Science Fiction & Linguistics

”Language is a virus from outer space”

– William S Burroughs

Mary Shelley‘s  Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), arguably the first real science fiction novel, takes language as a primary concern. Frankenstein’s ‘monster’ is at first an ‘infant’ (from the Latin, infans, meaning ‘unable to speak’ or ‘speechless’) who enters into the world of existence through his aquisition of language culled from the works of John Milton and others (see my own article Disjecta Membra: The Brain of Morbius and the Intertextual Body for more on this).

By degrees I made a discovery of still greater moment. I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it…

– Mary Shelly, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

The structure of the novel itself, of course, which features a narrative within a narrative, relates to the linguistic concept of embedding.

The relationship between science fiction and linguistics is as old as science fiction itself – and indeed dates back to proto-science fiction such as Francis Godwin‘s The Man in the Moone: or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither (published in 1638 under the pseudonym Domingo Gonsales) which features a musical language spoken by Lunarians:

”At length I delivered myself into the Custody of this Sister of Death, whose Prisoner I was for almost a Fortnight after, and then awaking, it is not to be believed how brisk and vigorous I found the Faculties both of my Body and Mind: I then applied myself to Learning the Language, which is the fame throughout all the Regions of the Moon, yet not so wonderful, since I believe all the Earth of Moon does not amount to the fortieth Part of our inhabited Earth; partly besides the Globe of the Moon is far less, and because the Sea or Ocean covers very nigh three Parts of four, whereas the Land and Sea in our World may be judged of an equal Measure. Their Language is very difficult, since it hath no Affinity with any other I ever heard, and consists not so much of Words and Letters, as Tunes and strange Sounds, which no Letters can express; for there are few Words but signify several Things, and are distinguished only by their Sounds, which are sung, as it were, in uttering: Yea, many Words consist of Tunes only, without Words, by Occasion whereof, I find a Language may be framed, and easily learned, as copious as any other in the World, only of Tunes, which is an Experiment worth Searching after. Notwithstanding these Difficulties, within two Months I attained to soch Knowledge therein, that I understood most Questions demanded of me, and, with Signs and Words, made reasonable Shift to utter my Mind; which Pylonas having Notice of, he oftentimes sent for me, and was pleased to inform me of many Things my Guardians durst not disclose; though I must needs fay, I never found they abused me with an Untruth, but, if I asked a Question they were unwilling to resolve, they would shake their Heads, and, with a Spanish Shrug, divert to some other Discourse”

– Francis Godwin, The Man in the MooneThere’s also some commentary on the language of Utopia in Thomas More‘s Utopia:

”They are unwearied pursuers of knowledge; for when we had given them some hints of the learning and discipline of the Greeks, concerning whom we only instructed them (for we know that there was nothing among the Romans, except their historians and their poets, that they would value much), it was strange to see how eagerly they were set on learning that language: we began to read a little of it to them, rather in compliance with their importunity than out of any hopes of their reaping from it any great advantage: but, after a very short trial, we found they made such progress, that we saw our labour was like to be more successful than we could have expected: they learned to write their characters and to pronounce their language so exactly, had so quick an apprehension, they remembered it so faithfully, and became so ready and correct in the use of it, that it would have looked like a miracle if the greater part of those whom we taught had not been men both of extraordinary capacity and of a fit age for instruction: they were, for the greatest part, chosen from among their learned men by their chief council, though some studied it of their own accord. In three years’ time they became masters of the whole language, so that they read the best of the Greek authors very exactly. I am, indeed, apt to think that they learned that language the more easily from its having some relation to their own. I believe that they were a colony of the Greeks; for though their language comes nearer the Persian, yet they retain many names, both for their towns and magistrates, that are of Greek derivation.”

– Sir Thomas Moore, Utopia

First Contact

Communication with other species is particularly important in science fiction which deals with the theme of First Contact.

SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is a real-world programme for seeking out intelligent life on other worlds.

Carl Sagan‘s bestselling novel Contact (1985) takes a scientific approach to First Contact. Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, a director of the SETI programme ‘Project Argos’, recieves a repeating series of prime numbers which she gradually discovers contains further messages embedded within it like a palimpsest. The first of these is a retransmission of the first television broadcast from Earth powerful enough to escape the ionosphere (rather embarassingly, Adolf Hitler‘s opening speech from the 1936 Summer Olympics!) A second embedded message contains the plans to build a space vehicle, and a third contains a primer for the alien language itself.

A somewhat simplified film version directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster as Ellie, and Matthew McConaughey as Palmer Joss was released in 1997.

Don DeLillo‘s literary sf novel Ratner’s Star (1976).

Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which was co-scripted by sf author Arthur C Clarke, and Andre Tarkovsky‘s Solaris (1972), based on  Stanisław Lem‘s 1961 novel of the same name, take a pessimistic view of the possibility of communication between human beings and aliens.

In Steven Spielberg‘s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) the language divide is bridged by a combination of music from a Moog synthesiser and light show, having failed to get their message across through sculpted massed potato.

Wolfgang Petersen‘s Enemy Mine (1985) based on the 1979 novella by Barry B. Longyear deals with the difficulties of communication between a human and the reptilian Drac. The story is similar to the WWII movie  Hell in the Pacific (1968) and an episode of Gerry Anderson‘s UFO but features an interesting fictional language constructed for the film.

Universal Translators

Much science fiction either ignores linguistic differences or offers a convenient way to overcome them.

The original Star Trek TV series, for instance, features the universal translator while in Farscape they use translator microbes.

The translation convention in Doctor Who is so much taken for granted that the first time the Doctor is questioned about it in Masque of Mandragora this clues the Doctor into the fact his Companion has been drugged:

DOCTOR: Salvatore ambulando.
SARAH: What?
GIULIANO: It’s Latin. The question is solved by walking.
SARAH: Latin? I don’t even speak Italian. Hey, I never thought of that before. How is it I can understand you?
DOCTOR: Don’t you worry about it. I’ll explain it later. Come on.


SARAH: But how did you know I’d been drugged?
DOCTOR: Well, I’ve taken you to some strange places before and you’ve never asked how you understood the local language. It’s a Time Lord’s gift I allow you to share. But tonight when you asked me how you understood Italian, I realised your mind had been taken over.

Following the show’s return in 2005 the ability to understand alien languages is put down to the the TARDIS telepathic circuits, as revealed in the second episode, The End of the World.

ROSE: They all speak English
DOCTOR: You just hear English. It’s a gift of the TARDIS. Telepathic field, gets into your brain, translates.
ROSE: … It’s inside my brain?
DOCTOR: Well. In a good way.

Glitches in the TARDIS translator circuits can give rise to humourous misunderstandings, as here in The Fires of Pompeii:

DONNA: What if I said something in actual Latin? Like, “Veni, vidi, vici”? My dad said that when he came back from football. If I said, “Veni, vidi, vici,” to that lot, what would it sound like?
DOCTOR: I’m not sure. You have to think up difficult questions, don’t you?
DONNA: I’m gonna try it!
STALLHOLDER: A’ernoon, sweetheart. What can I get ya, my love?
DONNA: Um, “Veni, vidi, vici.”
STALLHOLDER: Huh? Sorry? Me no a-speak Celtic. No can do, missy.
DONNA: Yeah! How’s he mean, Celtic?
DOCTOR: Welsh. You sound Welsh. There we are. Learnt something.

Douglas Adams parodied the convention in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy where Babel fish are inserted into the ear:

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brain wave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish”

– Douglas Adams, the Hitch Hiker’s Guideto the Galaxy (p.49-50)

Yahoo’s translation service Yahoo! Babel Fish takes its name from Adams’ story.

Constructed Languages

Ursula Le Guin‘s invented Pravic, an anarchist language with no possessives for her ‘Ambiguous Utopia’  Annares in The Dispossesssed (1972) but gives few examples of actual words; in contrast her epic ‘Archaeology of the Future’ Always Coming Home (1985) contains a glossary of of the language of the Kesh, future inhabitants of California.

Marain from Iain M BanksCulture series.

Frank Herbert‘s Dune series feature Galach, a ”hybrid Inglo-Slavic” language ”with strong traces of cultural-specialization terms adopted during the long chain of human migrations” which is described in detail in Willis E. McNelly‘s The Dune Encyclopedia (1984).

Suzette Haden Elgin‘s feminist language Láadan

Riddley Speak from Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker(1980)

Will Self both parodies and pays tribute to Riddley Speak with his constructed language Mokni in his partially post-apocalyptic novel The Book of Dave (2006)

The most popular constructed language in science fiction, widely spoken by hardcore fans, and even instituted within academia, is Star Trek‘s Klingon.

The Na’vi language in James Cameron‘s Avatar (2009) was created by linguist Paul Frommer and currently consists of about 1,000 words.

See also

AvatarIain M Banks,  The Book of Dave, Anthony Burgess,  The Caltraps of Time, A Clockwork Orange,  A Clockwork Orange, Constructed Languages, The Culture Series, Samuel R Delany, The DispossesssedHarry HarrisonRussell Hoban, Ursula Le GuinMad Max, David I. Masson, Nineteen Eight-Four, 1985, George OrwellRiddley Walker, Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, Science Fiction & FeminismStar Trek, Will Self, The Stainless Steel RatTriton, We, Yevgeny Zamyatin


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