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Lingua Frankly

Phlogiston Thirty-Six, 1993

SF has long recognised the fundamental importance of language. After all, if you can't talk to the nasty aliens how on earth (or off it) are you going to have any meaningful communication other than war? Perversely, one of the best stories on this theme is not generally considered to be SF at all. James Clavell's masterpiece Shogun is an alien contact story thinly disguised as a historical novel about Japan. The hero, a shipwrecked Englishman, must make his way in a totally alien society with a totally alien language and customs. The problems the hero encounters in seventeenth century Japan are exactly the things that SF has been dramatising for years. How do you absorb a language whose sounds are utterly unfamiliar to you? How do you come to grips with a culture where you have no points of contact at all—where everything that everybody does is completely contrary to your instinctive reactions? How do you communicate?

SF has come up with some weird and wonderful alien communication methods that for want of a better name I suppose we must call languages. In VOR by James Blish (The novel was based on an earlier short story written by Blish in collaboration with Damon Knight) the alien entity communicates by changing the colours on a patch on its head. The letters VOR stand for Violet, Orange, Red.

Jack Vance persistently introduces odd communication methods. Messages are passed by masks, smells, music, signs, colours and semaphores. Stories such as The Moon Moth and The Languages of Pao seem principally motivated by studies of how people (and/or things) communicate and how these communications reflect the speaker's perceptions of reality. These themes surface again in Ian Watson's first novel The Embedding where he cleverly links together alien, South American and computer languages and the subjective realities they impose on their users (or speakers).

In Memoirs of a Spacewoman Naomi Mitchison wrote a whole novel about a research worker attempting to understand and communicate with an alien species. Phillip Mann's Eye of the Queen centres around cultural and communication problems between men and aliens.

In Terry Carr's Dance of the Changer and the Three the aliens are energy forms and they communicate by dancing. This may not be as far fetched as it sounds. Some modern day biologists consider that bees may communicate by dancing and in the short novel The Adventures of the Peerless Peer Philip José Farmer takes this idea to a ludicrously logical extreme when Sherlock Holmes, about to be attacked by a swarm of black and white striped African Killer Bees, takes all his clothes off, smears himself with a disguise of mud stripes and dances at them. The bees consider him to be just another bee, albeit somewhat large, and they read the message of his dance, wheel around in mid swarm, and fly off to attack the villain instead!

This is probably the most bizarre use of the tools of communication in SF but there are others that come quite close to it. In Cosmos Carl Sagan suggests that the infinite series that makes up the decimal portion of pi is a communication from the original universe builders. In The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut reveals that Stonehenge is merely an intergalactic telegram to a stranded alien whose spaceship engine has broken down on Titan. When viewed from above and decoded it reads: "Replacement part being rushed with all possible speed".

My first real contact with a language other than English was when I was eleven years old. I'd just started secondary school and it was my first French lesson. Along with all the other new boys I sat in my classroom waiting for who knew what? There was a clump, clump, clump on the stairs and the door was flung wide to the wall with a resounding CRASH. In came a begowned schoolmaster who strode to the front of the room and announced in ringing tones, "Bonjour toute la classe! Je me suis Monsieur Antoine."

For the next forty minutes he harangued us in French. Gabble, gabble, gabble. We all stared at him in complete bewilderment. Then the bell rang to signal the end of the lesson.

"Au revoir!"

He strode from the classroom slamming the door behind him.

For the rest of the year he taught me French. He believed in the total immersion method and would not permit a single word of English to be spoken in his lessons. Outside the class Mr Anthony was a perfect English gentleman and raving loony. He felt that hymn tunes were far too dirge-like so he sang them fast and cheerfully at morning assembly and was invariably two verses ahead of the congregation, much to the consternation of the pianist and the discomfiture of everybody else since his singing voice was powerful and tended to overlap and lead the crowd. Hymns invariably ended in total confusion with Mr Anthony looking puzzled, all the other masters looking angry and the school as a whole feeling semi-hysterical.

Inside the class Monsieur Antoine spoke French, and only French. I still treasure the memory of the day he taught us the French words for various articles of clothing. As he named an article, he would take it off and wave it at us. Perhaps I should point out that to this day I do not know the French for "underpants" (but I do know "jacket", "shoes", "shirt", "vest" and "trousers"). I've had a soft spot for languages ever since, though Latin tested that tolerance sorely, and it is probably worth pointing out that I learned more French in that eccentric year with Monsieur Antoine than I learned in the next four years with more conventional teachers. I remember him fondly and will always be grateful for the firm grounding he gave me in the one foreign language that I can claim to speak with a fair degree of fluency.

Assuming that you can talk to the aliens, how can you be certain that what you are saying is what they are hearing? Some words simply don't translate as you would expect them to. Philip K. Dick had a lot of fun with this idea in Galactic Pot Healer where the protagonist plays a game with his friends. They submit book and film titles to a computer to be translated into a foreign language. They then submit these foreign translations to another computer to be translated back into English in an attempt to guess what a foreign person might see and hear when presented with the word. These re-translated phrases are then shown to each other and each attempts to guess what the originals might have been. My favourites from the book are "The Male Offspring in Addition Gets Out of Bed" (The Sun Also Rises) and "Those for Which the Male Homosexual Extracts Transit Tax" (For Whom the Bell Tolls), both by "Serious Constricting Path" (Ernest Hemingway). Also The Corn is Green which became "The Cliche is Inexperienced". Some friends and I played with this idea once. Here are some retranslations of some famous SF book titles. See what you make of them (answers at the end of the article):

Soil Stays by George Stewart
Sandy Hill's Kids by Frank Herbert

The Metal Mirage by Norman Spinrad
More Unusual in a Funny Country by Robert Heinlein
The Autumn of the Keeps by Samuel Delaney
The Last Tree by J. G. Ballard
The Person Hotel the Stoned Rook by Philip K. Dick

All of which seems to suggest that the universal translating devices so beloved of SF are probably not viable, though they are undeniably convenient as a means of moving the story along. The structure of languages seems to be rather too complex to permit meaningful translation to be possible (at least it appears that way at the moment) though I have read articles seriously proposing that the artificial language Esperanto be used as a common middle ground in the translation process. Since the grammar and construction of Esperanto is completely defined and completely regular it should be possible (the theory goes) to make an exact translation of something from one language into Esperanto and from Esperanto into a different language (Swedish to Esperanto and then Esperanto to English, for example) rather than by trying to translate directly between the languages in one step. This sounds fine in theory but I am dubious as to how well it will perform in real life simply because there is so much in a real language that cannot be translated literally since it depends on custom and culture. Consider the very common concept of an April Fool. In the English speaking countries, this is an old tradition and we all have a lot of fun with it (I remember once in England when the Guardian newspaper published a travel supplement one particular April 1st. The supplement spent many lyrical pages extolling the beautiful, tranquil islands of San Serif as the ideal holiday resort. A lot of people were completely fooled). In France, the same tradition exists, but there, you aren't an April Fool, you are a "Poisson d'Avril"—an April fish (or, more literally, fish of April). How do you translate such a phrase? Literally or idiomatically? And how is a machine supposed to handle such an idiom? You can't legislate for that. I feel that the regular grammar and structure of Esperanto is a blind alley.

Besides, how do you translate nonsense? Is Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky written in English? Probably not. However it is certainly possible to argue that only a native English speaker can understand it. There is a frisson to the nonsense words that Carroll made up that is purely English in tone. Versions of the Jabberwocky in other languages simply don't work. Damon Knight remarked of a German translation he had seen that it was "merely rather sad".

Problems of translation are central to A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny where a poet-linguist from Earth attempts to meet the few remaining Martians and translate their holy texts. Translation from the Martian language also arises in Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper, though this time the Martians are all long dead and the Earth archaeologists feel the task is hopeless. The protagonist eventually finds the key to the language in a Martian periodic table of the elements—after all, science is constant across the universe isn't it? The periodic table becomes a Rosetta Stone for Mars.

Science may be one constant, but it is possible that other things cross the species boundary as well. In First Contact Murray Leinster speculates that humans and aliens will cross the cultural divide by telling each other dirty jokes.

It makes you wonder if there are any language constants as well. It has been said that if the culture does not have a word for it, you can't do it or conceive of the possibility of it. In 1984 George Orwell postulated Newspeak—a language designed so that certain thoughts would be unthinkable in it. The rulers saw it as a perfect tool for keeping political power by preventing thoughts of opposition. Similarly Yevgeny Zamiatin in We (a thematic precursor to 1984) introduces a mechanical language that emphasises conformity and the regimentation of society. Gene Wolfe returned to this theme in The Citadel of the Autarch where he expressed a tale of the individual spirit entirely in patriotic slogans. (All of the volumes that make up The Book of the New Sun have a lot of fun with linguistic invention).

So where do words come from? As a child I made up a secret language. Most children seem to pass through this phase. One of my toys at the time was an old bottle full of buttons and beads. They were bright and shiny and I called the toy my bottle of abrogating glue. My parents were a bit bemused by this but they went along with it and abrogating glue it was. Many years later, both my parents and I were rather astonished to discover that "abrogating" was a real word with a real meaning. Had I heard it somewhere or had I made it up out of whole cloth? To this day I do not know.

Another word I made up had a more obvious derivation. I had been musing about the word "Yes" and the colloquial word "Arrr" which comes from the deep South of England and which means "Yes". In my mind I combined the two words into a portmanteau word and for months, whenever anybody asked me a question which required an affirmative reply, I would say "Arse", much to the amusement of whoever was listening (it is not a word you expect to hear from a six year old). Eventually my parents couldn't stand it any more and forbade me to say it.

I don't know whether these experiences match the true evolution of languages, but consider all the loan words we have in English and how we have adapted them. English is a most bastardised mixture of words. We have borrowed terms from almost every language you can think of (what is the common English word borrowed from the Aztec? Chocolate; derived from Chocolatl).

I remember my Latin master yelling at me:

"What is the common English word derived from ‘tergum'?" He was red in the face and sweating. "Tergum," he yelled. "Tergum."

The class stared at him blankly.

"Common English word—come on you steatopygeous bushmen. What common English word is derived from Tergum?"


"Tergiversation!" He howled. "Tergiversation—the act of turning one's back. Tergum is Latin for back."

Perhaps it was an effective teaching technique (certainly I will never forget the word), but it made for loud and unpleasant Latin lessons.

In A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess made a whole language out of loan words. The language in which the novel is narrated is based on Russian loan words and it is surprising both how quickly the language ceases to seem strange, and how long the words echo and rebound in the mind after the book is over.

In an article called The Words in Science Fiction Larry Niven speculates on the derivation of words and how SF writers make them up. Apparently he used to do this sort of thing for fun in boring lectures at university and a lot of the strange words that cropped up in the known space stories came from these idle hours.

Languages change—we have all seen that in our own lifetimes. I don't think I've said "See you later, alligator" for thirty five years. My Latin master once gave me a lovely example of this sort of change. He was on holiday in Greece and wished to take a ferry to one of the islands. He was unsure which ferry to take and so he asked one of the locals. Unfortunately he did not speak modern Greek (only ancient Greek); but he tried. He was rather disconcerted when the person he addressed burst into hysterical laughter. Thinking about it later, he deduced that he had spoken to the man in a rather archaic way. In English, it probably amounted to something like, "Ho, varlet! Doth yonder vessel ply the waters 'twixt here and the isles?"

The evolution of languages with time probably accounts for the fact that I cannot read pre-twentieth century novels with any degree of pleasure. The old fashioned feel to the language (and attitudes to a certain extent) turns me off and I can't help wondering just how quaint the language of this article will sound in a few years time. David I. Masson explored this idea in a short story called A Two-Timer where a time traveller from the seventeenth century describes in his own English style what he found in the twentieth century. One of the major things he found was sheer linguistic bewilderment. A similar effect was shown very dramatically (and convincingly) in the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome where the physically and culturally isolated survivors of a plane crash develop their own derivative of the English language. The fragments of the language that we hear in the film are very attractive and they flow well and sound very real. For me this was one of the high spots of the film.

There seems to be some in-built cultural bias that tells us when new words are acceptable and when they are not. Neologisms come and go; only very rarely do they stay. Consider "laser", "quark" or "tachyon". They survived. But what about "velocipede" or "wireless"? They did not survive. Why not? I don't know.

A curious linguistic phenomenon of our times is the acronym or initialism (SF, UNICEF, CNN, DOS, MODEM, RTFM, HPFM). Many of these come from the computer world (another very science fictional connection between high tech and language) and some of them have become common coin. I have an ambition—I want to write a sentence that consists of nothing but acronyms. All I need is a verb…

The words and structures of language are themselves sometimes a motivation for telling a story. The most famous example of this is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings; a huge tale whose purpose was to dramatise (or justify) a whole world full of languages the creation of which predated the novel by many years. Tolkien's friend and colleague C. S. Lewis did something very similar in Out of the Silent Planet where he has a lot of fun with three Martian languages. Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney is a complexly structured novel in which language itself is the central image. Cast in the form of a spy story, it tells of Babel-17 itself, a perfectly analytical language with no word for "I" (an odd idea which turns up again in Robert Silverberg's A Time of Changes). Delaney's The Ballad of Beta-2 is also very concerned with linguistic analysis. It is a theme that is very close to his heart and his non-fiction works (notably The Jewel Hinged Jaw) spend much time discussing this.

The more you know of a foreign language the more complex the problems that arise. I once knew somebody who was completely bilingual in English and French. She had a French mother and an English father and she grew up speaking both languages. This had the oddest side effect—she was completely unable to play Scrabble since she could not differentiate between French and English words. To her they were just words, all equally valid, and she never understood why her friends complained at things like:


They say that the best way to learn a language is to have a torrid affair with someone whose native language it is. I think there is a degree of truth in this. It is more than quarter of a century since I last saw Yasmin, but I still have a smattering of Urdu.

Is this the language school of the future when we finally meet the Alpha Centaurians?




Answers to the retranslations:
Earth Abides by George Stewart
Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delaney
The Terminal Beach by J. G. Ballard
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick


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