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Summary Details

Query:   Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Science Fiction
Author:  Flaminia Robu
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Linguistic Theories
Ling & Literature

Summary:   A few days ago I posted a query on Linguist List about the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis (hereafter, SWH) in science fiction. Because I received such
a generous number of replies with useful information and suggestions
and people write in every day, I will post a summary to the list now,
rather than later, to prevent repetition of the same information.

I wish to thank the following people for having replied to my query:
Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin, David-Guy Brizan, Peter T. Daniels, Anthony
Webster, Jack Hall, Dr. MJ Hardman, Dr. Peter C. Rollins, James
Vanden Bosch, Bruce Anderson, Fiona MacArthur, Izzy Cohen, Drew
Jonas, Sebastian Sauppe, Paul Kilpatrick, Steven Cushing, Evie
Malaia, Kelly Maynard, Emek Ergun, Joshua Levy, Dr. Alicia Pousada,
Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy, Karin Ryding, Robert Easterbrook, Dr.
Griorgio Francesco Arcodia, Eve Danziger, Dr. Hilary Lambert, Scott
Drellishak, Laura Bailey, Dr. Douglas S. Bigham, Zachary Philbrick, and
Sandrine Sorlin.

In particular, I wish to thank Suzette Haden Elgin for her prompt reply
and support. Her science fiction (SF) novel, "Native Tongue" (first
edition, Daw Books, second edition, Feminist Press), has the Sapir-
Whorf Hypothesis (SWH) as its major story arc; more information can
be found on her SFWA website (
and the homepage for the novel

Since some of the information was repeated, I've edited the answers
and listed a summary of all the replies, in some cases with the authors'
initials in brackets. Also, for those of you who asked me to send them a
copy of my published research, I have to spoil the show by telling you
I've only just begun my PhD, so I can't promise anything.

The most frequent suggestion received was the reference to an
episode of the fictional series "Star Trek: The Next Generation,"
entitled "Darmok," which weaves in elements of the hypothesis into the
narrative. The story presents an alien race - the Tamarians - whose
members communicate only through conventionalized culture-specific
metaphors ( Starfleet personnel
are equipped with a "Universal Translator" which fails in this particular
case since the metaphors, once translated, fail to convey the intention
of the speaker, even though the syntax and meaning of the words in
Tamarian can be decoded. The episode is an allegory for the cultural
specificity of language (JL) (also available on Youtube:

The fictional sources mentioned were:
- Samuel Delany's Babel-17: about the SWH, though there has been
criticism concerning some of the linguistics in the book;
- Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao: a book-length consideration of
what you can accomplish if you can make people think the way you
want them to think by constructing languages for them (SD);
- Ian Watson's The Embedding, although essentially centred around
the theory of linguistic embedding, is an example of how an alien
species tries to understand and view reality, in order to surpass it;
- George Orwell's 1984: in his appendix on Newspeak, Orwell makes it
clear that he is a believer in a strong form of Sapir-Whorf, though not
by that name (AC-M);
- Ted Chang's The Story of Your Life concerns a human linguist whose
thought processes change as she learns a very alien language and
writing system; it is based entirely on the assumption that the strong
version of the SWH holds for both human and non-human languages,
and what the implications of learning an alien language could be (SD,
- Robert Heinlein's Gulf, where a secret society of supermen speak
Speedtalk, a constructed language and Stranger in a Strange Land, in
which an orphaned human raised from birth by Martians is returned to
Earth, and attempts to interpret the human language based on his
Martian mind-set (SD, HL);
- Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed,
The Word for World is Forest, Always Coming Home: some people
suggested her scholarly connection to Sapir-Whorf - her father was the
great anthropologist Alfred Kroeber who, like Edward Sapir, was a
student of Boas. Hence every culture she writes about reflects
anthropological and linguistic insight;
- Asimov's The Gods Themselves;
- William Golding's The Inheritors is a novel told from the point of view
of Neanderthals about to be displaced by a new race of hominids, and
the narrative is filled with fascinating language and world-view sorts of
observations (JVB);
- Dan Everett's Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in
the Amazonian Jungle, includes descriptions of his first contact with the
Piraha in Brazil and subsequent interaction (PK);
- C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner is about an ambassador to a race of aliens
a few hundred years after a disastrous first contact. The premise of the
book is that the alien culture is too different for contact between
humans and aliens to be commonplace. The alien worldview is
seemingly tied up in their language - for example, their primary religion
is a form of numerology, and the number of words/syllables in a
sentence dictates how polite/rude it is (ZP);
- Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, where an ancient group of evil
wizards has come up with a poem that, once read, so transforms your
mind that you become a death-dealing enemy of mankind (ED);

Of course, there are works which haven't been mentioned, such as
Tolkien's Lord of The Rings, Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange,
Phillip Mann The Eye of the Queen and several stories by Poul

Some of the replies came from professors of linguistics who teach or
used to teach courses in linguistics and science-fiction/fantasy, or
constructed languages, and who provided useful resources and
comments relating to the different implications of the hypothesis - Dr.
M.J.Hardman, Dr. Alicia Pousada and Dr. Douglas S. Bigham.
Another interesting suggestion came from Dr. Hilary Lambert, who has
a degree in anthropology and is a supporter of the SWH. Her advice
was to look at the anthologies and compilations that were published in
the year subsequent to Whorf's 1939 "The relation of habitual thought
and behaviour to language" and the publication of his "Language,
thought and reality" (1956). She also mentioned to me the American
cult of 'psychedelic era sci fi' teachings from the late 1960s which sets
the scene for much of US science-fiction writings from that period.
Karin Ryding, who is a professor of Arabic and Arabic linguistics at
Georgetown University, is conducting a study of the Arabic version of
"Dune," the science-fiction series by Frank Herbert. She is planning to
look at the SWH as a way of examining how Herbert relates his
terminology to the desert environment.

Other critical sources mentioned, most of which I was already aware of:
- Walter E. Meyers Aliens and Linguists (1980);
- Peter Nicholls on "LINGUISTICS," in The Encyclopedia of Science
Fiction. Edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, 1993, pp. 723-725;
- Myra E. Barnes, Linguistics and Languages in Science Fiction-
Fantasy (1971);
- David Samuel "These are the stories that dogs tell: Discourses of
Identity and Difference in Ethnography and Science Fiction." Cultural
Anthropology. 1996. 11(1): 88-118;
- E.T. Culture. Anthropology in Outer Spaces, ed. Debbora Battaglia
(2005, DUP), also includes an entry by D. Samuels, "Alien Tongues";
- Anna Livia's "Pronoun Envy," analyzes feminist experimental fiction in
English and French - not directly related to the SWH but discusses
some of its ties to fiction in the introduction.

Other Useful Links:

LL Issue: 21.921
Date Posted: 24-Feb-2010
Original Query: Read original query


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