Summer linguistics

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From Barbara Phillips Long:

In the last week, I have read several "summer reading" columns. It occurs to me it might be interesting to know if there are books with linguists as major characters. Are there?

Are there works of fiction that revolve around characters who do related work, such as compiling dictionaries or working as translators in ways that make languages and linguistics essential to the plot structure?
I ran "fiction" through the LL search, and I did not see any posts on this particular angle.

Selected reading


  1. Victoria Martin said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 6:03 am

    „Native Tongue“ by Suzette Hayden Elgin is about entire dynasties of linguists mediating contact between humans and aliens in a misogynistic dystopia (so swings and roundabouts – good for (male) linguists, bad for women).

  2. Scott Mauldin said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 6:19 am

    Helen DeWitt's "The Last Samurai" heavily involves language learning and a child figuring out how different languages work as part of his bildungsroman.

    David Mitchell's "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" is much less language-focused, but there are snippets of multiple languages that show up, and language learning is involved in one major plot point.

    I read it 20 years ago and don't remember very thoroughly, but Dan Brown's "Digital Fortress" has a language professor as a main character and I do believe there was some translation shenanigans involved.

  3. Scott Mauldin said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 6:22 am

    Oh and Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" has the main characters figuring out a lot of translated puzzles with plenty of Latin and commentaries on other languages and dialects.

  4. Frans said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 6:32 am

    The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet?

  5. Richard said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 7:28 am

    Alexander McCall Smith's 'Portuguese Irregular Verbs' and its sequels are thoroughly entertaining.

  6. Ross Presser said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 7:29 am

    In the world of science fiction, we have at least two that I can think of:

    Ted Chiang, "Story of Your Life" (1999). A novella filmed as the movie "Arrival". Main character is a linguist who must learn to communicate with aliens with a very, very different language. More detail about linguistics in the print story than in the movie.

    Samuel "Chip" Delaney, _Babel-17_ (1966). Novel about Rydra Wong, a poet, spaceship captain and linguist, who is trying to decode a new language that seems to be connected to unexplained attacks on her ship and herself.

    Then there's this Wikipedia page:

  7. Doug said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 7:31 am

    Back in 1988, in a column in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory*, Geoffrey Pullum listed "6 Science Fiction Novels for Linguists":

    Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delaney
    The Embedding, by Ian Watson
    The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin
    Contact, by Carl Sagan
    The Poison Oracle, by Peter Dickinson
    The Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance

    *Later republished in his essay collection titled The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.

  8. Katherine said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 7:56 am

    More on the Sci-Fi list:

    Janet Kagan’s Hellspark’s main character is a linguist/trader. The plot is a murder mystery that focuses a lot on differences in language and proxemics.

    The main protagonist in C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series is a human translator-diplomat and lexicographer backed (sort of) by a Linguistics department.

  9. Peter Taylor said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 8:24 am

    The protagonist of C.S. Lewis' Perelandra is a philologist, who has to figure out an alien language.

    Enemy Mine by Barry B. Longyear is about enemy combatants (one human, one alien) who are stranded together and learn each language. It must be 25 years since I read it, so the following is to the best of my memory. They're soldiers rather than linguists, but the bulk of the plot is about acquisition of each other's language. IIRC the Dracon language had some morphology but the word was very similar to English. (I think I read the original, shortest version; it certainly wasn't the trilogy).

  10. Victoria Martin said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 8:26 am

    There’s also China Mieville’s “Embassytown“ which posits a training programme for genetically engineered twins so they can communicate with an alien species whose language involves speaking two words simultaneously and is unable to express lies or speculation (I wasn’t convinced by the „unable to lie“ part but at least it’s a very imaginative attempt).

  11. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 9:35 am

    David Carkeet's Double Negative (1980) is a murder mystery set in a linguistics department. The protagonist, Jeremy Cook, appears in two more of Carkeet's novels.

    I second the recommendation of Cherryh's monumental Foreigner series, which will occupy you not just for the summer but well into next year.

  12. M. Paul Shore said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 10:19 am

    Love in a Dead Language (2000), by Lee Siegel, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies (his real field is Indian studies, though) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. An intellectually and formally spectacular comic novel about Leopold Roth, a professor of Indian studies, who succumbs to a sort of Nabokovian amorous and erotic insanity, with disastrous consequences.

  13. Scott Underwood said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 10:31 am

    The Linguist, a 1975 short story by Stephen Robinett (writing as Tak Hallus]

    In the future, you can buy knowledge that someone else has learned and have it transferred to your brain (and out of theirs). A man with a facility for languages is learning Spanish for a client, reading Cervantes "Don Quixote" as a check. The client is impatient but the linguist is desperate to finish the book in Spanish (he refuses translations as inferior), so he flees while they chase him into the desert.

    Read it here:

  14. mg said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 11:47 am

    Not the main plot point, but Sharon Lee & Steve Miller's Liaden Universe series has characters speaking several languages (Liaden – a complex language with multiple modes, Terran, Yxtrang, and Trade (seems to be a simplified patois). Those who are multi-lingual comment at various points about difficulties saying certain things or conveying certain nuances in other languages, or choose to use one over another in a conversation to avoid complications (for example, choosing Terran over Liaden to avoid having to choose which mode to use to address someone).

  15. Sacha Arnold said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 12:31 pm

    My own first novel, published last year, is a black comedy set in a linguistics department. It's available for purchase at the link below.

  16. V said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 2:30 pm

    I second the SF recommendations, especially Delayney's, but Dan Browns' is plainly bad.

  17. David P said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 4:31 pm

    Janet Lewis's historical novel The Invasion features among other characters Henry Schoolcraft, who was a 19th century linguist of sorts. His translation of Ojibwa myths inspired Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. He also, according to Wikipedia, supplied Michigan with faux-Indian names for some of its counties, constructed by jumbling together syllables from Native American words with syllables from Latin or Arabic,

  18. CuConnacht said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 4:36 pm

    The Doctor Is Sick (1960), Anthony Burgess.

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 5:28 pm

    Perhaps it doesn't strictly qualify, but there's a recent-ish novel with the intriguing title "The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky."* Note FWIW that it has received wildly varying reactions, with some very positive reviews and some very negative ones:

    *Apparently the title character carries around a Chomsky book without ever actually reading it, although I suspect it may have been one of his political rants rather than one of his exercises in abandoning his own prior claims about syntactic theory.

  20. Anthony said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 6:51 pm

    "Linguist/trader" probably depicts something more exotic than my life (Ph.D. linguistics, decades in the futures-trading industry).

  21. Tiger Webb said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 9:43 pm

    In contrast to linguistics, lexicography seems to be quite productive for fiction. Easy inbuilt metaphor — chasing the sun, and all that. Three that spring to mind:

    The Liar's Dictionary (Eley Williams, set in both the present and the Victorian era of a fictional reference work)
    The Dictionary of Lost Words (Pip Williams, historical fiction set mainly in the JAH Murray-era OED)
    The Yield (Tara June Winch, contemporary a dictionary of Wiradjuri features prominently)

    I'd recommend all, though the first is by far my favourite. I'm sure there are more.

  22. Jack said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 11:01 pm

    The Great Passage is a Japanese light novel by Shion Miura about lexicographers working at a fictional publishing house. It's been adapted into an animated TV series and a live action feature film.

  23. Paul McCann said,

    July 11, 2022 @ 11:07 pm

    There's an ongoing manga called Heterogenia Linguistico where the main character is a linguist observing and communicating with monsters and trying to survive a journey. Many of the monsters communicate non-verbally with things like gestures or heat.

  24. DJL said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 3:30 am

    Hilarious, J.W. Brewer, hilarious.

  25. bks said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 5:38 am

    "MS Fnd in a Lbry" by Hal Draper (1961)

  26. Laura said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 6:54 am

    The central character in Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is a Jesuit linguist sent on an exploratory mission to another planet.

  27. polygone hexagone said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 6:00 pm

    The Laurent Binet book The Seventh Function of Language (mentioned above) is fabulous – though it's a semiotician who stars, and rhetoric which wins out. It's a romp through Barthes/Foucault et alii, and is even better in the original french (septième function du langage)

    I find the Carkeet books to be a bit precious.

  28. V said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 8:45 pm

    Laura: That was really cringey. I would not recommend against reading it, though, unlike Digital Fortress.

  29. ardj said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 12:42 pm

    In addition to the tales mentioned in the Wikipedia article (which seems to rely almost entirely on Meyer’s book), there are two others which occur to me.

    The often mawkish (and appallingly proof-read) Honour Harrington series by David Weber has a section in “War of Honour” discussing how alien telepaths might cope with understanding human speech.

    The most charming science fiction story on linguistic matters that I know is “Maxos” by Charles Stross: originally a letter to Nature, it deals with the interpretation of “microwave artefacts of xenobiological origin”

  30. ardj said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 2:35 pm

    I suppose I should add that fictions of various kinds offer delights which may interest linguisticians. The differenc approaches to spareness of language of Nabolov and Beckett, for instance, or the opposing views of Hale, Robert Graves, &c., and Donald Davie on Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius, and that's without going into Pound and Chinese characters.

    Generally historical fiction is often a rich challenge – for example, Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series poses a variety of lingusitic traps and difficulties.

  31. ardj said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 2:36 pm

    @ardj: "different", not "differenc"

  32. V said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 5:09 pm

    ardj: David Webber is in the same category as Dan Brown for me: not worth trying to read.

  33. V said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 5:27 pm

    The Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie might be of interest. The linguistic issues are tangential to the plot but they do have a part in several crucial plot point.

  34. V said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 10:42 pm

    "Omnilingial" by H. Beam Piper is a more straightforward example. The protagonist is a linguist trying to decipher the language of an extinct Martian civilization.

  35. V said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 11:36 pm

    Sorry, Omnilingual. Spoiler: she does, or at least lays the basics for it, despite her colleagues' scepticism. Edit: autocorrect again made it "omnilingial", I noticed just before posting again.

  36. V said,

    July 15, 2022 @ 1:58 am

    … I Only just noticed that Radch sounds like Raj in English. I only thought it mildly interesting that she used "kef" as the name of a fictional substance stereotypically used recreationally.

  37. ardj said,

    July 15, 2022 @ 2:35 am

    @V: know what you mean, I just noticed that my keyboard has difficulty spelling "linguistic". And Ann Leckie's series is wonderful. David Weber writes with something of a sledgehammer, but there are a lot of jokes and some interesting discussions of strategy.

  38. V said,

    July 15, 2022 @ 5:06 pm

    ardj: I've only partially read one of Webber's novels, and it was basically "Horatio Hornblower _In Space_," with excruciating details about spaceship combat. I abandoned reading it at some point.

    Laura: I'm sorry about the brevity of my initial comment about The Sparrow. What I might say is the Jesuit order is a lot of things, but quite liberal considering, and the current Roman Pope has come out as transphobic. (transphobia seems to be fashionable lately)

  39. Garrett Riggs said,

    July 17, 2022 @ 1:05 pm

    Not entirely fiction but very linguistic, George Saunders’ _A Swim In the Pond in the Rain_. Saunders (_Lincoln in the Bardo_) also teaches writing at Syracuse University. He takes short stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol and discusses what makes them great and how they are put together. I am about halfway through and the book is excellent. My only small disappointment is that as yet there are no specific comments on translations. (Saunders teaches the stories in English.). But fortunately for me, this gives me something to play with for my upcoming book club discussion!

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