Language, Warfare, and the Brain as Computer: Babel-17

When Samuel R. Delany wrote Babel-17 in 1965, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was still new(ish) and popular, and the computer-driven Information Age era was dawning. Transhumanism was a popular idea in some circles. All of these aspects of the zeitgeist converge in this Nebula-winning book.

The story stars Rydra Wong, who is a poet and star-shop captain with a “knack” for reading people and for recognizing patterns that developed after being infected by a “neurosciatic plague” as a child. It’s her facility with the latter that led her into cryptography for a period, and it’s because of her experience with cryptography that the military, in the person of General Forester, comes to Wong to decipher a code known as Babel-17, which was recorded at the time of attacks on their military bases. After spending some time looking into Babel-17, she realizes it’s a language, not a code. At this point in the narrative, Delany has Wong explain to Forester the differences between a code, a cipher, and a language. A language, she says, has “its own internal logic, its own grammar, its own way of putting thoughts together with words that span various spectra of meaning.” She explains that, unlike a code or cipher, you can’t just unlock a language once you’ve found the key. She asks if his team of cryptographers have made any progress with the grammar; naturally, they haven’t, because, while they know a lot about codes, “they know nothing of the nature of language.” When I was reading this, it reminded me of the beginning of Arrival—and it’s entirely possible that this novel was an influence on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” on which the movie was based. And, as discussed in that earlier column, this explanation is true (with caveats, of course).

Wong doesn’t get to employ any field methods to learn more about the language or its users, but she demands that Forester give her the actual tapes on which the recorded language can be heard, because he’d never told her before that the transcript she’d initially been given was a dialogue. She wants to make her own transcription so that she can listen for sounds that are phonemes versus allophones and make other notes and observations about the text that the military didn’t catch and wouldn’t have considered. A phoneme is a sound that is perceived as different from another sound by speakers of a language. These are often tested in minimal pairs, which are pairs of words that differ in only one phoneme, such as bad and pad, or bed and bid. Because these words don’t refer to the same thing, /b/ and /p/ are separate phonemes, as are /e/ and /i/. An allophone, on the other hand, is part of a group of sounds that represent a single phoneme. For example, the /k/ in cat and kitten is articulated in a different point in each word. In cat, the /k/ is properly velar (the soft palate), because /a/ is a back vowel, but in kitten, it’s palatalized in preparation for the high front vowel /i/. (This is a fun linguistics experiment to try at home! Pay attention to where your tongue is as you say those two words. You can try another one by holding your hand in front of your mouth when you say pit and spit, because /p/ is aspirated [has a puff of air] in pit but not in spit.) So Rydra Wong tries to listen for phonemes and allophones in the recording; presumably she has success, although the reader isn’t privy to her process. If you’re interested, here is an example of phonemic analysis and how to do it. (For the record, I am not a phonetician, nor do I play one on TV.)

The way Wong goes about analyzing the language seems reasonable. She analyzes vocabulary, phonemes, phonetics, and ambiguities in semiotics, semantics, and syntax. The old grammars of dead languages are laid out in that way, so it rings true enough. I’m not sure she could make a dictionary without access to speakers of the language to show you what bat means, so the novel’s veering close to (the very probably impossible) universal translation. She learns Babel-17 well enough to understand where the next attack will be. According to Wong, “most of its words carry more information about the things they refer to than any four or five languages I know put together,” in less space. Interesting, if true, but also unlikely. It’s reminiscent of the analytical invented languages of the Enlightenment, or, more recently, Loglan and Lojban. These tried to make language tidy and specific and remove ambiguity via extreme amounts of classification and organization. It wasn’t exactly successful. (For further reading, In the Land of Invented Languages is an interesting book about the history of invented languages from Hildegard of Bingen’s Lingua Ignota to Klingon and Dothraki.)

Delany’s narrative veers slightly into linguistic relativism—which was popular when the book was written. Wong tells Forester, “Most textbooks say language is a mechanism for expressing thought. But language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language.” This reads like a discussion question for a Philosophy of Language class, so I’m not sure there’s a right answer to “what is language?” Then Wong takes it further, later in the text, when she wonders “if there’s no word for it, how do you think of it?” She wants to know “what kind of mind can talk like that language talks?” The Butcher, a former convict on the spaceship that rescues Wong’s ship when it runs into trouble, can’t say “you” or “I,” and Wong works to unravel that mystery, as well as teaching him those words—and it’s through this process, along with her latent telepathy, that she realizes that Babel-17 is a programming language that runs on human brain hardware, programming “a self-contained schizoid personality into the mind of whoever learns it.” That’s why it’s a “flexible matrix of analytical possibilities where the same ‘word’ defines the stresses in a webbing of medical bandage, or a defensive grid of spaceships,” where the words “defined a concept of exactingly necessary expedient curiosity that became in any other language a clumsy string of polysyllables.”

Babel-17 literally alters the way its speakers think, by altering their neural pathways. Through manipulating the vocabulary, the programmers can manipulate the way people think and, by extension, what they do. This represents a highly interesting (and possibly unique) application of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and along the way, Delany tidily explains a lot of the questions I had while reading about, for example, the information density of individual words.

All in all, I thought it was an interesting (if implausible) concept, executed well. Computers were new, and programming them was cool. People started talking about brains as if they were computers; starting in the early 1960s, Noam Chomsky popularized his theory of syntax and universal grammar, where people were born with the facility for language programmed into their brains and all we had to do was be exposed to it and all the right switches would then be set for whatever language our parents spoke to us. And of course, Sapir-Whorf was trendy. Put all three of these things together, and you get Babel-17.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book, and on the way Delany incorporates language into the story, in the comments!

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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