Barnes, Myra Edwards.Linguistics and Languages in Science Fiction-Fantasy. Ayer Co Pub, 1975.
This book is a reprint of the author’s 1971 PhD dissertation.
One of the primary purposes of this study is to “test the hypothetical speakability or linguistic verisimilitude of the created languages” (Abstract) in science fiction and fantasy. While Meyers lists many bad examples in his book, Barnes only includes good examples hers, probably because, after tracing the development of linguistic realism in fiction, she is aware that “complete linguistic realism is impossible” (p 27). Some of the created languages serve to convey critical messages of the stories, such as Newspeak in 1984 and the five languages in The Languages of Pao. In such works, literary criticism cannot avoid discussing the linguistic elements. Other works, such as “Wheels of If”, can be understood and even enjoyed without appreciating the linguistics in them. But, as Barnes argues, linguistics adds power to both the works’ message and their literary style. Just like many other authors, Barnes is apparently also a fan of The Lord of the Ring, and she sets this trilogy as an example where the reader can simply derive pleasure out of the “linguistic games and puzzles that are available in science fiction literature” (p 173).
Barnes contrasts the constructed languages in utopias with those in dystopias: the former are clear, convenient and thus often dull, and the latter are usually thought-controlling, allowing the speakers neither to think nor utter contrary opinions (p 151). The concept of “thought-controlling languages” is based on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is also called linguistic relativity theory. Barnes introduces a refined version of this hypothesis proposed by Hockett:
…throughout history and its centuries of cultural changes, people have struggled against their inherited linguistic limitations, and when conditions have changed among a people, ‘speech habits were revised to accommodate those changes…the causality is in all probability from philosophy of life to language, rather than vice versa.’ (145)
This argument is one of the many in this “chicken-and-egg discussion”. As Barnes observes, sf writers usually ignore the “origin problem”, simply begin with either the chicken or the egg, and treat them as affecting each other ad infinitum.
Thoughts and questions
In addition to the three ways in which linguistics can add to sf and literary analysis, Barnes also seems to imply that fictitious languages and cultures can be research materials for linguistics and anthropology:
If a linguist should take the time to analyze a single sentence from an imaginary language, placed in an obscure corner of an appendix attached to a book clearly labeled as a “fairy tale”, and, surprisingly, he should discover that the author has carefully and skillfully made the sentence as linguistically authentic as possible, then it seems that the result should have some value. As a tool in literary criticism, it should help to evaluate the merit of both the book and the author. In descriptive linguistics, it is another unique grammatical system whose analysis adds to the present store of knowledge about language and languages. As an ethnological factor, even though, fictitious, it helps to analyze the cultural traits of the fictitious society… (113)
I’ve been taught since high school that fictitious examples can’t be used to back up your argument in writing, so my first reaction to the above passage was frowning. But is it possible that fictitious languages and cultures do have speculative and even predictive value, like some of the fictitious technology?
Creating such “unreal estate” often taxes the ingenuity of authors in keeping ahead of modern scientific knowledge. The New World was mysterious to Elizabethans, and H.G. Wells viewed Australia in the same way that the early twentieth century viewed Mars. Today, even Mars has lost its fascination to such an extent that authors must move beyond the bounds of Earth and into other galaxies and other periods of time in order to create a unique environment. (9)
Does that imply that sf works, to some extent, have a “shelf life”? When Australia is no longer mysterious or alien, when humans have landed on the moon and found it to be just a barren and lifeless satellite, when robots, the internet and all kinds of smart devices become part of ordinary people’s life, do we still want to read H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and some early cyberpunk? Some of the technologies the early works described turns out to be impossible, while some others have already been realized. Does that undermine their power as the speculative art? Or does that make them even more attractive, since they allow the reader to look into the future through the eyes of their ancestors/predecessors?