Thursday January 13, 2005

The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance

[This is one of an ongoing series of posts about linguistics in science fiction.  Fair warning: I'm going to spoil the ending (and the beginning, and the middle).]

Among the science fiction stories containing linguistic ideas, perhaps the best-known is Jack Vance’s 1958 novel The Languages of Pao.  Unlike some other stories I’ve written about in which the linguistics is secondary, The Languages of Pao is first and foremost about a particular idea from linguistic theory—it’s a novel-length exploration of a particularly strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (hereafter SWH), the idea that our patterns of thought are affected by the features of the language we speak.  As far as I can tell, most linguists don't believe this hypothesis (at least not in its strong form), but it makes for an interesting speculative starting point for a science fiction novel.

In the first chapter of the novel, Vance immediately focuses on the language spoken on the planet Pao, even before any characters are introduced:

The language of Pao was derived from Waydalic, but molded into peculiar forms.  The Paonese sentence did not so much describe an act as it presented a picture of a situation.  There were no verbs, no adjectives; no formal word comparison such as good, better, best.  The typical Paonese saw himself as a cork on a sea of a million waves, lofted, lowered, thrust aside by incomprehensible forces—if he thought of himself as a discrete personality at all.  He held his ruler in awe, gave unquestioning obedience, for on Pao nothing must vary, nothing must change.  (p. 3)

Later, we are introduced to the major characters: Aiello, Panarch of Pao; Beran, his nine-year-old son and Medallion (heir apparent); Bustamonte, Aiello's brother, who hold the title of Ayudor; and Palafox, a mysterious and powerful visitor from the planet Breakness.  Aiello is engaged in some diplomatic wrangling with a representative of the trading planet Mercantil, and Vance describes their respective languages.  Already, we can see his conception of the SWH at work:

The Paonese and Mercantil languages were as disparate as the two ways of living.  The Panarch, making the statement, "There are two matters I wish to discuss with you," used words which, accurately rendered, would read: "Statement-of-importance (a single word in Paonese)—in a state of readiness—two; ear—of Mercantil—in a state of readiness; mouth—or this person here—in a state of volition."  The italicized words represent suffixes of condition.1

The necessary paraphrasing makes the way of speaking seem cumbersome.  But the Paonese sentence, "Rhomel-en-shrai bogal-Mercantil-nli-en mous-es-nli-ro," requires only three more phonemes than, "There are two matters I wish to discuss with you."

The Mercantil express themselves in neat quanta of precise information.  "I am at your orders, sir."  Literally translated this is: "I—Ambassador—here-now gladly-obey the just spoken orders of-you—Supreme Royalty—here-now heard and understood."  (pp. 10-11, footnote)

As Vance imagines them, the people of Pao and Mercantil not only have different cultures and different ways of thinking; they necessarily think differently because they speak such radically different languages.

Soon after this exchange, Bustamonte arranges via hypnotic compulsion for Beran to poison his father Aiello.  Afterward, when it becomes clear that Bustamonte is going to claim that Beran was also injured in the attack and secretly do away with him too, Palafox intervenes and whisks Beran away to Breakness.  Vance tells us that, "[o]n Breakness, status was based on a quality best described as the forcible imprinting of self upon the future,” (p. 66) and he's not kidding.  The inhabitants are constantly hatching complex schemes, breeding sons, and maneuvering for their own advantage.

After Beran's arrival, his first task is to learn the language of Breakness.  His instructor Fanchiel, one of Palafox's hundreds of sons, tells him, "In the College of Comparative Culture—where Lord Palafox is Dominie—you will study the races of the universe, their similarities and differences, their languages and basic urges, the specific symbols by which you can influence them." (p. 68)  When Beran asks why he can’t speak Paonese, Fanchiel replies:

"You will be required to learn a great deal that you could not understand if I taught Paonese."

"I understand you now," muttered Beran.

"Because we are discussing the most general ideas.  Each language is a special tool with a particular capability.  It is more than a means of communication, it is a system of thought.  Do you understand what I mean?"

Fanchiel found his answer in Beran’s expression.

"Think of a language as the contour of a watershed, stopping flow in certain directions,  channeling it into others.  Language controls the mechanism  of your mind.   When people speak different languages, their minds work differently and they act differently." (p. 70)

Vance is expressing what's known as the strong version of the SWH, in which humans are only able to think in terms of the language they speak—if their language cannot formulate some concept, then they cannot think it.

Beran, as required, settles into his study of the language of Breakness:

The first two years Beran lived in the house of Palafox, and much of his energy was given to learning the language.  His natural preconceptions regarding the function of speech were useless, for the language of Breakness was different from Paonese in many significant respects.  Paonese was of that type known as "polysynthetic," with root words taking on prefix, affixes and postpositions to extend their meaning.  The language of Breakness was basically "isolative," but unique in that it derived entirely from the speaker: that is to say, the speaker was the frame of reference upon which the syntax depended, a system which made for both logical elegance and simplicity.  Since Self was the implicit basis of expression, the pronoun "I" was unnecessary.  Other personal pronouns were likewise non-existent, except for third person constructions—although these actually were contractions of noun phrases.

The language included no negativity; instead there were numerous polarities such as "go" and "stay."  There was no passive voice—every verbal idea was self-contained: "to strike," "to receive-impact."  The language was rich in words for intellectual manipulation, but almost totally deficient in descriptives of various emotional states.  Even if a Breakness dominie chose to break his solipsistic shell and reveal his mood, he would be forced to the use of clumsy circumlocutions.

Such common Paonese concepts as "anger," "joy," "love," "grief," were absent from the Breakness vocabulary.  On the other hand, there were words to define a hundred different types of ratiocination, subtleties unknown to the Paonese—distinctions which baffled Beran so completely that at times his entire stasis, the solidity of his ego, seemed threatened.  Week after week Fanchiel explained, illustrated, paraphrased; little by little Beran assimilated the unfamiliar mode of thought—and, simultaneously, the Breakness approach to existence.  (pp. 91-93)

After some years of study, Beran has begun to formulate his own plans, and decides that he wants to return to Pao and get revenge on Bustamonte.  He discovers that Palafox, ever the man of Breakness, has not been helping him out of charity, but instead has plans of his own for Pao.  He points out that Beran doesn't have a plan or any resources with which he can depose Bustamonte, and refuses to help him.  Beran runs away and hides among the large groups of Paonese who have been, mysteriously, arriving on Breakness.  He discovers that in the eight years he has been away, Palafox has been engaged in large-scale social engineering on Pao—Paonese "linguists" (my peeps!) are shipped to Breakness and trained as cadres to teach groups of Paonese back home three new languages called Valiant, Technicant, and Cogitant.  These groups are set up in enclaves back on Pao (which Bustamonte has been convinced is in his interest).  The structures of the languages are designed instill the mindsets necessary for the soldiers (Valiant), technicians (Technicant), and scientists (Cogitant) that Pao lacks.

Eventually, Beran returns to Pao, and is able to disrupt Palafox's plans, depose Bustamonte, and return to power.  It turns out that the Paonese linguists have created a new langauge among themselves they call Pastiche out of parts of Paonese, Valiant, Technicant, and Cogitant, which allows greater flexibility of thinking that Palafox had intended.  Power struggles and political maneuvering ensue, eventually pitting Beran against Palafox.  After Palafox's defeat (after he goes mad, becoming an "Emeritus"—heh), Pao remains divided into antagonistic groups with different languages, and therefore different ways of thinking.  In the end, Beran is able to bring peace to his world by convincing all parties to learn and speak Pastiche—a linguistic solution to a linguistic problem.

Vance has done something with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that I find fascinating: rather than simply understanding it as a theory for describing human languages, he takes it to be a principle for designing human languages intended to produce a particular mentality in their speakers.  He suggests, in other words, that it should be possible to use linguistic science as a basis for a linguistic technology—mental control through language enginnering.  This kind of idea was quite popular in science fiction circles in the 1950's; recall the connection between science fiction and the emergence of [daʲǝnɛtɪks].  It's not an unreasonable conclusion, if the SWH is true—why wouldn't it be possible to constrain the mental processes of people by requiring to learn only a particular constructed language?  Orwell had a similar idea in mind when he described Newspeak, although I think he was more horrified by the idea than Vance seems to be.  In some ways, it's surprising that more linguists have not attempted to develop an applied science based on linguistic theories, although I can think of one linguist who has recently been moving in that direction—but that's another post.

Aside from the linguistic ideas in The Languages of Pao, I also want to mention Vance's prose.  He's famous for his inventiveness with language, and the book is full of delightfully odd turns of phrase.  Some examples: drowning, the traditional method of execution on Pao, is referred to as "subaqueation"; the huge physically-enhanced guards of the Panarch are called "neutraloids"; and Palafox refers to a foolish course of action as "hopeless quixotry" (p. 190).  Here is Vance's description of the extensive physical enhancements of Palafox:

Are you aware that Lord Palafox is one of the most powerfully modified men of Breakness?  He controls nine sensitivities, four energies, three projections, two nullifications, three lethal emanations, in addition to miscellaneous powers such as the mental slide-rule, the ability to survive in a de-oxygenated atmosphere, anti-fatigue glands, a sub-clavicle blood chamber which automatically counteracts any poison he may have ingested. (p. 69)

Damn, Palafox sounds tricked out—I want the mental slide-rule—but somehow he has neglected the ultimate enhancement: a partridge in a pear tree.

Finally, one more linguistic tidbit.  Check out this image of the cover of the Tor edition of The Languages of Pao (the one I have).  I'm not sure who the guy in black is (Bustamonte, I think, judging from his description in the text), but never mind that—look at what he's standing in front of.  It's the one and only Rosetta Stone!  I guess the British Museum had a going-out-of-business sale...

1 I think I see what Vance is going for here, but typos ("or" for "of") and poor typesetting choices (which I have faithfully reproduced above) obscure his intended meaning.  Here's his sentence of Paonese with what I believe is his intended gloss:

Rhomel-en-shrai bogal-Mercantil-nli-en mous-es-nli-ro
important.statement-READY-two ear-Mercantil-GEN-READY mouth-this.person-GEN-VOLIT

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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What other science fiction novels based in linguistics are you planning to write about?
I strongly recommend Ian Watson's The Embedding (it's from the 1970s, I think, and I have no idea if it's currently in print).

Posted by: Steven Shaviro at Jan 14, 2005 6:34:07 PM

Steven, your question has inspired me to finally do something I've been planning to do for months: rearrange the sidebar, removing the not-very-useful calendar and adding (among other things) a list of all of my "Linguistics and SF" posts. Check 'em out.

I'll add _The Embedding_ to the list—it's been suggested before, and it looks like there are plenty of copies available on Now I just have to find the time. :)

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 15, 2005 4:37:03 AM

George Orwell's 1984 was my introduction to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I was sitting in the front row of a dull high school class and picked the book up off the teacher's desk. I never gave it back. It took me a while to recognize that it was not the story, not the interesting dystopia, but the idea that thought might depend on language that fascinated me.

Posted by: Qov at Jan 19, 2005 3:13:41 PM

The French foreign legion actually impose a very similar system to this. The French language is boiled down to a few thousand words, and these are the only ones which recruits are taught.

Most of the vocab is of course immensely practical- (run, walk, boots, clean, bed, etc.), rather than ethical or conceptual.

This makes it difficult or impossible for legionnaires to think or converse with each other in terms other than those defined by the military.

Posted by: at Jan 20, 2005 4:35:00 AM

....from what I read this reduction in vocabulary is a regarded as a crucial part of the discipline of becoming a legionaire.

Posted by: at Jan 20, 2005 4:36:50 AM

I didn't really *like* _The Embedding_ all that much, but it's definitely a novel in which the linguistic ideas are primary rather than secondary, and it clearly belongs on your reading list. It's in print in the UK (or was recently, at any rate) in the Gollancz SF Collectors' Edition series.

Have you read _Babel-17_ by Delaney? That's another "application of Sapir-Whorf" story, in an even stronger version.

The terms "(strong|weak) version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis" get thrown around a lot, but I'm not sure that they represent clearly defined positions, or which Whorf should be considered to have held.

I reread _The Languages of Pao_ after seeing this post. You can correct "or", if you like - it's "of" in my version. It would be nice to see the Leipzig glossing rules used in an SF novel, but I'm not holding my breath.

The Rosetta stone on the cover of your copy is too light, and not quite the right shape, to be the original. As symbolism, it's at least clearer than the cover of the Mayflower edition, in which a hand reaches up out of clouds to draw a glowing ring around a planet.

I think Palafox paraphrases George Bernard Shaw at one point, which I didn't notice on my previous reading.

Posted by: Tim May at Jan 20, 2005 2:32:19 PM

Great Stuff! Now when is the book version of these observations coming out?

Posted by: Alistair at Jan 21, 2005 12:30:07 PM

Ursula Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" addresses a group of human beings who begin an anarchistic culture with the development of a language without the use of possessives.

Thanks for a great piece on the Vance story.

Posted by: Kate_Storm at Jan 27, 2005 10:28:33 AM

DId you ever see Vance's "The Gift of Gab"

Web Webster

Posted by: Webley Webster at Jun 3, 2006 6:02:19 PM