LINGUIST List 6.418

Wed 22 Mar 1995

Sum: Linguistics in science fiction

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Message 1: Summary: Linguistics in Science Fiction

Date: Sun, 19 Mar 1995 22:19 -05Summary: Linguistics in Science Fiction
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Subject: Summary: Linguistics in Science Fiction

Awhile back I posted a query asking for titles of science fiction books/
stories in which linguistics (of a reasonable sort) played a large part.
This turns out to be something of a FAQ. Herewith a highly edited summary
of the responses. Some respondents gave a synopsis of the plot, which I
attach in highly edited form, lest this get even longer than it already is.

But first, thanks to the judges, namely:, Steve
Blackwelder (, Anthea Fraser
(, another Anthea (, Ines
Shaw (, Mark Hansell (,
Larry Horn (LHORNYaleVM.CIS.Yale.Edu), Susan Fischer (,
Deborah D. Kela Ruuskanen (, Jacqueline Anderson
(, Anton (, Herbert Stahlke
(, John Anderson ( or, Marty Laforest (,
Mark A. Mandel (, and Larry Trask
( In addition, the editors of Linguist List
provided me with the text of previous queries on this subject, and at the
end there's a FAQ from science.lang. I won't try to credit the authors cited
in the latter two sources, or I'd never get this off...


And now the envelope... (author's name first, then titles with occasional
comments, which should be apparent):

Suzette Haden Elgin. Native Tongue trilogy, including: The Native Tongue
(wherein language and linguistics are prominent issues in a future society;
Laadan is a language in development). Clans of linguists have become
crucial because of their mediation with non-humans. Raises issues about
innateness, the bioprogram, language learning, relationship between body
stucture and language, as well as feminist issues), and Judas Rose.

Derek Bickerton. King of the Sea. (Not exactly science fiction. But deals
with human-dolphin communication. Best explanation of Bickerton's
bioprogram available with a valuable dicussion also of the problems of
having a meaningful relationship with a dolphin.).

Arnason. A Woman of the Iron People.

Vonarburg. In the Motherland.

Robert Sheckley. Shall We Have a Little Talk? (for the evil Earth capitalist
empire to take over a planet, they have to buy some land on the planet. A
representative goes to some planet to start negotiating for a land purchase and
finds that every day the language has changed, not only in vocabulary but
in grammar. At one point, he exclaims "Stop agglutinating!" The
inhabitants of the planet are using accelerated language change as a
defense mechanism, and at the end of the story, they are communicating in
identical monosyllables).

David Carkeet. Double Negative (one respondent called this "a murder
mystery in which a linguist uses his knowledge of child language
acquisition to solve the murder"; another said it involved the human/animal

Samuel Delany. Babel 17, Triton (latter takes on the arbitrariness of the
relationship between form and meaning and builds a whole society around it,
starting with, of course, an artificially engineered environment on a moon
(of Saturn?)); Neveryon series (second-hand report says it incorporates a
good deal of linguistics).

Ian Watson. The Embedding. (Universal Grammar, generative syntax.)

Goulet. Oh's Profit (the main character is a signing gorilla named Oh, and
there's a Chomsky sound-alike baddie called Sandground).

Pamela Sargent. After Long Silence (actually it has to do with
communication more by music than by langauge, but communication with alien
intelligences at any rate)

C. J. Cherryh (writes about contact between humans and aliens, and between
different aliens: the Chanur series (best read in sequence): Pride of
Chanur, Chanur's Venture, The Kif Strike Back, Chanur's Homecoming,
Chanur's Legacy (I think that's the title -- it's the funniest book but you
can't appreciate it until you've read the others); others by Cherryh (not
series): Cuckoo's Egg (less ling. than Chanur), Foreigner (the hero is a
guy who wrote his dissertation on plural forms in a non-human language, and
it's quite a good meditation on whether it would be possible to really
understand a non-human intelligence-- in the form of a whodunit/spy/action

C. S. Lewis' Space Trilogy = Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That
Hideous Strength (the main character in two--a minor character in the
third--is a 1930's philologist, Elwin Ransom).

Card. Ender's Game/ Xenocide/ Speaker for the Dead series.

John Berryman. "Something to Say" in _Analog_ (1966-67)

James P Hogan. Inherit the Stars.

Janet Kagan. Hellspark, Uhura's Song.

H Beam Piper. "Omnilingual". (I'm not sure if the quotes here indicate
this is a short story, rather than a novel.)

Neal Stephenson. Snow Crash.

Jack Vance. Languages of Pao. (Comparative linguistics, Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis (weak form), semantics.)

Walter Jon Williams. "Surfacing".

Roger Zelazny. "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" (?)

Russel Hoban. Riddley Walker (The whole thing is in the narrator's own
dialect, which is a future form of English.)

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange (futuristic version of anglicized

Frank Herbert. Dune (carefully worked out historical derivations of
Arabic religious language set thousands of years in the future).

Delany, Samuel R. Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand. (language
change, alien languages)

[The ff. are several works about SF and linguistics, rather than SF works
Delany, Samuel R. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science
Fiction (essays about how sentences work in SF as distinct from other
kinds of writing).

Delany, Samuel R. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of
Science Fiction.

Meyers, Walter E. Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science
Fiction. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1980. (A scholarly work
analyzing the linguistics in SF... how plausable it is, frequent errors
that SF authors make when talking about linguistics, and examples of good

Barnes, Myra Edwards. Linguistics and Languages in Science
Fiction-Fantasy. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Geoff Pullum's essay `Some lists of things about books' in NLLT 6:2 (1988), pp.
283-290, and reprinted in Geoff's book _The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax_, 1991,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 190-200. (list of six SF novels
featuring linguistics)


[The following works weren't classified so much as being about
linguistics, as that they made some use of linguistics, typically by using
an invented language.]

Brin, David. Sundiver. (language change, animal language, dolphins)

Clarke, Arthur C. Rendezvous with Rama. (animal language, apes)

Heinlein, Robert A. Red Planet (alien language: phonetics, semantics);
Stranger in a Strange Land (alien language: phonetics, semantics, shading
into mysticism); The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (future dialects of English)

Hoban, Russell. Ridley Walker. (language change).

Le Guin, Ursula. Always Coming Home (invented language: semantics,
grammar, etc.); The Left Hand of Darkness (invented language: semantics).

Orwell, George. 1984 (invented language: semantics, sociolinguistics,
language and thought).

Tolkein, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings (invented languages, historical
change, writing systems).

Womack, Jack. Terraplane (language change, dialect differences).

Zelazny, Roger. Eye of Cat (alien language).

[short stories: ]

Carr, Terry. "The Dance of the Changer and the Three" in The Best of Terry

Haldeman, Joe. "A Tangled Web" in Dealing in Futures (humorous alien

Haldeman, Joe. "Anniversary Project," in Infinite Dreams (the evolution of
human language).

Heinlein, Robert A. "Gulf," in 6 X H (superior language; the limits
of language).

Murphy, Pat. "Rachel in Love" in Points of Departure (animal
language -- chimps).

Robinson, Kim Stanley. "The Translator" in Universe 1 (edited by
Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber) (a fresh look at the automatic

Sallis, James. "The Attitude of the Earth Towards Other Bodies," in
Full Spectrum 2 (edited by Lou Aronica, et. al) (Universal Grammar).

Williams, Walter Jon. "Surfacing" in Facets (alien grammar/semantics).

Poul Anderson's "Delenda Est" in "Worlds of Maybe" (1960s; incorporated as
a chapter in a recent Anderson book; someone undid the Second Punic War and
Carthage became a major power in Europe. Anderson creates at least two
languages that might have been - a Celtic language with Semitic loanwords
that would be used in North America, and a Germanic language spoken by
tribes that took over the Italy that had a power vacuum.)

Hal Clement. Ocean on Top.

Poul Anderson. "A Tragedy of Errors" in _The Long Night_, from Tor. (a
planet that has new meaning for words like friend, slave, and business.)

Finally, The following is copied from sci.lang FAQ (Frequently Asked
Questions). While the topic is broader (not just *science* fiction), I
would likely err if I tried to edit out stories that aren't science
fiction. There is some duplication with the list above, that I also
haven't tried to edit out.

What are some stories and novels that involve linguistics? [--markrose]

The following list is by no means exhaustive. It's based on James Myers'
list of books, which was compiled the the last time the subject came up on
sci.lang. Additions and corrections are welcome; please suggest the
approximate category and give the publication date, if possible.

ALIENS AND LINGUISTS: Language Study and Science Fiction, by Walter Meyers
(1980) contains a general discussion and lists more works.

 -----------------alien languages

"Tlon, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis" in FICCIONES - Jorge Luis Borges
40000 IN GEHENNA - C.J. Cherryh
BABEL-17 - Samuel R. Delany (1966)
FLIGHT OF THE DRAGONFLY - Robert L. Forward (1984)
THE HAUNTED STARS - Edmond Hamilton
"Omnilingual", in FEDERATION - H. Beam Piper
CONTACT - Carl Sagan (1985)
PSYCHAOS - E. P. Thompson
"A Martian Odyssey" in SF HALL OF FAME - Stanley Weinbaum (1934)
"A Rose for Ecclesiastes" in SF HALL OF FAME - Roger Zelazny (1963)

 ---------------futuristic varieties of English

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE - Anthony Burgess (1962)
HELLFLOWER - eluki bes shahar
THE INHERITORS - William Golding (1955)
THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS - Robert Heinlein (1966)
RIDDLEY WALKER - Russel Hoban (1980)
1984 - George Orwell (1948)

 ---------------other invented languages

NATIVE TONGUE - Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
"Gulf" in ASSIGNMENT IN ETERNITY - Robert A. Heinlein (1949)
DUNE - Frank Herbert (1965)
THE LORD OF THE RINGS - J R R Tolkien (1954-55)
THE MEMORANDUM - Vaclav Havel (1966)
THE LANGUAGES OF PAO - Jack Vance (1957)

 ------------------linguist heroes

PYGMALION - George Bernard Shaw (1912)
THE POISON ORACLE - Peter Dickinson (1974)
HANDS ON - Andrew Rosenheim (1992)

 ------------------animal language

WATERSHIP DOWN - Richard Adams
TARZAN OF THE APES - Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
CONGO - Michael Crichton

 ------------------use of linguistic theory

SNOW CRASH - Neal Stephenson (1992)
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS - Jonathan Swift (1726)
THE EMBEDDING - Ian Watson (1973)
Ozark trilogy - Suzette Haden Elgin


THE TROIKA INCIDENT - James Cooke Brown (1969) [Loglan]
LOVE ME TOMORROW - Robert Rimmer (1976) [Loglan]
ETXEMENDI - Florence Delay [Chomsky ref]
TONGUES OF THE MOON - Philip Jose Farmer
THE DISPOSSESSED - Ursula LeGuin (1974)

If I don't get much linguistics done in the next while, you'll know why.
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