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From: Dan Parmenter <dan@lec.com>
Subject: (urth) Cursing in Old Solar
Date: Fri, 30 Oct 1998 14:44:58 

From: John Bishop <jbishop@blkbrd.zko.dec.com>

> As a BA in Linguistics, I've not yet seen SF which gets Linguistics
> right at all; the tendancy is to go wild on the wildest version of
> Whorf' hypothesis, or to get some basic concept wrong.  

Actually, I thought that Wolfe's treatment of the Ascians' language
was a wonderful refutation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (aka
"linguisitc relativity" which most people have encountered in some
form or other, either through anecdotes about the number of "Eskimo"
words for snow or Hopi conceptions of time - roughly stated as
"language determines worldview").  Severian, in a rare moment of
lucidity, concludes that the Ascian prisoner's thoughts are in no way
limited by being forced to speak entirely from stock phrases and that
he can express any human thought through his language, inlcuding
things which have never been expressed, original thoughts.  This also
serves the purpose of showing us that the Ascian leaders have failed
in their Orwellian attempt at controlling the masses.  Surely Wolfe
was referring to Orwell, but I'm half-convinced that he may have had
some exposure to the S-W hypothesis and some of the standard arguments
against it.  For a good source of these arguments, check out THE

Of course Star Trek handled this same concept rather well in the
"Darmok" episode, which for my money is probably one of the better
popular treatments of this sort of thing.  The premise was of our
Captain Picard marooned on a planet with some humanoid alien who even
through the Universal Translator seemed to be spouting gibberish.  It
turns out that all conversation among these people is expressed in
stock phrases from their "national epic".  Picard figures it out,
hilarity ensues, I think there's probably some shooting at some point.
Good episode.

I believe that Suzette Haden Elgin is a linguist who has written SF
that touches on these issues.  I haven't read any of it.

Sapir-Whorf is controversial, though linguists consider it essentially
a dead issue.  It is perhaps out of the scope of this mailing list to
go into all of the different views and their rationales.

From: Michael Straight <straight@email.unc.edu>

>What about C.S. Lewis's "Out of the Silent Planet"?  The main character is
>a philologist and a significant portion of the book is about language
>learning.  Does that count as "linguistics"?

It certainly involves language, if not linguistics as it is understood
now.  I tend to view Lewis' linguistics with about the same
seriousness as I view his biology.  A philologist hero is of course a
wonderful idea and I have nothing but praise for the series, but I
don't look to it for serious discussions of language.

>There is Wolfe's whole "I'm just translating this old manuscript from the
>future" conceit, which is fairly old hat (except maybe the "from the
>future" part.  Have other authors done that before?  Wolfe seems to play
>it pretty much as a joke.) 

Don't forget that Wolfe even claims to have photographed the era's
remains!  If the future influences the past, I suppose that means he
brought his camera on a vacation to Argentina!  So yes, I suppose he
winks a few times, but doesn't necessarily treat it as a joke.

Yr pal,
Shellac (computational linguist)

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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