February 21st, 2006

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Linguistics; linguistics (and not-linguistics) in science fiction; Master of None...

Thanks to Diana Cook, I've had the pleasure of reading N. Lee Wood's splendid science fiction novel, Master of None, published in 2004 by Warner Aspect. It's a wonderful book, it's set in a society where women run things and men are subjugated, and it came along very conveniently during the discussion we were having here on gender and language. I recommend it without reservation.

In one way, however, I was disappointed. One of the back cover blurbs had assured me that the book was "a dizzying maze of linguistics and exosociology," and I was looking forward to the linguistics portion of that. However, it turns out that there is no linguistics in Master of None at all. That didn't interfere with the pleasure I took in reading it, but it did raise the question of why, although the lead character says flat out that he's not a linguist, the blurb should have made that claim.

I think it's a peculiarly mainstream-American phenomenon. Consider this sentence on page 80: "Articles had been hard enough to memorize, nouns with their three genders divided into four categories of usage depending on social ranking, then everything shifted one more place to the left depending on singular, diplic, or plural forms." And this one on page 81: "Along with all the usual tangled diphthongs and umlauts, certain tonal words differing only by whether they rose or fell on the accent, the Vanar could make at least a half dozen sounds with their throats and nose Nathan hadn't a prayer of ever being able to imitate." The American reader, staunchly monolingual -- used to reading grammar books that never get much more complicated than "The past tense ending of the verb is '-ed' " -- takes one look at sentences like those on pages 80 and 81 and concludes that they "are" linguistics. What else could they possibly be? It's self-evident.

What Master of None does is give us a portrayal of a man who is struggling -- as an adult -- to learn a foreign language, and the problems he encounters along the way, and how he deals with them. His situation is difficult; not only is he learning the language under duress, with severe penalties facing him should he fail, he has been ordered to learn it well enough to serve as interpreter, translator, and skilled observer. That's an intimidating task at best; however, he's intelligent, he's blessed with a skilled teacher, and he is immersed in the language at all times. He gets it done. Becoming sufficiently fluent in a language to translate and interpret it and interact comfortably with its speakers in your daily life is a respectable and admirable way to spend your time and can become a life's work. A great translator is beyond price, and can open a window for us to a world we would otherwise never see. Still, that's not linguistics. The book is not about the life of a linguist, but about the life of a translator/interpreter.

By my count, there are 131 lines of material devoted to Nathan's project of learning the language -- 131 lines in 380 pages. And that is apparently more than enough to get the book designated as "a dizzying maze of linguistics and exosociology." [I don't think that 131 lines of material mentioning various planets and stars and comets in some other 380-page novel would spark a blurb about a "dizzying maze of astronomy and exosociology," but I suppose I could be wrong.]

Linguistics is chic in science fiction right now. I think the chicness was initiated by Maria Doria Russell's excellent book, The Sparrow. Not because there hadn't been fine sf novels before then in which the science was linguistics -- there had been quite a few of them. But The Sparrow was the first one ever to get the benefit of a huge expensive juggernaut of a marketing campaign launched by a major "crossover" publisher. And once that had happened, and The Sparrow and its sequel had swept the charts and been smash bestsellers for many many months, there was the inevitable bandwagon effect, which continues to this day, and which I am quick to admit has helped me greatly.

Put the word "linguistics" on the cover of an sf novel, and you boost sales; it's just that simple. I intend to enjoy it while it lasts.
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Personal note....

Things are getting better in some ways -- it's supposed to be a little warmer here today, for example. I'm at that stage of flu recovery where working is just horrible, and every word I type strikes me as stupider than the word before, but I'm no longer sick enough to make staying in bed acceptable. Your good wishes are helping me along, and I hope the words will get less stupid as the days go by.

I think we've exhausted the set of topics we'd been discussing, and that we should let that set alone for awhile. (Unless of course one of you comes up with a question I can't resist.) You've given me a great deal of material to work with as I struggle with the verbal self-defense book for kids; it will be a long time before I get all of that sorted out and properly organized and am ready for more. You've heard all of my doom and gloom you need to hear, and I've heard your far more cheerful and optimistic assessments of the current situation. It's time I stopped wailing and ranting at you.

My most sincere thanks to you for getting me through this rough patch......
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Linguistics; what is it???

kelsied commented (in response to my brief review note about Master of None):
"Well... er, not to bog down the discussion with another idiot novice question, but: Isn't grammar a form of linguistics? I don't know... if I were to read something that technical, I would sum it up as 'a discussion of linguistics.' And linguistics is certainly more esoteric and interesting than grammar... and less likely to alienate one's audience, to be perfectly honest."

Maybe a metaphor would help. Suppose you read a science fiction novel where the lead character is forced, under duress, to learn how to cook the food of another culture, and to do it well enough to serve as a professional chef in a royal household. He's given an excellent teacher and many hours of instruction, and the food he himself eats is from the foreign cuisine. In that book you'd almost certainly read about him measuring various substances, weighing them out, combining them in particular combinations, subjecting them to heating and cooling and blending and beating, and so on. You would read about him taking notes and making careful records of all these operations; as he became more skilled, you'd read about him being given sets of instructions called recipes from which he would be allowed to work independently. But you would not assume that what you were reading about was the science of chemistry, and you would not be surprised when the character stated flatly that he was not a chemist. The tasks of measuring and weighing and combining substances and performing operations upon them to assemble them into recipes are tasks that are routinely done in chemistry -- but that doesn't make cooking equivalent to the science of chemistry.

Writing grammars, which may contain long descriptions of the nouns and verbs and articles and whatnots of a language, is one of the tasks routinely done in linguistics. But the description that's written down is not part of doing linguistics, it's the result of doing linguistics. Reading an already-existing grammar book and learning the information written there isn't doing linguistics, it's learning a language. Sometimes the person learning a language is a linguist, sometimes not -- but learning a language through formal instruction, written and/or spoken, isn't doing linguistics. It's done by people from every scholarly field, many of whom will never do a lick of linguistics in their entire lives.

Writing a grammar for a language which has never had one before is doing linguistics. You want to know what the verb endings in the language are. Laboriously, over time, you collect as many examples of verbs, with their endings, as you can --many thousands of examples, if possible. You examine all those examples, hunting for patterns. When you think you may have found an ending, you start testing it; you put it on a word you believe to be a verb and you check it with a native speaker to find out if the combination is acceptable, to find out what it means, to find out how and when it can be used, and so on. When you're reasonably sure that you've actually learned a rule that works, you write it down so that you'll be able to use it when you write your grammar book -- and you are well aware, as you do that, that you may very well discover two weeks later that the darned thing isn't a verb ending at all and/or that the word isn't a verb at all. At which point you'll have to back up and regroup.

The example sentences that I quoted in the post about the novel aren't any more technical than "Combine 3 tablespoons of curry powder with a half-teaspoon of ginger and stir them into two cups of finely minced carrots." It's just the vocabulary -- words like "umlauts" and "diplic," that aren't part of the descriptions of American English, but that you could look up in any dictionary -- that make them look technical to you.

As for linguistics being esoteric and interesting.... I give you my word: Linguistics can be the dullest subject on the face of the earth, even for those of us who are passionately devoted to it. It is no fun at all to put 4500 little 3 x 5 slips of paper, each bearing its one little word on it, into alphabetical order. It's no fun at all to check each and every one of those 4500 words with a native speaker of the language to be sure you've got its sounds right and in the right order. It's no fun at all to sit and work out an example sentence using every last one of those 4500 words and then check each one with a native speaker to be sure it is a sentence. It's no fun at all to do a pen-and-pencil test with 100 research subjects to find out whether they have a quicker motor response to prepositions of motion than to prepositions of state, and then do that another 50 times, and then do a thorough statistical analysis of all that data, and then try it again with a different motor task. Vast amounts of the work linguists do is dreary and tiresome and repetitive and endlessly boring -- and still it has to be done. You don't try to write a science fiction story in which those are the sort of tasks being done, obviously, any more than you devote large swathes of narrative in a mainstream short story to the minutiae of washing dishes.

Does that make things any more clear? If not, I'm willing to try again.

You might also just glance quickly at my "Real World Linguistics 101" micro-course, which is at http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin/Linguistics/Index.html .