Friday, July 22, 2011

Li-fi (linguistic science fiction)? Embassytown, by China Miéville

A while back (actually a couple of decades), Geoffrey Pullum published a piece called 'Some lists of things about books'. You can find it in his essay collection The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax..., if you're interested. One of the lists includes Heffers, in Cambridge, as one of 'five bookstores where you can find a really serious stock of linguistics books. How things change. Nowadays, Heffers has one measly case of linguistics books, and it's hidden away quite cunningly, not to mention being populated mostly by Crystal, Pinker and Bryson. But I digress.

Another of the lists presented six science fiction books for linguists. Now it's never been clear to me that linguistics and fiction mix particularly well. Science fiction in particular has a bad rep with regard to linguistic accuracy. In Stargate SG1, for example, it's revealed that the reason the Ancient Egyptians spoke the language that they did was that they were visited by aliens who also spoke that language. Fine, so far, perhaps... but we're then led to assume that the Norse got their language from the grey-skinned Asgard aliens, and that the Romans learned Latin from the mysterious 'Ancients'. All these alien races are completely unrelated, of course. Enough to make a comparative linguist's brain overheat (though fortunately Asgard technology is capable of curing that). Worse still, almost all the myriad human societies they encounter on other worlds speak... English. I love SG1 dearly, but still.

Then Doctor Who and Star Trek cheat by employing a universal translator. (Oh hai computational linguists, could you build me one of those?) And even when alien races are given a foreign language to speak, assuming it isn't a code, or, worse, a cypher like Gnommish in the Artemis Fowl books (why would fairies speak an enciphered version of English?), it's usually constructed broadly as a human language, like the Na'vi language created for Avatar. (OMG ejectives!) In some ways, this is worse; it shows something of a lack of imagination, in any case. There are any number of ways that the different conceptual-intentional and sensorimotor systems of different alien life forms could be hooked up to one another. Why would they all behave like human languages?

In fairness, the works I'm criticizing really aren't science fiction in the purest sense of the term. They all fit much better into a category of 'space fantasy' or 'space adventure' that's far removed from the works of Wells, Clarke, Dick, Capek, Lem and the real pioneers of concept science fiction. Fun though the former may be, I'm always on the lookout for a work of the latter kind that takes language seriously. China Miéville's Embassytown may be such a book.

The Ariekei, or 'Hosts', have two mouths each, and can vocalize only using both simultaneously. More interestingly, their 'language' (known as 'Language') has no deixis, and they are unable to lie (and, by extension, to use metaphor; simile is a grey area). They are also incapable of comprehending Language unless it is spoken by an entity that they recognize as having a single mind, so two ordinary people can't fake it, nor can speech synthesis.

I'm not entirely convinced that all of Miéville's setup actually makes sense, especially the dénouement. But it's really refreshing to read someone who's actually attempted to play with the boundaries of what language is all about. More to the point, the book is a very enjoyable read. And it even has a linguist as a prominent character:
"I got almost all of it," Scile told me afterwards. He was very excited. "They shift tenses," he said. "When they mentioned the negotiations they - the Ariekei, I mean - were in present discontinuous, but then they shifted into the elided past-present. That's for, uh..." I knew what it was for, I assured him. He'd told me already. How could you not smile at him? I'd listened to him with affection, if not always with interest, over hundreds of hours. "Does it ever occur to you that this language is impossible, Avice?" he said. "Im, poss, ih, bul. They don't have polysemy. Words don't signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language? ...
So yeah, go away and read this book. It may not be as page-turningly thrilling as Miéville's other work The City & The City, but it makes up for that with soaring imagination. And to my non-linguist friends: if I ever start going on like Scile, slap me upside the head and remind me of this.