Semantics -- the Meaning of Languag

Copyright 1991, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This article originally appeared in Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop Newsletter # 158, November 1994.

Many articles have appeared on language, discussing the shifts sounds go through over time and the way sounds are combined into words which are then combined into sentences. But very little attention has been given to the primary purpose of language, which is communication. It is possible for two people to be speaking the same language but fail miserably to communicate. And the failure of communication is even more painfully obvious when the two people do not share a common language. But what creates communication?

Communication occurs when meaning is shared between two individuals. But what is meaning? An entire sub-branch of linguistics, semantics, is devoted to the study of this very question. Professional linguists have debated for years on the nature of meaning without ever coming to a satisfactory conclusion. But it is certain that meaning is both the most essential element of language and the most difficult to deal with.

Most obviously, words don't necessarily translate across languages. C. J. Cherryh's favorite example is the problem of finding a Latin word that translates "honor." When an obliging listener offers "honos," she points out that it is not the same thing as the honor of an Englishman or scout's honor, and to understand it one must think in a particularly Roman manner.

So what does this mean for writers? A number of well-known writers have used the problem of language and meaning as the central premise for science fiction stories. Cherryh herself created three languages in her novel Hunter of Worlds, each reflecting the cultural imperatives of the people who speak it. Because each language was spoken by a different species, she was able to show how the biological base of behavior in each would affect that people's language. Most striking in this are the iduve, in which sex-drive and kill-urge are linked. Thus their language is so alien from any human language that it can be translated only by paraphrase.

Jack Vance explored the linkage of language and attitude in his novel The Languages of Pao. In this novel, which deals only with humans, a society that had been helpless in the face of attack developed a warrior caste by providing them with a language that would foster the necessary attitudes.

Finally Jacuqeline Lichtenberg deals with the relationship between sensory perception and language in her Sime/Gen series. Simelan is the language of the Simes and contains words which reflect their unique biology and the culture that grew out of that need for monthly transfers of selyn, the basic energy of life which is produced only by Gens. Because Simelan reflects Sime senses and the way in which Simes perceive the world, no Gen can completely master it.

The challenge of creating languages that reflect the uniqueness of an alien race and the society it would create has long been ignored. Too often writers have chosen to take the easy way out by either ignoring the issue of language entirely or by postulating a universal translator machine that enables everyone to understand each other perfectly. But it's time for writers to start taking a hard look at just what sort of language their created worlds would use.

Copyright 1991, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

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