Category Archives: language

The animated history of the English language in (slightly more than) 10 minutes

Find all 10 videos right here.

The first one as a taste:


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Embassytown, part 2 and City of Glass: Natural languages

I finished Embassytown a little while ago, and although I don’t think I found the second half quite as enjoyable as the setup, it was still well worth the read, as a science fiction novel and as an experimentation in the literary representation of theories of language. Spoilers are certain to follow, so if you’re reading this and don’t want to disturb Mieville’s careful compartmentalization of information necessary to key plot points, then maybe try to skim to the second half where I talk about other things.

The movement in the plot revolves, as could be expected from the setup, about the descent of Mieville’s aliens, the Arikei, from Language into language – that is, from Mieville’s version of a natural, Adamic language in which signs and referents have an untroubled and concrete link and into our everyday communication with its abstract nouns, heavily figurative modes of communication, and ambiguity. And that descent gets characterized as the transition from simile, a characterization of similarity between two unlike things, to metaphor, an assertion of identity between them. That the transition gets expressed as a shift in these uses of figurative language was hardly surprising given the status of the novel’s main character as a Simile, and given the fascination of so many theories of language with metaphor as language’s central problem, generator of new meanings, and source of its literary or creative dimension. At one point in her life the novel’s protagonist was commissioned to act out a cryptic playlet so that her existence could guarantee that of a new word used for the basis of comparison, thus expanding the vocabulary of Language while retaining its insistence on concrete one-to-one reference. From there, the Arikei, for their survival in the novel, must learn to assert their fundamental identity with the human girl and thereby learn to lie, as they are not human, for the sake of larger metaphorical truths, that both are sentient races, etc.

I was a little surprised, though, that the transition was from simile to metaphor, primarily because we tend to regard the two figures as close to interchangeable – most taxonomies of figurative language class simile as a poorer subset of the larger field of metaphor. Metaphors and metonymy would be a more common juxtaposition over the past century, due to the influence of the same structural linguistics that provides Mieville with the physical laws, and their lapses, of his fictional universe. I think I was hoping to see some of that because Mieville’s representation in the text of the novel of the double-tongued speech of the Arikei has the utterance of one mouth placed beneath a horizontal bar with the utterance of the other on top, and that reminded me so much of Roman Jakobson’s representation of the interaction between two symbolic systems that so much informs the literary-theoretical understanding of metonymy and metaphor.

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I’m currently 75 pages into China Mieville’s new novel Embassytown. And what can I say to recommend it most highly? That it’s a brilliantly imagined science fiction novel about language and philosophies of language. Yes. That’s right. A must read.

First there’s the bilingual pun that sets up the universe in which the novel takes place. Out of the English words to immerse and immersion he uses to describe the descent into what other sci-fi works call subspace or hyperspace, Mieville retrieves the German word immer, or always, to name what’s being descended into. He then contrasts immer with our mundane Newtonian universe by naming that reality with immer‘s antonym, manchmal, or sometimes. From that admirable play on words, Mieville goes on to describe the relationship between immer and manchmal as being analogous to Saussure’s distinction in structural linguistics between langue, a language as a social system of rules and lexicons, and parole, an individual speech act whose assembly occurs via that system. Our reality, the comparison suggests, is a particular utterance of a generative meta-universe that exists outside and sustains our dimensions of space and time.

He had me at langue.

Then after introducing the secondary main character as a linguist and a scholar, he goes on to introduce us to the basic conceit of the novel. The alien race the novel is primarily (at least at this point) concerned with, the Ariekei, have a unique language with two salient characteristics. The first is that it is a double-tongued language: the Ariekei have two mouths and each mouth utters a stream of phonemes in tandem with the other, neither of which is intelligible without the other. One stream is a called Cut and the other Turn by the human linguists who’ve deciphered the language’s mechanisms, though I’m at a loss to find if Mieville is alluding to anything in particular with that suggestive link between terms (cut to me suggests manufacture, and turn, of course, figurative language, or trope). Mieville carries this particular aspect of the conceit into the structure of the novel, as the first half of is seemingly written in two alternating timelines, one in anticipation of the arrival of a new ambassador pair trained in the Ariekei language (one speaking Cut, the other Turn), the other after that arrival.

The second characteristic of the language is that it impossibly conforms to Romantic notions of a natural or original language. The language is not symbolic: words are not abstracted referents that refer to absent phenomenon, what we generally understand as a language; instead each word is the thing in itself. As such, the Ariekei have no written language nor can they understand artificially generated speech acts: they only find language intelligible in the immediate context of the utterer (and only if the utterance is double-tongued). Mieville’s main philosophical touchstone here seems to be Walter Benjamin, who provides the novel’s epigraph. Curiously, Mieville has the Ariekei able to understand recorded speech as being that uttered by a concrete intelligence, but how they’re able to distinguish recorded from manufactured speech isn’t (yet) made clear. The conceit of an original or concrete language gets expressed structurally as the novel’s main character, an immerser – someone who is able to sail ships through the immer – who during her childhood was called upon by the Ariekei to perform in a ritualized pantomime, called a Simile, that provided the Ariekei with a new word. Or rather, the immerser more or less is called upon to be a word in their language, a language which the human characters in the novel refer to simply as  Language.

What connection Language will have to the state of immer I’m dying to find out. One of Mieville’s strong suits is the ability to sustain the mystery of crucial details about the composition of the worlds and universes he creates until those details can appear as a narrative crux. One of his other strong suits is the reason that anyone remotely interested in language or in science fiction should check the book out, and that is his ability to produce narratives that are dazzling in their density of detail and creative imagination while working through some risky speculations. Anyone who’s read The City & The City knows he can pull it off.

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Monkeys have grammar.

Boom-boom-krak-oo – Campbell’s monkeys combine just six “words” into rich vocabulary.

Many animals have calls that are suggestive of a rudimentary language. Of course, calls are rather crude signifying systems – “signs” in the commonplace distinction, meaning that they depend on the thing they refer to being immediately present, as opposed to a symbol, a full linguistic signifier that refers to things present or absent with equal facility. Consider the difference between a stop sign, which needs to be at an intersection for it to be meaningful (otherwise, you’re thinking, “What’s this stop sign doing here where there’s no intersection to stop at?”), and the word “stop,” which in conversation can refer to an event taking place at anytime and anyplace. So animals calls signify more or less like a stop sign: they refer to the near-at-hand event that prompts them. “Mate with me,” “Danger,” “My place,” “I survived the night,” etc.

Whether apes and parrots might be capable of communicating in the full sense of language is the subject of much speculation and controversy, and outside my expertise, but I’m always pleased to find indications that animal calls are not wholly mechanical. A recent study of Campbell monkey calls suggests that the monkeys have a finite set of calls – six – which they combine in a variety of ways according to set rules. The result is a rich system of calls that can, for instance, identify a threat – leopard, eagle, or some unclear but potentially threatening activity –  and even the threat’s relative immediacy. What the blog I’m linking to doesn’t discuss – and I don’t know if the original study looks into this or not – is the degree of creative freedom in chaining together the calls into a complex monkey “sentence.” It does say that the system for combining calls functions much like a human grammar in that it permits some combinations as meaningful and not others, so that, as the blog post notes, “boom boom krak-oo” means “look out for that falling branch,” but place the “krak-oo” anywhere else in that sequence but the end and it would be meaningless to the monkeys. But do the monkeys have the option to add an additional “boom” or “krak” or another call in somewhere without disturbing the core meaning of the phrase? Our own grammars, as has been frequently noted, allow for a core meaning to be expressed in an endless variety of potential combinations even if those grammars restrict the manner in which those combinations are manifested. How much expressive liberty does the monkey poet have?

It’s enough to make me wish I had the time to look into the current science of bird calls as well.

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