@Ben #13 - it's on my list! I'm working on getting a copy through my library.
The "why" for EzRa is hinted at in the book, but I don't think it's outright confirmed: the government wants to get more control of their planet, which means providing the ambassadors themselves, rather than letting them grow naturally. Or that was my takeaway from it. The "how" involved brain augmentation or something, and one of them was a great con man/cold reader.
(I didn't mention the whole "they cannot pronounce the other half of the name" when one of the ambassadors dies thing, and how that just ... well, it was a large part of the reason I quit reading it back in 2012.)
@dptullos/15 - To be fair, I was focusing exclusively on the linguistics-adjacent ideas, not doing lit crit or a plot summary - but I do agree that the plot serves mainly as a vehicle for "Look At These Cool Ideas!"
@Carl - thank you! TIL! I am defo not a neurologist ;) I learned about Broca's and Wernicke's in relationship to strokes when I was in pharmacy school (some pathophys or other), but we didn't go very deep into neurology, for obvious reasons.
@ Jana - I liked Hoshi well enough, and the alien doctor was fun. I had to google to find out that Porthos was the dog, and that's fair, dogs are cute :D
@94, 96 - There was definitely a scene like that in B5, because I haven't seen Crusade. I want to say it was season 2, maybe early season 3, because it was Sheridan and Ivanova, and it was before all the plot started happening all the time. There were new aliens, and they had a big translation matrix to upload to B5, whose computers had to process it for their translator systems, and it was going to take another 4 hours, or something. Maybe these aliens had had contact with the Minbari, so there was already some sort of structure in place they could base translations around, so it wasn't their computers just trying to figure each other's languages out. I dunno. Probably still not very plausible, but there was a veneer of trying to make it not look like magic.
Re Hoshi - in the dozen or so episodes I watched, there was an attempt to depict some of the painful learning process on occasion, or showing the UT still learning and not being perfect. I'd expect that, especially in humanity's first forays into the black (since the Vulcans weren't sharing info). But there was just so much "OMG NO WTF WHY" that I stopped watching. (Well, also I hated half the characters and didn't care about the rest, so...)
Re UT in general - without it, there's no "alien civilization of the week" TV show, so it's a necessary evil. You can get more deeply into the perils of first contact and alien languages in novels, of course. But even with UT, make the handwavium plausible enough that it doesn't make people hit pause and yell about the nonsense. (I assume this is what physicists feel like a lot of the time. I know this is what medical types feel like when watching House or other hospital dramas.)
@sunspear/76 haha yeah, that sounds accurate :D
I'd never watched B5 before, and it was so good. I mean, yeah, it was totally 90s, and the Zima-sponsored episode sure was a thing that happened, but yeah. The politics were a bit too real.
And I liked the way they talked about languages, and their translator machines actually required data to work, and the computer took time to process it.
@74 - I only made it halfway through the first season of Enterprise before I decided to watch something else (Babylon 5), and I was initially cautiously optimistic about Hoshi. And then they had her say "I can almost hear the syntax" and I wanted to throw my tablet across the room.
Hopdavid, there seems to be nothing that I or anyone else in this thread can say that will convince you, so I am not going to attempt to do so any further.
Linear B. https://www.omniglot.com/writing/linearb.htm (Though technically it's just a form of ancient Greek.)
@45 - whoops, my bad. I'm not a big history buff, so I should probably have googled it.
Other people have commented on Hop's question as well as I can; I'm not sure where the disconnect is, except maybe birgit @48 hits on it: Cryptography is about the symbols, linguistics is about the language.
Besides, if it were just that easy to decipher unknown languages using cryptographic techniques, Linear A and the Voynich manuscript would be solved by now. Plus, two of the people who broke the PURPLE code in WW2 were unable to use their cryptanalytic techniques to decipher Mayan writing.
@23 - The argument is explained well in the Language Log post and its comments, but here's a summary: A cryptographer or cryptanalyst works with known languages that are encoded in a way to hide what they're saying. The language and the cryptographic system must be known to both parties (encoder and decoder). This is why code talkers were so effective in WW2: Navajo was completely unknown to the Germans.
A linguist works with a language they don't know in order to describe it. German isn't an encryption of English; neither is Xhosa or Russian or Tagalog. They're languages with their own sets of vocabulary and rules. Linguists who do field work have techniques to elicit basic vocabulary and sentences (My name is Sarah, this is a dog, I like to eat apples), then build up to more and more complex vocabulary and sentences.
@21 - I didn't know that. That's cool!
@2/CLB I can respect that :) When I rewatched it for this post, I reminded myself of the plot points and the time aspects and all that at the beginning, preparing myself to be critical, then I got caught up in the emotional beats of the story, which is probably why the big premise being whack didn't bother me.
@3 - Being able to think in a foreign language is a crucial part of becoming fluent (I am also a college language teacher), but it doesn't make me German to be able to do so. I'm guessing the "rewiring" they talk about in the movie relates to Chomsky's Universal Grammar/X-bar/minimalist syntax, which has to choose different parameter settings for different languages. (I am not a syntactician, and I am not a fan of generative syntax to begin with, but that's a completely different blog post. And a huge controversy in linguistics, tbh.)
@5 - I read the short story to compare it to the movie, and the detail on the field work was even better. I didn't want to be repetitive, though, so I didn't include it here. The story was different in some pretty significant ways, and I think they both worked for their medium. The ending in the story would have been confusing and unsatisfying in a movie, and the movie was perhaps too pat for prose.
@7 - I don't disagree! The point of this was to give my opinion on whether the execution of the what-if part could overcome my natural skepticism toward the premise, and it did. That, and to point out all the things it did right re field work and what popular conceptions of linguists.
@9 - I think that's why I was able to set aside my skepticism. The emotional beats landed right.
@141 - That also makes sense, and is probably more accurate!
This video about a Mayan language (which is tenseless - and according to strong S-W would mean that they can't conceive of time) was in my youtube recommendations today. (Spoiler: they use aspect and mood to demarcate times.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttq0S4cuIHA
@136 CLB - that worked, thanks for the suggestion! I thought maybe it was a browser extension doing weird/annoying things, since I couldn't get it to load on my phone or tablet, either, but clearing the cache worked.
Hello all, for some reason, my computer isn't showing me any comments unless I open an incognito window, so I have gotten far behind on the comments :(
A general note - I am not a devotee of Chomsky by any means. His universal grammar is a useful model, but I don't think that's how the brain literally works. I will change my mind if a neuroscientist can prove it, but, well. Ethics and all.
Note the second: the books I read are dependent upon what I can get from my libraries. Fortunately, Georgia has a network of libraries that do ILL to each other, and I have access to a university library.
@85 - I have just opened your Tamarian grammar page, and I will be looking at it eagerly! Also, please look forward to my July column, which will be on Arrival. AND I really want to write about cursing (and worldbuilding through it and slang) at some point, because it is a really cool topic.
@90 - there is a very common popular notion that multilingualism makes you think differently and that sort of thing; it is extremely questionable in reality.
@94 - I'm sorry you feel that way. This is the first post in what is going to be an ongoing column, in which I will be discussing a variety of linguistics-oriented SFF. It's not an academic paper, nor do I have the available word count to write a 10-15-page paper with references. I did link, however, to posts by prominent linguists. Embassytown is on the schedule for September, and I have my article drafted. (Gotta get ahead while I still have time to read before the semester starts and I have 3 classes to teach.)
@105 - Interesting! I don't follow her twitter account, so I didn't see that tweet. The link I see is that Breq is incapable of telling whether people are male or female because their language doesn't use gendered pronouns. If that's not what she intended with that idea, it's the one that came across to me. It's true that people whose native languages don't use gendered pronouns have trouble using he and she appropriately in English, but they can say "man" and "woman."
*apologies for the extremely binary nature of this; languages are annoying.
@108 - thank you, yes, that's what I was saying :)
@112 - A lot of research into creoles looks at word order (with SVO being the most common because it's "easiest", but you could also argue that SOV is just as easy). I don't know about this particular study, but it sounds interesting.
@118 - Aha! Yes, that makes sense. And thanks for the link!
@127 - I remember reading about general exposure to nouns vs verbs in infancy/toddlerhood varying in different languages in my language acquisition class. I think English was heavy on the nouns, in part because caregivers emphasize them ("Oh, do you want the doggy? Here's the doggy!" with stress on the doggy). (So put me in the "not convinced/need way more evidence" camp.)
@61 - the summary by @66 is my thinking. There is no evidence that language can shape cognition (although Piaget's model of language acquisition follows the stages of cognitive development - which is discussed in Tomasello 1996 (https://www.karger.com/article/pdf/278478; behind a paywall). I'm not different when I speak German than when I speak English; I don't think about things differently in each language. Different words have different connotations, of course, like cherry tree in the US, aside from "pretty flowers" and maybe "Japan," is associated with George Washington, while in Germany, a Kirschbaum has fruit that's sweeter in the neighbor's yard (rather than grass being greener), and some people aren't good to eat cherries with. (I love idioms.)
The argument that language shapes the way you think because you can't conceive of something unless you have a word for it ... that's Aquinas' reasoning for why god exists: humans can conceive of something greater than themselves, therefore god exists. (NB: I learned about Aquinas in a class I took around 1995. This may be a pithy oversimplification. A review of wikipedia suggest that this was college-me's takeaway of the Tertia Via.)
There's also the aspect that a lot of use of S-W (especially the original "studies" of the time system in Hopi, which, turns out, is actually very wrong) gives off an air of "studying the noble savages who think so differently from us, isn't that just charming/quaint/hilarious," and it doesn't sit well with me. Perhaps this has gotten better in recent years (a lot of early linguists & philologists were pretty damn colonialist and patronizing, not to mention sexist, and some still are, but the field by and large has progressed a great deal).
Anyway. Society shapes culture. Culture reifies society. Language supports both society and culture. Teasing these threads apart is probably impossible. The guy who invented Loglan tried, but, well.
@49 - *nod* The cognitive hurdles are definitely something to take into consideration for new concepts. Weak Sapir-Whorf might be real. We just don't have a good way to tease apart the threads of language and culture.
One thing I think is really fun about English is contrastive focus reduplication. The most famous paper on this is called "the salad-salad paper," and you can read it here. Basically, English speakers have a way to distinguish between the prototypical X and a specialized X, like "Are you bringing a salad-salad or a potato salad?" or "do you LIKE HIM like him?" It's really neat. When languages have reduplication, it's often used for emphasis, but also plural marking (like in Japanese). I am not expert enough in world languages to say whether English is unique in using it for contrastive focus.
And a side note - I'm not going to be focusing exclusively on Sapir-Whorf in this series, but since it comes up a lot, I thought I'd start with a brief intro on that. Swears to evade the censors (frak, frell) and fannish slang are on my radar, too, along with universal translation and general depictions of linguist(ic)s in SF. When I have time to re-read it, the Foreigner series is definitely something I want to talk about, and I'm planning to look at Belter creole in the Expanse.
My current list will get me well into 2 years at this point :D
@32 - I have, and I've used it in class :D (In the chapter where students learn about occupations and majors, because it's funny and it hurts their brains.)
@39 - That's already on my list! It's available through my local library system *and* at the university library, even. (The tricky part about a lot of this column is going to be getting my hands on some of the more obscure and older titles.)
@20 - that is a question I don't have an answer for! I don't think anyone does. People argue against Koko having truly acquired language because she seemed to mimic other people's reactions to things. I am definitely not an expert on Koko! There are probably people arguing one side or the other around the internet. Language acquisition isn't my specialty, though I've had a class in it.
back to @21 and Tolkien: I am definitely not an expert in Tolkienian languages, though I sat in on a 3-week intensive about them. The way he designed the Feanorian tengwar was 10000% the way a linguist would do it (and he did the same thing with the runic scripts). And if you look at European (Latin-based) scripts, there's very little rhyme or reason to most of the letters. Sure, ok, B is a P with an extra bump, but the lowercase versions are flipped over, and then you have d... Basically, he did it for the #aesthetic.
On to the problem of language change among elves. Tolkien knew this would present a problem and an inconsistency, so he wrote an essay called "Dangweth Pengolod" to address it. It's published in The Peoples of Middle Earth. It's difficult to summarize, because it's written in the voice of an elf and is very ... florid, shall we say. It has to do with memory, basically? But also the elves did it consciously to choose new sounds that were more #aesthetic.
@11 - Do you have any examples in books? I also think that would be interesting, but I'm blanking on examples.
@13 - The Germanic root that led to town in English, tuin in Dutch and Zaun in German is neat, because it originally meant fence, enclosure. In English, it became the thing that is enclosed, in Dutch a fenced-in area (garden), and in German it's still the fence. (I think etymology is pretty neat.)
@17 - I'm mostly thinking of the pronoun situation in AJ. It is slightly parallel to real-world languages without gendered pronouns (which leads to people saying "my uncle" and "she"), but in the real world, people still have a distinction between male and female relatives, for example, like mother or father. It's been a while since I read it, but that definitely tripped my "I don't think it would work that way, but I could potentially be convinced" switch.
@21, 27 - The short version of verb classes is approximately this: Historically speaking, strong verbs (the ones who take an -en in the participle) followed a CVC pattern in their root, which changed in each principal part (present, past singular, past plural, participle). What the consonants and vowels were determines which verb class they fell into. This, of course, became extremely messy over time, where the nice, tidy categories of Old High German get muddled by Middle High, and in modern German, it's even worse.
The class I verbs are eg reiten - ritt - geritten, treiben - trieb - getrieben. Class II includes bieten - bot - geboten. Class III is the singen - sang - gesungen group, and IV is nehmen - nahm - genommen. V is geben - gab - gegeben (but also weben - wob - gewoben - that's one of the messy parts).
Classes VI and VII are unique to the Germanic languages. Class VI is the fahren - fuhr - gefahren group. Class VII used to form its past tense through reduplication, which is evident in Gothic haitan - haihait - haitans. But reduplication fell out of use in the other Germanic languages, and class VII created its own, new pattern of vowel change, such as heißen - hieß - geheißen, lassen - ließ - gelassen.
I hope this helps (and it's a very superficial overview). The wikipedia article "Germanic strong verb" is quite good and very detailed, if you're interested in a deeper explanation.
@23 - I really want to play with Darmok and Jalad. I love that episode. Idioms are a fascinating subject, and they're so weird. They don't stand up to literal translation for the most part, and sometimes that can lead to humor. I wrote a paper one semester on bilingual German-English humor on the internet (tumblr, specifically), and how much of it is related to overly literal translations of things for the lulz.
@1 - Thanks! I admit that computer was an off-the-cuff example. But there still had to be a shift from the concept as person who computes to a machine that computes.
@3 - There's not really a difference in whether a language expresses something in 5 words vs 2. Take German for example: the one thing everyone knows about German is that you can smash words together into a frankenword, which then takes several words, or even a sentence, in English. It's more efficient, perhaps, but it doesn't say anything inherent about the culture it comes from. (Think "40 words for snow.")
@everyone leaving their favorite linguistic SF books, thank you! I have a list, but I'm always looking for more.
@10 - I remember reading about that and thinking it was cool, but I don't have any details on them. Natural languages do SO MANY cool things!
I just watched B5 for the first time (20 years late to the party). I'd already heard most of the major plot points and spoilers and the like, because pretty much everyone I know loves it (and they were entertained by my periodic live tweeting). Plus, you know, tumblr gifsets.
As far as the politics goes, watching the rise of a fascist, xenophobic regime from my couch in the US in 2019 was not a particularly comfortable experience. A lot of it felt all too real and plausible.
The CGI and sets were painfully 90s, like BabCom ran on Windows 3.1 (or 95 at the latest). That isn't necessarily a bad thing - I was in HS and college in the 90s and have a lot of nostalgia for some of it, though the episode sponsored by Zima sure is a thing that exists... A lot of the acting, especially in S1, was extreme amateur hour, mostly the visitor-of-the-week plots, but there was enough substance overall to keep me entertained. Then the plot kicked into gear and wooo boy.
Anyway, I enjoyed it and would watch it again.
I've heard so many good things, but I've never read these.