Mere wrongness

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From China Miéville's Embassytown, the start of the relationship between Avice and Scile:

He’d finished the bulk of his research. It was a comparative study of a particular set of phonemes, in several different languages— and not all of one species, or one world, which made little sense to me.

“What are you looking for?” I said.

“Oh, secrets,” he said. “You know. Essences. Inherentnesses.”

“Bravo on that ugly word. And?”

“And there aren’t any.”

“Mmm,” I said. “Awkward.”

“That’s defeatist talk. I’ll cobble something together. A scholar can never let mere wrongness get in the way of the theory.”

“Bravo again.” I toasted him.

Part of the book's premise is that the Ariekei, the natives of Avice's planet, have a unique mode of communication. Scile soon abandons his intergalactic typology, and marries Avice so as to have access to the natives of her planet.

“Is it unique?” I asked Scile once, and when he nodded I, for the first time, really felt astonishment at it, as if I were an outsider, too.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere,” he said. “Eh, nee, where. It isn’t about the sounds, you know. The sounds aren’t where the meaning lives.”

There are exots who speak without speaking. There are no telepaths in this universe, I think, but there are empathics, with languages so silent that they may as well be sharing thoughts. The Hosts are not like that. They’re empaths of another kind.

For humans, say red and it’s the reh and the eh and the duh combined, those phonemes in context, that communicate the colour. That’s the case whether I say it, or Scile does, or a Shur’asi, or a mindless program that has no sense that it’s speaking at all. That is not how it is for the Ariekei.

Their language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen.

“If I program ’ware with an Anglo-Ubiq word and play it, you understand it,” Scile said. “If I do the same with a word in Language, and play it to an Ariekes, I understand it, but to them it means nothing, because it’s only sound, and that’s not where the meaning lives. It needs a mind behind it.”

Hosts’ minds were inextricable from their doubled tongue. They couldn’t learn other languages, couldn’t conceive of their existence, or that the noises we made to each other were words at all. A Host could understand nothing not spoken in Language, by a speaker, with intent, with a mind behind the words. That was why those early ACL pioneers were confused. When their machines spoke, the Hosts heard only empty barks.

“There’s no other language that works like this,” Scile said. “‘The human voice can apprehend itself as the sounding of the soul itself.’” 

“Who was that?” I said. I could tell he was quoting. “I can’t remember. Some philosopher. It’s not true anyway and he knew it.”

“Or she.”

“Or she. It’s not true, not for the human voice. But the Ariekei … when they speak they do hear the soul in each voice. That’s how the meaning lives there. The words have got …” He shook his head, hesitating, then just using that religiose term. “Got the soul in them. And it has to be there, the meaning. Has to be true to be Language."

The quote in question is from (a translation of) Hegel's Lectures on Aethetics:

[W]e may specify as the freest, and in its sound the most perfect instrument the human voice, which unites in itself the character of wind and string instruments because in this case it is a column of air which vibrates, while through the muscles there also comes into play the principle of tightly stretched strings. Just as we saw, in the case of the colour of the human skin, that, as an ideal unity, it contains the rest of the colours and therefore is the most perfect colour, so the human voice contains the ideal totality of sound, a totality only spread out amongst the other instruments in their particular differences. Consequently it is the perfection of sound and therefore marries most flexibly and beautifully with the other instruments. At the same time the human voice can apprehend itself as the sounding of the soul itself, as the sound which the inner life has in its own nature for the expression of itself, an expression which it regulates directly. On the other hand, in the case of the other instruments a vibration is set up in a body indifferent to the soul and its expression and, in virtue of its own character, more remote from these; but in song the soul rings out from its own body. Hence, like the heart and its own feelings, the human voice develops in a great variety of particular ways, a variety founded, so far as its more general differences are concerned, in. national and other natural circumstances. So, for example, the Italians are a people of song and amongst them the most beautiful voices occur most frequently. A principal feature in this beauty is the material basis of the sound as sound, the pure metal of the voice which should not taper off to mere sharpness or glass-like thinness or remain dull and hollow; but, at the same time, without going so far as tremolo, it preserves within this as it were compact and concentrated sound an inner life and an inner vibration of the sound. In this matter the voice must above all be pure, i.e. along with the perfect note no noise of any kind should assert itself.


  1. languagehat said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 9:24 am

    For those who might be interested, the original of the bolded sentence:

    Zugleich läßt die menschliche Stimme sich als das Tönen der Seele selbst vernehmen, als der Klang, den das Innere seiner Natur nach zum Ausdruck des Innern hat, und diese Aeußerung unmittelbar regiert.

  2. leoboiko said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

    I find the Ariekei an interesting thought experiment on what it would be like if language was, in fact, fundamentally referential. [Mild spoilers follow:] When the humans figure out the trick to speaking their Language, the humans can also say things without a referent, something impossible for the natives; and, when the Ariekei hear those strange enunciations, they experience something like hallucinations.

  3. Rubrick said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 1:47 am

    Huh, I had no idea that the color of human skin was the most perfect color, nor that among Italians the most beautiful voices occur the most frequently!

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