content by

CD Covington

When Speech Is an Assault: Linguistics and First Contact in Peter Watts’ Blindsight

Peter Watts’ 2006 novel Blindsight is a hard SF take on first contact, and there are, naturally, some linguistic aspects in the mix, here. Language is not the principal focus of the story, as it is in “Story of Your Life”/Arrival, but it’s a sizeable chunk. A group of bleeding-edge augmented humans led by a resurrected vampire is sent to investigate aliens after a massive number of extraterrestrial probes arrived in a coordinated pattern encircling the globe, first surveying the entirety of the planet in a single scan, then burning up on entry. The job of the astronauts onboard the Theseus is to figure out what the aliens want, and to blow them up if they’re hostile. You know, the usual things people do… I’ve focused on the linguistics-related aspects of the book in this article, since that’s what my column is about; the main plot is not my focus, though I will touch on the parts of it that are necessary to get a better sense of how linguistics function in the novel.

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“Law and order were nothing—not even words any longer”: Types of Aphasia and Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds”

The premise of Octavia Butler’s 1983 short story “Speech Sounds,” which won the Hugo for Best Short Story in 1984, is that humanity has lost the ability to use language due to some sort of illness that appeared suddenly three years before the story begins. The effects are described as “stroke-like” and “highly specific,” and language is lost and not regained. This illness can also lead to paralysis, intellectual impairment, memory loss, and death. Society has collapsed into violent chaos, but, for some reason, left-handed people are less affected by the urge for violence. 

People in this setting can still vocalize: they can roar, grunt, and squawk. In linguistics, the term “speech sounds” refers to the sounds that people use to create language, and this is the domain of phoneticians. Speech sounds include the entire range of sounds that can be made with the vocal tract, from bilabial fricatives (as in Spanish haber) to velar stops (/k/ and /g/) to glottal stops (the sound in uh –uh), to implosives, ejectives, and clicks, which are not found in most European languages. The key feature of “speech sounds” is that listeners identify them as speech. Roars, grunts, and squawks aren’t speech sounds—but in this setting, they are the only vocalizations left to (most) people.

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Linguistics in Arrival: Heptapods, Whiteboards, and Nonlinear Time

Arrival is a 2016 movie based on Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life.” Dr. Louise Banks is a linguistics professor, and she is contacted by the army to help translate an alien language when twelve spaceships mysteriously appear above various places on Earth. Interspersed throughout the film are snippets of her life with her daughter.

Linguists around the internet were very excited when this movie came out—finally, a movie about us that gets things (mostly) right! The internet’s favorite linguist, Gretchen McCulloch, collected links to a variety of articles here and did an episode of her podcast, Lingthusiasm, about the movie (transcript here). When Neil deGrasse Tyson made a disparaging remark to the effect that they should have chosen a cryptographer and astrobiologist, rather than a linguist, to talk to the aliens, Language Log posted an open letter from linguists explaining why he’s wrong.

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Good Fiction, Questionable Science: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Hello, and welcome to my new monthly(ish) column about language and linguistics in science fiction and fantasy! My name is Conni (CD) Covington, and I have MAs in both German and linguistics. I wrote my linguistics thesis on the effect of usage frequency on verbal morphology in a subset of German strong verbs (class VII), and my analysis suggests that there is a threshold frequency below which strong (“irregular”) verbs are most likely to become weak (“regular”). Catch me at a con, and I will happily talk your ear off about this! Broadly, I’m interested in how people use language: why a particular group of people uses a particular set of words and what it means to do so; whether it’s snuck or sneaked; what effects the massive increase in global communication allowed by social media is having on languages.

On the SFF end of things, I am a graduate of Viable Paradise 17 (2013), and I’ve had a few short stories published in anthologies. I tend to read or watch space opera-type stuff, like Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, CJ Cherryh’s Alliance-Union and Foreigner series, Yoon-Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, Babylon 5, and The Expanse. I enjoy mecha anime, mainly Gundam and Macross. I haven’t read a lot of fantasy recently, but Lord of the Rings was very formative when I read it the first time, aged 10. That sparked my interest in languages, like it did for a not-insignificant portion of my fellow linguists.

What is this column going to be about? I’ll be taking a look at the ways various authors use language in their works, and, in some cases, how linguists and linguistics are portrayed in fiction and media. I have a running list of works I want to talk about in a notebook—and I’ll take suggestions! Some of these topics will be positive, some will be neutral, and some things just make me want to hit my head against a wall.

[First order of business: Sapir-Whorf and SFF]

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