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  • Writer's pictureVyvyan Evans

Explorations of linguistic relativity in science fiction


Linguistic Relativity holds that divergence in the grammatical organization and lexical structure of the language we speak alters the habitual perception of the world around us, even dramatically changing how we think. As an example, we now know that the brains of Greek speakers perceive certain colours differently from speakers of English because of how Greek labels for colour divide up the colour spectrum. This is an unconscious consequence of speaking Greek versus English.

 

Science fiction is the literature of ideas. And two classic and compelling books have ingeniously explored the impact of language on how we think and experience (illustrated through the conceit of a protagonist learning an entirely new, and alien, language).

 

The first, Babel-17 is by Samuel R. Delany. It was first published in 1966 and was joint winner of the Nebula Award for best novel in 1967.



 The eponymous Babel-17 is a language that alters the perceptions and worldview of any who speak it. This is a conceit that draws upon the principle of linguistic relativity.

 

In the novel, Babel-17 is the language spoken by Invaders, as they wage an interstellar war against the Alliance. The novel’s protagonist, Rydra Wong, is a linguist and cryptographer who possesses a rare ability to learn languages. She is recruited by the Alliance to try and decode the language of the invaders, Babel-17, to uncover clues for attack vectors.

 

Babel-17 is an exemplar of a very high-concept conceit. When Delany was writing the novel, linguistic relativity was still only a hypothesis, first dubbed the Spair-Whorf hypothesis in 1954.




 

Delany asks a classic ‘what if’ question: What if the language we speak fundamentally changes the way we see the world, the way we feel, our belief systems, the way we act? Babel-17 then explores the logical, and extreme consequences of this proposition.

 

In the novel, as Rydra Wong learns the strange, alien tongue, she starts to see the world, and think as the invaders do. And the consequence is that she starts to become one of them. She ultimately betrays her own command and her government, acting as an agent of the Invaders.

 

And in this way, Delany shows that in the context of warfare, when the notion of linguistic relativity is taken to its logical extreme, language can serve as the most powerful weapon of all.

 

The second is the novella, Story of Your Life, written by Ted Chiang and first published in 1998. This story was subsequently adapted as the major motion picture Arrival.



 Again, this story features a linguist as its main protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks. The story involves Banks narrating the events that led to the arrival of her new-born daughter. In so doing, she explains how her work, translating the language of the alien Heptapod species, led her to understanding time in a new way, where she could perceive her past and future simultaneously.

 

The consequence is that as learning a new (alien) language transforms thought, the novella explores issues relating to linguistic relativity, determinism and freewill.

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