Podcast Episode: Babel-17

“If there is no word for it, how do you think about it?” reflects the central topic of a sci-fi masterwork known for its discussion on linguistic relativity. I’m talking about Babel-17, a Nebula Award-winning novel by Samuel R. Delaney.

Let’s get this book undone.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Books Undone. I’m your host, Livia J. Elliot, and today we will discuss Babel-17, written by Samuel R. Delaney. I came across it thanks to a recommendation from a BookTube channel I watch regularly, Johana Reads (her link will be in the description). This book is also part of the SF Masterworks collection, published in 1966. It remains unequivocally original and unique, yet at the same time deep and thoughtful.

Let’s start with the usual disclaimers. First, there are spoilers in this podcast, so please be aware of it. Second, as usual, what you will hear is my subjective analysis of this book; so you are allowed and entitled to disagree and differ.

Let’s start with some trivia.

Linguistic relativity is a principle suggesting that the structure of a language influences its speakers’ worldview and cognition and, thus, that an individual’s spoken languages determine or shape their perceptions of the world. When Babel-17 was published, this hypothesis was at a peak of popularity. Back then, it was referred to as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, first advanced by Edward Sapir in 1929 and subsequently developed by his student, Benjamin Whorf.

Eventually, this hypothesis split up into two versions:

  • The strong hypothesis is now referred to as linguistic determinism, and states that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and restrict cognitive categories. This version argues that individuals experience the world based on the structure of the language they commonly use, and by extension, that people from different cultures think differently because of differences in their language. However, and without getting into the details, several researchers eventually discredited the idea of linguistic determinism.

  • The weak hypothesis, known as linguistic relativity, appeared later (in other words, neither Sapir nor Whorf proposed this dichotomy). The linguistic relativity idea states that language influences thought, but does not determine it.

There is quite more to these two ideas, so I’ll leave a link in the description1. Knowing these ideas is important because Babel-17 goes around the idea of linguistic determinism (the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) using worldbuilding, and the main character’s mission to actually exemplify why linguistic determinism it’s not quite right.

Although linguistic determinism was quite popular by the mid-60s, in an interview with The Paris Review2 Delaney said: “What’s wrong with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that it fails to take into account the whole economy of discourse, which is a linguistic level that accomplishes lots of the soft-edge conceptual contouring around ideas, […]. [Discourse] is what generates the values and suggestions around a concept, even if the concept has no name, or hasn’t the name it will eventually have. […] I think it’s reasonable to say that if language is what allows us to think about things, then discourse is what controls the way we think about things. And the second—discourse—has primacy.”

As I see it, that quote leads us to the central theme of Babel-17… which we will discuss in this episode, as outlined by the opening question. What happens when you are missing words?

I’m bilingual, and when I read some parts of Babel-17 I ended up relating quite a bit and thinking about the daily issues almost every bilingual or polyglot person has. Namely, that the right word is never in the language you are speaking at that moment, or that an idea can be better (and perhaps more succinctly) expressed in another language… so, if my listener knows both languages, we switch back and forth because that actually yields a more accurate expression; but if they don’t share the same languages that I know, I end up going around the missing-word, using others in what Delaney just called “soft-edge conceptual contouring around ideas”. Let’s see how that played out in Babel-17.

Babel-17, the novel, is named after a quote-on-quote “code” that the Alliance navy found preceding some attacks by the other human faction, called Invaders. Our main character, Rydra Wong, is a polyglot and savant poetess with a keen understanding of language and sound–and early on, she realises that Babel-17 is not a code but a fully-fledged language. Rydra uncovered that Babel-17 has its own grammar, words, and ways of threading thought… which is quite an interesting point.

In a stream-of-consciousness about languages, Rydra questions herself, asking: “If there is no word for it, how do you think about it?” and effectively kickstarting part of the main theme of this book. If you go for the linguistic determinism (the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), Rydra seems to answer that question by saying “In the beginning was the word. […] Until something is named it doesn’t exist.” To put it simply–you can’t think of something you can’t summarise as a word in a language that you know. This is focusing on verbal language only, seemingly disregarding discourse.

The complexity of our natural languages makes us, humans, different from every other known life-form on this planet. In a conversation, Rydra somewhat supports this idea by stating that “Language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language”–therefore, words are the key to advanced ideas. Through our languages, we can shape our ideas and emotions to communicate them in a way that will be roughly understood by other people. Therefore, if a single word can be used to express an idea, without generating any ambivalence, then it is easy to express.

Nevertheless, you may have plenty of words available, yet none of them may be enough to express a very concrete idea. That ambivalence in the words (namely, the lack of accurate words) doesn’t mean we cannot think beyond the limits of our current language. It probably happened to everyone; you are trying to explain something to a friend or colleague, but none of the words are just it, they all feel approximations, some better, some worse, but never quite right… and what do we do in that case? If you know multiple languages, you’ll intuitively resort to another that is more accurate; otherwise, we will likely ramble! We will launch into a descriptive explanation, resorting to metaphors or comparisons and using other words to try to express the idea behind that concept without a specific word for it.

That is the conceptual contouring around ideas from Delaney’s quote.

To some extent, you could argue that natural languages continue to evolve because we humans continue to need more words to express ideas in a more concrete way. When analysing these hiccups and shortages across languages, Rydra thinks that “words are names for things”, adding that “words are symbols for whole categories of things, when a name was put to a single object.” The author, Samuel Delaney, used a bit of world-building to ingeniously exemplify this idea. In this book, there are seven alien races… but humans really don’t interact that much with aliens. Why? According to Rydra Wong, “because compatibility factors for communication are incredibly low”–so, that means because some concepts are very difficult to translate from one language to another.

Language is influenced by the needs of a society or group. A great example of that is technical language around a specific topic or discipline. If you are working in medicine, you’ll probably know of words for very nuanced behaviours, symptoms, and what-nots of the human body. Likewise, if you are a software developer, you’ll have plenty of specialised terms for problems when developing, coding itself, memory issues, and so on.

In Babel-17, there is an avian-like race called Ciribians, and their entire culture emphasises temperature–because everything around them depends on temperature. From the seasons, the mating cycles, the building structures, and even interstellar travel work based on temperature. It is so central to these Ciribians that their language can be extremely nuanced around that quote-on-quote “technical” topic.

Rydra explains these aliens have three words for “I” depending on the temperature they feel, and then she shares an anecdote of one Ciribian finding a solar-heat conversion system and explaining it to another with the proper, accurate words; let me read an excerpt. “One Ciribian can slither through that plant and then go and describe it to another Ciribian who never saw it before, so that the second can build an exact duplicate. […] and this actually happened, because they thought we’d done something ingenious […] where each piece is located, how big it is, in short completely describe the whole business in nine words. Nine very small words, too. […] They have the proper nine words. We don’t.”

So, for the temperature-based Ciribians, a solar-heat conversion system was easy to explain because their temperature-based society had crafted a language that made it easy to communicate about temperature. They had no ambivalence around that topic, and their words were very accurate and nuanced for it. However, Ciribians have no concept of family or ‘home’ because their society just works differently. Rydra explains the following: “When we were preparing the treaty between the Ciribians and ourselves,” someone said, “We must protect our families and our homes, […] I remember that sentence took forty-five minutes to say in Ciribian. […] At the end, you have given them some idea of what a ‘home’ is and why it is worth protecting.”

Think of it this way–if you have the proper, accurate words, the communication is easy and less prone to error and confusion. It would be a case of you can say more with less, and sharing of ideas is accurate and quick. If you don’t have the proper words… we all probably know what happens, _mis_communication, misunderstandings, and overall confusion. We end up going around in long sentences to explain ourselves, contorting around gaps in wording–but we can still think about it. It is not a case of it doesn’t exist to us but more of lacking a concrete name, thus having a vague idea that requires a lot of description to be shared.

Now, this idea of concreteness and accuracy in wording will eventually lead us back to Babel-17, the language that Rydra is actually trying to understand and trace its origins. But before we can reach it, we need to make a detour… to body language.

Body language is the use of physical behaviour, expressions, and mannerisms to communicate non-verbally; it uses expressions to emphasise or alter the meaning of the words we use. So, if somebody tells you “I’m fine” but they are crying and grimacing, you’ll probably understand that they are lying and are not, actually, fine; on the contrary, if they say “I’m fine” while grinning and being generally ecstatic you’ll guess that they are feeling very happy and excited about something.

Rydra Wong is very good at reading a person’s body language, to the point she can more or less guess their thoughts from it. For example, the general she meets at the start refuses, in classical military style, to give her all the information Rydra needs to understand Babel-17, the language. Rydra reads the general’s body language and guesses his words; then, she explains how she did this to her therapist. Let me read the passage:

“I said I had to have it, or I couldn’t get any farther, it was that simple. He raised his head just a fraction–to avoid shaking it. If he had shaken his head with a slight pursing of the lips, what do you think he would have been saying?” The therapist, Dr T’mwarba replies, “That it wasn’t as simple as you thought?” However, Rydra continues. “Yes. Now, he made one gesture to avoid making that one. […] He avoided the gesture because he connected it not being that simple with my being there. So he raised his head instead.” The therapist guesses that the gesture means, “If it were that simple, we wouldn’t need you.” But, apparently, the good old general made a pause in the middle of the gesture combination, which Rydra further adds to the meaning, translating the sequence of gesture to words as follows: “If it were that simple–now the pause–if only it were that simple, we wouldn’t have called you about it.”

As a base layer, you have verbal language (what we say), but body language can add more to it. Other layers of meaning are how we say it (the intonation, the pauses, the emphasis), and the topic of conversation, because someone could be talking metaphorically.

Let’s return to the idea of accuracy and conciseness of words. What if your language could, very succinctly yet detailed and systematically, describe everything (including body language and the other layers of meaning) into words? That is the idea behind Babel-17 as the fictional language. Rydra tries this in a very curious chapter, thinking that: “Babel-17 was not only a language, she understood now, but a flexible matrix of analytical possibilities where the same ‘word’ defined the stresses in a webbing of medical bandage, or a defensive grid of spaceships. Perhaps the flicker of eyelids and fingers would become mathematics, without meaning. Or perhaps–While she thought, her mind changed gears into the headlong compactness of Babel-17.”

And from there, I kid you not, begins a three-pages-long single-sentence paragraph of Rydra’s extremely detailed analysis as she quote-on-quote “reads the room” where she is in, making inferences about the people there while thinking in Babel-17. The text is quite quirkily printed with some small paragraphs at the side, which I interpreted as the quote-on-quote “translations” of Rydra’s Babel-17 rant into English… and they lose so much meaning. But that is the point of that entire section.

Because Babel-17 is “compact” (as Rydra describes it) and it allows her to express or convey more complex and complete ideas with fewer words… Rydra believes that “time slows down” when she is thinking in Babel-17… it is not time-related science, in my opinion, but just a figure of speech. If your language is more effective at communicating something (like the nine words for the Ciribians) you can think more in less time (because language is how we express thought); the less effective your language is, the more time you need to put it into words (like the 45 minutes taken to explain what home is to the aforementioned Ciribians).

I’m trying not to spoil much of the plot, but after the Babel-17 analysis of the room, Rydra recites a poem of what she saw, in English. Thus, the narrator says, “She had been thinking in Babel-17, and choosing her English words with it”… and the poem ends up being strange. I’m honestly not a reader of poems, but I gathered that Rydra was doing a literal translation (namely, reconstructing what she saw and thought on Babel-17 into English) instead of doing a free translation (in which you aim to convey the intent and nuance of a source text, in addition to its literal meaning).

As a bilingual, I found that quite relatable. Sometimes, it has happened to me that a saying in Spanish (my native language) makes so much sense for a particular moment… but then when translated it just doesn’t, something is missing and no amount of explanation can help; the opposite also happens, in which I want to explain an English word or saying to someone who doesn’t speaker and it’s just so difficult!

Rydra actually reaches this conclusion, saying that: “If you have the right words, it saves time and makes things easier”.

In Delaney’s Babel-17, humans have two factions. Faction number one is called Alliance (where Rydra belongs); faction number two is called the Invaders. The Invaders (as named by the Alliance) created the language Babel-17. Do you know how the word ‘Alliance’ translates to Babel-17? It translates as one-who-has-invaded. That quote-on-quote “name”" is already biasing a Babel-17 speaker, likely conditioning their thoughts. According to linguistic determinism, an Invader speaking Babel-17 wouldn’t be able to think of an human from the Alliance faction as nothing else but an intruder, somebody coming to “take something from them”. In this sense, language determines thoughts (as per the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).

Now, the language of Babel-17 has an added quirkiness–it lacks the word for “I”. If you remember the linguistic determinism, Rydra’s explanation is sensible; she says: “The lack of an ‘I’ precludes any self-critical process. In fact, it cuts out any awareness of the symbolic process at all–which is the way we distinguish between reality and our expression of reality. […] The lack of an ‘I’ blinds you to the fact that though Babel-17 is a highly useful way to look at things, it isn’t the only way.”

Let me ask you a question. Suppose that someone (a rational being with an ability for language) exists speaking only on Babel-17 without knowing any other language… How would they express the self? The idea of oneself? How could you say “I feel” or “I want” or “I need” if there is no such concept? Or if you can’t verbally express it? You’ll have to go around other words, other concepts… or they could resort to body language.

In this book, there is a character who only speaks Babel-17, called Butcher, and he beats his chest when he should say “I”. Using her observation (and perhaps translation) skills, Rydra gauges that the Butcher using the fist-on-chest gesture was to compensate for the lack of the word I; thus, she decides to teach Butcher the word “I”. Butcher asks, “What is I?” Rydra explains that: “First of all, it’s very important. A good deal more important than anything else. The brain will let any number of things go to pot as long as ‘I’ stays alive. That’s because the brain is part of I. A book is, a ship is, someone is, the universe is, but, as you must have noticed, I am.”

So, if Babel-17 lacks the concept of the self, and you can’t think of it in any way, how can this Babel-17 speaker protect the self? They will just follow their missions and orders without caring for survival. Except… Butcher does it by instinct. Because, remember, we humans are ingenious–if we don’t have the word for it, we go around with the other approximations, or we add layers of meaning (body language, the fist in the chest, the pause and the gesture) to circumvent what we are missing.

That talk when Rydra teaches Butcher the word I is quite confusing because Butcher flips it. Having just learned it, he uses I when referring to Rydra (namely, when he should have used you). She explains that: “Look, every time you’ve said you in the last ten minutes, you should have said I. Every time you’ve said I, you mean you. […] They both mean the same sort of thing. In a way, they are the same.”

That is quite an important realisation, don’t you think? If the I will let many things go to pot just to survive, then we shouldn’t damage other people because they are _I_s as well who would also want to survive. Rydra actually tells the Butcher that: “And that’s why you can’t go around killing people. At least you better do a hell of a lot of thinking before you do.” A pacifist realisation, right? As I see it, that is because of the meaning carried through the word I; we are valuable, we are meant to survive. If I want to thrive, then so do you, and if I want respect, then so do you. Knowing I and attaching feelings to it, generates empathy by bringing understanding of the needs of others.

Alas, we are close to the Episode’s end. Babel-17 truly has a lot more to discuss. Translation and speaking multiple languages are discussed quite often. It is also an original and unique story in terms of worldbuilding and, more curiously, it remains unique even now, almost six decades after its publication.

Nevertheless, this is not a book for everyone; it’s unique, it’s different, and being about language, it uses phrasing and prose in a strange way to convey the structure of another language while being written solely in English. So, a piece of advice? Don’t go for the audiobook; read or do immersive reading.

In any case, I may do another episode about language in novels touching one of my favourites–Orwell’s Newspeak, from 1984. The reason for this is that I wrote an interactive story about emotional language, upcoming to Unearthed Stories3, and I’m quite keen on continuing to explore this topic. However, I can’t promise any dates!

In any case, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Babel-17! Thanks for listening, and happy reading.

If you are on Goodreads, you can read my review of BABEL-17. This was another 5-stars read!