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Monday, September 08, 2003

 
Babel-17
There are certain benefits to having two geeks live together. For one thing, then there are fewer of us out there weirding the normals. For another, our books get pooled, and perhaps if I am very lucky, they will start to reproduce of their own accord and I won't have to spend money buying more. In any case, I've started eating, I mean, reading Mark's books now. Over the weekend, he fed me Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany. Now, for your edification, I present a review.

Babel-17 is an excellent sci-fi book. Mark's copy is the 1978 version, probably actually from that year, judging by the pitiful condition of its spine. It's short, an easy read, and very absorbing. The main character is a linguistic genius. At the beginning of the book, she explains to the general the rule of allophonic distribution. How could the book get any more perfect for me? This has long been a favorite bit of esoteric linguistic knowledge for me, kind of like soccer fans cherish the off-sides rule.

The main character is approached by the military to break the Babel-17 enemy code. She gleaned enough from the transcripts they provided her to know that it's not a code, but an actual language. She speaks dozens of languages, an aptitude she's had since childhood, and describes all the languages as having this magic moment when everything, grammar, phonology, syntax, etc, just fell into place in her mind. I wish I could do that. I can't help it; I like characters who can do stuff I wish I could. Anyhow, she puts together a space crew, which is neat in and of itself, as the book contains a lot of spaceship-running I hadn't seen before, and then takes off to find out where the language came from and what it really means.

And everything is fine and dandy and wonderful and absorbing, I was having a delightful time, until they explained the workings of Babel-17. It's all Sapir-Whorf, "words have the power to dictate and shape thoughts," horribly out-dated, disproven linguistic theory. Language just doesn't work that way. Humans can and will always have thoughts, regardless of whether they have linguistic terms to describe them. On rare occasions, there have been humans discovered who never acquired language, usually due to severe isolation during childhood. These people have never managed to fully acquire language after being found, even after intensive therapy, but they most certainly have thoughts. Quite sophisticated ones, even though necessarily couched in less than sophisticated terms for communication.

The thing is, no matter how amazing the idea, vocabulary does not shape our thoughts. As Steven Pinker points out in The Language Instinct, Orwell's Newspeak will never exist to control the thoughts of the masses into obedience and passivity. Vocabulary helps us try to transmit our thoughts to other people accurately, yes, but for every human being in all the world, there is inevitably a time when one just cannot find the word one needs. The thought may be represented in our minds by a picture, an aura, a melody, an amorphous feeling, a scent, an indescribable melange of synaestetic sensory input, but whatever the form, it's there, whether there exists a word for it or not. If our vocabularies were limiting our thoughts, would there be a need for metaphor? Poetry? Would people from other places in the world be able to communicate at all, sharing no mental frames of reference for things existing only in one part of the world and not the other? The ironic thing about all this is that the main character, the one who discovers that Babel-17 is controlling her actions when she thinks in it, is a poet, hailed as the voice of her age, the one who can put those amorphous thoughts of all the others into words. She describes the indescribable.

As you can see, though, the objection to this part of the book made me think, so all is well. I still enjoyed the book. Read it, but don't believe it. It's fiction, after all.

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