Monday June 16, 2008
Friday July 27, 2007
Review: Brave New Words
Brave New Words (hereafter BNW) is subtitled "The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction", and they're not kidding. No haphazard collection of SF-related terminology, BNW is an impressive piece of scholarship, based on the OED's method of collecting citations to establish both what a word means and when it began to be used. As the editor, Jeff Prucher (whose blog, I note with a bit of disappointment, is not named by analogy with Jim Treacher's) points out, BNW is based on the citations collected by the online OED Science Fiction Citations project. BNW was also copyedited by the linguistiblogosphere's own Language Hat, so you know all those letters and whatnot are in the right place.
Friday June 29, 2007
In Which I Stick My Toe, Hesitantly, Into Lawblogging
Consider: the phrase "Bong Hits 4 Jesus", which either is or is not an exhortation to drug use depending on how you squint at it, is syntactically quite similar to Elric's battle cry, "Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!"
Saturday March 17, 2007
Brave New Words
Somehow I've managed to miss the news that there's a new dictionary coming out that's right up my alley. Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction is based in part, I believe, on the citations collected here, which means it's got that shiny Web 2.0, user-contributed wiki flavor.
You'd think that, since I'm supposedly focussed on the intersection between linguistics and science fiction, I'd have known about this, but it wasn't until I started receiving referrals from the blog of the author, Jeff Prucher, that it finally seeped into my consciousness. This in spite of the fact that Language Hat mentioned the dictionary in a post that I know I read, because it was written in reaction to something I wrote. (And there's no subject I find more fascinating than me.) Of course, the ideal way to find out that such a book has been published is with a heavy thump on the front doorstep as a review copy arrives, but perhaps the publishing industry has noticed that, on the previous two occasions I've received a review copy of a book, no review ever appeared. Hmm. Have to work on that.
Monday December 11, 2006
[This is part of an ongoing occasional series about linguistics in science fiction. Fair warning: spoilers.] I've been meaning to write about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok" for years. In fact, I had it in mind when I started this blog, and I promised that a post about it was imminent in September of 2004. (Doh!) Well, during our ongoing sojourn in Germany, we discovered to our horror that we'd run out of English-language TV. Fortunately, I remembered that I've had an AVI of "Darmok" sitting in my hard drive since July of 2004, so we fired it up and watched it.
"Darkmok" is easily the most linguistic of the Star Trek episodes I've seen. Unlike a lot of the SF I discuss, it's pretty well-known, so I'm a little nervous about writing about it—I'm sure you can find many, many essays about it online, but hopefully I have something to add. For a comprehensive review, check out this page by Raphael Carter, which includes both a summary and a glossary of all the alien utterances in the episode (and from which I got the official spellings of most of the proper names). I'm going to summarize the linguistic aspects of the story, then analyze where I think they're wrong—which is, unfortunately, pretty often.
Saturday November 25, 2006
Earlier this month I noted in a comment that this blog had received a visit from author John Crowley. A little Internet sleuthing revealed that he has a LiveJournal: John Crowley Little and Big. It appears he was directed here by a comment on this post in which he asks for examples of the use of novel language(s) in SF. His readers provide several suggestions that should be of interest to people who come here for the "Linguistics in SF" posts, including a few I've written about and a bunch more that I haven't. I guess my inexorably growing to-read list just got a little longer...
Thursday November 16, 2006
The Princes of the Air by John M. Ford
Recently, I've been knee-deep in readings about case, number, and person, and that really cuts into my SF-about-linguistics reading time (though I have been slowly making my way through Babel-17). Fortunately for me, reader and commenter Russell Borogove (russell at estarcion dot com) is taking up some of the slack. After the jump you can read an email he sent me (reprinted with his permission) about John M. Ford's The Princes of the Air.
Friday September 29, 2006
"Shall We Have a Little Talk?" by Robert Sheckley
[This post is part of an occasional series about linguistics in science fiction. Fair warning: spoilers throughout.]
This story has been on my to-blog-about list for a long time. It was suggested to me early in the life of this blog in an email from someone, but unfortunately I was using Yahoo Mail at the time and so don't have a copy of it—you know who you are. Let's get to the story.
Friday June 23, 2006
This I Believe #12
...that automatic language identification systems, which attempt to determine what language a sample of unknown text is written in, needlessly endanger the sanity and survival of the human race. In particular, such systems fail to take into account that some knowledge has been wisely hidden away from human eyes for millennia, and that such dangerous knowledge is generally preserved in one of a handful of ancient, disturbingly alien languages.
Sunday April 23, 2006
The Embedding by Ian Watson
[This post is part of an occasional series about linguistics in science fiction. Fair warnings: this bloomed into a very long post, and there are spoilers throughout.]
Ian Watson's 1973 novel The Embedding is, of all the science fiction about linguistics that I've written about so far, the story that most directly addressed ideas from theoretical linguistics. Where most SF authors have been content with simple ideas from the shallow end of the field, Watson dives right into the deep end, displaying some familiarity with then-current ideas about Universal Grammar and the phenomenon of center-embeddings in syntax.
Tuesday April 18, 2006
Experts Suggest What?
Sometimes being a long-time science fiction fan has unexpected side-effects. For example, I was just now scanning the current headlines and I came across the following:
If you haven't been soaking in SF for a few decades, you probably understand immediately what the headline-writer means: experts are suggesting that women should wait some amount of time between pregnancies—perfectly reasonable advice. But due to lexical interference from SF vocabulary, I misunderstood it to mean: experts are suggesting that women shove newborn babies out of an airlock. Don't worry, though, after a brief whiskey-tango-foxtrot moment, I deduced they weren't recommending infacticide by explosive decompression. Whew!
Friday April 14, 2006
Planetes Word Game
The Wife and I recently finished watching the anime series Planetes, which is about the crew of a space ship that cleans up debris in Earth orbit in the late 21st century. At the end of the final episode, the romantic leads, Hachimaki and Ai, are spending one last EVA together for old time's sake before he (Hachimaki) goes off to complete his training for the first mission to Jupiter, a journey that will take seven years round-trip. As they float together in their space suits, they exchange a peculiar dialog, each in turn saying a different, seemingly unrelated word to the other. At first, I thought they might be playing a low Earth orbit version of "I Spy" because several of the words are space-related, but then I figured it out: they're playing shiritori.
Wednesday March 22, 2006
Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon takes place in both the present and during the Second World War. One of the characters in the earlier sections is Bobby Shaftoe. He's tough, relentless, violent, and possibly a little bit crazy—a Marine, in other words. It turns out, to my surprise, that he's also a reference to a nursery rhyme.
Thursday February 23, 2006
Belgian researchers have been able to use computer scans of the grooves in 6,500-year-old pottery to extract sounds -- including talking and laughter -- made by the vibrations of the tools used to make the pottery. Here comes the VIDEO (the interviews are in French, but you'll hear the pottery recordings as well).
Voices from six millennia ago! Isn't that amazing? I imagine this sort of recording would be a real boon for historical linguists...if the video weren't a hoax.
Friday February 3, 2006
The Lensmen Series
[In previous posts in this series I've focused on stories that have linguists as characters or language as important element of the plot. This post will be a little different—there's not much linguistics in the Lensmen books. Instead, I'm going to focus on the writing style and language quirks of the author. Fair warning, though: spoilers throughout.]
Over the last month, I've been re-reading Edward E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen series (consisting of Galactic Patrol (1937), Gray Lensman (1939), Second Stage Lensmen (1941), Children of the Lens (1947), and two lesser prequels), a milestone in science fiction. Its popularity, huge at the time the stories were being published, has waned over the years, but the influence it had on a wide variety of other SF, including the Green Lantern comic book series, Star Trek, and Star Wars, still remains. You simply can't engage in space opera without standing on Doc Smith's shoulders. The stories are full of space pirates, determined heroes, and a series of space battles of exponentially increasing scale. Just as memorable, though, was Doc Smith's distinctive, enthusiastic lexical, idiomatic, and grammatical inventiveness.
Monday December 19, 2005
Having read some pretty positive reviews, I picked up the trade paperback of Warren Ellis's science fiction comic Ocean last week. It sounded like an interesting read—it's not a hybrid superhero/SF book like Adam Strange, it's straight-up science fiction—but unfortunately, the science in the science fiction was bad, bad, bad. I'm willing to play along and suspend my disbelief, and I'm even willing to adjust my suspenders of disbelief to the genre (e.g. I don't complain about the non-silent space ships in Star Wars), but the mistakes in Ocean were so egregious I wanted to throw the book against the wall. Worse, several of them were linguistic, including linguists' favorite misconception: the number of Eskimo words for snow.
[Warning: spoilers after the jump. I'm not going to spoil every detail of the story, but I am going to mention the Big Surprise in order to make fun of it.]
Thursday September 22, 2005
Babel Fish Backwards
Here's a horrible thought: what percentage of the people who saw the movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy this year thought to themselves, "Oh, a Babel Fish, I get it—it's a reference to the translation web site."
Sunday July 31, 2005
Suzette Haden Elgin has written a post about "skinspeech", the fictional visual language of the alien Tendu in Amy Thomson's The Color of Distance. I haven't read it yet, but it sounds interesting—I'll have to add it to my ever-growing to-read list.
Sunday May 15, 2005
"Gulf" by Robert Heinlein
[This post is part of an ongoing series about linguistics in science fiction. Fair warning: spoilers follow. Page references are to the tenth printing of the Signet paperback of Assignment in Eternity.]
A couple of weeks ago, I was attending a meeting of the Machine Translation reading group. During a discussion of Shannon's work on information theory and how it applied to the problem of coding information in speech, the professor who runs the group said, "That reminds me of an old science fiction story." My ears pricked up. "The one with Newspeak."
"Newspeak was in 1984," I said, not seeing the connection between Orwell's novel and information encoding.
"No, not 1984. It was a story about a language that you could speak really fast because it used one phoneme per word..."
"Ah, that's in Robert Heinlein's 'Gulf'," I said. I hadn't thought about the story in years, but I made a mental note to reread it and write a post about it.
Friday May 13, 2005
There's a science fiction short story in which a linguist from 'the U.S.
Corps of Linguists' tries to save an endangered extraterrestrial language
-- title, 'We Have Always Spoken Panglish' -- online at:
I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I'm looking forward to it.
Monday March 28, 2005
The Xerox Language Identifier
This post on Linguaphiles mentions an interesting tool available on the web, Xerox's Language Identifier. It does what you think: examines a text and guesses what language the text is in. Upon reading about this, I was immediately inspired to misuse it by feeding it text from invented languages and seeing what language it guessed.
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.
Friday November 26, 2004
Hank Has a Word Moment
If you haven't been watching the newish Cartoon Network series The Venture Bros., you've been missing out on an excellent mixture of super-science, lantern-jawed secret agents, self-serving venality, adolescent enthusiasm, and disturbing imagery. Think Johnny Quest meets The Tick. In a recent episode, Hank, one of the titular brothers, experiences a self-inflicted case of what I referred to in an earlier post as a "word moment of the first kind".
Friday November 5, 2004
SFnal Linguistic Tricks
[Tangent: When making a noun phrase into a hyperlink, should the determiner be included in the link or not? I can't decide.]
Saturday October 30, 2004
In John Barnes' Jak Jinnaka series, which currently includes three novels starting with The Duke of Uranium, the characters speak a future variety of English that's peppered with unfamiliar words. (You can read the first chapter here.) The meaning of these words is almost always recoverable from context, so Barnes could have just made them all up out of whole cloth, but many of them are actually borrowings from various other languages or clever coinages. Here's some of the new words I've noticed:
Monday October 11, 2004
I heard a rumor that in the Star Wars movies Jabba the Hutt is actually speaking in some obscure African language. Does anybody know if that's true?
The recently-released DVD of Star Wars has a commentary track that includes the sound designer, Ben Burtt, and he supplies the answer.
Friday September 3, 2004
I've been reading the recent trade paperback collections of the early-70's (and pre-Arnie) Conan the Barbarian comic book. In the fourth volume, on page 38, Conan throws a rope to the recently introduced Red Sonja, saying, "Here, Son-ya. Catch!" She replies, "You pronounce my name as if there's apish blood in your veins, man. I'll have to teach you your Hyrkanian demi-vowels one day soon."
What does Sonja (or, more properly, the writer of the comic book) mean by "Hyrkanian demi-vowels"? It's difficult to guess based only on the spellings used to indicate the two different pronunciations: "Son-ya" and "Sonja".
Monday July 12, 2004
1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the fourth movie in the series. It's sort of fun if you're a fan of dystopian 70's science fiction films—it's got ugly concrete architecture, thinly veiled Nazi analogues, futuristic clothing styles involving turtlenecks, and a double helping of Message—but I can't really recommend it. However, there's an linguistics angle to the way the apes are trained in the movie that I thought was interesting.
[Warning: spoilers ahead for all the movies, including the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, which you really ought to see unspoiled.]
Saturday June 26, 2004
As often happens with movie adaptations, the novel Logan's Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson tells a pretty different story than the film. In the book, people die at 21, not 30; the Sandmen carry a revolver with six special bullets; the whole world is under the same system, not just one domed city; and the ending is completely different (I won't spoil it).
At one point in the novel, Logan 3 (!) is in a prison cell with bars made of ice, and he needs to escape.
Logan faced the imperfection in the cell bar, stiffening his fingers into a slight curve, bunching the pad of muscle in the heel of his hand. He assumed the Omnite stance.
He summoned tension into his body, feeling it gather along the backs of his legs; he felt his spine arch as the muscles pumped full of blood. He concentrated on the hand. He was only a hand. He took several deep breaths, let his attention widen to include a spot in space three inches beyond the bar. He would hit that spot.
He blacked out the cell bar that was between the spot and his hand. It didn't exist; there was no cell bar. He tensed. Energy sang into the arm that slashed the rigid hand at the spot in the air.
A splintering crack. The bar exploded. Logan squeezed through the opening. (pp. 65-66)
Monday June 21, 2004
As long as I'm writing about problems related to language that authors of fantastic fiction face when Earth people meet people from Somewhere Else, I might as well add another example. This one is from The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Sunday June 20, 2004
After my recent bad experience with the 1980 movie version of Flash Gordon, I decided to cleanse my palate with The Lion Men of Mongo, a 1974 novel supposedly based more closely on the original comic strip (which I haven't yet read, so I can't say if that's true or not). I'm only a few chapters in, but I've noticed the author (Ron Goulart writing as "Con Steffanson") going to some trouble to provide explanations for things I'll bet the comic strip just left unexplained, including at least one of linguistic interest.
Sunday May 23, 2004
"Nothing but Gingerbread Left"
[Warning: spoilers ahead!]
In 1943, Henry Kuttner wrote a short story in which language and semantics turn the tide of World War II. "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" is both the title of the story and the name of a marching song in the story—or rather, of an approximate English translation of a German marching song. Like the song that Reich uses as a mind-shield in Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, the gingerbread song is catchy—so catchy, and so distracting, that it sweeps through the German-speaking world and sabotages military morale and efficiency.
Tuesday April 13, 2004
In Steven Brust's series of fantasy novels set in (on?) Dragaera, he occasionally has a bit of fun with his fictional and not-so-fictional languages. For example, the language of humans, pardon me, Easterners is real-world Hungarian. In The Phoenix Guards, he describes the origin of the name of a Dragaeran city, Bengloarafurd.
Sunday April 4, 2004
"Story of Your Life", by Ted Chiang
[Note: This post contains spoilers.]
"The Story of Your Life" is a short story by Ted Chiang about a linguist trying to learn an alien language and writing system. Chiang's protrayal of Louise Banks, his linguist character, is very convincing—so much so that I was surprised to discover that he has no formal linguistics background. Louise approaches the alien language using all the tools of her profession, and discovers that it's even more alien than she expected.
Saturday March 6, 2004
A Word of Explanation...
The title of this blog come from the novel The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, which won the first Hugo award for novel in 1953. In the book's future, telepaths exist. Espers provide a variety of commercial services, and also work for the police, preventing and investigating crimes. A businessman named Ben Reich wants to commit a murder and he wants to get away with it, but he knows the espers will catch him. He needs a way to shield his thoughts.
Tuesday March 2, 2004
Pronouns in Marain
These posts on Language Hat and Long story; short pier discuss various proposals for, and fictional accounts of, gender-neutral pronoun systems. I was immediately reminded of a passage in the novel The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks.
Sunday February 29, 2004
[Note: this contains a spoiler for a surprise in the first half of the story, but I don't spoil the ending.]
The Outer Limits was an early-60's science fiction anthology TV show. In a lot of ways, it was a pale reflection of Rod Serling's earlier and better series The Twilight Zone, but several Outer Limits episodes rise above the others in terms of quality. One of the best is "Soldier", the first episode of the second season, adapted from his own short story by Harlan Ellison. It contains an interesting linguistics angle.
Friday February 20, 2004
Sir Isaac Newton's Voder
In Robert Heinlein's Between Planets, one of the characters, a Venerian dragon who goes by the name "Sir Isaac Newton", is incapable of human speech. Instead, he manipulates the controls of a mechanical device strapped to his chest called a "voder" in order to speak English. The voder isn't a fictional device—it was an early speech synthesizer with manual controls.
Sunday February 8, 2004
"Omnilingual", by H. Beam Piper
[First in a series about Linguistics in Science Fiction. Fair warning: I plan to spoil the ending.]
How would you decipher texts in an unknown language, written in an unknown writing system? H. Beam Piper's short story "Omnilingual", originally published in 1957, is about an archaeological expedition on Mars, exploring the remains of a dead civilization. The expedition's linguist is confronted with a seemingly insurmountable problem: texts in an ancient language with no remaining speakers, and for which no bilingual text exists. What's an Earth linguist on Mars to do?