Linguistic tools for the supervillain

« previous post | next post »

In celebration of Geoff Pullum's 700th LLOG post, "World domination and threats to the public", we'll be meeting for a quiet (virtual) drink this evening. But meanwhile I'll quietly suggest that Geoff has been too hasty in joining Randall Munroe at xkcd in assigning to the field of Linguistics a "low likelihood of being a crucial tool for a supervillain, and low probability of anything breaking out of the research environment and threatening the general population".

In fact LLOG posts have described at least two fictional counter-examples  over the years, and I expect that commenters will be able to suggest some others.

There's "La septième fonction du langage" (8/24/2017), describing Laurent Binet's novel of the same name, which imagines that Roman Jakobson extended his six functions of language with a secret seventh function, designated as the “magic or incantatory function,” whose mechanism is described as “the conversion of a third person, absent or inanimate, to whom a conative message is addressed". Instructions for using this seventh function were powerful enough to ensure the election of François Mitterand, and motivated an international police operation to prevent them from falling into more dangerous hands.

And there's also "Digitoneurolinguistic hacking" (2/4/2011) in which I quoted the Wikipedia entry for Neil Stephenson's 2003 novel Snow Crash:

The book explores the controversial concept of neuro-linguistic programming and presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brainstem, which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus, similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter-program which he called a nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different languages as a protection against Asherah, supposedly giving rise to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. […]

As Stephenson describes it, one goddess/semi-historical figure, Asherah, took it upon herself to create a dangerous biolinguistic virus and infect all peoples with it; this virus was stopped by Enki, who used his skills as a "neurolinguistic hacker" to create an inoculating "nam-shub" that would protect humanity by destroying its ability to use and respond to the Sumerian tongue. This forced the creation of "acquired languages" and gave rise to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Unfortunately, Asherah's meta-virus did not disappear entirely, as the "Cult of Asherah" continued to spread it by means of cult prostitutes and infected women breast feeding orphaned infants …

Since these examples belong more to the realm of fantasy than hard science fiction, I have to admit that Geoff is probably right about our field being "a safe thing to work on" — at least if you have a positive opinion of the  various modern commercial and governmental applications of computational linguistics.



  1. MattF said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 11:06 am

    Well, Charlie Stross's Laundry Files novels allude to 'Old Enochian'– sort of a cross between a natural language and a computer language– as an esoteric language suited to invoking various magical spells.

    Also, John Dee explored Enochian, or 'Angelic' languages– there's a sample of Enochian script in the relevant Wikipedia article. I don't think Enochian script has made it into Unicode, though.

  2. Margaret Wilson said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 11:37 am

    I must disagree with Geoff on the molasses issue, I think Munroe knew what he was doing. There was only one Great Molasses Flood, and molasses container technology has probably improved. On the other hand, I think Munroe located it too *low* on the plot. A supervillain exploding a molasses container ranks higher than "accident" at this point, for probability of causing the next great molasses disaster.

    I also like how Paleontology is ever so slightly further right than Linguistics. Jurassic Park is slightly less outlandish than the seventh function of language.

  3. Stephen Hart said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 11:48 am

    Also note that Geoff Pullum's original post shows the comic with a spelling error. Entymology ≠ Entomology. The version online now has been corrected. Or, more sinisterly, it's the undoctored version.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 11:58 am

    Going back to the 1960s, Samuel Delaney's Babel-17 depicted language as a tool of Whorfian mind control.

    And of course there's 1984.

  5. Jim Parish said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 12:09 pm

    Neal Stephenson's novel "Snow Crash" involved a linguistic threat, if I recall correctly, and a February 28, 2008 post on Language Log itself contains the blackly funny short-short story, "It Was the LInguists":

    Thanks — I'd forgotten that one! Not by Neal Stephenson, though…]

  6. Lugubert said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

    "Entymology" isn't a misspelling. It refers to the study of the history of insect names, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.

  7. Peter Taylor said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 1:03 pm

    Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

    If we accept Douglas Adam's premise that removing communication barriers can provoke conflict, it does suggest that computational linguistics has the potential both to do great harm and to be weaponised by a supervillain who aims to exploit the chaos to gain power.

  8. Y said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

    I disagree with the cartoon's positioning of dentistry, having read Marathon Man.

  9. mg said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

    Geoff apparently missed Randall's alt-text: The 1919 Great Boston Molasses Flood remained the deadliest confectionery containment accident until the Canadian Space Agency's 2031 orbital maple syrup delivery disaster.

  10. Yuval said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

    I was going to note the same observation as mg, that Geoff, and possibly Margaret Wilson, missed the alt-text, only to see that Y missed Geoff's post! Lotta noise going on in this channel today.

  11. Dave said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    Two other relevant books: Lexicon, by Max Barry, is a recent novel that involves people using secret ancient words as a mind control weapon. The supervillains and heroes are linguists! (Sort of.)

    Also, more classically, language and words were a key element of Big Brother's scheme in 1984.

  12. DWalker07 said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

    Dan Brown's most famous hero is an "esteemed" symbologist (or renowned?), if not exactly a linguist. He is smart enough to become a supervillain if he wants to!

  13. maidhc said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

    Robert Mercer, billionaire backer of Brexit, Breitbart News and other rightwing causes, received the Association for Computational Linguistics Lifetime Achievement Award In June 2014.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

    Monty Python's funniest joke sketch seems like an example of language breaking out into the wild and causing harm, or at least of the risk being established as large.

  15. Chris C. said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 4:16 pm

    Does not any potential world rule put himself forward for that role using language as his primary tool? I don't think anyone needs to reach very far for one or two examples from the past century. Language is indeed one of the few real-world tools related to anything on the graph that have actually been used for this purpose.

    To the extent linguistics might provide the insight needed to make language a potentially more effective tool for this purpose, it's far too low on the vertical axis. One might move psychology up with it in tandem.

  16. Haamu said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 4:27 pm

    @Chris C. — Agreed.

    Re the growing interest in the use of language, and cognitive linguistics in particular, for political leverage, see also Frank Luntz, George Lakoff, and others.

  17. Bathrobe said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 6:04 pm

    For language as a political tool, see Black Speech, created by Sauron to be the sole language of all the servants of Mordor, replacing Orkish, Common Speech and other languages used by his servants.

    Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
    ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

  18. Rachel Sommer said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 7:28 pm

    Seems like a good thing to add to the comic commentary here:

  19. Gwen Katz said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 10:55 pm

    What about Heptapod, the language that causes you to experience nonlinear time? Seems like it has supervillainous applications.

  20. Jason said,

    October 18, 2017 @ 11:11 pm

    Nathan, the incredibly sleazy owner of the web company Bluebook in the movie Ex Machina, who is Certainly Not Mark Zuckerberg, uses computational linguistics on employee Caleb's internet search activity to profile him and select him as the perfect mark for his (Nathan's) manipulative AI experiments.

  21. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 5:45 am

    You forgot the iPeeve.

  22. David Marjanović said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 5:55 am

    If Mercer isn't enough, I recommend this story.

  23. James Wimberley said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 7:02 am

    The superbros at Mountain View are working hard on Google Transmute.

  24. Brett said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 9:55 am

    @Bathrobe: In the discussion of Black Speech in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien points out that Sauron's attempt to use it to control how his servitors could think was basically unsuccessful. I always interpreted that as a subtle dig at Orwell's ideas.

    For a story of megalomaniacs trying to use language as a tool for planet-wide conquest, there is always ultra-Whorfian The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance. It's not a great book by any means, but it has some interesting bits.

  25. Andrew Usher said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 9:40 pm

    It's hard to believe that anyone didn't realise that he included 'molasses storage' for that very reason, even without the mouse-over text, as there'd be none other to think of it …

    There's simply a broader and narrower sense of 'linguistics' here. Yes, it's true that any real villain must come to power by using language well, which can be the object of linguistic study, that is different from _understanding_ and consciously applying that same kind of study i.e. using 'linguistics' in the narrower (and more appropriate here) sense.

    The language in Orwell's 1984 is certainly a possible example of the latter; but surely he was too optimistic about the prospects of doing so – even if you can control people's vocabulary in public, you can't control the meanings they assign to that vocabulary (and many posts here have been about China's failure in just that).

    k_over_hbarc at

  26. Xtifr said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 4:43 pm

    @Andrew Usher: it may not be as effective as Orwell suggested, but do supervillains know that? As numerous wags have noted, people in power often seem to treat 1984 as a book of suggestions, rather than a warning.

RSS feed for comments on this post