Samuel Delaney’s 1966 novel Babel-17 centers on a language where the meaning is so perfectly expressed in so few words that it accelerates thought. This perfection makes it possible to solve previously insurmountable problems in a nanosecond. It is not just a language — it is a weapon.
In Jo Walton’s tor.com blog post about Babel-17 she relates that the plot grew out of a linguistic theory that was in vogue at the time. Called the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it posited that language shapes perception so deeply that thinking in a different language gives you a different perception. This has apparently been disproven.
Disproven or not, I find this theory deeply intriguing. If you have lived in another language, you know that translating is, well, a little lie. When you live in a language you live in a culture, and quickly need to transition from converting words using an equation to understanding the words as they are.
So, how do the words we use shape what we are capable of imagining? How deeply are we divided by culture and language? And, if the only tool we have to communicate are words, can we ever understand someone from another planet?
I’ve made a booklist of novels where the plots are driven by some of these questions, or by wonderfully playful insights into words and the nature of narrative: The words are the plot.
And, incidentally, Jo Walton's blog posts on classic science fiction and fantasy, like the one linked above, have been collected into a new book called What Makes This Book So Great. She is insightful, informative, and has a contagious love of the genres. If you are looking for fodder for your summer reading, look no further.