by Ursula K. Le Guin

Here’s what Steven Pinker says about language in the intro to his classic The Language Instinct (1993):

‘Chances are that if you find two or more people together anywhere on earth, they will soon be exchanging words. When there is no one to talk with, people talk to themselves, to their dogs, even to their plants. In our social relations, the race is not to the swift but to the verbal—the spellbinding orator, the silver-tongued seducer, the persuasive child who wins the battle of wills against a brawnier parent.’

Pinker’s claims here are so widely accepted that they’re almost platitudes: humans are social animals; we love and need to talk; we will inevitably find ways to satisfy this drive.

‘Solitude’ is a story that asks: Really?

Is it possible for humans to have language without using it socially? What would that look like?

For at least a decade, Chomsky has been urging linguists to stop thinking about language in terms of its (social, communicative) function: ‘It is…odd to think that language has a purpose,’ he insists. ‘Languages are not tools that humans design but biological objects.’ (2015, What Kind of Creatures Are We? p. 16)

But it’s remarkably difficult to really get what Chomsky wants us to get: we’re so used to thinking of language as fundamentally social, as ‘designed for’ communication and collaboration and bonding, that we need help imagining how it could be otherwise. ‘Solitude’ helps us do this. This story shows us how language can be separated from its social function.

‘Solitude’ is set on a planet (Soro) that was populated by humans long ago, then lost contact, and has now been ‘rediscovered’ by a whole new (but still human) set of space explorers. The language spoken on Soro has changed, but it is still a human language, and the explorers learn it without trouble. But this doesn’t lead to mutual understanding. As our narrator-protagonist (Serenity) puts it, ‘language was not a problem. Yet there was a communication problem.’ (p. 120)

The humans on Soro don’t like to talk. Talking is taboo.

Adults can talk to children, and children can talk to each other, so language continues to be transmitted intergenerationally. But adults don’t talk to each other. They don’t chit-chat, gossip, shoot the bull, or bond through conversation.

If a Sorovian adult urgently needs to deliver news to another adult, they tell it to a child within the adult’s earshot (p. 132).

Even when adults are speaking to children, there is a preference for more formulaic language—stories, songs, chants—rather than spontaneous speech. (p. 134)

And above all, using language to influence or persuade is absolutely prohibited—a dreadful kind of magic, to be feared and rejected as ‘an art or power that violates natural law.’ For the Sorovians, ‘marriage, for instance, or government’—which we know are language-independent institutions—'[would be] seen as an evil spell woven by sorcerers.’ (p. 124)

Our last story, The Easthound, helped us ‘dysrecognize’ the world-changing power of language: we were made to really appreciate how shocking and potentially terrifying speech acts can be. ‘Solitude’ takes us further, to a place where any persuasive language is viewed as malign. For Sorovians, it is always wrong for one person to be in another’s power, and any language that attempts to achieve this is evil. Pinker’s ‘spell-binding orator’ and ‘silver-tongued seducer’ would be castigated rather than celebrated on this planet.

Serenity is a child through most of the story. Her mom is an explorer, an anthropologist, who has brought her children to the planet in hopes of gaining easier access to the culture. So Serenity is raised bi-culturally: Sorovian women teach her Sorovian values; her mother uses her to learn about Soro while also trying to instill in her their home-planet’s values. (Spoiler: This ends up not being so easy.)

Serenity is taught that if another child tries to influence her behavior with language, she should ‘back away’ and ‘tell [their] mother’ (p. 126). She learns that if someone asks her a question she doesn’t want to answer, she can simply ‘raise [her] head a little and…not answer’ (p. 127). If someone is really persistent, she is taught to say the words You have no power over me again and again, covering her eyes and ears if necessary, until the ‘sorcerer’ retreats. (pp. 138-139) And she learns that if she allows herself to be overpowered by such a sorcerer, she would be held guilty of ‘working magic’ too. (p. 123, 130)

But this doesn’t mean Sorovians lead lonely, friendless lives. One of my favorite moments from the story is when Serenity returns to the planet after a two-year absence. Her ‘soulmate’ Hyuru sees her outside her family’s old house and walks over:

…Hyuru came by. She squatted down near me in the garden in the sunshine. I smiled when I saw her, and she smiled, but it took us a while to find something to say.
‘Your mother didn’t come back,’ she said.
‘She’s dead,’ I said.
‘I’m sorry,’ Hyuru said.
She watched me dig up another root.
‘Will you come to the singing circle?’ she asked.
I nodded.
She smiled again… ‘Hi, ya!’ she sighed in deep contentment, lying down in the dirt with her chin on her arms. ‘This is good!’
I went on blissfully digging. (p. 143)

It’s comical, to us, to imagine a reunion between two teenage girls that contains so little speech. But Le Guin’s narration (through Serenity) shows us what Serenity’s mother never understands: that Sorovians can and do care deeply about each other, take delight in each other’s company, and feel entirely comfortable and happy in their mutual silence. They still form close social bonds; they just don’t use language to do it.

At one point during her two-year stint with the explorers on the ship, Serenity accompanies a zoologist doing field research on a Sorovian cephalopod species. The creature is intelligent, and appears to be emitting language-like sounds, but the zoologist hasn’t been able to translate them: ‘We don’t know what we’re talking about,’ she says. Serenity observes the creature for a moment, then says: ‘Maybe it’s not speaking at all. Maybe it’s thinking.’ (p. 141)

The zoologist is baffled with Serenity’s insight, but I think Chomsky would be pleased.

There are many, many other things going on ‘Solitude’ that are worthy of attention and discussion; 75 minutes is never enough. ‘Solitude’ is a story about gender and sexuality, about resistance and freedom, about parent-child relationships, about being caught between two cultures and pulled between loyalty to yourself and loyalty to your family. As Le Guin herself said, it’s a story about being an introvert. If you haven’t read it yet, read it! See if you think Soro is a dystopia or a utopia.

One thought on “Solitude

  1. Marjorie Pak PhD Post author

    Micah took extremely detailed notes during our discussion – thanks, Micah! I pasted some of the highlights here:
    o How is the word “magic” used?
    – Power of persuasion that people have over each other
    • Technology isn’t magic
    • The people were magic, not the planes or submarines
    o Ren uses “my language” rather than “our language”
    o Magic came about as a description of non normative behavior and activities
    o Language as a way to be more powerful than people are on their own
    o People don’t speak lies to each other, they don’t ask questions
    o The Red Skinned Man asks Ren a question and she leaves
    o No small talk
    o Asking questions is established as a very negative trait
    – In sexual situations this alters consent completely
    – Want to make sex apolitical
    • There are same sex life partners who have sex with others
    • There is no suspicion about sex, no presumption of monogamy
    – The only very political group is the boy group
    – At the beginning of the story, Rin asks her mother many questions about sex
    o Singing as storytelling
    – Ren sees songs as different from language
    – Rehearsed and set words are normal but spontaneous speech is dangerous
    o When people leave, they’re called dead despite them being alive, just very distant
    – If Borny had stayed, Ren would’ve had to see him as dead
    o How is “World” connected to “Magic”
    – To be taken out of your language is to be taken out of the world
    – Through language we are creating and recreating our own “world” so to not talk is to live in the world
    – Shaping future possibilities of each other is magic
    – When they see the cephalopod, Rin remarks that she is a “world away” from the aunt-ring even on the same planet
    – Avoid large social structures and buildings to instead connect to the earth
    • Become in-tune with the natural surroundings as much as possible
    • Is the community in Solitude “utopian” to the people within the auntring
    o It feels like there has to be more than what we are told
    – Anna questions how it’s possible to be happy with this
    o Theres a chance there is more happening or Leguin is running up against her ability to talk outside of herself and her experience
    o Do the people of Eleven Soro have an understanding of their own being?
    – When we try to uncover truth, it is very easy for us to obfuscate what is true vs what is something else we are unearthing at the same time – Oren
    o Becoming self sufficient is hard, which is part of why society is needed
    – Life is dull but only if you let yourself believe it is dull. It is fulfillment
    – This idea of constantly being vigilant does not come naturally


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