An analysis of the conditioning power of language in science fiction novels

- Research project
- Kunstorganisatie Extrapool, Nijmegen 
- Part of the series Letters and Ideas
- I.c.w. Suzanne Caerteling

The aim of Whoops is to examine the effect of language on social phenomena and human cognition. It does so by analysing the use of language in science fiction novels. 
Our method of analysis is informed by Benjamin Lee Whorf’s theory on language, thought and reality. According to Whorf, a linguistic system is not merely an instrument to convey ideas, it also forms and structures ideas. Our grammar, as part of a linguistic system, categorizes our impressions, guides our cognition and forms our world view. 

Science fiction as a literary genre typically extrapolates specific hypotheses and their ramifications. Within science fiction, linguistic issues form a pivotal element, the concept of language is often related to concepts like control, resistance, historical awareness, truth, time perception, rational thinking and memory. An examination of these novels gives us insight in how the use of language could produce subjects and the world they live in. 
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess. 1962

Set in a near future the English society is repressed by a totalitarian super-state. Ordinary citizens work at jobs provided by the state. At night the populace watch the state’s propaganda through world casts, a worldwide television broadcast. Consequential the people fall into a state of stupefaction. Meanwhile, violent gangs of teenagers roam the streets at night, robbing, beating and raping. The protagonist Alex leads a gang of teenage criminals and narrates his brutal experiences in a slang called Nadsat, an artificial language with Russian and Cockney English slang influences.
In the story Alex uses his language in two ways: firstly, he separates himself from the oppressed society by means of linguistic rebellion; and secondly, he emphasizes his superiority in relation to his friends and victims, by using degrading pronouns when he addresses them.
On a stylistic level Burgess uses Nadsat to 1) deviate from the violence, 2) enclose the view of reality of Alex and his friends, and 3) show the reader how easily we unconsciously adopt new languages and ideas.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley. 1931

Brave New World features a futuristic world, referred to as the World State, wherein the world’s population is artificially reproduced and socially conditioned to maintain a stable, uniform, hedonistic society. The key method of conditioning is hypnopaedia (sleep-teaching), a medium to inculcate moral truths by countless repetition of rhythmical slogans while sleeping. Through hypnopaedia language becomes nothing more than a medium, “words without reason”. 
The language of Shakespeare is as essential to the plot as hypnopaedia. According to the World State the writings of Shakespeare are subversive, because they represent and evoke emotions like love and hate, which would disrupt society. John Savage, a man who grows up outside the World State, is able to experience these emotions after reading Shakespeare. John’s perception of reality shifts because the concepts of hate and love in Shakespeare’s poems become more ‘real’ when he is able to express these feelings linguistically.
I, Robot, Isaac Asimov. 1950

I, Robot, the collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, describes the development and evolution of robots. The language of these robots evolves in a way that their speech improves in every step and becomes more human. Robbie for example is a non-vocal robot, he has no ability to speak. Cutie has a voice that carries the cold timbre inseparable from a metallic diaphragm. Dave is equipped with an excellent diaphragm, and the presence of overtones in the sound unit robs him of much of that metallic flatness. 
All the while the limitations in language and miscommunication between humans and robots lead to several problems. Speedy has a deficit and talks like a drunk. Humans are afraid to give orders they don’t mean to give. Robots get confused when having to deal with multiple orders. The more important robots become, the more humans adjust their language to the abilities and disabilities of robots and computer systems. How will this in turn affect human perception?
The Story of Your Life, Ted Chiang. 1998

The Story of Your Life is narrated by the linguist Dr. Louise Banks. Together with physicist Dr. Gary Donelly she is assigned to make contact with heptapods, a type of aliens that arrived on Earth. Louise learns that the heptapods speak and write in a language with free word order. She reveals that the heptapods don’t write sentences in a linear sequence, instead they write sentences all at once. Louise realizes that the language reflects the way the heptapods perceive time, instead of experiencing events sequentially (causal), they experience events simultaneously (teleological). 
After Louise becomes familiar with the language of the aliens her own time perception changes. She begins to see glimpses of the future with her daughter. Louise learns that her unborn daughter will die as a young woman of a terminal disease. Despite knowing what will happen she decides to get pregnant anyway. 
The changing perception of time of Louise is reflected in the structure of the novel. The story alternates between recounting the past and remembering the future. 
1984, George Orwell. 1949

In George Orwell’s 1984 the deterministic model of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (that language limits and determines human knowledge or thought) is explored through ‘Newspeak’. This constructed language was created to control the thoughts, perceptions, and communication of people in the dystopia of the novel - if you have no word for a concept, object or feeling, it will just not exist for you. Words are simply forbidden and deleted in order to erase unwanted ideas in the heads and expressions of the people.
Another change in language that is introduced is the concept of Doublethink. It means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. It supplies the possibility to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while take account of the reality which one denies. ‘Blackwhite’, for example, means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and forget that one has ever believed the contrary. 
Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin. 1984

Native Tongue tests four hypotheses: 1) that the weak form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true (languages structure perceptions in significant ways); 2) that there are changes you could not introduce into a language without destroying it and languages you could not introduce into a culture without destroying it (Gödel’s Theorem); 3) that change in language brings about social change, rather than the contrary; 4) that if women were offered a woman’s language they would welcome and nature it or replace it with a better one. 
When the women in Native Tongue create the language Láadan, they are not simply creating new words. They are reordering what is significant and not significant, perceived and not perceived. They call it Encoding: ‘the making of a name for a chunk of the world that has never been chosen for naming before in any human language, and that has not just suddenly been made or found or dumped upon your culture. That has been around a long time but has never before impressed anyone as sufficiently important to deserve its own name. They come to you out of nowhere and you realise that you have always needed them.’