Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 20 June 2022. Tagged: Theme.

Linguistics is the study of language, how languages work, what their function is, how they are constructed and whence they are derived. As a discipline it has leapt to academic prominence since the 1960s. Languages play a surprisingly important role in sf, and many stories turn on linguistic issues. The theme overlaps, naturally, with that of Communications, and also to some extent with those of Anthropology and Perception, inasmuch as a language tells us a great deal about the culture that uses it and the way that culture perceives the world. This entry concentrates primarily on verbal languages in sf. Other ways of giving information are dealt with under Communications, and two examples will suffice here. Terry Carr's "The Dance of the Changer and the Three" (in The Farthest Reaches, anth 1968, ed Joseph Elder) is set on an alien planet whose natives are energy forms; their language is dancing; for no clear reason they destroy many humans for whom they seem to feel no enmity, and survival depends on the correct reading of the dance. John Varley invents a nonverbal linguistic Utopia in "The Persistence of Vision" (March 1978 F&SF), in which a sighted man enters a community of people who are blind and deaf; they communicate through touch (and Sex) in a language more subtle and immediate than he can at first grasp.

Much earlier, C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien both used their considerable philological expertise in their fictions. The former's Out of the Silent Planet (1938) speaks interestingly of the different grammars and vocabularies of the three Martian languages, and plays some rather facile linguistic tricks to show up what Lewis regarded as the arrogance of humanistic Scientists whose high-flown rhetoric is deflated by translation into pidgin-Martian. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955 3vols; omni 1968) is unusual in that its very genesis was largely linguistic: Tolkien invented his imaginary languages (carefully glossed and explained in the many appendices) before he wrote the books. If we accept linguistics as a science – it is arguably the "hardest" (or "most scientific") of the Soft Sciences – then we might argue that the fiction of Tolkien, usually regarded as Fantasy, at least approaches sf in its linguistic aspects.

Sf stories in which linguistics plays a subsidiary role are very much more common than sf stories actually about linguistics. Most writers who set stories in the future (or in the past, if it comes to that) ignore the problem of language-change, but some have confronted the problem, with various degrees of success; many of these attempts are discussed by Walter E Meyers in what is by far the best study of the topic, Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction (1980). Although sf writers normally realize that their craft requires a good understanding of the hard sciences (physics, etc.), many have no training in nor understanding of linguistics; and nor, very often, do they seem to feel this as a lack. Thus stories turning on points of Alien or future language are often patchy; the ways in which grammar, vocabulary and speech-sounds evolve do not seem to be widely understood.

Examples of sf stories demonstrating linguistic change, whether fanciful or plausible, are: George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), with its Newspeak, designed to reinforce the "proper" social attitudes in a totalitarian state; Poul Anderson's "Time Heals" (October 1949 Astounding), with a futurified pronunciation; Robert A Heinlein's "Gulf" (November-December 1949 Astounding), with its future speedtalk; Alfred Bester's "Of Time and Third Avenue" (October 1951 F&SF), Bester being generally very much alive to the forms of language; Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962), with its Near-Future Russian-derived Nadsat slang; Michael Frayn's A Very Private Life (1968), whose future languages are more lively than plausible; Felix C Gotschalk's Growing Up in Tier 3000 (1975), where a great variety of future colloquialisms are evoked; and Frank Herbert's The Dosadi Experiment (May-August 1977 Galaxy; 1977), where in a society of fast-thinking near-superhumans it is regarded as gauche not to speak in a kind of telegraphese. A more generalized linguistic gusto is displayed in, for example, Benjamin Appel's The Funhouse (1959), Arthur Byron Cover's Autumn Angels (1975) and much of the output of R A Lafferty. Early humans in the Prehistoric SF film Quest for Fire (1981) speak an imaginary agglutinative language with a vocabulary of about 200 sounds, devised by Anthony Burgess.

A Genre-SF writer who was always aware of linguistic problems was L Sprague de Camp; his article "Language for Time Travelers" (July 1938 Astounding) – similar material is incorporated into his Science-Fiction Handbook (1953; rev 1975) – was probably the first account of linguistic problems in sf. His stories, sometimes rather ploddingly, reflect this interest, as in "The Wheels of If" (October 1940 Unknown), set in an Alternate History where the Norman Conquest did not take place and so English has never been Frenchified (although here De Camp gets Grimm's Law of sound-changes quite wrong, in terms of both its effect and the historical period to which it refers), and in the Viagens Interplanetarias series, in which the space pidgin Intermundos is heavily influenced by Brazilian space crews. Poul Anderson's essay "Uncleftish Beholding" ["Atomic Theory"] (June 1963 Amra as "Uncleavish Truethinking"; rev mid-December 1989 Analog) ingeniously implies an alternate history in which English was never Latinified by describing the basics of nuclear Physics through a vocabulary restricted to Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian and Germanic roots. This, along with other quirky exercises in sf linguistics, is discussed in Douglas Hofstadter's massive book on language and translation: Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (1997).

George Orwell's Newspeak, although the most celebrated example of language-control being used by the state to impose social conformity and an unthinking acceptance of the way things are, was by no means the first. Yevgeny Zamiatin's We (trans 1924) has a heavily conformist, mechanical language that reflects the regimentation of society. Anthony Boucher's interesting Time-Travel story "Barrier" (September 1942 Astounding as "The Barrier") likewise features such a language (developed from English but with all verbs regularized as laid down in a monograph titled This Bees Speech), along with a daffy collocation of future linguists all researching via Time Machines. A tour de force of conformist-language creation is the story told by the Ascian prisoner-of-war in Gene Wolfe's The Citadel of the Autarch (1983), expressing entirely in patriotic slogans a tale of the individual spirit. The whole of Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols), indeed, is alive with linguistic invention, not least in its use of words from the classical Greek, the terminology of antique weaponry and other esoteric sources to express concepts at once futuristic and archaic.

Language is an important aspect of the above stories, but is not their raison d'être. Three kinds of story in which linguistics becomes central are those where humans (1) communicate with animals, or (2) communicate with Aliens, or (3) endeavour to translate dead alien languages (3) in the course of extraterrestrial archaeology.

Two good examples in the first group are Un animal doué de raison (1967; trans as The Day of the Dolphin 1969) by Robert Merle and Slave Ship by Frederik Pohl, in both of which animals who must be spoken to are used as military weapons. Ursula K Le Guin's amusing spoof scientific paper, based on the idea that animals and insects have not only languages but also artforms, "The Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts from The Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics" (in Fellowship of the Stars, anth 1974, ed Terry Carr), is probably not intended entirely as a joke. Many stories other than Merle's have looked at cetacean-human communication, a subject popularized from 1961 in a series of nonfiction books by the experimental psychologist John Cunningham Lilly (1915-2001). Among such stories are those in David Brin's Uplift War sequence, particularly Startide Rising (1983; rev 1985), whose advanced dolphins have undergone Genetic Engineering, and Ted Mooney's Easy Travel to Other Planets (1981), in which a love story between woman and dolphin, to which linguistic questions are central, takes place against a backdrop of global Information Sickness.

First Contact stories (see Aliens; Anthropology) necessarily involve linguistics unless, as once was frequent, the issue is dodged by the use of telepathy ("The thought-forms of the alien flooded into his mind"), by conveniently transferring the effort to the nonhumans ("We learnt your primitive language from your puny radio broadcasts"), or by some kind of magical translation box, the Universal Translator. The joke of Compton Mackenzie's The Lunatic Republic (1959) is that the 850-word initial vocabulary of Basic English is sufficiently universal that natives of the Moon already, and very conveniently, speak it. Even this is not as ludicrous as the discovery in William R Bradshaw's The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892) that the inhabitants of the Hollow Earth speak encrypted English using a simple substitution cipher which the explorers' savant rapidly cracks by guessing that their contact's self-description "wayleal" means "courier" (thus W is C, A is O, Y is U, etc), that his word "bilbimtesirol" means "perpendicular" (thus B is P, etc) ... and somewhat too rapidly onward to a full alphabet of letter-substitutions.

However, there are many First Contact stories that do involve true linguistic questions, notably including the series about galactic intelligence agent Coyote Jones by Suzette Haden Elgin, who spent a decade as a professor of linguistics. John Berryman's "BEROM" (January 1951 Astounding) has an amusing variant on the radio-broadcasts theme, in which incomprehensible visiting aliens turn out to be speaking in a UK commercial cable code of the 1920s that they have picked up by radio. The Hoka series by Poul Anderson and Gordon R Dickson features aliens who understand language quite literally, with sometimes comic results. In Robert Sheckley's comic "Shall We Have a Little Talk?" (October 1965 Galaxy), the Alien society's language mutates so fast that a Earth linguist attempting exploitative First Contact is barely able to keep up and retires defeated when the latest iteration reduces the entire language to inflections and stresses of a single syllable: "Mun, mun, mun-mun." Frank Herbert's Whipping Star (January-April 1970 If; 1970) conjures up, in a story of humans establishing communication with an alien who proves to be one aspect of a Star, so intense a miasma of semantic confusions (as recurs regularly in his work) that the narrative structure and human interest of the story are very nearly overwhelmed. Roger Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" (November 1963 F&SF), a verbally brilliant story with a depth of feeling seldom found in sf, has a poet-linguist chosen to attempt contact with the few remaining Martians (see Mars), and to translate their high language and their holy texts; his complacency is punctured. Chad Oliver's The Winds of Time (1957) has some expertly worked-out descriptive field linguistics in operation in a story of interstellar aliens waking from Suspended Animation on Earth. Edward Llewellyn's Word-Bringer (1986) is another First Contact story (about an alien Robot emissary to Earth) with linguistic ramifications. The film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) ends with a prolonged epiphany when the occupants of a flying saucer (see UFOs) finally consent to make contact, communication being initiated through a linguistic code of flickering lights and a sequence of crashing chords. Another film, Iceman (1984), has a prolongedly earnest linguistic sequence about attempted contact with a resuscitated Neanderthal (see Apes as Human). David I Masson, a devoted student of linguistics, may have written the First Contact story with the best-informed linguistic detail in "Not So Certain" (July 1967 New Worlds), which shows one kind of problem that may bedevil the most well-intentioned exo-culture specialists. This was republished in his The Caltraps of Time (coll 1968; exp 2003), a collection that also contains the amusing "A Two-Timer" (February 1966 New Worlds), in which an inadvertent time traveller from the seventeenth century describes in his own English what he finds in the twentieth – not least, semantic bafflement.

Stories of archaeological linguistics are less common. H Beam Piper's "Omnilingual" (February 1957 Astounding), probably his best story, has a woman seeking a Rosetta Stone with which to interpret the writings of a dead Martian civilization; she ultimately finds it in the periodic table of the Elements. This particular insight had already appeared in another tale of ruined Mars in the same magazine: "Lost Art" (December 1943 Astounding) by George O Smith, which briskly disposes of the dead-language difficulty in little more than a paragraph rather than making it the centre of the story as did Piper. James P Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977) features similar deciphering of an ancient language via calendars and known mathematical constants.

Other sf works focusing strongly on linguistics include Hunter of Worlds (1977) by C J Cherryh, herself a linguist; and the Cuckoo series – The Farthest Star (fixup 1975) and Wall Around a Star (1983) – by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson. These are late twentieth-century works and quite sophisticated, but one of the best sf books about linguistic problems appeared rather earlier: Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao (1958) offers one of the most intelligent uses in genre sf of the idea that the Perception of reality by different races is reflected in, and to a degree actually determined by, the languages they speak; hence Cultural Engineering can be carried out by the teaching of new synthetic languages such as Valiant, designed to produce soldiers by channeling thought in warlike directions:

"The syllabary will be rich in effort-producing gutturals and hard vowels. A number of key ideas will be synonymous; such as pleasure and overcoming a resistancerelaxation and shameout-worlder and rival."

In real-life linguistics this view is strongly identified with the writings of Dr Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941) in his studies of Native American languages. The Whorfian theme drives one episode of Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), when the heroine's current task of communicating with starfish-like Aliens leaves her thinking "radially" in terms of five-way multivalued logic and temporarily incapable of binary Yes or No decisions. Rather less plausibly, mastering the Martian language in Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; text restored 1991) instils patterns of thought which confer Psi Powers. Whorf's theories of linguistic relativity are most obviously reflected in sf terms in Samuel R Delany's Babel-17 (1966), a complexly structured novel about communication which takes language itself as the central image; a web of different languages is threaded through the spy-story plot, in which an alien code turns out to be only paradoxically alien. It is Babel-17, a perfect analytical language which has no word for "I"; this absence Delany sees as its strength and also its weakness. (Meyers, in his book cited above, admonishes Delany for not then knowing as much about linguistics as the confident tone of Babel-17 might suggest.) Delany's interest in language and linguistic philosophy has continued, and is reflected in much of his work, including the curious dialects he created in Nova (1968) and also his critical book, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (coll 1977).

The use of linguistic devices in the actual telling of a story, to reflect along Whorfian lines the nature of the human or alien cultures described, is a difficult narrative skill. Suzette Haden Elgin attempts it only occasionally in her series Native Tongue (1984) and The Judas Rose (1987), but there is considerable interest in her account of the creation of the secret language Womanspeak (or "La'Adan") used by a disempowered female underclass as one weapon in their struggle to subvert the self-satisfied world of men. The film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), a Post-Holocaust exploitation thriller, is the last place one might have expected to find a linguistic thesis, but the devolved language of an isolated community of Children is presented with considerable imagination (and a not inconsiderable beauty). The linguistic tour de force of the 1980s, however, was Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban, a story of a post-holocaust England actually told in the devolved but vivid language of its inhabitants; the astonishing thing is not so much the attempt – many sf writers have done the same thing on a smaller scale – but its success at novel length. Other sf writers may have had much to say about linguistic concepts, but none has ever so sustainedly shown such a language in action, nor so successfully – and movingly – revealed the culture of its speakers in so doing. Perhaps in distant homage to Hoban, Iain M Banks skilfully though rather less ambitiously deploys phonetic/shorthand language in the strand of his Feersum Endjinn (1994) whose narrator is lively but dyslexic. As with Max Beerbohm's excruciatingly simplified phonetic English in the imagined 1997 future of "Enoch Soames" (May 1916 Century Magazine), this lingo plays with changes to spelling rather than to language itself.

If Whorf has been the one powerful influence on sf linguistic scenarios, another may come to be Noam Chomsky (1928-    ), whose view that all human languages share a deep structure which is perhaps genetically determined is to some extent at odds with Whorf's view that our conceptual categorization of the world is determined by our native language; where Whorf stressed diversity, Chomsky stresses unity. Sf had added little to this debate, nor seemed very conscious of it, until 1973, when the ideationally exuberant Ian Watson first attracted the attention of the sf readership. Many of his earlier novels feature linguistic thought somewhere in their usually complex structure, and his first, The Embedding (1973), is certainly the sf linguistics novel par excellence, with all three of its subplots linking language and Perception in interweaving stories of alien, South American Indian and computer-imposed languages, and the differing subjective realities they may or may not succeed in generating. An important essay by Watson is "Towards an Alien Linguistics" (December 1975 Vector), reprinted in The Book of Ian Watson (coll 1985), in which he considers questions of epistemology and hazards the thought that there may be "a topological grammar of the universe, which reflects itself in the grammars of actual languages" – Chomsky writ very large indeed. Watson is one of those theorists who have used arguments from quantum mechanics to support the solipsistic view that the Universe exists as an external structure only through the consciousnesses of its participants and observers; language, in Watson's scheme, is reflexive, Nature sending a message to itself – an intellectual position that, if correct, would place linguistics as the scientific discipline right at the heart of sf.

Later works of note include Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992), whose titular virus can infect not only Computers but human brains, with alarming Basilisk effects which – it is suggested – long ago caused the fragmentation of a once-universal human language into polyglot chaos, giving rise to the legend of the Tower of Babel. Like the protagonist of Memoirs of a Spacewoman (already cited), the narrator of Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (in Starlight 2, anth 1998, ed Patrick Nielsen Hayden) assimilates alien patterns of thought during translation work, here developing a Time Out of Sequence view of her life (and that of her deceased daughter) which has considerable and poignant cumulative power.

Besides the references cited above, two further useful texts about linguistics in sf are Linguistics and Language in Science Fiction-Fantasy (1975) by Myra Edwards Barnes and an interesting essay on the popular subject of word-coinage by sf writers, "The Words in Science Fiction" by Larry Niven in The Craft of Science Fiction (anth 1976) edited by Reginald Bretnor. See also further reading below. [PN/DRL]

see also: Ruins and Futurity; Swearing; Information Theory.

further reading

previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies