"Get some linguists out here"

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Email from John B.:

Writing to you about a never-expected-to-see sentence, in a novel I’m reading.

“And get some linguists out here as fast as you can.”

(Well, but why not?)

It’s a newly released off the wall novel, The Road to Roswell by Connie Willis. The heroine, Francie, has agreed to be maid of honor at her college roommate’s wedding. The fiancé is a UFO conspiracy nut and he has scheduled the wedding in Roswell NM. Francie is sure that her real task is to bring her friend to her senses and get her to call off the wedding. But Francie gets abducted by a real extraterrestrial alien. And then things get complicated.

The surprise sentence is on page 343 (of 399) in my copy, so things must be heading towards some resolution soon, but I stopped to send this note.

The plot point is interesting, but not (I think) unexpected. After all, Wikipedia has article under the title "Linguistics in Science Fiction"; goodreads has a page "Science Fiction using Languages or Linguistics as a Plot Device"; there's a Reddit post "A Relatively Definitive List of Linguists-Based Science Fiction"; and so on.

In recent popular culture, there's the 2016 film Arrival (see LLOG posts below), whose central character was a linguist recruited by the U.S. Army to learn the language of an alien species. Arrival was was based on Ted Chiang's 1998 novella Story of Your Life. A 2016 piece about Arrival on NPR's All Things Considered tells us that "Before he felt prepared to write 'Story of Your Life,' Chiang spent five years researching linguistics".

As for the linguists in The Road to Roswell, they're never really center stage, as far as I can tell from a few word searches in the e-book. That phrase on p. 343 is in the context of a conversation between the "UFO conspiracy nut" Wade and a government agent:

“The aliens seem to be friendly. In fact, they seem to be apologizing for violating our planetary space and are offering to make amends. Or at least I think that’s what they’re saying.”

“You’re talking to them?”

"Yes, but we still have a ways to go on the whole language thing. Which is why I need you to call off the dogs and give us some time. And get some linguists out here as fast as you can.”

By p. 353, the linguists have apparently arrived, and Wade says:

“They seem to have their own local system of laws regarding interactions with other planets as well as the interplanetary ones, or maybe it’s all linked, I don’t know. Our linguists are doing their best to sort it all out, but…” He shook his head. “The only thing that’s clear is that the Hosbitaii don’t blame any of this on us.”

On p. 360, Francie tells Wade:

“They threw the linguists and me out and went into this giant huddle, scrolling like mad. The only word I caught was tsurrispoinis."

And on p. 367, Wade says

“No, but the linguists say there are close similarities between the Hosbitaii language and Navajo, which points to their having been in contact at some point.”

My impression is that language and linguistics don't play a very central role in the story — maybe more on this later when I've had a chance to read the book.

"Alien Encounters", 9/15/2016
"'Arrival' arrives", 11/11/2016
"Will 'Arrival' bring linguistics into the popular consciousness? A guest post by Luke Lindemann", 12/2/2016


  1. GH said,

    August 31, 2023 @ 8:35 am

    I recently read another science fiction novel where linguistics plays a relatively major part, at least notionally: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015). A human starship from a post-apocalyptic civilization comes into contact with an AI from before the apocalypse, and one of the main characters is a classicist who is called on to translate its language, which they label "Imperial C," previously only known from a few ancient records.

    Unfortunately I don't feel that the challenge is presented very realistically, with several pretty basic mistakes, and once they have served their role of raising tension, the communication difficulties are arbitrarily dismissed with some casual handwaving (the AI's superior intelligence instantly learns their language once it has a mind to).

  2. Adam C said,

    August 31, 2023 @ 12:47 pm

    Out of curiosity, would a linguist be the best choice for first contact, or would a mathematician or some kind of information scientist be better? Our first attempts would probably be mathematical anyway, and a linguist or philologist would need.a large enough corpus to analyze Rosetta Stone-style.

  3. Adam C said,

    August 31, 2023 @ 12:53 pm

    GH, I initially mis-parsed that. I assume you are referring to a starship full of humans or made by humans, and not a starship made out of humans—or one big human.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    August 31, 2023 @ 1:20 pm

    @Adam C: would a linguist be the best choice for first contact, or would a mathematician or some kind of information scientist be better?

    The term "linguist" covers a lot of ground, overlapping substantially with "mathematician" and "some kind(s) of information scientist".

    The analysis team in Arrival includes a physicist as a well as a linguist. Depending on the "communication" modalities involved, I can imagine that chemist might be appropriate.

    But different people from any given discipline are going to perform at wildly different levels, depending what their skills are and what the problem is like.

  5. Robbie said,

    August 31, 2023 @ 2:09 pm

    I remember reading a long short story called "Once There Were Cows". The central character is the official linguist of a landing party on a new planet. It was mandatory for all interplanetary ships to carry a linguist, following the devastating war about a century ago which was caused by an untrained politician misinterpreting an alien ambassador's "yes" as "no" (when speaking in the fourth degree of respect, indicated by a specific tentacle position, the sound emitted for "yes" happens to be the same as the common word for "no").

    The aliens on the new planet were friendly, even subservient, and quick to pick up English, so the linguist was held in contempt as he tried to piece together the aliens' language and understand their culture and history through it. He began making some disturbing discoveries — for instance, their word for "friend" literally meant "one who does not eat you".

    It's a good story. Highly recommended.

  6. GH said,

    August 31, 2023 @ 4:34 pm

    @Adam C:

    Yes, as you say, a starship built by and carrying humans. The question is relevant, though, since one subplot concerns attempts by certain characters to "upload" their minds to become one with the ship, and even bio-engineering an organic ship that would be a living entity.

    In Children of Time, linguistics (here represented by a "classicist") is clearly relevant since it is not a true first contact situation, but an attempt to communicate with a long-separated branch of Terran culture, in a barely known and poorly documented ancient language.

  7. Richard Hershberger said,

    September 1, 2023 @ 6:33 am

    Stipulating to the sentence being surprising, it is less so coming from Connie Willis. It has the mouth feel of a Willis sentence.

    As for linguists in SF, the character of Uhuru as reimagined in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds explicitly is a linguist. The version in ST:TOS was essentially a radio operator. The ST:SNW version does that too, but the Universal Translator is slightly less magical, bringing her mad linguistic skills into play.

  8. Pamela said,

    September 5, 2023 @ 9:58 pm

    They didn't see a book titled To Serve Man on the mother ship's bookshelves, did they?

  9. ajay said,

    September 6, 2023 @ 4:47 am

    "A stranger's just a friend you haven't et."

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