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Any neat scifi involving linguistics?


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Initial post: May 28, 2009 10:52:58 PM PDT
Can anyone recommend any novels or short stories involving linguistics?

Stuff I already know about:
short story by Ted Chiang
Hellspark - Janet Kagan
Guild of Xenolinguists - Sheila Finch
'Omnilingual' - H Beam Piper
The Languages of Pao - Jack Vance
Babel-17 - Samuel Delany

In reply to an earlier post on May 28, 2009 11:08:08 PM PDT
Tom Rogers says:
"Salvage" (Yolen) collected in "Sister Emily's Lightship". It's about an alien who tries learn Japanese and hiaku from a human rescued from a wrecked ship, the alien tries to translate the alien linguistic, cultural and artistic norms into a form other crew members of his ship can understand. It's very well done, in a nice bit of recursion, the plot follows the movement of haiku too.

In reply to an earlier post on May 28, 2009 11:35:02 PM PDT
2theD says:
Poul Anderson tends to put a focus on linguistics in his early novels. In Brain Wave, humanity has gained accelerated intelligence and have invented new ways to communicate though truncated speech, loaded speech and sign language. In Planet of No Return, the language specialist tackles the task of understanding an alien tongue.

Posted on May 29, 2009 4:10:58 AM PDT
Native Tongue, and sequals by Suzette Hayden Elgin. If you are female, this book may make you very angry at the men around you.

In the Future, woman are property, not allowed to vote, under the command of husbands or male relatives. Linguists are the most powerful group on Earth, because only they can communicate with aliens. A group of cast-off linguist women are trying to change the world, by inventing and spreading a new language.

Posted on May 29, 2009 5:31:50 AM PDT
Lord Baal says:
Stretching a point perhaps, but what about 1984 where the language is being systematically deconstructed into Newspeak by the state.

In reply to an earlier post on May 29, 2009 6:47:02 AM PDT
Tom Rogers says:
It's not really SF, but if you haven't seen "Earthlings, Ugly Bags of Mostly Water", a documentary about people who are trying to make Klingon a living language, you should give it a gander.

In reply to an earlier post on May 29, 2009 7:27:57 AM PDT
Joe W says:
Kagan also did "Uhura's Song" which centers around lingusitics. I know its a Star Trek novel, but still...

In reply to an earlier post on May 29, 2009 7:51:14 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 29, 2009 7:51:48 AM PDT
Thanks for all the info, guys! I've read Elgin, Kagan, and Orwell, but hadn't heard of the Yolen or Anderson. Keep the suggestions coming!

Posted on May 29, 2009 9:54:00 AM PDT
"Ratner's Star" by Don DeLillo is a science fiction novel from 1976 about disturbed geniuses gathered at a secret location by the government to decipher a message from outer space. I know: Don DeLillo--who knew.

Posted on May 29, 2009 10:25:59 AM PDT
Ronald Craig says:
The Embedding by Ian Watson?

(The Ted Chiang short story you mention is Story of Your Life, right?)

In reply to an earlier post on May 29, 2009 10:38:07 AM PDT
MLeMieux says:
This reminded me of a friend who is really into Star Trek. She was on a forum and someone sent her a private message that was full of textspeak. She replied in Klingon. :-D

Posted on May 29, 2009 12:35:59 PM PDT
"Cryptomonicon" by Neal Stephenson deals with ciphers and the Fake language of Upper and Lower Qwghlm.

Posted on May 29, 2009 3:24:54 PM PDT
scion624 says:
Have you read C.J. Cherryh's FOREIGNER series? It centers around the intraction of the human descendants of a starship that got lost on a mission from Earth and the atevi, a dark-skinned and tall race that use mathematics in their language and everyday culture; both reside on the atevi homeworld. The one link between the two races is the PAIDHI, a human-born speaker of RAGI, the language of the atevi rulers. It's fantastic; Cherryh's rich level of detail would make Pete Jackson (LOTR movies) salivate. The newest book in the series (CONSPIRATOR) just came out.

Posted on May 29, 2009 4:43:38 PM PDT
I was just going to recommend GJ Cherryh's "Foreigner" series too, but with the caution that the series goes on forever, to no good end.

Posted on May 29, 2009 5:43:38 PM PDT
I'll third CJ Cherryh's Foreigner (with the same caveat Tammany Hall has: the longer it goes on, the less interesting it gets). The later ones are fun, but not nearly as good as the first few. Though #2 was a chore to get through, rather high on the politicking.
Her Pride of Chanur / Chanur Saga also has some linguistics and an alien race that speaks in matrices.

Posted on May 29, 2009 8:53:23 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 29, 2009 8:54:02 PM PDT
How about Frank Herbert's "Try to Remember," (Amazing, October 1961) concerning an alien race that communicates through interpretive dance?

Posted on Jun 1, 2009 8:00:53 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 1, 2009 8:07:00 AM PDT
Mr. Hal Jam says:
Henry Kuttner, "Nothing But Gingerbread Left." about a plot to bring down Nazi Germany through the use of a semantic earworm devised by a linguistic professor.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 1, 2009 1:46:14 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 1, 2009 1:57:15 PM PDT
P. Quijada says:
One of the characters in Mary Doria Russell's fine first-contact novel "The Sparrow" is a xenolinguist who over a few pages makes some very interesting linguistic observations at the theoretical level about her subjects.

Also, I own an introductory grammar book of Laadan, the language Suzette Elgin invented for her Native Tongue novels mentioned above. Laadan is a serious "conlang" (as artificial languages are called by the constructed-languages community of hobbyists) rich with some very original features that reflect a female cognitive bias.

Also, I don't know how far you want to pursue this, but the conlang community as a whole features many creators of alien languages on proprietary websites, many with detailed backstories and histories of the alien races who speak them, complete with diachronic linguistic analyses. If interested I can scrounge up a URL or two for you to look at.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 1, 2009 9:03:19 PM PDT
You might look into all of Herbert's earlier works which involve attempting to recognize and communicate with (very) alien intelligent species.

Posted on Jun 1, 2009 9:08:46 PM PDT
A bit off subject perhaps but Lee's and Miller's Liaden Universe novels and short stories are interesting for the forms of spoken and body language employed by the Liadens. And then there are the alien turtles...

Posted on Jun 2, 2009 9:34:43 AM PDT
Vickie says:
There is a lot in Orson Scott Cards "Ender" novels about learning to understand other beings. The xyenocide of the of hive queens was largly due to communication problems.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 2, 2009 10:00:33 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 2, 2009 10:47:23 AM PDT
Sunny One says:
I too was about to recommend Foreigner series. I love it. Seriously, whenever I read it, my brain has to switch over. It's sort of, in my eyes, like trying to understand a very Japanese film or story. After a while though your brain does make the flip (for the book series) and you really enjoy it!

Posted on Jun 4, 2009 12:35:44 AM PDT
T. Davenport says:
The problem with most sci-fi involving linguistics is that it's either about (1) linguists being really good at learning languages, usually alien ones; or (2) the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - language influencing/controlling thought patterns. The problem is that in the real world, that is not what linguistics is about. There isn't any science fiction that really takes linguistics seriously, because the business of making up cross-linguistic grammar laws based on collections of sentences is just too dang boring to get a story out of. Hermann Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game" is probably closest in spirit...

Posted on Jun 4, 2009 6:49:42 AM PDT
I second the suggestion of the Liaden books by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. The Liadens have a very complex language with a High and Low Tongue and dozens of Modes of each. Though the authors don't flesh out the entire language the way, say, Tolkien would, you do learn several phrases. I find the whole thing fascinating.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 9, 2009 1:04:36 AM PDT
Boric says:
As I recall, linguistic elements were an important element in Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash"--arguably his best book.
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Discussion in:  Science Fiction forum
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Initial post:  May 28, 2009
Latest post:  Apr 1, 2013

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