Things I Love: Books That Pay Attention to Linguistics

Welcome to another edition of Things I Love, where I flail a bit about something near and dear to my heart.  I’ve noticed a recurring trend in the books that I love lately, one that I think has been helped along by the increasing diversity of writers.  And that is authors taking the time to acknowledge that when two (or more) cultures come into contact, they often are speaking two different languages, and that affects how those cultures communicate with each other.  It can also be a fantastic way to showcase the priorities and values of each culture.

Here’s an easy example of a creative team acknowledging in the text that understanding and speaking another language is difficult.  Now, I know for many of you your response to that statement is “Duh.”  But consider this: in the US/UK/English speaking countries, we tend to default to English as the dominant language, and we always demonstrate the broken English of non-native speakers.  But it is so much more rare to show it in the reverse!  Almost anytime Westerners speak another language, the translation we see is flawless.   So I found myself unexpectedly delighted when Y: THE LAST MAN came right out and said “Speaking a second language is hard, and native English-speakers can sound ridiculous too in another language.”  It’s a simple exchange, but it’s stuck with me for years (I knew exactly which issue to find this in, despite not having read it in a long while).

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Y: THE LAST MAN, Issue 11

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There have been a wealth of recent books that have tackled the nuances of different languages and how it affects communications.  Look no further than one of my favorite reads of 2019, A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE by Arkady Martine.  It follows a new ambassador from a “backwater” station who arrives at the capitol of the empire, and is immediately thrust into conspiracy and politics.  And in the capitol, language is everything.  The ambassador has been trained in the Texicalaanli language, but she doesn’t fully grasp nuances, which exclude her from things like political discussion conducted by poetry, which rely on a whole host of double-meanings and subtext. Even though she’s literally trained her whole life for this job, nothing can prepare her for idioms and every day phrases that just don’t come up in the classroom. It puts the ambassador at a disadvantage during a time of political tension, when she is trying to navigate a crisis to ensure the independence of her home.  In this case, linguistics helps us understand a character’s feeling of otherness.

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On the most basic level, understanding how language works, particularly with regards to key vocab, can be integral to understanding the culture itself.  In A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE, a key point is made early on that in the Texicalannli language (dialect of the people who have conquered vast swaths of the galaxy), the word for “world” and “empire” are the same, showing that they believe all worlds naturally belong in their empire.  This is a driving part of their ethos, and crucial to understanding how the culture conducts itself.  Or take the kingdom of Jorat in THE NAME OF ALL THINGS by Jenn Lyons.  In that culture, people can be broadly described as either stallions and mares – that is, leaders or followers.  In this instance, the nouns aren’t gendered, meaning anyone of any sex can be a stallion or a mare.  And given the broad range of horse metaphors and phrases that permeate Jorat’s culture, it’s clear how much weight they put into these distinctions.

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And it isn’t just vocabulary that’s important.  The grammar can matter as well.  THE THRONE OF THE FIVE WINDS, a court fantasy inspired by East-Asian cultures, places a lot of emphasis on protocols and ceremony, and part of that is knowing the correct forms of address. Unlike many Asian languages, English doesn’t have a real hierarchy of pronouns; we use “you” to address people of any station or background, and we don’t have honorifics to denote respect, aside from perhaps things along the lines of “sir” or “ma’am.”  But when a princess arrives as a hostage to the court of a conquering empire, one of the first things she immediately sets on figuring out is what forms of address to use for the various new people in her life.  Is her personal attendant addressed the same way as the rest of the household staff?  Is a certain kind of “you” too informal for her new in-laws?  In a place where insults, perceived or intended, can have dramatic repercussions, nailing the language can mean the difference between peaceful interactions and a declaration of social warfare.

I find it fascinating to peek into these cultures through the values they place on certain aspects of language.   It’s part of a larger love I have for well-written fictional cultures in general.  Skillfully exploring these aspects of a society shows an extra level of thought that an author put into the fact that they have multiple peoples who might culturally value different things, and I love these authors all the more for it.

So, do you share my love of linguistics?  What books have you read that do this fabulously, give me your recs!

16 thoughts on “Things I Love: Books That Pay Attention to Linguistics

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  1. I just finished A Queen in Hiding, and I thought the author did some interesting things with linguistics in that one, too. Different dialects and accents. There were also lots of nicknames people had for each other that they only used at certain times. I find if it is done right it brings a level of authenticity to the story. Great post!

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  2. Brilliant post! I’ve been hearing so many good things about A Memory Called Empire recently, I really need to check it out.

    I’d love to be reading more and more books about language and linguistics, because it is fascinating. I love how Adrian Tchaikovsky writes about communication in Children of Time, where a lot of his protagonists are spiders and therefore don’t communicate the way we do at all. There’s a brilliant moment where one of the spiders considers how weird it is that humans eat with the same part of their body that they communicate, it’s such an interesting book and I believe he delves further into communication and linguistics in the sequel.

    I also love the focus on language in the film Arrival, which is probably one of my favourite sci-fi movies, and how the characters go about using sign language to communicate with mermaids in Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant is super interesting, too. I recently picked up a copy of Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin that I’m looking forward to picking up because it’s set in a future where women have no civil rights and have invented their own language, which sounds fascinating. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ahhhh you’ve hit on something I absolutely love as well! The intersection of language and culture is something I’ve always found fascinating and can give such an insight into the things different societies value. It makes the world so rich and deep when authors write this into their fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ah, this is something I love too! Have written down all the books you’ve mentioned (thank you!).
    Have you read China Mieville’s Embassytown? I think you’d like the linguistic stuff in that.
    I also like books in which language is used to demonstrate how society has changed, and Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack does this brilliantly, so you might enjoy that too.
    Great post!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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