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- Anna Quindlen

Review: Aliens and Linguists, by Walter Earl Meyers

Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction (South Atlantic Modern Language Association award study) - Walter Earl Meyers

”It is only in bad science fiction that the alien being acts like a costumed human, differing from the familiar only in appearance. In the hands of the masters of the genre we are constantly reminded through the use of new terms, new metaphors, and the very turns of phrase that our accustomed ways of thinking are not the only ones.”


By this definition, a lot of science fiction is bad. And as Walter Earl Meyers points out in this book, while SF authors tend to pride themselves on their expertise (or at least passing familiarity) with the physical sciences, all too often the social sciences are completely ignored. This is particularly obvious in the case of linguistics, because after all, every SF story involves communication. I’m no linguist, but I took some classes in college and I follow Language Log, and that’s enough to give me a constant case of the annoys when glitches like the following pop up in my latest read:


Static Languages


Languages, like living beings, are constantly evolving. The English we speak now is not the same English that Shakespeare spoke, which is not the same English that Chaucer spoke. So any story that involves time-travel, or that takes place in the distant past or future of humanity, should take into account linguistic evolution. And yet, I can’t tell you how many books feature protagonists traveling thousands (even millions!) of years into the future, and finding people (sometimes people that have physically evolved!) speaking modern English. But you know, maybe with an accent. Or a couple of new slang terms.


And that’s not even touching the whole travesty, so inexplicably common in some older SF stories, of uncontacted aliens who just so happen to speak English.



”You speak English?”
”I am actually speaking Rigellian. By an astonishing coincidence, both of our languages are exactly the same."


Deciphering Ancient and Alien Scripts


You know, the Rosetta Stone was a big fucking deal. The reason it was a big fucking deal is because it is virtually impossible to decipher an unknown written language simply from studying the texts themselves. Languages are closed systems, and on their own, written languages rarely give any clues as to the sound or meaning of the words they represent. Without the Rosetta Stone, we’d probably still be scratching our heads over the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics.


And yet, SF abounds with stories of mysterious ancient texts being quickly deciphered, which is ridiculous -- and it’s even more ridiculous when the texts in question were produced by aliens (who presumably don’t even share the most basic symbology or psychology with humans). In this, I’m not talking about cases like Carl Sagan’s Contact, where the aliens deliberately use universal mathematical concepts to give researchers an “in” into figuring out the language. That’s clever! No, these are cases where scientists poke and prod at the text a bit, and then magically pull a decoder ring out of their butt. Doesn’t work that way!


Which brings me to


Automatic Translators, Goddammit


Okay, I have no problem with these when they’re basically vast databanks of known languages, spitting out translations in realtime. We practically have this technology already, in the form of Google Translate. No, my beef (and Meyers’s) is with devices that can somehow translate an unknown language into a known one. In realtime, no less. I said it above, but maybe not emphatically enough:


Language is a closed system!!


And even if a machine could analyze and suss out linguistic structures based on a small sample… what about vocabulary? Can it just infer it out of the ether? Or (SIGH) are these machines just telepathic interpreters, like the TARDIS? In which case, we are at best in a science fantasy story, not science fiction.


(Don’t get me started on telepathy. Just… don’t.)


As LeGuin said, in fantasy “you get to make up the rules, but then you’ve got to follow them. SF refines upon this: you get to make up the rules, but within limits.”


Hear that, authors? LIMITS! It’s got to at least be remotely plausible!


Stupid Methods Of Learning Foreign Languages


Hypnosis. Sleep-learning. Electroshock therapy. Chemical therapy (Take a drug, know a new language!). Neural modification (Change your brain structure, know a new language!). DNA/RNA (Inject some “smart” DNA, know a new language!)




All of these inane “futuristic” modes of learning new languages are used in SF to allow the characters to avoid the difficulty, length, and tedium of studying a foreign language “the old fashioned way”. And yet, learning a new language is a somewhat unremarkable feat we expect of every high school student. Why so lazy, people of the future?


Other Boring Assumptions About Alien Languages


* That aliens would even have a language.

* That the language would be in a form humanly-recognizable as language.

* That the language would be vocal/sonic, and not: gestural, olfactory, chromatic, tactile, electromagnetic, musical, literary, chemical, gustatory, kinesic….

* That there is enough cultural and symbolical overlap to make communication possible, even if we are able to decipher their language (or vice versa).

* That aliens would even be interested in establishing communication.


Meyers includes a quote from Lem’s Solaris concerning an alien language, which really makes me want to read the book:


”Transposed into any human language, the values and meanings involved lose all substance; they cannot be brought intact through the barrier.”


Or, as Star Trek fans will appreciate:



Okay, I Lied, I’m Gonna Talk About Telepathy After All




Telepathic communication, which is ALL TOO OFTEN used in otherwise-decent SF, makes no goddamn sense. And it especially makes no goddamn sense in the context of telepathy being a universal translator between humans and aliens. This is not science fiction, because no remotely-plausible scientific paradigm for how it fucking works is ever postulated! It’s a stupid, weak, lazy idea that should just be abolished.


So. When transmitting a foreign/alien language telepathically, to be understood by someone who does not speak the language…. what, does their brain just magically pick out the relevant concepts and feelings and translate them into their own language? How would that even be possible? Or is the other party just thinking in pictures (which would work so well for intangible concepts like “stupid”, “failure”, and “insulting your readers’ intelligence”)? And how is this transmitted anyway? Does your brain resonate on some frequency through the ether that other brains can pick up on? Is the structure of thought so uniform across all species, cultures, and individuals that any receiver can instantly reconstruct what you were thinking about as if it were a goddamn radio station?? And despite what Meyers feebly claims in this book, there has never been solid, repeatable data that suggest scientifically that ESP is anything more than a tired fantasy. GIVE IT A REST.


So Is Everyone Just Fucking Up Linguistics All The Time?


No! Tolkien was a badass. Sure, he wrote fantasy and not SF, but Lord of the Rings was basically just written so JRRT could geek out about these Elvish languages he’d been constructing all his life.


Benjamin Whorf (of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis fame) wrote a novel called The Languages of Pao, which is about as “hard” as SF has ever gotten in terms of linguistics. I need to get ahold of this one.


Samuel Delany’s Babel-17, another linguistically-focused SF novel, contains some scientific inaccuracies but is well-regarded. (Meyers: “Babel-17 is like a building of magnificent design, marred throughout by substandard materials.”) Still, now I want to read it.


And many others that I copied out of the bibliography, because whoooa, this stuff is like crack to me.


So this was a good read! It resonated perfectly on my particular frequency of nerddom, which is always nice to find.


(2014 #17)