The Signifier and the Signified: Semiotics and China Miéville’s Embassytown

China Miéville’s 2011 novel Embassytown was nominated for the Hugo in 2012. That was the first year I went to a WorldCon and was able to vote, so I carefully read the nominees and formed my opinions and placed my votes. I admit that at the time, I bounced really hard off this book around page 50, because the writing style is not really my cup of tea. Neither was the premise: that the insectoid natives of Avice’s home planet, called either Hosts or Ariekei, can only speak the truth, because their words can only refer to a real thing. (This is yet another instance of the dreaded Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in action.) Having read it fully, now, I still don’t care much for the linguistic-based premise—even if the way it’s used in the end of the book is kind of cool.

The novel’s opening epigraph is a citation from Walter Benjamin: “The word must communicate something (other than itself).” Benjamin was a German-Jewish philosopher and literary critic, whose 1923 piece “The Task of the Translator” is still used in translation theory today. This quotation probably refers to the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who pioneered the field of semiotics in the late 19th century.

Saussure defined the sign as anything that communicates a meaning that is not the sign itself to the interpreter of the sign. The form of the sign is the signifier, and this could be a spoken or written word, a gesture, or a symbol. The meaning of the sign is the signified. A key concept of Saussure’s writing was the arbitrariness of the sign: that is, there isn’t something inherent about the phonemes that make up the word “pencil” that represent a typically-wooden stick with a graphite core which people use to write or draw.

When a person uses a word, that word can refer to a specific thing (which we usually designate in English through the use of a definite article or a demonstrative pronoun) or to a general concept of said thing. The word is the signifier, and the thing is the signified. “Pencil” is the signifier that refers to the signified “wooden stick with graphite inside that we use to write.” But I can say “the pencil” or “that pencil” or “my pencil” to refer to a specific writing implement. English speakers understand the difference between “can you give me that pencil?” and “can you give me a pencil?” where the former is asking for a specific pencil, and the latter for any pencil. (Not all languages have articles—Slavic languages, for example—but most have demonstratives like “this” or “that.” It is generally agreed that definite articles evolved (grammaticalized) from demonstratives.)

Saussure also conceptualized langue, the abstract systematic rules and principles of a signifying system (language), and parôle, the specific instances of use of langue, which were as varied as the number of individual speakers. Miéville makes reference to this on page 31 (in the 2011 hardback edition), when discussing the immer, the “always,” a sort of warp space: “The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is the langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on.” I thought it was clever that he used the German words immer and manchmal to represent these concepts, though I was perplexed at his choice of (new) Bremen for the imperial center. If a bunch of exile Germans had to come up with a name for their new home city/planet, they’d be more likely to go for, like, Munich or Berlin. Or Frankfurt. Anyway.

The Ariekei do not abide by Saussurean semiotics. For them, the signifier is literally the signified. This is why they have humans become similes by acting out an event, which they then incorporate into their language. Avice, the narrator, becomes “the girl who ate what was given to her.” Later she meets other similes, like “the boy who was opened up and closed again” and “the boy who swims with the fish every week.” The Ariekei also cannot conceive of the existence of other languages, because they cannot conceive of the arbitrariness of the sign. For them, the sounds aren’t where the meaning lives, and words are a literal representative of the thing the speaker refers to and the hearer hears, and their Language (always referred to with a capital letter) requires a mind with an intent behind it to be understood. The Ariekei hear human speech as no more than noise, because they cannot conceive of another language, or that humans have minds to be understood. That is, without the signified, the signifier is only noise.

Another feature of Ariekei language is that it requires two mouths, two voices, to be spoken properly. And these two voices must come from the same person. The residents of Embassytown create the Ambassadors, clone twins who are raised to be and think alike and have technology to link their minds, to speak Language to the Hosts. This whole system goes straight to hell when the new Ambassador, sent from Bremen, speaks to them, and they become addicted to the thrilling sensation of contradictions in EzRa’s voice.

There are regular Festivals of Lies, in which Ariekei attempt to say things that are untrue, which started after the humans arrived. The Ambassadors go first and have no problems lying. But the Hosts don’t have much luck, except the one Avice calls Beehive, who is the leader of a rebellious faction that wants to learn to lie. Avice is invited to meetings of other people who are similes, and Beehive and a group of its friends come to these regularly. They try to say contradictory things using the similes, with varying amounts of success.

The climax of the book centers around a group of Hosts who cut off the wings that act as their ears in order to break their addiction to lies. They then become violent and nearly feral, attacking and killing addicted Ariekei, or cutting off their wings. Because the Ariekei believe that having language means having sentience and being able to think, by cutting off their wings and losing their ability to hear, they lose their ability to speak and think, as well.

Avice has a plan to teach the liars’ club how to actually lie, to change their brains and cognition so that they can hear the voice-drug and not be affected. It works, and Spanish Dancer, one of Beehive’s compatriots, uses its voice to teach other Hosts to lie. It works on some but not on others.

The ones who cut off their wings invent gestures and an ideogram-based writing system. Avice sees two captive Languageless communicate through gesture just before attacking their guard, and she has the insight that these Ariekei have learned to separate the signifier from the signified. Spanish Dancer learns this language after it learns how to lie.

There’s clearly a lot going on here with language, which isn’t surprising given the premise of the book. First, there’s the idea that Language has to come from two mouths. That’s a neat concept, and cool for aliens, but not terribly likely for humans: we only have one mouth, after all. The closest thing we have is throat-singing, which doesn’t involve two separate words but rather two notes. Second, there’s the whole non-Saussurean lack-of-semiotics. Among humans, this is implausible (see the above discussion of pencils). Third, the notion that the lack of semiotics leads to the inability to lie. That seems plausible under the rules set up by Miéville in this book, because the Hosts can only refer to things that already exist. Among humans, however, this is not plausible, because we can refer to things that do not exist. Fourth, the premise that learning a different language, learning semiotics, literally changes the brain’s cognition. Again, under the rules set out in the book for the aliens, fine; it’s speculative fiction. In the real world, no. There is a lot of talk in the popular media about the benefits of bilingualism and how it may make you think differently, but this 2017 psychology study only suggests that the effort of using a second language lets you use your rational brain in order to overcome the instinctive decisions made in your native language.

One inconsistency, however, is that the Ariekei can wish for things. They wanted Avice to perform a simile so that they could speak her and refer to this thing that she did, because it did not yet exist and they wanted it to. In Germanic languages (and probably others, but I am not a scholar of them), wishes are inherently counterfactual. They’re expressed using the subjunctive mood, which is used for non-factual statements, although that’s dying out in English (which makes it really difficult to teach German subjunctive to my undergrads, let me tell you.) “I wish you could see this,” or “I wish you were here”: these represent things that are not fact. You cannot see this; you are not here. It is possible that you could be here or see this, but you are not. It is not true.

So if the Ariekei cannot express things that are not real or factual, and if their words signify the literal thing they represent, they should not be able to express wishes or desires, or innovate the story’s biorigging (which, sorry, was way too body-horror for me to think too much about), or anything like that. They should be even worse at metaphor than Drax the Destroyer, because they should be perfectly literal all the time. Being able to express a wish should be as impossible as lying, because what is being wished for is not true. Not yet, anyway. Or at least that’s how I see it; I should note that my beta reader for this article disagreed.

In summary, the linguistic world building regarding the Ariekei follows its own rules about 75% of the time, and it refers to some real linguistic concepts, but overall, I found it frustrating, because (human) language doesn’t work that way. And I couldn’t suspend my disbelief long enough to say, “well, they’re aliens, so I guess it’s okay…” The point of the novel was to speculate about a language without any semiotics at all and what effects that would have on its speakers, and what would occur if they learned how to lie, so in that respect, it succeeded. As a reader and a linguist, however, I was not satisfied with the thought experiment.

CD Covington has masters degrees in German and Linguistics, likes science fiction and roller derby, and misses having a cat. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise 17 and has published short stories in anthologies, most recently the story “Debridement” in Survivor, edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and J.J. Pionke.

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