Language is a slippery thing. I often marvel that American high schools require four years of English but not math or history, and think that it’s because rhetoric, language, and the grit that it takes to grasp and wield are not for the faint of heart. Merely performing a rhetorical analysis on the SAT can be a struggle for some students. So it is with great reverence that I approach stories that contemplate the power of language. Whether you subscribe linguistic determinism or linguistic relativity, respectively, the idea that language literally shapes thought or merely influences it, it’s impossible to ignore the impact of language on our societies and interactions, and fascinating to imagine the inherent possibilities in forms of communication we can only imagine.
In Ruthanna Emrys’ novella, The Word of Flesh and Soul two fledgling academics attempt to decipher an ancient language so powerful that it alters the users’ DNA, causing deformities like extra knuckles and fingers, bizarre markings, and altered vertebrae, on their search for enlightenment. While much of the story itself is concerned with the mystery of deciphering meaning, the characters are also challenging the establishment of academia. In Emrys’ world, only men of certain standing and academics elites have access to the full language beyond what has been deemed safe enough for the public. Electronic aids are not permitted, and those whose minds alter reality are forbidden. Mirroring much of the access to knowledge that Gutenberg shattered with his famous invention, Emrys shows that clandestine knowledge results in an ignorant populus and deprives the world of genius, much like the main characters in the story, who are determined to present their findings before peer review. Short enough to read in a single sitting, The Word of Flesh and Soul’s brilliance shines in many facets, right down the language, admitting in the opening scene that a spell used to pick a lock revolves around the knowledge of how a lock works and being able to name its parts. Language is where we store knowledge. Specialized, soul-saving knowledge in this case, and those in charge will always seek to control the language.
Although the saying knowledge is power is trite, there may be no better example of language providing knowledge otherwise unattainable than in Ted Chiang’s renowned novella The Story of Your Life, which was adapted into the movie Arrival. In Chiang’s story, a linguist works to understand strange symbols of an alien language. Once she finally comprehends, her world is changed forever. Chiang toys with the idea that language may be the only thing that separates an omniscient deity from mere mortals with our temporal limits. Time of course is only relative, and many quantum theories work better without it. While the infinite is obviously at hand with such a story idea, Chiang masterfully focuses on the smaller opportunities to build his characters and emphasize exactly how this concept would change a parent’s life–and not necessarily in a good way. Knowing the future impacts our choices. Some of those choices, despite understanding what pain those would bring, are still worth making.
Paul Jessup, known for his weird short and dark fiction, easily imagines the most macabre and likely possibility of the power of a foreign language in his novella Close Your Eyes. In this visceral, surprising story, an alien language that subjugates thought infects the skeleton crew of a spaceship. To me, this idea is far more terrifying than anything Ridley Scott has put out in the last forty(!!!) years. According to a Northwestern Medicine study, each time we remember something our brain chemistry changes, distorting it. If you subscribe to even the gentler idea of linguistic relativity, it’s possible that a distorting, corrupting, alien language may well be the single most effective way to conquer a society. Jessup imagines this corruption, and perhaps a merging with artificial intelligence, in vivid detail, eroding the characters’ sense of self with watery, shifting perspectives and horrific visions that are difficult to forget and a delight to read. It’s easy to see how a corrupt language, specifically dangerous, misleading rhetoric, at work in our world. Such rhetoric has propelled us to unprecedented levels of polarization in politics.
All of these novellas imagine fantastic ways in which language can shape its users, from achieving enlightenment, bestowing omnipotence, to erasing the memories of self that define who we are in ways that won’t soon leave the reader, but none of them, perhaps, will conjure such an immediate connection to the astute reader’s world as 1984, in which Orwell coins so many terms, like doublespeak, that have wormed their way into the vernacular. When world leaders start throwing around phrases like alternate truth to excuse blatant falsehoods, it’s abundantly clear that language distorts the perceptions of some in ways that used to be inexcusable.
A lack of linguistic understanding can not only hinder a people, it can be deadly. Native Americans signed over 350 treaties that were not honored by Europeans and Americans because they had no concept–no language–to describe dishonesty or owning land.
One may think that perhaps the greatest science fiction concept for a story would be a language which allows the user to spot and destroy lies, a language so powerful that every false accusation would be found out, and the possibilities in such an idea are indeed endless. The tragedy is that this meta language already exists: nearly every misleading narrative can be labeled as a certain type of logical fallacy. Knowing that results in immeasurable rhetorical power. It’s too bad it’s a language all too few speak, and too few care to know. The world would be a better place if more people pursued the dark art of truth.
No wonder we require four years of English Language Arts.
Categories: Book Reviews