Science fiction, brought to reality. [Credit: Niko McCarty | CC BY-NC-ND]
Can the language you speak influence how you think or behave?
That’s one question at the heart of Samuel Delany’s wild ride of a novel, Babel-17 (1966). In it, Delany crafts a rich world filled with space ghosts, functional poly relationships and a weaponized language that turns its speakers into double agents. On this last point he was inspired by an actual theory in linguistics: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also called linguistic relativity.
Today we’re checking in with a sci-fi classic and a linguistic staple to see how the science holds up.
Babel-17’s protagonist is poet, genius and possible telepath Rydra Wong. Rydra is recruited by her government to crack what they think is an enemy code, dubbed Babel-17, which turns out to be a cleverly deployed weapon. Once she learns Babel-17, Rydra unwittingly begins to sabotage her own spaceship.
Babel-17 (the language) is devoid of pronouns, including the word “I.” Thus, when thinking in Babel-17 the speaker has no concept of self, and they effectively become a tool. It’s a very Manchurian Candidate premise that captures some of its contemporary mid-sixties zeitgeist and could have easily felt hokey. However, the story (and its reveal) are conveyed beautifully in Delany’s expert prose.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis postulates that the structure of a language affects how its speakers think. Though hotly debated, this idea has proven pervasive in linguistic circles.
A classic example of Sapir-Whorf comes from the writings of Homer. Throughout the Odyssey and the Iliad, the “wine-dark sea” is frequently referenced. But not once is the body of water referred to as “deep blue”. In fact, the word blue was completely absent from classical Greek and many other ancient languages. So what’s up with that?
Because true blue is exceedingly rare in nature (the theory goes) ancient people never bothered to come up with a word for it, instead lumping blue hues together with greens or purples. Here’s the really bizarre part: without a distinct concept for it, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have been able to distinguish blue at all. Essentially, having language for a color can literally change how you view the world.
A more contemporary example lies in the gendered nouns used in living languages. In German, for instance, the word for death (tod) is masculine, while in Spanish death (muerte) is feminine. Consequently, German artists tend to personify Death as an old man, while Spanish artists depict Death as a woman.
Language almost certainly has some impact on how we formulate thoughts; by extension, it may also affect how we behave as a society. However, it is extremely unlikely that learning a new language will turn you into a sleeper agent. So go ahead and take those Duolingo classes without fear. Vámonos!