Languages for Science Fiction

Who invented the Dothraki spoken by Daenerys in Game of Thrones? What linguistic theory is the basis for the language spoken by the extra-terrestrials in the film Arrival? Frédéric Landragin, author of a recent book on the topic–How to Talk to an Alien? Language and Linguistics in Science Fiction–provides answers.

The Game of Thrones television series and Lord of the Rings trilogy have brought exposure to a new job that requires linguistic skills, namely a conlanger, or someone who invents a language for fictional needs, whether it be for cinema, literature (J.R.R. Tolkien is a famous example), or video games (for example the D’ni language in the game Myst). The more a constructed language has characters from real natural languages, the more it “feels real” and contributes to the displacement—spatial, temporal, cultural—that makes science fiction and fantasy so enjoyable, and so full of a sense of wonder. For greater realism and plausibility, the creation of fictitious languages is henceforth left to linguists who specialise in conlanging.

Dothraki and High Valyrian, which were invented for the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones by the linguist David J. Peterson, who has become a highly successful conlanger, are examples of languages mimicking natural ones. They are actually made up of a rich and varied lexicon, and present linguistic subtleties worthy of being developed in weighty grammar textbooks. The same is true of the Elven languages from the Lord of the Rings or Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013).

Some even include a so-called diachronic aspect, for like living languages they are considered as evolving over time. In fact, linguistic anticipation is a field of science fiction, prompting reflection on the future of languages used by increasingly large communities.

With their rich and varied lexicons, linguistic subtleties, and weighty grammar books, Elven languages, such as those from The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson, 2014), sought to mimick natural languages. New Line Cinema / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer /Collection ChristopheLShare

Other languages were constructed on the models of Volapük and Esperanto as practical means of communication for international exchanges. Since science fiction dramatises extra-terrestrial civilisations, it extends the field of application beyond our planet by exploring the path of astrolinguistics, namely the conception of a “universal” language that could be used throughout the galaxy. Astrolinguistics is also an entirely real discipline. Lingua cosmica, which connects the famous SETI project with the more recent METI programme, involves founding a language on supposedly universal principles, in this instance the logic of its operators: conjunction (“and”), disjunction (“or”), implication, negation, etc.

Communicating with machines as well

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another preferred subject in science fiction. Authors very early on imagined languages specially created to communicate with machines, such as mechanese, an intermediary between natural and computer programming language. Repetition and ambiguity are forbidden, for efficiency takes precedence. Recent sci-fi has somewhat abandoned this path in favour of widespread voice recognition and automatic understanding—and even AI.

Message of 1,679 binary numbers intended for extra-terrestrials, sent on 16 November 1974 from the Arecibo Radio Telescope (Puerto Rico, United States). Science Photo LibraryShare

Finally, feminist science fiction has also explored the question of language—sometimes in connection with the subject of cyborgs—as a reflection of continuing inequalities in society. There are many novels, for instance Native Tongue (Suzette Haden Elgin, 1984) or Breathmoss (Ian R. MacLeod, 2002), in which a matriarchal society develops its own language, women “win out” over men, and nouns and pronouns have no gender.
By exploring multiple kinds of imaginary languages, futurism has contributed to a number of explorations regarding their universality, origin, capacity to change mentalities, etc. Only a few famous linguists are cited by science fiction authors. The first is no doubt Noam Chomsky, for his ideas on innateness and the existence of a “universal grammar.”

The author Ian Watson published a novel in 1973 inspired by his reading of Chomsky, whose title The Embedding will be familiar to those who have read his work. More than just a reflection on the mechanism of linguistic embedding, which consists in placing one sentence within another, this novel embodied a branch of SF that some, such as François Richaudeau and Marina Yaguello, have called “linguistic fiction.”

Influence over how the world is perceived 

The second, or rather the pair who come in second, are Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf for their hypothesis of linguistic relativity, which asserts that our language affects the way we perceive the world, for example time, colours, and even snow. Ever on the lookout for experimentation and exaggerations of all kinds, science fiction appropriated this idea and transformed it into linguistic determinism: our language determines our forms of perception. Put another way, in the words of Roland Barthes, terminology becomes fascist. The dystopic novel 1984 by George Orwell and The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance are typical examples of this use of Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis: in order to make people more submissive (as in 1984), or on the contrary more aggressive (as in The Languages of Pao), a government wilfully changes lingo or imposes the use of certain words or morphemes instead of others.

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016). Communicating with aliens proves a little harder than imagined for the film’s linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams). 21 Laps entertainment / FilmNation Entertainment / Lava Bear Films / Xenolinguistics /Collection ChristopheLShare

The film Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016), an adaptation of the short story by Ted Chiang (Stories of Your Life, 1998), includes characteristics of linguistic fiction. The heroine Louise Banks is a linguist (a portrait of Chomsky sits on her desk); the language of extra-terrestrials (and its system of writing in particular, in which sentences form circles decorated with magnificent graphic script) is remarkably original; Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis is used to the extreme (in learning this language, Louise Banks is transformed to the point of having visions); and universality appears in the end when the heroine receives copies of her book, entitled The Universal Language.
This goes to show that first contact with extra-terrestrials, beyond its spectacular aspect and ever-present sense of wonder, can spark reflection on language and linguistics, and even popularise some of its theories.

This article is provided by The French National Center for Scientific Research

Author: Frédéric Landragin

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