LINGUISTICS & SCIENCE FICTION INTERFACE
I am a grandmother of ten with a Ph.D. in linguistics, and a science fiction writer. I'm interested in the intersection between the use of language as a mechanism for solving humanity's problems and the use of science fiction as a laboratory for exploring those linguistic solutions.
Language As A Mechanism For Solving Humanity's Problems
Language is the most powerful mechanism we have for the interacting tasks of changing attitudes and transmitting information. We can do those two things by force, but the result will always be temporary and reluctant. The quickest and most permanent way to do it is not by using force but by using just two tools: effective tone of voice, and metaphor.
Science Fiction As A Laboratory For Exploring Linguistic Solutions
When science fiction is written language, it doesn't have tone of voice available except to the extent that the writer is able to give tone of voice a graphic shape. (As in "We love you," they growled.) When it's video or movie or recording, tone of voice is added as a resource, and the results can be spectacular. (Consider what STAR TREK has accomplished, for example.) Because most experiments involving language can't be done in the real world -- for ethical reasons -- we're lucky to have science fiction. Sf gives us a "thought experiment" lab where both writer and reader can try things out at length and observe what happens.
How Would We Go About Using These Resources?
Creating an entirely new thing with language out of nothing at all -- which would be magic, perhaps divine magic, as in "Let there be X, and there is X" -- is one thing. I doubt it's humanly possible. However, there are three processes that human beings do have the ability to use. They are:
** Linguistic bootstrapping
Take something that already exists (or is believed to exist) and use metaphor to create something else, linked to it by analogy. Take WAGON TRAIN, already part of consensus reality, tweak its features and parameters, and you get STAR TREK -- WAGON TRAIN in space. Tweak different features and parameters and put it somewhere else -- under the ocean, inside the earth, in my coat pocket, wherever you like.
** Positive linguistic refocusing
Take something that already exists and create something new by changing what gets attention. I did my best to demonstrate this in my science fiction novel titled NATIVE TONGUE (page 242):
"When you look at another person, what do you see? Two arms, two legs, a face, an assortment of parts. Am I right? Now, there is a continuous surface of the body, a space that begins with the inside flesh of the fingers and continues over the palm of the hand and up the inner side of the arm to the bend of the elbow. Everyone has that surface; in fact, everyone has two of them.
I will name that the 'athad' of the person. Imagine the athad, please. See it clearly in your mind -- perceive, here are my own two athads, the left one and the right one. And there are both of your athads, very nice ones.
Where there was no athad before, there will always be one now, because you will perceive the athad of every person you look at, as you perceive their nose and their hair. From now on.... Now it exists."
** Negative linguistic refocusing
Take something that already exists and hide it away by making it difficult or impossible to pay attention to it, or by focusing on some aspect of it that will hide the parts you want to hide and emphasize those you don't. Like taking "firing employees" and naming that action "letting people go" (as if you were giving them a freedom they'd been longing for) or "shedding employees" (as if it were a natural process, the way trees shed their leaves in the fall, out of the company's control and therefore not their responsibility).
Note: These three processes are based on an article in "On the
Trail of the Snail Hypothesis: A Special Issue of LINGUISTICS &
SCIENCE FICTION," by Suzette Haden Elgin, OCLS Press 1996. (LING-
UISTICS & SCIENCE FICTION is the newsletter of the Linguistics &
Science Fiction Network. You can reach the Network at OCLS, PO
Box 1137, Huntsville AR 72740-1137.)
NOTE: In Fall 2000, my novel NATIVE TONGUE will be coming out again. It's about the topic of this webpage: linguistics and science fiction. Linguists in the novel interface their infants with extraterrestrials in order to acquire new ET languages for interplanetary trade and diplomacy; an artificial language is constructed for the purpose of changing the society. The science in the novel is linguistics science. -- Suzette Haden Elgin