for the people you hate the most, who don't deserve to hear your thoughts straight from your head. Maybe "fighting" for dominance or leadership roles consists of screaming at one another to see who is loudest. Like I said, you could tie some cultural reason to just about any use for your voice.

  • $\begingroup$ I would debate "Range is non-issue". Our civ has managed to produce some truly remarkable range (in space) in communication by encoding sound into electrical impulses. Not to mention a civ would never ever advance without the ability to communicate through time (written language for example). $\endgroup$ – Aron Jan 7 '15 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Aron everything in the parenthesis are debatable depending on who is creating this world. The focus of this answer is on what the voice might still be used for even with perfect telepathy. You could add any disadvantage to telepathy, and your voice may be the thing which overcomes that disadvantage. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Jan 7 '15 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ I love the idea that speaking to someone, rather than trasmitting your thoughts, could be seen as a sign of disrespect or an act of agression. A physical sound coming from a throat would sound guttural and harsh to a species used to comunicating telepathically, so it makes sense. $\endgroup$ – Dr R Dizzle Jan 8 '15 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ If we presume 'all else being equal', i.e. humans are still primates (despite, well, magic) they'd still likely produce sounds on instinct alone. $\endgroup$ – Cubic Jan 9 '15 at 14:35

Everyone? Really? EVERYONE?

So, better coverage than voice is in current humans?

ie: no Deaf, no mutes?

If you have mental disabilities (ie: can't broadcast/can't receive), then those people will get/develop language (probably, assuming they aren't killed as subhuman animals (or demons); if other people can't detect that they have thoughts). Primates vocalize, and can learn sign. No reason that your disabled wouldn't at least get a grunt code. They might not get fluent, verbal language going, as there's no great evolutionary advantage to mutants with better vocal range - if most people are using telepathy.

Basically, you're going to have some problems in getting your primates vocal language, if there's no evolutionary need for it. We speak more fluently than primates, because there was a decided evolutionary advantage to mutants who had better vocal range/abilities. If you evolve the telepathy in parallel with language, it would get you the capability to speak (roughly; retraining people to speak, even though they have the vocal cords is time-consuming and difficult). And telepathy would definitely trump language in use.

However, the confusion that language engenders - miscomprehensions, etc. have led to a number of discoveries, because people thought someone said/meant something, when they didn't. And so people started investigating things and trying to find solutions, because they 'knew' someone had already done that.

Without vocal language, I don't see how you're going to get written language. Most alphabets were codes for phonemes. How do you make a sign for a thought-complex? Especially if telepathy is faster/more complete than language. Might be easier to train your memory and download/upload all of the history of thought on a subject to your pupils... who'd then memorize it, and could give it immediately to their pupils... I can see that there wouldn't be any schools :)

Is there any way to shield your brain, to keep secrets/lie, and to have spies? I can see languages developing if you want to keep who you are secret from your recipient: both go into adjacent booths, and use the Police language to do anonymous reporting.

Okay, language is getting a lot of comments. (and I was hasty to slight Chinese/pictograms by giving them the short end of 'most' - but yes, I did give them a moment's thought; however they had and failed at printing because of their inherent disadvantage, and only committed to printing when they knew they had to catch up or be in the dustbin of history. Not a recommended technology.).

But, let's keep in mind the question. If you can transmit an actual picture into another person's brain... why would you try making art to eventually derive a simplified script from?

Granted, if people have poor memories (and I think if we had evolved telepathy, we would've selected for photographic memory as well) they might want help/memory aids. But, I suspect that it would be a much more mind-based history. We had oral-history for long, long periods in our history - I think that would be magnified many times over with telepathy.

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    $\begingroup$ So, the whole brain is a transmitter? There's no specialty organ that does that? The whole brain is a telepathic ear? Most brain functions are localized - and if that area is damaged, or defective, you lose that ability (The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat). $\endgroup$ – user3082 Jan 6 '15 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ "Most alphabets were codes for phonemes." Really?! Seems a very Euro-centric view. Sure, Latin script is the most popular method to convey language right now. But even so there are over a billion people who primarily use a logographical script Chinese/Kanji. If we remove the restriction of modern languages, I could give you many more examples, such as Egyption Hieroglyphics. $\endgroup$ – Aron Jan 7 '15 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Raestloz: あ is not Kanji. Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet, it isn't logograph. While some radicals in Hanzi/Kanji sometimes hints to how the logograph is pronounced, the relationship is very weak and is incidental. This is why logographs can represent two completely and wildly different sounds but still mean the same in Chinese and Japanese. It's because a logograph represents ideas rather than sound. $\endgroup$ – Lie Ryan Jan 7 '15 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Raestloz that is ONE way language evolved. It was typical of european languages to be phonetic. Japanese is unique in that they have 3 scripts, one logographical, and two phonetical. Some believe that logographical language evolved from art and not spoken language. $\endgroup$ – Aron Jan 7 '15 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Raetloz: Even in natural language, the language you speak is probably quite different than the language you write; spoken language tend to consist of short sentences with looser grammatical structures, while written language that consists of only short bursts are often considered awkward/strange or even wrong. Likewise, you probably wouldn't use much compound/dependant clauses in speech, unless you want to make yourself not understandable. IMO, the spoken language and the written language only share superficial similarity. It is not simply an encodeling of the spoken language. $\endgroup$ – Lie Ryan Jan 7 '15 at 15:50

I would translate your situation as "what if people had an ability called 'X' which is like speech in every possible way, except has these mind numbingly better advantages." In those cases, the ratio of speech usage to telepathy would be akin to the ratio of the number of people taking a 10km hike across rocky terrain in a circle to arrive at a destination 1m away from their starting point versus the number of people who would simply take a single step and be there.

You're going to need some disadvantages if you ever want to see speech.

Perhaps one disadvantage could be the inability to cover up one's true feelings with telepathy. If your boss asks how it's going, you wouldn't be able to grit your teeth and say "its just fine and dandy, thank you for asking." Telepathy might be saved for highly personal situations, relying on crude speech for general day-to-day use.

Or perhaps the disadvantage is that it is much harder to concentrate on telepathy, making it nearly impossible to use unless you're standing still and devoting your attention to it.

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    $\begingroup$ Another possibility might be range, perhaps telepathy only works to people you can see and/or who are looking at you. So you should to get someone's attention then send the message to them...or alternatively telepathy might always be a shout, so it's impossible to have a private conversation that way. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jan 6 '15 at 22:36

Spoken language is a learned skill - why devote effort to learning it if telepathic communication coveys ideas without translation errors, without fumbling for vocabulary, without poor word choice confusing issues, etc? Written language would most likely still develop, but spoken language would be fundamentally inferior to their extant innate communication.

The very concept of a spoken language would likely be alien to them - perhaps, at the extreme, someone could develop a kind of long-distance call for beyond telepathic range, as in a whistled language even calls of cooee! which travel great distances, but anything which has the same range of function of telepathic speech would be extremely inefficient.

  • $\begingroup$ Spoken language is not entirely a learned skill, there's structures in our brains dedicated to it. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_processing_in_the_brain I think the mere existance of Aphasia proves that there's a biological component. $\endgroup$ – Mooing Duck Jan 7 '15 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ @MooingDuck There is certainly a part of the brain which has specialized for processing language, but nobody comes with 'English' preloaded. That takes significant time learning. How fast can you pick up Mandarin, Swahili, Russian, or any other language dissimilar to your own? Why bother with confusion and translation errors if you can just swap the ideas themselves and perfectly grok it? $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Jan 8 '15 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi - I don't think it would be as simple as swapping ideas. Even if it weren't necessary to develop or refine ideas (like rubber duck debugging, a person doesn't always know what they themselves mean until they articulate it)... I've also seen confusion and miscommunication that was not founded on language but on worldview, impulse-and-instinct, culture, and a bunch of other things that boil down to "understandable... but I don't agree" $\endgroup$ – Megha Nov 12 '17 at 1:40

There will most likely still be some kind of spoken language, although it will probably be not as complex and developed as ours and not everyone will speak it.

  1. These Humans will still most likely have hearing organs, for navigation, hearing predators and so on... Audio feedback on your surroundings is still very helpful for survival.
  2. Basic vocal chords developed in most animals to convey simple information like a shout to warn others in your colony - if danger approaches.
  3. Since your telepathic communication is probably not as far reaching and universal as a loud shout, your voice will still be useful to warn someone who is very far away or get his attention
  4. The spoken Word will most likely be like sign language in our world. There are some universal easy signs everyone understands and uses in situations where someone cannot hear but see you - and there is a whole sign-language for people who cannot hear or speak (deaf/mute) and for special situations where you want to convey information silently (secret sign languages for spies, wall street in public libraries)

So there will probably be a whole range of universal vocal signs, like calling for help, shouting "hello!" or warnings, which people use where telepathic communication has not enough range or is unpractical in some other way (maybe places with huge telepathic noise? Maybe places where telepathic silence is mandatory? Maybe on a battlefield between soldiers who use a secret spoken code-language for commands?)

And like @user3082 depicted in his answer there will probably be telepathic-impaired people who cannot easily communicate with their brain and will need some kind of spoken sign-language - which also many school-girls probably learn for fun to communicate in class...


Telepathy is going to cause problems. For example somebody who has strong hallucinations or on drugs and transmitting his hallucinations to the people around him, even to passing motorists.

Also what if somebody is in pain like an co-worker who has a toothache would you also feel it too. If somebody is dizzy and feels like vomiting would you feel the same way. Would you visit a relative in a hospital and be inundated by all the pain and suffering around you?

Also how can you sleep if the couple in the next room is making love and you can telepathically hear every whisper or feel every climax. How to you sleep if your college roommate is having a noisy nightmare.

Mob mentality will also be a problem. Anger starts with the mind and if several hundred people around you are projecting feelings of anger a weak mind might be easily influenced. If movies can affect you (sad, angry, happy) how about being incessantly bombarded by hundreds of feelings directly to your brain.

Also how would you prevent a co-worker from stealing your ideas. Or how does Kentucky Fried Chicken keep its secret recipe.

School tests would also be a problem. School lectures or seminars would also be a problem because you can hear every thought. It would be like trying to concentrate in a party where everyone is talking. In a party you would only be inundated by sound but with telepathy you will be inundated with everyone's thoughts, visualizations, and feelings.

You would have a lot of problems unless your society teaches telepathic blocking, or you have devices that block telepathy.

For the many situations in life when ordinary people need to keep secrets, your citizens must have some ability or device for telepathic blocking, So in situations that call for blocking you will still need verbal communication to converse your ideas while keeping your secrets intact.

Also if you want music and singing in your alternate world you need language.

  • $\begingroup$ Or, perhaps we'd have a better society - if you can feel the pain of those around you, you have a really effective incentive to make sure they're taken care of, and in good health. No BS about 'work thru the pain', or 'you need to wait 1 year before you get medical benefits'. No more hospitals. Doctors do housecalls and family stays together. No more spousal abuse. No child abuse. Even verbal and mental abuse are curbed. Etc. $\endgroup$ – user3082 Jan 9 '15 at 7:34
  • $\begingroup$ Re: parties, you run into the same thing with your ears. You leave, or go to somewhere quieter. You don't crowd together. Or, you discipline your mind - do you chat and/or monologue when you're in a lecture? Or do you sit quietly? Mind discipline will be something kids learn as they grow up. "Sit like a stone at the bottom of a pond, not a ripple on the surface." $\endgroup$ – user3082 Jan 9 '15 at 7:36

A simple language might still appear, especially if the language only works on humans. We have a tendency to talk to our pets, our animals of burden, etc. Plus, people often talk to themselves as well in order to not sit in silence or to get their thoughts in a row.

But odds are these languages will only contains a handful of words if telepathy is superior in every way.

I think that a written language however would still be pretty strong. Words have a certain permanency to them, and allow you to explain things better. Perhaps, in response to the written language, there would be a formal spoken language of the same type. Speaking in concepts and ideas is one thing, but sometimes you need perfect clarity, especially in scientific circles.

You could even see spoken language to be a thing used only by the elite, who need the extra clarity in order to get their ideas across properly, so that others can actually make use of them. Kind of like a jargon-only language. In the real world we also have people who communicate with so much jargon that they might as well be speaking a different language, and perhaps such a thing would be the only kind of language.

Or, as another alternative, perhaps in order to overcome cultural barriers which make the ideas of a foreign person impossible to understand, a spoken language will be created that gives a sort of common frame of reference. Because if you would share direct brain ideas with someone whose entire worldview is alien to yours, you might not have a clue what they're trying to convey in the first place. This depends on how the telepathy works exactly, but it's easy enough as is to not be able to communicate effectively with someone from a different culture (or even a different walk of life sometimes) if you're both using common words. Let alone if you're communicating in experiences.

Either way, I don't think you'd see language the way it exists in the world today. It would probably be highly specialised tools, used only in very specific situations.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting point about pets. Although I'd think that people would telepathically yell at them, even after they're told they can't possibly comprehend telepathy, based on what humans do with language nowadays. $\endgroup$ – Cubic Jan 9 '15 at 14:39

If the telepathy is using ideas and concepts directly (however that works) it could be problematic. Apparently language is pretty important for intelligence. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2010/07/how-deaf-people-think/

"Recent research has shown that language is integral in such brain functions as memory, abstract thinking, and, fascinatingly, self-awareness. Language has been shown to literally be the “device driver”, so to speak, that drives much of the brain’s core “hardware”. Thus, deaf people who aren’t identified as such very young or that live in places where they aren’t able to be taught sign language, will be significantly handicapped mentally until they learn a structured language, even though there is nothing actually wrong with their brains."

There would be several good reasons to have a spoken language but they are probably not strong enough to develop them in the first place, at least not in the general public.
-Code. If Telepathy is a universal thought language there would be need for a code language in certain situations.
-Recorded messages. If there is no telepathic radio, then a verbal language would be useful to cover distances, both in space and time.
-As others have pointed out, disabilities that make some people not able to send or receive telepathic messages. These individuals would use some kind of language, possibly spoken.

If you want to have verbal language AND telepathy for everyone, you could make telepathy take more effort than speaking. Alternatively, the ability could be available only after a certain age, so everyone has to learn a language as a child.
Otherwise, I think people wouldn't use language. They would use grunts and screams sometimes, though. Screaming as a reaction to pain would be a evolutional vestige that persists even though it's useless now.


Here is an interesting thought...

In the future we may very well develop technology that gets us very close to what you call telepathic now. It will likely have some fancy added features like caller id, DND mode, a mailbox and who knows what else that doesn't let it quite qualify for the traditional definition of telepathy, but it will be close. Initially our artificial telepathy will surely be based on spoken and written languages, but I am quite sure it will eventually develop its own "language" that is much more optimized for direct brain-to-brain signalling and much more efficient than speech. It will be able to express and transmit various feelings and perceptions completely literally and accurately. It will be a new age in human history, I believe.

People rarely realize, but spoken language is a major part of the way our brains think. As we grow up from infants, we learn to understand language and we learn to form thoughts in parallel. I believe most people's thoughts are actually in spoken language inside of their heads. There are of course exceptions, but still... I think when we develop this new "language" and get rid of the ambiguity and inexpressiveness (for certain aspects, anyway) of word-based languages, we will reach a new level of human intelligence. There already are certain rare people that can "think in math" for example, and achieve amazing feats in that field, or "think in colors" and become great artists...

If a species could do that naturally, it would have an amazing advantage over us. And no, I doubt it would ever develop anything as rudimentary as spoken languages.

Edit: with ubiquotous low-level brain-to-brain signaling, an emergence of collective consciousness seems very likely to me though, so there will be no individuals and no "language" at all, neither spoken nor telepathic.


With the 10m range limit you've specified there's still plenty of value in a spoken language. Yodelling, for example, was supposedly used for communicating between villages in the Alps. Very useful before the invention of telephones.

Also, if you're limiting the telepathic ability to the humanoid, they would need some way of calling domesticated animals. Those calls might not need to be as complicated as most modern languages, but it'd need to be complex enough to direct a sheepdog, for example.

  • $\begingroup$ Also, public speaking -- with a 10m range limit, how do you address a large group? $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Oct 18 '15 at 17:04

What if early on in this development, different groups have incompatible "flavors" of telepathy that limits what they can send/receive? So two groups of neolithic telepaths who meet might be able to get basic emotions across, but not the full telepathy between same group members.

In this case a basic spoken language might develop as a trade or negotiation tool.

If the flavors are learned (rather than inherited), then as groups go larger and you move into cities more people will share the same flavor and be able to communicate, but you'd probably also keep the spoken language (and a written version) for records and for trade with other cities. Then you have a similar progression to different states/nations. The trade language might expand in complexity with the introduction of telephones (assuming they don't work with telepathy) and then again with the introduction of an internet-like technology.

Another thought I had was that maybe they have an extremely strong vocal musical tradition for some reason, and develop flexible vocal chords to support that? Then when they hit the point of development where they need language/written records and telepathy won't cut it, they could use music as the basis for their language. Reasons for the musical aptitude could be anything from religion to mating calls.

Edit: Another potential reason might be a predator/prey that's sensitive to directed telepathy, but not as much to sound. Imagine a world where all animals are telepathic and uses that as a detection advice (maybe you can't understand animals but you can "hear" that they're there). Intelligence might allow humans to dampen their thoughts and not broadcast, giving them a hunting advantage, but then they'd need some other way to coordinate.


Even when we think, we partially think in a language. Maybe we used to it, but, I think it's better thinking in a language than just picturing an image in mind. "I'm hungry..", "That girl is hot ..", for example.

In my hometown, most people learned two languages since childhood, and both languages are first language. When I went out to big city, the most and interesting question that I was asked was "in which language are you thinking usually ?"

So, to conclude, some kind of language would be developed eventually one way or another, I think.

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    $\begingroup$ That was my thought as well -- when I think to myself, I think in my spoken language, if I never learned a spoken language, what would my thoughts be like? Urges and feelings like "I'm hungry" would still exist, but what would replace my internal monolog of "I wonder if there are still bagels in the break room, maybe I should just go out to the coffee shop"? If humans were telepathic, would an English-only speaker be able to understand the thoughts of a Mandarin-only speaker? $\endgroup$ – Johnny Jan 7 '15 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't that "language" you are referring to simply the encoding/representation of concepts used when communicating telepathically? $\endgroup$ – O. R. Mapper Jan 8 '15 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ It often seems like we "think in words" or "think in pictures", but this is probably an illusion. If words simply appeared in your mind, without being preceded by non-verbal thoughts, then who is saying those words? What seems more likely is that when you think something, you automatically recall the words to reflect your thoughts, and the delay is so small that it seems to be happening at the same time. But you could still have the initial thought without verbalizing it. I think language is important to thought in the same way that paper is important to working out math problems... $\endgroup$ – bobtato Jan 8 '15 at 14:08

How I see this playing out is that, while a language would be developed perfectly fine, it simply wouldn't be spoken. They would have a language that is communicated by telepathy, rather than through sound-waves propagating through the air and reaching some organ that analyzes it. Because of this, there is no reason for them to have developed vocal chords or ears for communication purposes.

However, there is still a possibility that they would have developed those organs or something similar for other purposes. For instance, it is generally helpful to hear when boulders are falling from higher up the mountain, so that you can at least try to get out of the way of danger. In a similar fashion, perhaps they would have developed some vocal capability. While not useful for communication with other telepaths, it may be useful for driving off wild animals. And by a very far stretch of imagination, there could be some sort of technology that makes use of sound waves for some reasonable purpose.


Although all the answers are great, i have one thing to add to this: secrecy. I believe that people would eventually develop (or should i say invent?) some sort of "grunting code" in order to communicate without others "thinking" their messages, just like we can use sign language to communicate secretly. Another possible out come is that we develop a language that uses telepathy and mouth sounds combined.


I'd imagine language would be redundant and communication would be implemented using highly developed emotive state, as fine if not finer than speech.

Sometimes it's hard to articulate emotions, I am sure their expressive power in telepathy would replace language, given emotional state can be infinite.


Several answers have already talked about technology, but one thing that does not appear to have been considered yet is that technological development itself would require the existence of a language more specific than intuitively-understood "ideas, concepts, feelings" can be. This isn't mere conjecture, but a lesson of history, as Dijkstra points out:

A short look at the history of mathematics shows how justified this challenge is. Greek mathematics got stuck because it remained a verbal, pictorial activity, Moslem "algebra", after a timid attempt at symbolism, died when it returned to the rhetoric style, and the modern civilized world could only emerge—for better or for worse—when Western Europe could free itself from the fetters of medieval scholasticism—a vain attempt at verbal precision!—thanks to the carefully, or at least consciously designed formal symbolisms that we owe to people like Vieta, Descartes, Leibniz, and (later) Boole.

The virtue of formal texts is that their manipulations, in order to be legitimate, need to satisfy only a few simple rules; they are, when you come to think of it, an amazingly effective tool for ruling out all sorts of nonsense that, when we use our native tongues, are almost impossible to avoid.

-- EWD 667, emphasis added

This most likely would need to be vocal in nature, because as a few answers have already pointed out, verbal language lends itself quite easily to recording and preservation without alteration, which is extremely important for technological development.

So yes, a non-verbal, telepathic culture could most likely arise and build a civilization, but it would never progress beyond the Dark Ages without speech.

(Come to think of it, that would make for an interesting hook right there: a society in which speech is for precise technical matters of science, engineering and law, whereas telepathy is used for social communication.)

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I agree. If anything, Dijkstra is pointing out how spoken language is not a viable tool for scientific communication. The written language would still be key. I'd imagine that kanji-style written language would still transition to mathematical symbolism. Hell, probably quicker/easier than phoenetic alphabets. (still, +1 for providing good scientific implications) $\endgroup$ – Telastyn Jan 8 '15 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ I believe Telastyn has the correct interpretation of Dijkstra here, and maybe ironically this answer demonstrates the point Dijkstra was trying to make: Any language is a tool for abstracting concepts so they can be communicated with others, spoken or written, but without a narrow formalized symbolism (Not native tongue) real mathematical advancements are impossible. Dijkstra is comparing formal and informal languages, for communicating concepts; not specifically the mode of transmission of the chosen language to others. (written, spoken, or telepathized). $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Jan 8 '15 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ The reason the 'native tongues' fail where the formal symbolism does not is because they are too lose. There is always something lost in translation: If I want to share a thought, I have to find the best words to describe that thought, the receiver has to interpret those words to attempt to reconstruct my thought. Unfortunately the description in words is never perfect to begin with and same words have different nuanced meanings to different people so the receiver can never have a perfect understanding of my thought. $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Jan 8 '15 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ Telepathy may do a better or worse job of getting my thoughts across to the receiver, OP mentioned different 'flavors', but didn't specify whether those flavors imply impediments in understanding the shared thoughts. $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Jan 8 '15 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Telastyn: The point I was making with that is that in order to have a formal language, you must first have a language. Your description of the telepathy in use sounds like a highly intuitive system, and this is where the problem arises in technical matters. Natural languages are understood intuitively, whereas technical language (such as programming languages, mathematical symbolism, and "legalese") is formally defined. That concept has to exist in order to foster scientific progress. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jan 8 '15 at 21:35

So, telepathy in this world you have constructed is both intentional or unintentional i.e. I can "speak" my thoughts to an intended "listener", and also, all persons within range can "hear" my intense thoughts and emotions without my knowledge or consent.

Spoken language may have some value for impressing the listener with one's voice quality and skills, e.g. a sweet, tuneful or commanding voice. Spoken language would be useful for creating smokescreen i.e. lies, concealment, false emphasis on unimportant things, playing down or diverting attention from significant things.

Since unintentional telepathy happens in your world, concealment of ones thoughts is difficult or impossible, because anybody within range may "read" or "hear" your innermost thoughts. However, spoken language may evolve as a way of consciously modifying the way these "heard" thoughts are perceived or experienced.

There would be twin strategies for evolution:

1) TRUSTWORTHINESS: Natural selection may favor those whose thoughts seem clearest and easiest to read, because society and individuals may confer benefits on such opportunities such as mating opportunities, business opportunities, etc.

2) OPACITY: Those who develop the skill for cloaking their thoughts BY CLEVER USE OF SPOKEN LANGUAGE may attract more employment opportunities, and possibly mating opportunities also. The ability to read others while not being read by others would confer disproportionate evolutionary advantages on such individuals, and there may be a high social demand for persons with high cloaking abilities.

So, spoken language may develop to a very high degree from a need for concealment or "perception-management". It may sound and feel very different from our spoken languages, however.


There might be tons of reasons telepathy is parallel to speech. For ideas on why, read my bullet lists below.

This all depends on the idea, though, that telepathy might not (always/quite) be pure mind-to-mind communication. Wouldn't it make a story more interesting if lies, secrecy, and misunderstandings were possible anyway? On the other hand, if telephones can transmit telepathic notions, couldn't they also be recorded, edited, filtered, and reused? Perhaps an effect of their digital age would be a rise in the ability to deceive, and the cultural impacts of such changes.

I would argue that it would make the most sense for it to be a separate transmitter organ (for both storytelling and physical reasons). In such a case, telepathy might be far more versatile than the voice box, but still have communication limitations, the ability to lie or keep secrets, and the ability to stay quiet--and for someone to be telepathically disabled.

I think the survival of groups would require that people are able to convey only those thoughts they wish to. Either that, or the societal structure would be vastly different than our own--perhaps with less individualism and more of a hive/cult mentality. This could limit progress, as new ideas would be harder to promulgate and accept. New models of thinking and revolutions of thought and philosophy might be difficult to adopt into such a society.

If people have control over their own telepathy, they might still transmit something accidentally (such as when we yell when surprised or in pain), but I would suggest it might not be very intelligible.

If telepathy is controlled and an external organ, you can be much more versatile in customizing how it works. For example, what is possible to transmit? For example, if only one of these is possible, it might affect culture and language, among other things. Each aspect of the telepathy could be independently automatic/voluntary, high/low fidelity, and viscerally/abstractly perceived.

Telepathic aspects:

  • Abstract thoughts
  • Visceral experiences
  • Words and symbols
  • Basic needs (hunger, thirst, fatigue, discomfort, pain, etc)
  • Certain emotions (All? Some? None? Are certain emotions easier to transmit than others? Are children able to "receive" adult fully developed emotions?)
  • Complex intuitions (I feel threatened by that monster)
  • Location, propriolocation - can you tell someone's location when they transmit? Can you transmit a specific location to someone? What range?
  • Visual things - colors? depth? Imagined things in shadows?
  • Tactile - can you convey textures?
  • Temperature - can you let others "feel" you are cold? Would they shiver?
  • Dreams - would someone keep transmitting, even accidentally, during sleep? Or can they shut that ability down?
  • Taste - can you share exact, or approximate tastes? Or must they be described symbolically?
  • Density/weight - can you transmit objects' weight as well?
  • Insanity - can certain types of insanity be contagious?
  • Sound - can you describe sounds new to you and the others? Or only familiar ones?
  • Sound pitch/volume - are telepathic transmissions able to directly communicate pitch and volume or must they be described somehow?
  • Mind-meld - Can telepaths merge minds together? Once done, can it be reversed?

Telapathic characteristics menu:

  • Complexity. How abstract or complex can a thought be, before you can't transmit it? E.g. can you teach someone complex quantum mechanics and mathematics with a single thought, or does it take effort and time to explain?
  • Abstract vs real - is telepathy more like words, in that what is transmitted is symbolic of actual experiences? Or is it more like sharing an experience directly? Or is it somewhere in-between? What rules define how real a transmission feels? When you share a complex emotion, do you have to transmit it in ways that the recipient understands?
  • Abstract, semi-visceral, visceral. How deeply does one experience what others transmit?
  • Indelible vs fleeting. Are transmitted ideas easy to remember? Does everyone have eidetic memories? Can someone explain geometry, and you can recall all the intracacies a moment later?
  • Learned vs intuitive. Does someone have to experience an idea, or have it explained, before it can be transmitted? Do you have to experience grown-up feelings before you can understand an adult transmitting those kinds of complex emotions? Or are you somewhat blind to new "ideas" until explained?
  • Fidelity. How accurate are transmissions vs the real thing? Is it worth tasting the good food for yourself, or can one person enjoy it and share the experience?
  • Deceivability. Maybe they can transmit fake emotions, but not fake visuals--or vice versa.
  • Imagination. Is it possible to transmit made-up experiences (stories, concepts, etc)? How high fidelity are such fictions? Or does one have to experience something before they can transmit the concept?
  • Maturity. How does one's age/development affect their ability to transmit? To receive?
  • Transmit/receive gap. Is it easier to receive, or transmit?
  • Inequal skill/ability. Does this change with age, gender, practice, diet, or heredity? Are only females able to receive emotions? Can vitamin deficiencies inhibit telepathy? Does telepathy stop working in old age, or while sick with a cold, etc?
  • Dependency. Does one depend on something to be able to transmit? Eg, physical touch, proximity, certain foods, certain locations, immersion in water? * Blocks/impediments/interference. What can block or inhibit transmission? Hills? Clouds? Water? Pain? Fatigue? Fire? Heat? Cold? Radio wave interference? * Intrusion. Can you mentally torture someone by transmitting awful images, emotions, or ideas?
  • Time. How long does it take to transmit an idea? Is telepathy slow? Or are certain aspects of it slow? Can the time be affected by one's age or physical condition (newborn/old/sickly)?
  • Familiarity. Is it easier to use telepathy with someone, the better you know them? Do you have to come in physical contact with someone before you can "link" to them?
  • Dialects/languages. Are you able to communicate with someone from another part of the world, or is there a language gap (even if less than we experience on Earth)?
  • Eavesdroppability. When you communicate, can others listen in? Is there a limit to how many people you can transmit to at a time? Think of this as encrypted communication or a more personal "link" of some kind.
  • Limited groupings. Could you get stuck on certain "frequencies", separated from most other telepaths? For example, would A have to ask B to tell C something? Or could entire villages be stuck on a frequency?
  • Tuning in. How long would it take to "tune in" to a new group of telepaths? Each community or age group could be on a different bandwidth or sub-channel, of a sort. How much do these groups' frequencies overlap? Do they vary from family to family? Village to village? Country to country? Can a disability prevent someone from tuning in?
  • Different channels. Perhaps each aspect of telepathy (sight, taste, concepts, location) use different transmitters, so someone can be partially "deaf" or "mute" but not fully.
  • Difficulty. How much energy, concentration, meditation, preparation, or ceremony is required in order to use telepathy? Is it used only in rare religious or civic ceremonies, or is it used at-will? Is it impossible to use telepathy in loud places? Quiet places?
  • Limited use. Does the telepathy organ tire out quickly and have to recover? Much like going hoarse, or running out of breath. What replenishes that ability? A rare herb? Sleep? Rest?
  • Side effects. Does telepathy have adverse side effects, like fatigue, loss of concentration, pain, emotional shakeups, nausea, dizziness, seizures, insomnia, nightmares, or an inability to separate reality from the mind? Any neurological symptom might make sense. How long do these effects last? If they are permanent, perhaps telepathy is generally avoided.
  • Parallel listening - Can you receive telepathic ideas from multiple sources at once?
  • Dead spots/reception - are there only certain kinds of places one can use telepathy? Or are there physical phenomenon that can disrupt the ability--such as storms, rain, aurora, or is there a telepath landscape where you must find the best places to transmit? Are there locations on the planet where you can transmit for miles, and others where you only reach a few inches?
  • Technological dependence - is telepathy something that relies on an invention? Is the invention basic, like staring at a fire, using special meditation techniques, or drinking a special "potion"? -- or does it require advanced satellites and equipment to be worn? If a certain plant or mineral is required, could the human race run out or the plant go extinct? Does it require rare and expensive ingredients?

For sure people would have developed spoken language aswell. While on a hunt, our ancestrors were prolly shouting tactics to each other. (That would not work with your 10m-limited telepathy)

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    $\begingroup$ The 10M was for unintentional broadcast or reading of another's intense feelings, the next sentence in the question says, "Spoken" telepathy has similar range to the human voice $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Jan 8 '15 at 16:03

You would eventually develop speech for radio if you hadn't already (I judge this unlikely beforehand). Writing would develop due to the normal forces that cause writing to be developed, but the form would surely be pictorial, and this does not lead to a possible back-path to developing reading.

But late in their industrial development, they would discover what we discovered, that there is great military application for high-speed long-distance communication. This would progress down the early lines like ours would have been if China got dominance: semaphore flag -> primordial flash code -> morse-like code (remember pictorial language) with restricted vocabulary -> complete symbolic encoding in keyed code -> a way to speak the keyed code (assuming normal ability to make noise and taste for music).

A taste for art would eventually lead to interpretive dance set to music, but I can't see how that could lead to developing speech.


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