other approaches

When I was first thinking about teaching this class, I looked around for syllabuses, articles and descriptions of similar classes for inspiration. Most of the examples I found didn’t have quite the focus I was going for, but I still found them useful and have summarized them here for myself and others.

Conlangs as a way to teach & learn formal linguistics

There’s a wealth of online information about constructed languages (conlangs) created by linguists for sci-fi, e.g. Elvish (Lord of the Rings), Klingon (Star Trek), Dothraki (Game of Thrones), Láadan (Native Tongue), Na’vi (Avatar).

Conlangs can be effective vehicle for teaching concepts and principles in formal linguistics: morphology and syntax, lexical semantics, sound change, modalities (phonetics, manual signs), writing systems. Some instructors offer entire courses in conlangs; others fold individual conlangs into traditional classes, using them as case studies alongside natural-language examples.

More resources on conlangs:

  • Sanders, Nathan. 2016. Constructed languages in the classroom. Teaching Linguistics, e192-e204
  • Okrent, Arika. 2010. In the land of invented languages.
  • Petersen, David J. 2015. The art of invented languages.
  • David Petersen’s YouTube videos (Petersen created the languages for Game of Thrones.)

Evaluating the linguistic science in sci-fi

Another way to incorporate sci-fi into a linguistics class is to have students use their linguistic knowledge to assess how realistic various sci-fi scenario are. Students can consider questions such as:

  1. Could a dog really learn language like a human if it just underwent a super-advanced surgical overhaul of its vocal tract? (‘Census,’ Simak, as described by Wheatley 1979: 206-207)
  2. Could a brain lesion really affect writing but not speaking, or have differential effects on left- and right-handed people? (‘Speech Sounds,’ Butler)
  3. Could we really learn an alien language using the elicitation methods shown in the film Arrival?
  4. Would the word serve really have the same ambiguity in an alien language as in English? (‘To Serve Man,’ Knight)
  5. Is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis really the theory that “your brain gets rewired” when you learn a new language? (Arrival)

(My answers: no, yes, possibly, unlikely, no.)

While this isn’t the primary goal of my class, we do talk about these kinds of questions as they arise in the stories we read. They can also be used as stand-alone exercises in traditional linguistics courses: summarize the story or scenario for your students and then present the question. For example, you could address #1 in a language evolution unit, #2 in a brain & language unit, #4 in a Translation Theory class.

Caveat: These discussions can be fun and educational, but they can also quickly deteriorate into snark. While it’s important to dispel misinformation, it’s also important to remember that the sci-fi creator isn’t necessarily trying to portray a given scenario realistically. The goal of the exercise isn’t to lord our expert knowledge over the ignorant masses, but to apply it to novel scenarios. It also helps to shift from a myth-busting stance to more open-ended hypothetical questions, e.g.:

  1. Given what we know about language change, how easily would people arriving back on Earth from a multi-generational space voyage–like those imagined in Paradises Lost (Le Guin), Cloud Cuckoo Land (Doerr) or Uranians (McCombs)–be able to communicate with descendants of those who’d stayed?
  2. Suppose you made first contact with extraterrestrials and found that they, like the Runa in The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell), use children as translators because ‘[a]s among us, their children learn languages quickly and easily’ (p. 230). What other hypotheses might this lead you to make about the brain, culture and lifespan of this species, and why?
  3. To what extent do you think language would be (im)possible for a person who cannot make abstractions, as imagined in ‘Funes the Memorious’ (Borges) or Clan of the Cave Bear (Auel)?
  4. What distinguishes ordinary language from telepathy, as imagined in various works of sci-fi (e.g. Mind of My Mind (Butler), The Institute and Carrie (King), The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin), and others?

Some additional resources:

  • Barbara Wheatley (1979), ‘Teaching Linguistics Through Science Fiction and Fantasy.’ Extrapolation, 20(3), 205-213.
  • Walter Meyers, Aliens and Linguistics (1980)
  • Stephanie Putt, Using Science Fiction to Teach Science Facts (2011)
  • The Science of Sci-Fi Cinema: Essays on the Art and Principles of Ten Films, ed. Vincent Piturro (2021)

Corpus linguistics and sci-fi

Linguistics Vanguard had a special issue in 2023 on ‘The Language of Science Fiction.’ The issue is not explicitly teaching-focused, but the individual studies could be easily incorporated into courses on corpus methods and sociolinguistics. Topics include the adoption of sci-fi slang in everyday speech, how sociolinguistic conventions and attitudes carry over into sci-fi stories, and men’s and women’s speech in older vs. newer Star Trek episodes.

Sci-fi language as a window to other worldviews; linguistic relativity

Sci-fi languages are sometimes presented as a way to understand the values and customs of an imagined society. Anthropological linguist M.J. Hardman taught a course called Linguistics and Science Fiction at UFL (1999) that focused entirely on ‘the worldviews imaged in science-fiction created languages.’ A primary text in this course was Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue trilogy, which features a language called Láadan that is secretly created by women linguists in an extremely oppressive male-dominated society.

Elgin says she ‘specifically designed [Láadan] to express the perceptions of human women.’ She wrote Native Tongue as ‘a thought experiment with the express goal of testing [among other things] the weak form of the linguistic relativity hypothesis,’ which she defines as the idea that ‘human languages structure human perceptions in significant ways.’ See also this essay.

Other texts in Hardman’s syllabus included The Left Hand of Darkness and Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Sparrow and The Children of God by Mary Doria Russell, and Hardman’s own essay ‘Derivational thinking, or Why is equality so difficult?‘, where she proposes that a constellation of grammatical features in English – the derived plural, derived feminine, and ranking comparative-superlative – ‘result in thinking patterns that have all people and things ranked at all things, with only one man as primary.’

Other sci-fi stories that entertain the linguistic-relativity hypothesis (a.k.a. Sapir-Whorf or Whorfian hypothesis) include:

  • George Orwell’s 1984 (where the ruthless stripping-down of the lexicon in Newspeak is supposed to make people more pliant and less critical)
  • Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 (where the absence of a first-person singular pronoun (‘I/me’) prevents speakers from developing a sense of self)
  • Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao (which I haven’t read)

There’s also a strong language-thought correlation underlying Heptapod B from Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life,’ but the causal link is reversed: the heptapods’ nonlinear perception of time explains their development of a nonlinear visual language (in other words, perception –> language rather than language –> perception).

I haven’t taken Hardman’s approach to teaching linguistics & sci-fi myself, probably because I’m ambivalent about the extent to which lexical and grammatical change can bring about significant social change. I may write more about this later.

Using linguistics in literary analysis

Language and Literature had a volume in 2003 dedicated to Science Fiction and Literary Linguistics, edited by Peter Stockwell. Literary linguistics, according to Stockwell, ‘takes our best current knowledge of language and reading and applies it to questions of interpretation, aesthetics, literary value and criticism’; a student of literary linguistics is ‘faced with a challenge to become a stylistician.’

Applied to science fiction, Stockwell says, literary linguistics might ask such questions as:

how are speech and thought presented when telepathy is a possibility; how does point of view work when the character can see only through the eyes of other nearby creatures; how are tense and aspect adapted in a time-travel story; how do naming, reference and co-reference, anaphora and deixis work when faced with the twists and turns of metamorphosis…?

Peter Stockwell, Introduction: science fiction and literary linguistics, 2003:196

We spend quite a bit of time on these kinds of questions in my classes. For example, we’ve talked at length about:

  • the use of abbreviations, spacing and punctuation George Saunders’ ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries‘ and ‘Elliott Spencer
  • the construction I remember when you’ll… in Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’
  • the novel pronoun itselves in Octavia Butler’s ‘Amnesty’

It’s never occurred to me to think of these discussions as literary linguistics, though–I’ve always thought my tendency to pay close attention to form was an expression of the kind of reader I am, rather than the kind of linguist I am. This volume has gotten me thinking more about the disciplinary boundary between literature and linguistics.

More on literary linguistics: