Expressing Culture Through Language in A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire, the 2019 debut novel from Arkady Martine, is a current Nebula nominee, and it reminds me very strongly of Cherryh’s Foreigner by way of Ancillary Justice. A young woman named Mahit Dzmare is summoned from her home, Lsel Station, to the home planet of the Teixcalaanli Empire to be the new ambassador. Her people have a prosthetic memory device, called an imago-device, which is used to preserve knowledge over multiple generations, and the one from the current ambassador hasn’t been updated in fifteen years, because he hasn’t been able to leave Teixcalaan in that long. When Mahit gets there, she learns that her predecessor is dead, and she spends the next several months figuring out how and why. But first, she has to find someone to help her learn all the things her predecessor had learned and figured out since his last update, as well as improving her ability to speak Teixcalaanli. She’ll also have to do her best to not wind up dead along with him.

Martine has a keen understanding of the formal aspects of linguistics, like morphology and phonology, as well as sociocultural aspects of language. She has spent a lot of time studying various languages, and this shows in her linguistic worldbuilding.

She has developed a thorough phonetic system for Teixcalaanli as well as basic morphology. The name of the city where the empire is based is Teixcalaan; the adjectival form is Teixcalaanli; the people who live there are the Teixcalaanlitzlim. The phonology is reminiscent of Mesoamerican, bringing to mind Quetzalcoatl, axolotls, and Tlaloc. (The /tl/ cluster occurs frequently in Teixcalaanli.) Teixcalaanli phonology is different from Lsel’s. Lsel’s sounded vaguely Eastern European to me, with names like Yskander Aghavn and Mahit Dzmare, until I flipped to the back of the book and found the glossary and pronunciation key, which noted that it was most similar to Modern Eastern Armenian. Martine also provides IPA symbols for the sounds used in Teixcalaanli, which is vowel-heavy and low on consonants. The two languages look and sound different, and each of them follows its own set of rules. The name of the sector in space where Lsel is located, for example, is “Bardzravand,” which is pronounced “Parzrawantlak” in Teixcalaanli.

Martine has also thoroughly developed naming conventions for Teixcalaan. Naming conventions are culture that is expressed through language. Teixcalaanlitzlim have two names: a number and a noun. When Mahit meets her cultural liaison Three Seagrass, she notes that plant names are usually flowers, so this is unusual and interesting. After telling a story about a man who gained citizenship and took the name Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle, Three Seagrass says that “nice names are plants and flowers and natural phenomena. And not so many syllables.” The people of Lsel have two names, first and last, and Mahit doesn’t tell us the whys and wherefores of Lsel naming conventions.

The most subtle aspect of the novel’s linguistic worldbuilding is sociocultural. Mahit is a student of Teixcalaanli culture. She has studied their language since she was small, and she has spent hours reading histories and poetry and memorizing it all for the Imperial Exams. Her deepest desire as a teenager was to get a visa to study in the City and live there, immersed in the language and culture. When she arrives there, finally able to use the language she’s studied for decades, she comments on various aspects of the grammar itself: making sure to use the right politeness forms, making note of what politeness forms people used with her, noticing the use of a particularly archaic construction which she assumes is an idiom. (This is a real phenomenon, and I have citations about the persistence of archaisms in fixed phrases/idioms that I used in my thesis.) At one point, Mahit comments on a verb that Three Seagrass used to tell Nineteen Adze that she was in terror of her which is also used in poetry to mean “in awe.” If I didn’t already know that Martine had studied dead languages (and some living ones) extensively, this would have given me a big clue about her expertise…

Mahit comments on the ability of language to include and exclude, by the virtue of being able to use and recognize allusions and the right connotations. She expresses the sheer feeling of isolation one has when one is unable to communicate effectively with those around them, or to participate fully in their culture. When she thinks about a particular poet’s description of her home system, she remembers thinking, as a teenager, that she finally had words for how she felt, and they weren’t even in her own language. This doesn’t trip my “augh linguistic relativity” switch, because a) it’s the type of thing a teenager would think and b) poetry is better able to express a lot of things than prose, regardless of language. I’ve been known to find poetry better in German than in its English translation, so it makes sense that Mahit would have felt that way about this particular poetic description.

Have you read A Memory Called Empire? What did you think about the linguistic aspects (if you noticed them)? What about the book in general? This is one of the few books I read last summer that I didn’t choose specifically because of this column, but because I was interested in it the world and the story. Of course, I also expected there to be several things to comment on, because Martine was in my Viable Paradise class, and I have been in awe/terror of her intelligence for the last 6.5 years.

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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