Word-Worlds

On Villeneuve's 'Arrival,' the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Science Fiction, and the Linguistic Determinism of (Almost) Every Novel  

Ted Chiang is among the greatest short story writers in the history of science fiction, and I've been recommending his work to students for years. That said, I was somewhat disappointed by Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's recent film adaptation of Chiang's masterful short story "Story of Your Life." The film, in my view, is too noncommittal genre-wise. It doesn't know what it wants to be—action-adventure or philosophical meditation, Independence Day or Ex Machina. I suppose there's a way to elegantly split that difference, but I don't think it happens here. To be fair, it's a tough story to adapt: high-concept, but cerebral and exposition-y. "Story of Your Life" features none of the fate-of-the-Earth-hangs-in-the-balance testosterone of Arrival; what's most interesting about it is the peculiar linguistics of the alien language, particularly the written script, which Chiang's narrator explores in depth. The film dumbs all this down. We get squiddy aliens ejaculating ideograms, and some montage-like scenes of Amy Adams' character trying to decipher them at her desk, but we're not really privy to her insights, and, though a major plot twist depends on it, we never get the full picture of how the aliens' language is a natural outgrowth and/or determinant (or both?) of their relationship to time, which is, or ought to be, the story's great payoff.

Imagine for a moment what it's like to be a baby. You come out of the womb, all soft and new and dumb, and are immediately confronted with the blooming buzzing confusion of reality. You literally don't know your ass from your elbow. You don't know your ass from your mother's elbow, for that matter. But then you spend some months gawking at everything. You crawl around and put things in your mouth, and before you know it you've learned where your borders are, where "you" stops and "other" begins. After that, your left brain is off and running, racking up all these labels for the things out there. Over here is your "sister." That thing there is a "leaf." And that guy on your t-shirt? That's "Yoda." Eventually you get some words for the stuff in here too: "Happy," "Sad," etc.

Question: Does knowing these words influence the way you think about the world? 

Answer: Of course it does. While the case of feral children suggests thought is possible without language, it's hard to imagine how we might think complex thoughts without it. On the other hand, physicists speculated about black holes for decades before John Wheeler gave them a name in 1967. Granted, they had a whole storehouse of math and metaphor at their disposal, but how does giving that natural phenomenon a name affect the way we think about it? Does it facilitate deeper thinking? Or—as the always language-suspicious physicist Richard Feynman might have had it—does it provide a shortcut from thinking? I can say to my handy father "The air conditioner is broken" because I have those words; otherwise, I might actually need to know a how that magical weather gizmo works. And now the question I've been building to: How profoundly does our language shape the world we see—and not just what but how we see? The French language doesn't distinguish between illusion and delusion (both are translated as illusion); does this tell us anything about the psychology and worldview of French speakers? Does a Japanese speaker experience holding a child differently because Japanese has no word for "lap"? (Hiza no ue is the best translation—literally "the top of the knees.")? And I haven't even mentioned the beautiful morass of grammar. 

Hizamakura lap pillow, literally "knee pillow" (Yes, this exists.)

While these ideas have been batted around since Socrates, they find their clearest formulation in what linguists call the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that a language affects, to a greater or lesser degree, the thinking of its speakers. Since this is the sort of heady idea that keeps college kids up at night, and seeing as SF aficionados tend to be those who never outgrow that sort of gee-whiz wonderment—mea culpa—it's hardly a surprise that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been a recurrent trope in science fiction for a very long time now.

Whorfianism undoubtedly gets its most famous treatment in George Orwell's 1984, where the totalitarian government has engineered a language, Newspeak, to make seditious thoughts literally unthinkable. And not only do Newspeak's vocabulary and grammar circumscribe the party-faithful's worldview, they encode the party's authoritarian rules and practices as well. For example, when the government sees fit to vaporize someone, that person summarily becomes an "unperson," erased from both the present and the historical record. Unpersons cease to exist in every way, and even mentioning one of their names constitutes "thoughtcrime."

A similar dynamic is at the very center of Isaac Asimov's great short story "Robot Dreams," which I read as an allegory for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In defiance of good sense apparently, Linda Rash has programmed her new robot, Elvex, with a human-like brain and equipped it with a vocabulary that includes the word "dream." The robot, empowered by the word, begins to dream in ways both nocturnal and figurative (cf. "I have a dream") about the eventual emancipation of its kind. The story ends with Susan Calvin, robopscyhologist, assassinating Elvex with her electron gun.

A few more examples:

In The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin gives her anarchist utopians a constructed language, Pravic, that, in keeping with their politics, has little room for possessives.

Samuel R. Delaney's Babel-17 concerns a constructed language that effectively hacks into speakers' brains, turning them into traitors despite themselves.

China Mieville's Embassytown describes an alien race, the Ariekans, who are incapable of abstraction and can therefore utter nothing counterfactual. Even their similes must make reference to events that actually happened. For the Ariekans, speech and perception are one and the same.   


All of these examples depend upon what is known as the "strong" version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a.k.a. linguistic determinism—that is, the idea that language not only influences what thoughts a person can think, but wholly determines them. (One has to wonder if, in conjuring his Heptopods, Chiang wasn't thinking of Benjamin Whorf's research on the Hopi, whom he took, mistakenly, to have no sense of time.) But here's the thing: professional linguists have long since abandoned the strong version. It's clear that the weak version, a.k.a. linguistic relativism, has its merits—certainly language does influence thinking—but the strong version would seem to overestimate the power of language and underestimate human creativity. 

Nothing fishy about the logic of this ad campaign, is there? For more, see: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003055.html

So should we consign all of these strong-version-embracing SF stories to the bin? I think not—and not only because I'm willing to grant any fiction writer his or her premises, but also this: When we talk about characters in a novel, it's worth reminding ourselves that we're dealing not with homo sapiens exactly but homo fictus, denizens of a word-world, who irrefutably do live in a radically deterministic—indeed predetermined—universe. Realists like to make believe that the novel is a perfect microcosm for the world we live in, but human beings are comprised of many things—atoms, cells, neurons, memories, values, and so on—whereas Winston Smith and Elvex? If we're being honest, we have to admit they're composed of one hundred percent language. The notion that their thinking might be wholly circumscribed by words strikes me as not only interesting in a metafictional kind of way, but also, literally unavoidable.

B.S. Johnson

Of course many attempts have been made to free up the novel, to grant characters and/or readers something like free will, e.g. B.S. Johnson's novel-in-a-box, The Unfortunates, being a collection of loose pages that can be read in any order the reader chooses; choose-your-own-adventure novels; computer-based IF (interactive fiction) and various sorts of hypertext fictions. I'm very interested in all of this conceptually, though the truth is, when I read a novel, I generally want to romp through the lovingly designed universe of a surrogate god; I no more want to fiddle with that consummate work of art than I do Beethoven's symphonies, which I could only make worse. And if I need to play surrogate god myself from time to time, well I guess that's why I write novels too. 

M. Thomas Gammarino is the author of BIG IN JAPAN, JELLYFISH DREAMS, and, most recently, KING OF THE WORLDS. 

"If Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams had a baby, it would look a lot like 'King of the Worlds.' With its tongue-incheek humor and intelligent allusions, this is the kind of fiction that playfully reassembles tropes and rejects all labels. It's a dark riot." — Mindy-Lynn Sanico, Honolulu Star-Advertiser

"...hints of other greats like Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace...represent some of the funnest aspects of a novel that takes its fun pretty seriously...It's almost like looking back in time to a literary landscape that is long gone now. Or maybe into the future." — Art Edwards, Entropy Magazine

This dark comedy explores the lost universes of disgraced idol Dylan Greenyears. Dylan had always wanted to live as many lives as he could—that was the appeal of being an actor. But at the end of a brief, bright stint as a Hollywood heartthrob, Dylan loses the lead in Titanic and exiles himself and his wife to a recently settled exoplanet called New Taiwan. For a while, life beyond Earth seems uncannily un-wondrous. Dylan teaches at an American prep school, raises a family with his high school sweetheart, and lives out his restlessness through literature. But then a box of old fan mail (and the hint of a galaxy-wide conspiracy) offers Dylan a chance to recapture the past. As he tries to balance this transdimensional midlife crisis against family life, Dylan encounters a cast of extraordinary characters: a supercomputer with aspirations of godhood; a Mormon-fundamentalist superfan; an android Frank Sinatra; a sampling of his alternate selves; and, once again, the love of his lives. A singularly mind-blowing, genre-bending performance, King of the Worlds is a literary take on science fiction that throws cosmology, technology, 90s pop culture, and religion into an existential blender that is by turns tragic and absurd, elegiac and filled with wonder.

M. Thomas Gammarino
M. Thomas Gammarino

Author of King of the Worlds, 'Big in Japan,' and 'Jellyfish Dreams.' Received the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, Hawaii's highest literary honor. Website: mthomasgammarino.com

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Word-Worlds