LINGUIST List 21.921

Wed Feb 24 2010

Sum: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Science Fiction

Editor for this issue: Danielle St. Jean <>

        1.    Flaminia Robu, Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Science Fiction

Message 1: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Science Fiction
Date: 24-Feb-2010
From: Flaminia Robu <>
Subject: Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Science Fiction
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Query for this summary posted in LINGUIST Issue: 21.844 A few days ago I posted a query on Linguist List about the Sapir-Whorfhypothesis (hereafter, SWH) in science fiction. Because I received sucha generous number of replies with useful information and suggestionsand 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, AnthonyWebster, Jack Hall, Dr. MJ Hardman, Dr. Peter C. Rollins, JamesVanden Bosch, Bruce Anderson, Fiona MacArthur, Izzy Cohen, DrewJonas, Sebastian Sauppe, Paul Kilpatrick, Steven Cushing, EvieMalaia, 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, ScottDrellishak, Laura Bailey, Dr. Douglas S. Bigham, Zachary Philbrick, andSandrine Sorlin.

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

Since some of the information was repeated, I've edited the answersand 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 acopy of my published research, I have to spoil the show by telling youI've only just begun my PhD, so I can't promise anything.

The most frequent suggestion received was the reference to anepisode of the fictional series "Star Trek: The Next Generation,"entitled "Darmok," which weaves in elements of the hypothesis into thenarrative. The story presents an alien race - the Tamarians - whosemembers communicate only through conventionalized culture-specificmetaphors ( Starfleet personnelare equipped with a "Universal Translator" which fails in this particularcase since the metaphors, once translated, fail to convey the intentionof the speaker, even though the syntax and meaning of the words inTamarian can be decoded. The episode is an allegory for the culturalspecificity of language (JL) (also available on Youtube:

The fictional sources mentioned were:- Samuel Delany's Babel-17: about the SWH, though there has beencriticism concerning some of the linguistics in the book;- Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao: a book-length consideration ofwhat you can accomplish if you can make people think the way youwant them to think by constructing languages for them (SD);- Ian Watson's The Embedding, although essentially centred aroundthe theory of linguistic embedding, is an example of how an alienspecies tries to understand and view reality, in order to surpass it;- George Orwell’s 1984: in his appendix on Newspeak, Orwell makes itclear that he is a believer in a strong form of Sapir-Whorf, though notby that name (AC-M);- Ted Chang's The Story of Your Life concerns a human linguist whosethought processes change as she learns a very alien language andwriting system; it is based entirely on the assumption that the strongversion of the SWH holds for both human and non-human languages,and what the implications of learning an alien language could be (SD,EM);- Robert Heinlein's Gulf, where a secret society of supermen speakSpeedtalk, a constructed language and Stranger in a Strange Land, inwhich an orphaned human raised from birth by Martians is returned toEarth, and attempts to interpret the human language based on hisMartian 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 peoplesuggested her scholarly connection to Sapir-Whorf - her father was thegreat anthropologist Alfred Kroeber who, like Edward Sapir, was astudent of Boas. Hence every culture she writes about reflectsanthropological and linguistic insight;- Asimov's The Gods Themselves;- William Golding's The Inheritors is a novel told from the point of viewof Neanderthals about to be displaced by a new race of hominids, andthe narrative is filled with fascinating language and world-view sorts ofobservations (JVB);- Dan Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language inthe Amazonian Jungle, includes descriptions of his first contact with thePiraha in Brazil and subsequent interaction (PK);- C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner is about an ambassador to a race of aliensa few hundred years after a disastrous first contact. The premise of thebook is that the alien culture is too different for contact betweenhumans and aliens to be commonplace. The alien worldview isseemingly tied up in their language - for example, their primary religionis a form of numerology, and the number of words/syllables in asentence dictates how polite/rude it is (ZP);- Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, where an ancient group of evilwizards has come up with a poem that, once read, so transforms yourmind that you become a death-dealing enemy of mankind (ED);

Of course, there are works which haven’t been mentioned, such asTolkien’s Lord of The Rings, Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange,Phillip Mann The Eye of the Queen and several stories by PoulAnderson.

Some of the replies came from professors of linguistics who teach orused to teach courses in linguistics and science-fiction/fantasy, orconstructed languages, and who provided useful resources andcomments 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 hasa degree in anthropology and is a supporter of the SWH. Her advicewas to look at the anthologies and compilations that were published inthe year subsequent to Whorf’s 1939 "The relation of habitual thoughtand behaviour to language" and the publication of his "Language,thought and reality" (1956). She also mentioned to me the Americancult of 'psychedelic era sci fi' teachings from the late 1960s which setsthe scene for much of US science-fiction writings from that period.Karin Ryding, who is a professor of Arabic and Arabic linguistics atGeorgetown University, is conducting a study of the Arabic version of"Dune," the science-fiction series by Frank Herbert. She is planning tolook at the SWH as a way of examining how Herbert relates histerminology 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 ScienceFiction. 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 ofIdentity and Difference in Ethnography and Science Fiction." CulturalAnthropology. 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 inEnglish and French - not directly related to the SWH but discussessome of its ties to fiction in the introduction.

Other Useful Links: Linguistic Field(s): Ling & Literature                             Linguistic Theories                             Sociolinguistics

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