Language as Lesson

In this Book & Book, two classics with an ambassador to a new world, whether by choice or force, demonstrate the lessons of language and their bearing on interpersonal power dynamics.

Completely blue cover with doubled white lettering

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin sees an ambassador on the faraway planet of Winter where he must navigate shifgrethor – an untranslatable word – upon which most of the larger plot hinges. Genly Ai is tasked with convincing the ruler in charge to open larger negotiations with the galactic hegemony. Shifgrethor affects the smaller and more intimate story as well. The one where Genly learns to love, in a fashion unusual and beautiful, after a katabasis through vast ice sheets and volcanic power.

Le Guin trusts the reader with large amounts of new vocabulary. Words for weather and keeping the calendar, for sexual relations and political factions. But, shifgrethor is the word she builds the book around. The story itself is a demonstration of the word.

On Winter, there is no nationalism yet. They are not patriots. There has never been war. But, the potential is imminent, and it’s a point of tension. One could argue keeping this peace drives the plot. One could also argue the plot is driven by maintaining balance – which I believe comes close to defining shifgrethor.

A shallow river next to a golden shore. White mounded and needle-peaked formations in background, two creatures in a primitive boat in foreground

Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis finds Ransom, a scholar of texts, kidnapped and taken to Malacandra (Mars) by a greedy former acquaintance and a monster of a mad scientist. Before Ransom arrives, he is told he will be given as sacrifice to the aliens. In great fear, he plots a way to escape, vowing to die by his own hand rather than be a victim.

When Ransom arrives, he does escape. But, he finds the inhabitants are not what he assumed. And, he learns this by language. The first alien he encounters becomes mentor and friend. Lewis uses their language lessons to subvert colonial assumptions.

Like Le Guin, Lewis enriches the reader’s experience of a new world with alien words. Language for geography and food, mainly. Both books have the main character spend a good deal of time traversing inhospitable and formidable terrain.

The inhabitants of Malacandra have never had war. There is no greed, no crime, no nationalism. Three races live in harmony overseen by angel-like beings. The word Lewis chooses as the foundation for such a utopia is hnau – another untranslatable word.

The closest definition is one of moral awareness. Lewis makes the argument that beings without a higher guidance become morally lost. The two “bent” companions of Ransom are caricatures of this opinion – and Lewis again uses language to convey just how morally repugnant an unguided soul sounds and behaves. The scientist speaking to intelligent beings as if they were animals, and the greedy man only recognizing force and threat. Both willing to kill and torture to get what they want.

Ransom becomes translator – not just for the earthlings and the martians, but for Lewis to his readers. The book devolves into a grand moral soliloquy. Both good and evil get their moment on stage. It’s all heavy-handed and obtuse, but the philosophy of hnau does stick with you.

 

Both books use language in ways that delight and challenge. The made-up words take on solidity and realness as you go, and force you to examine the casual usage of words you already think you know.

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