Pu das Bär. An Examination of Gender and Translation in a Cognitive Linguistics Framework


0. Introduction

Gender in Cognitive Linguistics (hereafter referred to as CL) is a largely neglected aspect, as it does not easily fit the “image”-schemas of Cognitive Semantics. CL’s various theories, from Construction Grammar (CxG), with its semantic companion piece Scenes-and-Frames-Semantics (cf. Fillmore 1977)[i] to Cognitive Grammar[ii] (CG), have steered largely clear of gender as a linguistic category.

This neglect is, at least partly, due to the fact that CL is concerned with syntax rather than morphology and complex constructions of varying degrees of schematicity rather than their less complex companions. What’s more, gender markings are usually regarded as a clear case of pure phonology (cf. Taylor 2002:333f.) “contribut[ing] little to the symbolization of conceptual structure” (334).

Yet this view has lately been called into question as the ideological biases in inflectional classes have been revealed (cf. Nesset 2001[iii]). However, gender as a “semantically based” (Langacker 2002:304) grammatical phenomenon has already been analyzed as early as 1991 in CG, as explicated by Langacker (2002).

This will be taken as the starting point for this investigation in the possibilities and impossibilities of translating gender. Approaches by Lakoff (1987) and Tabakowska (1993b) will be used, but central to this paper will be the Cognitive Linguistic view of gender, as the “translation muddle” (Hyde 1993:3) might profit from this perspective. After laying down the foundations for the arguments we will briefly examine the linguistic category of gender and how the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis might be applicable to it. Only then will we introduce the text, which is to be used as corpus: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne[iv] and compare it regarding the character ‘Owl’ with the German standard translation by the esteemed Harry Rowohlt.

How categories of language influence understanding, writing or translation, if there exists something akin to a ‘faithful’ translation or if, ultimately, the Italian proverb that ‘traduttore traditore’[v] is right, these questions will be answered, though tentatively, at the end of this paper.

1. Cognitive Grammar

1.1. The framework (Spanish)

Clearly, CL “is not […] the same as cognitive grammar” (Langacker 2002:ix), but in this section we will not take CxG into account at all, as its description of gender is not as useful as the CG version. Owing to Langacker’s discussion of gender being mostly restricted to Spanish gender[vi], we will subsequently slightly adapt it in order to fit the German inflectional classes as well.

The first thing that has to be noted is that Spanish nouns have a very strict adherence to gender. Whereas in German gender seems to be largely arbitrary (not fully, cf. Köpcke and Zubin 1984), with nouns of different grammatical gender like Feder (female) and Kater (male) providing no clues for the speaker/hearer of German, who will have to consider the articles (die Feder but der Kater) before deciding upon their gender. In Spanish, on the other hand, the noun inflections can be absolutely relied on. The suffixes -o and -a mark male and female gender.

According to Langacker’s theory, they are “noun-forming suffixes, which implies that they are themselves schematic nouns” (Langacker 2002:305). The degree of schematicity they are assigned by the speaker varies according to context. In those cases where they are attached to animate nouns they correlate with semantic gender and mean “male creature” and “female creature” ([MALE CREATURE/-o] and [FEMALE CREATURE/-a] in CG notation) but when attached to inanimate nouns such as mesa (table), they turn into highly schematic nouns whose meaning could roughly be described as “thing” (cf. Langacker 2002:306; [THING/-o] and [THING/-a]).

Thus a Spanish noun such as [FEMALE CAT/gata] is a composite structure, with the components [CAT/gat] and [FEMALE CREATURE/-a][vii]. As “[i]t is usual for the composite structure to inherit its profile from one of the components” (Langacker 2005:169), it is probably [FEMALE CREATURE/-a] which provides said structure in our case, but CG theory is very sketchy in this area. The component providing the structure also usually provides a schematic substructure, matching the profile of the other component, which is called ‘e-site’[viii] (cf. Langacker 2005:169f.). One might suggest that [FEMALE CREATURE/-a] contains a schematic substructure requiring a noun.

However, difficulties may arise, considering that gender may not be computed at all but simply learned[ix], so that the specific units are learned and memorized in an inventory together with “the constructional schemas they instantiate” (Langacker 1991:183).[x] It becomes doubtful whether it is still viable to claim that the suffixes -o and -a are meaningful. Langacker’s changes in schematicity between gata and mesa sound suspiciously like an excuse to preserve his theory’s claims intact, especially as he is keeps the way the change is worked in the mind of the speaker/hearer of Spanish unclear.

Furthermore, and more importantly, he utterly ignores the possibility that even in inanimate nouns such as cerro (hill) the suffix -o may still signify ‘male’, cognitively speaking, as witnessed by a multitude of idioms and poetic uses (cf. Jakobson 1966 on Russian grammatical gender of inanimate nouns). In order for CG to cover this possibility, too, the schematic nouns have to be regarded as polysemous to the extent that -o for example will mean [MALE CREATURE/-o] and [THING/-o] both, even when referring to a table[xi]. The notation we will hereafter use is thus [(MALE) THING/-o][xii]. Whether the ‘masculine’ aspect is processed or not depends on context (cf. Chapter 1.3.).

1.2. The extension (German)

Whereas it might be sufficient for a discussion of Spanish to restrict the analysis to the morphology of nouns, this is not the case with German where close attention needs to be paid to the articles. Although Spanish articles agree in gender with the noun they precede, just as German articles do, in Langacker’s book (2002) articles are not discussed with regard to gender but with regard to grounding. This means “that the profiled entity bears some relationship to the ground in regard to such fundamental issues as reality, […], and speaker/hearer knowledge” (Langacker 2002:321). The la in the nominal expression la gata does not add anything semantically with regard to gender.

In a discussion of German, however, the article is more important as a marker of gender[xiii]. The ending -er, for example, can not be trusted to refer to one gender only, as it can be found both in [FEATHER/Feder] and in [TOMCAT/Kater]. Adding the article, however, solves this problem, making clear that the construction should not be [TOMCAT/Kater] but [TOMCAT/der Kater].[xiv] In this case the components would be [TOMCAT/Kater][xv] and [(MALE) THING/der][xvi]. The parentheses around ‘Male’ in the second component indicate the schematic substructure.

As in Spanish, the schematic noun [(MALE) THING/der] is a noun of varying schematicity, heavily dependent both on memorized meaning and context, as argued above. Also, the articles der (male), die (female) but not das (neuter) can apply to noun inflections such as the genitive in the case of der (cf. (1)) or plural in the case of die (cf.(2))


(1) Der Hund der Nachbarin ist krank.

(2) Die Kekse meiner Oma sind sehr lecker.

Note that the noun will be morphologically changed according to the particular requirements of the inflection in question, so that the composite structures [CATS/die Katzen] and [(FEMALE) CAT[xvii]/die Katze] can be clearly distinguished. In the instance of (2), die might be simply described as [THINGS/die]. Context, obviously, must play a major role in the construal of meaning in the face of such complex networks of constructions. An excellent context theory within the framework of CG is the theory of mental spaces.

1.3. Mental Spaces

1.3.1. Literary Space

The “meaning potential” (Fauconnier 2004:661) of grammatical gender in German is manifold. In this paper, however, we will focus on the two possibilities outlined in the framework: taking grammatical gender as a “cognitively entrenched […], necessarily schematic” (Langacker 1997:236) part of language, as far as inanimate nouns are concerned, or allowing for the cognitive processing of semantic gender, however this might work with words as die Feder.

The trouble with words such as die Feder is that common sense does not allow for the feminity of a feather, because, in the real world, a feather does not have biological gender. Yet, in Fauconnier’s theory linguistic expressions refer not to things “in the ‘real world’, but [to] things in a ‘mental space’, that is [to] a situation as conceived of by a language user.” (Taylor 2002:72). clearly, there are some situations where a language user may conceive of a feather as feminine, mostly in literary contexts.

The entity[xviii] designated by the noun (feather, for instance) is the instantiation of a ‘role’ in a certain ‘mental space’ (for the theory see Fauconnier 1984:63f.). This particular mental space will be called the literary space L, which refers not to any literary text[xix] but to a certain text. The role r1 might be ‘a friend’, ‘a servant’, or somebody else. The value r1(L)[xx], referring to the particular entity which instantiates that role in the particular space L. This space is created locally whenever the text is read and only during that time, r1(L) could, in our example, be Feather[xxi].

Yet there will be at least one other space that could be accessed by the same linguistic expression, which would be the default interpretation of the inanimate noun, it will be called the Thing Space (T). r1, obviously, would not work in this space, ‘feather’ would have to assume another role (r2) and a different value r2(T) of course. This means that depending on which space or role the linguistic expression is evoked in, its meaning is affected in direction of one of these spaces.

1.3.2. Blending Theory

The disparity of the two outlined spaces calls for two different roles and of course produces different values. However, as both sorts of spaces are needed, a slightly different approach has to be taken, such as Blending Theory (cf. Fauconnier 2004:667f.).

(3) “In […] blending theory, […] four mental spaces [are evoked]: two input spaces […]; a generic space, which abstracts the commonalities from the two spaces […] and thereby defines the cross-space mapping between the elements in the two input spaces; and a blended space, which creates a novel expressive effect” (Croft and Cruse 2004, 39; emphasis theirs)

Thus, the two disparate spaces blend in the understanding of the literary text, as both the featheriness of the feather and the gender of the person Feather are bound to be included in the understanding of the text.

2. Translation

Translation as a possible field of application for Cognitive Linguistics has been neglected for many years and even today there has little been published. Even though, as Professor Tabakowska, the foremost expert on this topic, rightly points out, CL has much to add to difficult notions such as translation equivalence[xxii] (cf. Tabakowska 1993b:73 et passim) CL concepts such as ‘imagery’ or ‘mental spaces’ could add a third level of interpretation, between a more abstract ‘meaning’ and the actual words.

The choices a translator has to make can be clarified to him by explaining the imagery that is created by certain grammatical constructions (cf. Tabakowska 1993a:796), for instance the importance of the definite article in a language such as English for a Russian translator, whose native language does not normally use the definite article except for special emphasis[xxiii].

This example is useful in demonstrating why mental spaces cannot simply be transferred, although they seem to be fairly unconnected to grammatical constructions. However, as we stressed above, it is grammatical contsructions that prompt mental spaces. To an English writer there is a difference between “seeing the owl” and “seeing Owl”. In the latter case, ‘owl’ might be a proper name. Whereas “the owl” in the former phrase would, in Fauconnier’s notation, needs only to be described as r2(T), without obvious ambiguities, the “Owl” in the second phrase can be construed both as r1(L)and as r2(T). In Russian, the word would both times be simply CABá, without an article, consequently, the ambiguity would be far more apparent.

Whether this difference in grammar mirrors a difference in construal and, ultimately, in thinking, is contested. The theory of Linguistic Relativism puts forward that very claim and, on top of that, denies the possibility of accurate translation.

3. On Linguistic Relativity

3.1. Gender

3.1.1. Grammatical and natural gender

English and German differ fundamentally in respect to gender, mainly because English does not have grammatical gender: “Gender in English is primarily a semantic category” (Hellinger 2001:107), which means, that for the most part, only those nouns are gendered that refer to a human whose gender is known. Yet this rule is not dependable, as there are not only exceptions such as social gender[xxiv] (cf. Hellinger 1990:61) or psychological gender[xxv] but it also seems that speakers of English “have a ‘folk theory’ of gender[xxvi] that enables them to assign gender to objects that lack natural gender” (Sera, Berge and Pintado 1994:287). Furthermore, it has been frequently remarked that in American discourse, “reference to women […] was much less frequent than reference to males” (Romaine 2001:161).[xxvii]

In German the issue is more straightforward, as every single noun is assigned a grammatical gender. Once assigned, it is usually fixed (cf. Bußmann and Hellinger 2003:145). Gender assignment is often taken to be arbitrary, yet “[f]or approximately 90% of German monosyllabic nouns, gender class membership can be predicted” (143). Moreover, some of the criteria for classification in English ‘folk theory’[xxviii] seem to be at work in grammatical gender assignment, too (cf. Sera, Berge and Pintado 1994:288).

Conceptually, we can describe these different criteria for gender assignment easily with the mental spaces vocabulary, recalling that linguistic expressions do not necessarily refer to ‘the real world’ but to mental spaces. One of the reasons why gender assignment in one’s own language is rarely questioned[xxix], might be that grammatical gender refers to a so-called base space, which is a default space (cf. Taylor 2002:72f.), representing “the mutually known world of the interlocutors” (Croft and Cruse 2004:33). Yet what people ‘know’ about gender, they learn early on, by learning their language (cf. Howard 2001:191).

3.1.2. Learning Gender

The question how gender is processed, especially by children, and the importance of the category of gender for the child’s understanding of the world is vital for the theory of Linguistic Relativity and hence has to be raised in this paper.

Until children are 2 years old, they assign gender randomly. Yet older children show a strong bias towards gender stereotyping (cf. Liben and Signorella 1993). There is strong evidence that children are “invited” (cf. Waxman and Markow 1995) by words to form categories, or at least they are alerted by words or labels to the existence of such categories (cf. Waxman and Gelman 1986; see also Spelke and Tsivkin 2001) early on in their development.

Grammatical gender is learned fairly early, compared to semantic gender (cf. Taylor 1989:247), and it takes children quite some time to form “stable shared conceptual systems” (Lucy and Gaskins 2001:280). During this time children possibly learn by learning language “that objects belong in categories” (Gopnik 2001:60) and as they “assume that giving the same name to two objects means that they share a common nature” (61), they might be predisposed to gender stereotyping by having been exposed to the linguistic category of gender.

In this context, it becomes highly significant that personalization in German children’s literature corresponds not only to grammatical gender but also to gender ‘folk theories’ (cf. Corbett 1991:94f.). If children learn their gender stereotypes through the books they are read as toddlers, it makes sense to compare two versions of one of the most famous children’s book, Winnie-the-Pooh.

3.2. Translation

3.2.1. Vertical and Horizontal Translations

The two versions about to be compared are not two drafts of the text but the ‘original’ text and the translated German version of it. This comparison begs the question of translatability. If a text can be translated easily, without losing anything, then any difference between the two versions must be due to bad translating skills. Even though the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis, which entailed the impossibility of translation, has not been without influence in philology, within translation studies, there has never been particularly much interest in the hypothesis.

Instead, much effort has been invested into showing what a faithful translation might look like, by concetrating mostly on the idea of ‘vertical’ translation, which views translation “as containing two main processes: full comprehension of the […] text […], followed by production of the constructed meaning” (De Groot 1997:30). The exact phrasing, the grammatical and lexical aspects of the text get lost. Yet, as is often claimed, this technique is necessary for literary translation[xxx].

Yet, in view of the previous discussion of gender, the importance of a horizontal view of translation, which “construes translation as ‘transcoding'” (30) cannot be underestimated, as only in this way can grammatical structures be taken into account.

3.2.2. Translatability

The answers to the question of translatability revolve around the notion of commensurability, which refers mostly to the commensurability of the two conceptual systems (of the two languages at either end of the translation process). Understanding a text in a different language requires only few “correspondences in well structured experiences and a common conceptualizing capacity” (Lakoff 1987:312). Yet even that can theoretically be problematic, as Whorf argues:

(4) “A scientist from another culture that used time and velocity [instead of time and space] would have great difficulty in getting us to understand these concepts.” (Whorf 1956:218)

This is merely about understanding, not yet about translation. For a ‘good’ translation one requires “close correspondences across conceptual systems” (Lakoff 1987:312). Thus, a translation from English into Hopi or Yukatán might be difficult, with much being lost. This, however, need not concern us here, as our two languages are closely related, as they share many aspects, down to covert categories. Nevertheless, whether gender is translatable from English to German remains to be seen.

4. Translating Winnie-the-Pooh

4.1. Gendering Owl (English)

This section of the paper is concerned with The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and the depiction of gender within it, specifically of Owl’s gender. The characters of the book, Piglet, Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, Owl and others seem at first glance to be removed from the sphere of human gender concerns. Yet, the book does not only contain a human character, Christopher Robin, there is also an explicit concern with gender, which is made clear in the opening pages:


(5) When I first heard [Winnie-the-Pooh’s] name, I said, just as you are going to say, “But I thought he was a boy?”
“So did I,” said Christopher Robin.
“Then you can’t call him Winnie?”
“I don’t.”
“Butyou said-“
“He’s Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what ‘ther’ means?”
(Milne 2002:15)

For this paper, taking the eponymous bear as a focus would not have made much sense, we will later see why. Nevertheless, this passage shows that gender does constitute a concern in this text, or at least the text is not oblivious to it.

Owl is a male character. His gender is marked only by the pronoun ‘he’, which is used but rarely, usually he is called or referred to by his proper name, Owl. Which also is a description of his person, as he is an owl in most respects, there is no textual evidence that he is wearing something similar to human clothes. His human characteristics consist of him living in a tree-apartment, with a proper door and signs and -for a short time, anyway- a doorbell, and, of course of his speaking English.

Linguistically, Owl is an intersting case, as his name also refers to his biological nature. Owls, however, do not normally have a gender in English, so that Owl’s gender is an invention of the author[xxxi]. He could have had a female Owl as well, it seems. Yet, recalling English ‘folk theories’, it is probable that there is an intuition for native speakers of English to categorize owls als male, as they tend to characterize bears and elephants as male (cf. Corbett 1991:95). Linguistically, Owl is only marked by the missing article[xxxii]. A CG description as in Chapter 1.1. is out of the question.

Luckily, we also have the mental spaces theory. As a grammatical prompt for a mental space, the missing article and the gendered pronouns are sufficient to assign Owl to a role r, which could be described as ‘avuncular, wise friend’ in the literary space L[xxxiii]. The value r(L) would then be Owl.

4.2. Translating Owl (German)

In the translated version, the translation of the character Owl seems to have been pretty straightforward. He is called Eule, a proper name and a biological refernce at the same time. However, checking the gender of Eule, one notices that Eule is female.[xxxiv]

At first glance this seems to be simply a bad translation: Harry Rowohlt jumbled the genders. Yet at second glance this judgement is less convincing. In German, the owl, die Eule, has a female grammatical gender. Whereas in English Milne was, at least from a grammatical point of view, free to assign any gender he wanted to without sounding especially odd. Assigning Eule a male gender would have a strange ring to it.

Comparing the two texts linguistically, it will be noticed that as far as mental spaces are concerned, in German a second space is activated, which we will call the Animal Space (A). A female Eule is so much in accordance with its biological companion die Eule, that the role r2, which might be described as ‘flying animal which eats field mice” in space A, where die Eule is the value of r2(A). This unwieldy description can be evaded by creating a blending space. The input spaces would be spaces L and A and the generic space would contain feathers, a home in the trees etc.

If we take a look at the way Eule is linguistically described in the framework put forward in chapter 1.2., we can see why she would prompt this kind of mental space. In view of the fact that [OWL/Eule] is not a self-sufficient noun, that it is a component which needs the other component [(FEMALE) THING/die] in order to form a properly functioning composite structure, it becomes obvious why the Animal Space is triggered by the proper name Eule. However, would Eule have had a male gender, the distancing effect created by that deviation might be sufficient to tone down the nouniness of the word/name Eule.

Would this, then, have been a better translation? This is a hard question to answer, as there is a third aspect to consider, the intuition of the native speaker and ‘folk theories’ concerning gender. As these theories mostly closely follow grammatical gender, the German reader might be put off in a way that the English reader is not. It was said earlier in this paper, that the folk theories resemble each other closely, yet they are not identical.

The question of the right choice has to be, in the end, a pragmatic decision. There are risks both ways.

5. Conclusion

Whorf famously demanded of Western Knowledge “a re-examination of the linguistic background of its thinking” (Whorf 1956:247). What we have attempted to in the present paper, on a very small scale, is to examine the Cognitive Linguistic background of gender and translation, with the Whorfian question of translatability as theoretical backdrop.

What about thought and language? This question has always been difficult to answer and an answer will not be attempted here. However, the influence of language on gender as a category and on translation has been suggested. Especially the latter suggestion recalls a recent reformulation of the Whorfian Hypothesis, i.e. Slobin’s formula of “thinking for speaking” (Slobin 1990:75). We do not know how the mind would work in absence of language, but when ‘thinking for translating’, language almost certainly exerts its influence. A native speaker of Spanish, with possibly different ‘folk theories’ and different grammatical genders, were he called upon to translate the text from English into German, would he have made the same choice as Harry Rowohlt?

What about the children? Does reading Pu der Bär influence children’s stereotyping differently than Winnie-the-Pooh does? There are feminist translators, who certainly believe that, changing as they do sexist gender typings whenever translating a text (cf. Von Flotow 1997:24ff.). The present paper did not look for evidence and so it did not provide any, yet it did show which alleys one might pursue, were one to look for such evidence.

This paper has one big omission, cognitive semantics, because this would have been by far to big a subject for the scope of this paper. The recognition of the importance of inflections for cognitive processes may lead to a reformulation of cognitive semantics which includes inflections[xxxv], and not just gender inflections at that.

Then, maybe, will a truly multidisciplinary gender study be possible, as Pütz, one of the founders of Critical Cognitive Linguistics envisions it (cf. Pütz 2005:155f.).

Lastly, we return to the only question not answered: the question of translatability. True equivalence is hard to attain, if not impossible, that seems clear after trying to translate the simple word ‘Owl’ led to an ambivalent situation. Translation is only ‘possible’ if one takes a highly pragmatic view of translation.

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Van Berkum, Johannes J. A. 1996. The psycholinguistics of grammatical gender: studies in language comprehension and production. Nijmegen: Nijmegen University Press.

Von Flotow, Louise. 1997. Translation and Gender: translating in the era of Feminism. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Waxman, Sandra and Rochel Gellman. 1986. Pre-schoolers’ use of superordinate relations in classification and language. Cognitive Development 1: 139-156.

Waxman, Sandra R. and Dana B. Markow. 1995. Words as invitations to form categories: Evidence from 12-13 month-old infants. Cognitive Psychology 29: 257-302.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. Language, thought and reality: selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed John B. Carroll. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press.


[i] For a brief but clear discussion of the relationship between CxG and Scenes-and-Frames-Semantics see Leino 2005.

[ii] Cf. Taylor 2002 for an easy but cursory introduction and Langacker 2002 for a more difficult yet more rewarding treatment.

[iii] It has to be stated that Nesset’s paper is very speculative, as he overcrowds his paper with feminist assumptions (drawn mostly from Beauvoir), which tend to muddle the clarity of his analysis. For a clearer (though less spectacular) paper on the same topic with comparable results see Howard 2001.

[iv] An author, who, interestingly, has discussed, as early as 1940, the intricacies of male and female pronouns (cf. Baron 1986:213).

[v] To translate is to betray.

[vi] For a brief survey of Spanish gender see Nissen 2002.

[vii] The components for [TABLE/mesa] would be, of course, [TABLE/mes] and

[THING/-a].

[viii] Short for ‘elaboration site’.

[ix] Although rules and lists do coexist in CG (cf. Langacker 1987:42).

[x] This claim that gender is not computed but memorized and stored in an inventory has since been significantly substantiated by evidence from anomic patients (cf. Van Berkum 1996:186n and Jackendoff 2002:215n).

[xi] Langacker does regard -o and -a as polysemous but only until they are attached to a noun. Then they seem to take on a single meaning (cf. Langacker 1991:185).

[xii] Notice that we did not lose the ‘creature’ part of the description; it is contained in the ‘(MALE)’ part. A difference between creatures or things needs no longer to be entered in the description.

[xiii] However, this does not mean that the definitive article has lost its grounding function, but, compared to Spanish, the function as a gender marker is strongly foregrounded.

[xiv] Cf. also: “By asking what gender a noun like German Tisch ‘table’ has, we may be missing the underlying form in the lexicon. The appropriate question may very well be ‘What is the gender of der Tisch?'” (Schwink 2004:5)

[xv] Of course, this notation of the component parts might be seen as being contradictory, yet it is not. It is just that [TOMCAT/Kater] is the only way to describe this component, you can’t put the ‘TOM’ in parentheses.

[xvi] In analogy to our notation concerning suffixes in the previous section.

[xvii] This example is difficult because cat as well as die Katze refers both to an individual cat of unspecified gender as well as to a female cat.

[xviii] The ontological status of this entity is unclear. It is not ‘in the world’ but it is not’in a mental space’ either.

[xix] “Literary text” does not mean here the material text ‘in the real world’ but the text as it is read and understood by one individual .

[xx] In Fauconnier’s theory this works like a mathematical function.

[xxi] The capital letter indicates that the word ‘feather’ might in this case be used as a proper name.

[xxii] A different angle than in Tabakowskas work is pursued in Scarpa 2002, where the focus is on specialized literature.

[xxiii] That means it is more like a demonstrative than like a definite article.

[xxiv] Gender determination through “Eigenschaften des prototypischen Referenten” (Hellinger 1990, 65).

[xxv] “affective attitudes of the speaker, which accounts for variation as in babyshe vs. babyit” (Hellinger 2001, 107f.).

[xxvi] This is actually reminiscent of an interesting point of Bickel, who claimed that whoever wanted to explain Linguistic Relativity had to take sociocultural practice into account, too (cf. Bickel 200).

[xxvii] Compare Whorf’s fascinating idea that covert grammatical categories such as the English gender system “are more likely to be ‘rational’, […] in accordance with […] nonlinguistic fact” (Lucy 1992:28).

[xxviii] Most importantly the artificial-male/natural-female division (cf. Sera, Berge and Pintado 1994:287).

[xxix] Cf. Whorf 1956:207ff.

[xxx] Many of these strange arguments are provided in Hyde 1993, an attack on the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis.

[xxxi] And one of the human features of Owl.

[xxxii] The capital ‘O’ does not count, as the book has a very sloppy orthography as far as capital letters are concerned.

[xxxiii] Again, it has to be stressed, that these spaces are not ‘there’, they imply someone reading this text at this moment.

[xxxiv] Notice that Pu der Bär is a male character, just as in the original.

[xxxv] One of the most comprehensive works on cognitive semantics, Leonard Talmy’s Towards a Cognitive Semantics mostly ignores inflections.

"Philosophy in the Flesh"

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have written a very readable and really good book about an intriguing linguistic concept, Metaphors we live by. Take care, it’s not a work of philosophy, it’s full of holes and bad reasoning, like much of so-called “science”. There are better technical books on Cognitive Linguistics, such as Langacker’s books, Fauconnier’s amazing classic or Talmy’s opus magnum, but they aren’t really that readable, and all of them indulge in the same disregard for, well, thinking. Bah, science. Oh, were was I? Yes, well, many years later, Lakoff and Johnson decided that, after all, not only did they write philosophy, but GOOD philosophy, really, better than ALL the other philosophers, which, from the start, smacked of the typical myopic condescension to philosophy usually practiced by scientists. So they published Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its challenge to western thought in 1999, which is a very pretty book (I like the cover). That is all the nice things that can be said about it. The authors totally disregard the actual writings of the writers they criticise. The only ones who get their due, mostly, are Chomsky and Descartes. With all the others it’s as if they never thoroughly read a book of theirs. I have a specialist (well) for Analytic Philosophy at hand and she was astonished, looking at the bibliography, that, having read these books, the authors could still claim what they did. It’s no use going into details here, they are wrong in most respects. In the parts where I have in-depth knowledge, the idiocy was equally palpable.
The funniest thing was that they call it “A radical change in our understanding of reason” and talk about the ‘fact’ that “human rationality isn’t at all what the Western philosophical tradition has held it to be” and “we are different from what our philosophical tradition has told us we are”. They say that their thesis was ORIGINAL. NEW. Which, frankly, it’s not. These ideas have been around. Hampshire (much as I dislike him), Husserl, Quine, even in the work of writers as old as Kant (I’m told) and Stirner traces of such a sentiment can be found. And we are not even talking about the parts of it that aren’t boring old materialist philosophy.
One should be thankful to Lakoff and Johnson for their work in the 1980s, because they found a precise and good expression for a problem and its answers (here is an explanation but I just saw that it’s now, miraculously, also called “embodied philosophy”. Don’t let that confuse you, it’s not philosophy) that have been around for a while now, but this…is just…embarrassing. I know I have recommended their books to some of you, and after reading vast parts of this one, I felt acutely embarrassed to have done so. Stay away from this one. And don’t think that they are philosophers. They are not. They are linguists, with all the positive and negative things that follow from that description. I still recommend Lakoff’s Women Fire and Dangerous Things.

Understanding Language in Babel-17

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Kingsley Amis wrote in his treatise on Science Fiction that the motto „‘Idea as Hero‘ is the basis“ (137) for SF. In Babel-17, Samuel R. Delany’s sixth novel, the importance of language and linguistics is emphasized. It does both to an extent that is very unusual in a SF novel (cf. Aldiss and Wingrove 292) and its interest in language runs deeper than in the ordinary SF novel, where strange words abound or some new language or dialect is invented, as in Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange. Evidently, language is this novel’s hero.

Babel-17’s interest in language and how it portrays the mechanisms behind language is the subject of this paper. It has the goal of mapping out the political and the epistemological consequences of the text’s treatment of language, which, as will be made clear, works in several ways. Some of the examiniation is done out in the open by Rydra Wong, a famous poet who is commissioned to decipher Babel-17, a code allegedly used by terrorists to coordinate their acts of sabotage, which soon turns out to be a language. In other parts, the examinition is provided by the character’s actions and emotions and by the events. Finally it will be pointed out, that the interest in language even informs the structure of the novel down to the generic markers it employs. It will be seen that SF is a kind of language itself which has to be understood by the reader of SF, because „knowing a genre is also knowing how to take it up“ (Broderick 39).

This is also the way most criticism has been reading the novel, but none of that criticism has noted, that it’s not just ‘about’ language, it is about understanding language as one of the basic givens of humanity. Its influence reaches deeply, into communication and thought. That is what the first two parts are trying to show. The last part amply demonstrates, that even when something in not language, is may be language-like, such as the genre SF.

SF is „What If Literature“ (Landon 6) and, as remains to be shown, Babel-17 poses some of the more powerful what if questions, trying to help people to recognize science’s „potentialities for social change“ (Asimov 162). This paper’s thesis is, that at the end of the trail that this reading of Babel-17 provides, one can see some possibilities of a brighter, more humane future, or a darker future. Babel-17 indicates the potentialities of communication and language that humanity has squandered for thousands of years and it poses some potent questions about free will and about the truth we take for granted. What questions these are, this paper will attempt to demonstrate.

Babel-17 is written in English and the characters that shape events, or are shaped by them, are speakers of English. One might be tempted to think that this impression only derives from the fact that the novel is written in English, just as an English novel about France would feature no, or not very much, French dialogue, even if all the characters were French. It becomes clear, though, that the first impression is correct once we note that comparisons to other languages always are comparisons of English to other languages (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 111). Also, the English-speaking characters never have to translate anything, everybody who takes part in this novel’s events speaks English and should be able to communicate perfectly with anybody else.

Although English is the predominant language, it is not the only one. The political background to the story is a war between the Alliance, part of which forms the earth , and the Invaders. Both probably consist of several nations, having several languages each (cf. 24). Of the Invader’s languages we encounter none. Eight earth languages are mentioned, other than English: Finnish, Sioux (as an example for North American Indian languages in general), French, Hungarian, Spanish (all five: cf. 111), Basque (cf. 77), Old Moorish (cf. 115) and an unnamed african language that is spoken in the „N’gonda province in Pan Africa“ (54, cf. 51f.). Sample words are not provided from Basque, Finnish, Hungarian or Sioux, only one word from Spanish and Old Moorish each, about five French words and generous eight sentences of the African language. These languages are not important to the story, they only demonstrate certain linguistic points, such as the grammatical differences between Sioux and and Finnish noun cases.

Thus, the main focus, of course, is on the mysterious language, Babel-17. Babel-17 is described as „the most analytically exact language imaginable“ (210). It does not know the words ‚you‘, ‚I‘ nor the words derived from them, such as ‚your‘ and ‚mine‘ (cf. 139) so speakers of it cannot even conceive of the principle of the subject. Also, Babel-17 „contains a preset program […] to become a criminal and saboteur“ (215). This means it curtails the range of options the speaker of Babel-17 has so severely, it even imposes a „schizoid personality into the mind of whoever learns it“ (215), which means that a second personality is programmed into the person that can even grab hold of all the willpower of this person. The speaker of Babel-17, who thinks only analytically and cannot talk or think in categories of subjectivity, is massively hindered in the choices his mind allows him to make, for example „thinking in Babel-17 [you might] try and destroy your own ship and then blot out the fact with self-hypnosis“ (215).

In trying to crack the structure, the grammar and vocabulary of Babel-17, Rydra Wong, the poet that turned linguist by virtue of her „total verbal recall“ (9), finds that it „scares“ (22) her. For a language that one does not understand, this, introduced at an early point in the narrative, is a novel idea. Everybody would agree that it is possible to be afraid from something said and understood or even by a menacing way of delivery that a language can have, but being afraid of the language itself must seem strange to the reader.

As we have seen, there are passages in Babel-17 that compare different languages to each other. This process, however, is never focused on. The comparisons are drawn to make points about the nature and the properties of language itself. The vocabulary that is often used to make these points is scientific vocabulary, stemming from linguistics, but the person doing the scientific work is not a scientist. Rydra Wong, as mentioned above, is an artist, a poet, whose linguistic explorations are more of a hobby or a vocation. There are many weighty passages treating issues of linguistics but they are counterbalanced by the epigraphs introducing the five chapters, taken from Marilyn Hacker‘s poetry.

The differences sketched here between science and art run deeper. The first thing that is learned about language is that it is not a code and that the two should not be confused. A code can simply be deciphered, but a language has to be understood in a more organic way (cf. 6ff.). Suddenly voices, circumstances, contexts become important. An artist‘s intuition becomes useful, her „knack“ (10). This intuitive approach is contrasted with the government scientists, who, „although they know a hell of a lot about codes, […] know nothing of the nature of language“ (8). This kind of disparagement has lead some to claim that, in this novel, language is part of the arts and not of science (cf. Weedman 136). This approach mistakens the pervasiveness of science. If in this text art is valued more highly, it is only because „today a person who learns the rules of art well is a little rarer than the person who learns the rules of science“ (48).

So, even if Rydra’s advantage might be her intuition, her art still has to confer to rules. More often than not, she uses linguistic terms to talk about these rules, in a word, she uses science. As Walter E. Meyers points out though, she misuses these terms often enough: „The uninformed reader of Babel-17 receives misinformation“, and the novel „is inaccurate at almost every turn“ (both: Aliens and Linguists 180). It seems as if all the linguistic terms that are heaped up (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 111) are nothing but words, or names. Outside the text the rules spread out in the pages with linguistic rambling might be scientific nonsense or inaccurate, but in this text, her rules lead Rydra Wong to an understanding of Babel-17.

The critic who tries to establish a rift between science and art in Babel-17‘s treatment of languages is mistaken because he does not understand that the novel’s discourse is concerned with language itself. Language is its own „ordering principle“ (Fox 97), not art or science. The two ways to approach the nature of language, art and science, do not preclude one another. It is important to note, that each takes part in solving the mystery of Babel-17. So cannot be about linguistics or poetry, it is about their object, language.

The most important fact is the all-pervasiveness of language. Early in the novel, a customs officer has some kind of sexual encounter and, trying to cope with the ensuing depression, he turns to the means of language. He tries to describe his loneliness in a way that perfectly describes one of the limits language imposes on its speakers, the emptiness of language (cf. 47). In the dense phrasing of structuralism: you „cannot ‚mean‘ and ‚be‘ simultaneously.“ (Eagleton 170), the thing you talk about is absent in the language, language is empty. Later Rydra, awakening from sleep, is caught between English and Babel-17 and thereby experiencing a kind of double consciousness (cf. Littlefield 223). She is not able to gather her thoughts, reflecting on the nature of language: „If there’s no word for it, how do you think about it?“ (Delany, Babel-17, 111). The nature of language, one learns from Babel-17, evidently is defined by the limits it imposes on us.

During a voyage through space we learn of ghost-like beings, called ‚Eye‘, ‚Ear‘ and ‚Nose‘, who are part of a space ship‘s crew, and who are responsible for sensual reconnaissance. They report how an approaching space port looks like to the captain of the ship who has no windows or anything to „see“ for herself (72f.). Through a helmet she can partake of the three sensory impartations, each of which can explain the whole situation as is witnessed by the simultaneous answers to the captain’s question of where to dock in the space port and for the verbal description of each the words seem deficient.

„In the sound of the E-minor triad.“
„In the hot oil you can smell bubbling to your left.“
„Home in on that white circle.“ (73)

This passage amply illustrates the point, that language is not enough, but everything recurs to language, in the end, you have to listen and make the best of it. Aristotle said man is a social being and society consequently depends on communication, or, to phrase it differently, on language.

Limited as we might be because of language, we might think, that we might possibly cope completely without language. The one area, though, where everybody might agree that language is essential, is communication. And it is communication that turns out to be one of the three most important aspects of language in Babel-17, the other two being the diversity of languages and language itself.

This novel is shock full of characters who try to communicate with others and fail or who don’t even try. The latter case is evident in the interplanetary war between the Invaders and the Alliance. In the whole novel there is not a single instance where the two parties communicate in any way. Until the last chapter, the Invaders are only twice encountered in person and then from a considerable distance, only as a red light on a radar screen (cf.124ff.). The unspoken question lingers in the text whether the war could have been evaded or, once under way, stopped by both parties communicating their differences. There are indications of both possibilities in the text. For one thing, both parties refer to the other party as the „one-who-has-invaded“ (215), which implies a misunderstanding . For another, as Rydra Wong sets out to put an stop to the war at the end, one of the first measures she takes, is to talk to the Invader’s Commander (cf. 218).

More interesting than the political misapprehensions are the numerous implications that aberrations in communication might be part of the conditio humana. The thought of the General: “Sequestered, how could this city exist?” (3) might well be applied to humans in general, as this same General, becoming infatuated with Rydra, mentally despairs of not being able to tell her his feelings, thinking: “My god […] all that inside of me and she doesn’t know! I didn’t communicate a thing!” (14), even though Rydra understands him perfectly through his non-verbal language, the “[b]reathing pattern, curls of hands in lap, carriage of shoulders” (197), also called “[m]eaningful motion [or] kinesics” (Meyers, Aliens and Linguistics, 59) in linguistics. This communication comes so naturally to humans that its total absence can cause “horrifying” (Delany, Babel-17, 197) shocks. The Butcher, as a speaker of Babel-17 loses the concept of ‚I‘, he is badly handicapped when it comes to communicating with others, but as he does not have the verbal means to efficiently communicate subjectivity the Butcher subconsciously resorts to non-verbal language (cf. 151), such as thumping his breast to express something that would be filled by speakers of English with the word ‚I‘ or ‚me‘ . Obviously, even if we do not talk we always use language or language-supplements such as a gesture to communicate.

Sometimes in Babel-17, communication takes place neither through speech nor through non-verbal language. Sometimes it takes place through telepathy, which is interesting, considering the interpretation of the General’s statement stated above: sequestered from other people, how can man exist? Telepathy is often seen as a way out of the solitariness of modern man (cf. Milner 298) and a way to cut the distance to others and to short-circuit communication if problems arise (cf. Bogdanoff 247). It is consequently of high importance that the person who solves the communication problems surrounding Babel-17, Rydra Wong , is telepathic (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 198).
Reading the thoughts of animals she comes up with pictures (cf. 205), but with humans the mind-reading always results in grammatically correct sentences. The difference between man and animal must clearly be language . Humans being „creatures whose choices are limited to killing or talking“ (Meyers, The Language and Languages of Science Fiction, 211), the emphasis on good communication in Babel-17 indicates a strong inclination to the latter, moreover it demonstrates a way to circumvent the former, if we bear in mind the political misapprehensions we talked about.

As we have seen, language has many uses in Babel-17, reaching from a comparison of different languages to an examination of the nature of language and, further still, to the necessity of communication. Communication has been the bottom line of all these implications of language. There is one other use of language, though, which concerns the practice of ‚naming‘ things.

The first kind of naming, using names as intertextual devices in a way that Bakhtin labeled „discourse“ (Eagleton 146), enables communication, not between the characters but between the reader and the text, as well as between this text and others. It is obvious at first glance that names are eminent for the construction of the text, as the five parts of Babel-17 are each named for one character, thereby signifying his or her importance for that particular part. Names, apparently, carry meaning in this text.

Most names in the text are invented, they seem like anagrams but there is no way to determine from the text itself where they point to, they might as well be part of the strange names of SF . The first of the three which are indeed decipherable is the name of the battleship on which Rydra encounters the Butcher, the only person really speaking Babel-17, though not uttering a single word of it in the text, and learns that language: Jebel Tarik. We are informed, that this means ‚Tarik’s mountain‘ in Old Moorish (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 115). It also is the Old Moorish name for the small peninsula called Gibraltar, one of the pillars of Herakles. What exactly this reference means we can only speculate upon. One way this can be construed is that it is indeed Herakles, the hero of greek myth, who is meant. This is indicated by the only openly mythical reference in the text (cf. 126), which also refers to greek myth and Herakles‘ quest , two parts of which took place on Gibraltar. As Babel-17‘s events ressemble a series of quests (cf. Barbour 26), calling the battle ship ‚Jebel Tarik‘ might be a move of the text placing the novel’s events square in ancient quest traditions.

The second name is the name of the novel as well as of the mysterious language: Babel-17, which is obviously a biblical reference to Babel, also known as Babylon. There are two significant biblical passages pertaining to Babel-17. The first is situated in and is concerned with God punishing Babylon for its arrogance. The punishment consists of „confound[ing] their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.“ (Pinker 231) This passage may well be read as a mythical explanation for the diversity of languages, the origin of many misunderstandings that arise in human communication. The second one is found in , where the downfall of the Great Whore Babylon is described in detail. At first glance, this passage might seem a little weird, having nothing to do with language or communication at all. Maybe, on second glance, it describes the consequences of mis-using language, of failed communication, of using words for war-mongering. In this reading of Babel-17, could the accusation that „die auf Erden wohnen, sind betrunken geworden von dem Wein ihrer Hurerei“ () not be talking about humanity whose mind was clogged by misleading words? In short, clogged by the limitations of language, just as, in a more obvious way, the Butcher’s mind is clogged by Babel-17.

The last name is less complicated than the first two. It is the protagonist’s name: Rydra Wong, which, spoken aloud, sounds like „right or wrong“ and may be a play both on critical processes within a language and on sublime messages in otherwise inconspicuous speech. The first reference might have something to do with the fact that within Babel-17‘s structure everything that can be said seems logically correct and intrinsically right, including the criminal actions programmed into it. It takes Rydra Wong to detect the manipulation inherent in the language. SF-editor Hartwell claims that „the dream of SF is to control reality by creating it“ (95) and Babel-17 tries to do just that. It creates a world where all possible propositions are true, it pretends that that each and every possibility is exhausted. As Wittgenstein said: „Man kann [einen Satz] verstehen, ohne zu wissen, ob er wahr ist.“ (33). Babel-17 pretends that every proposition that can be understood is true. This pretension is questioned by Rydra, introducing external criterias for evaluating truth into the language.

Names are of a great value to the structure of Babel-17. This holds true, as we have seen, for some particular names. Also, as we have seen, the process of naming things, for instance naming chapters or naming the novel, is an important part of the process of developing Babel-17‘s themes. We get an idea of exactly how important the process of naming actually is if we read that „[w]ords are names for things.[…] But were words names for things, or was that just a bit of semantic confusion? Words were symbols for whole categories of things“ (Delany, Babel-17, 112; italics his).

What I mean by „process of naming“ is the process whereby someone or something gets assigned a name and, through the name, the person or thing suddenly can be categorized, be used as a thing one can finally be sure of. Naming is trying to rid yourself of issues of undecidabilities, trying to rid yourself from ambiguities inherent in the person, thing or idea. Naming is a continuous series of „attempts at ‚image control‘“ (Tucker 13). That process is nicely illustrated early in the text, when a customs officer sees something he has never seen before, he is intimidated accordingly, so he tries to name the thing. He starts by calling it „the Silver Dragon“ (35), a name, that is more like a title than a name. Its gender or sex is not specified yet, that happens in the next sentence, starting off with „[s]he“ (35). The naming is complete, relieved that he could assess the creature, the customs officer can now allow himself to be astounded and exclaims: „It‘s a woman!“ (35). The same reasoning leads him shortly afterwards to tag someone a „Pervert[]!“ (43). This quick tagging seems to be the easy way of handling complicated situations.

There are two more ways that naming is employed in the text. One is the use of euphemisms and codes. A euphemism occurs, for example, when the General talks about the terroristic sabotage as „accidents“ (12). Codes are used far more often and in these codes names are used as simple placeholders for the encoded words, for example in radio contact in a space fight (cf. 129) or, more simply in assigning a code name to the language which the terrorists use to communicate with each other, Babel-17.

The last crucial act of naming concerns the naming of one’s self. According to Jacques Lacan, we are least ourselves while we talk about ourselves (cf. Eagleton 170), yet the attempts to define one‘s self by talking or thinking about it crowd the text. Be it the elusive desire that one wants to seize by naming it (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 14) or one’s vague feelings that seem less vague once they are named: „I am amazed, surprised, bewildered.“ (5). This process is reflected in the text itself in a most interesting way: when Rydra is trying to teach the Butcher the concept of ‚I‘ and ‚you‘, he turns that same concept nearly on its head by turning ‚I‘ and ‚you‘ respectively into proper names.

The main concern of naming is finding the „real name“ (69) of things, and thereby their irrefutable meaning. Later Rydra asks herself „[i]f there‘s no word for it, how do you think about it?“ (111), how do you assess it? This question echoes the questions that arise from the posthumously published works of American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, his central claim being the following:

We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds, that all observers are not
lead by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic
backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. (Whorf 214)

The so-called principle of linguistic relativity states that fundamental differences in grammatical categories or in categories of words correspond to fundamental differences in thought. We cannot think independently of the language system we are part of, because „we cannot but ‚see and hear and otherwise experience‘ in terms of the categories and distinctions encoded in language“ (Lyons 304). This is the strong formulation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is highly controversial.

The weak formulation ‚merely‘ states that „the structure of one’s language influences perception and recall“ (307), meaning that memory is selective and depending on the language systems it will recall different things in different language systems. Some hold, that, although Whorf might have been wrong in his strong hypothesis, the weak version ist too weak and they formulated their theory between these two versions, taking into account the culture as a whole of the society in question (cf. Gipper 225).

In respect to two different language systems, the last issue to be discussed is the difference between translation and understanding. Even if it were true that translation is impossible, because metaphors and connotations are seldom translatable and never without losing some of the connotation, this would not mean that understanding is impossible (cf. Lakoff 311). It is crucial to differentiate between two languages having a different „conceptual system“ (311), which is what makes translation difficult (cf. 311f.), and the „conceptualizing capacity“ (310), of which Lakoff assumes that it is shared in general by people. This capacity allows for understanding even in cases when the conceptual systems are radically different (cf. 311f.).

One need not go very far in looking for an example of the difficulties implied by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Babel-17. The two most significant languages in the text, English and Babel-17, are not very similar to each other, their conceptual systems are fundamentally different. Babel-17 is “an exact analytical language” (Delany, Babel-17, 215), while English is claimed to be “analytically clumsy” (210). Speakers of Babel-17 seem to have an “angular brutality” as well as an “animal grace” (both: 131). The English language, by contrast, lends itself well to poetry, it is beautiful when it is polished, it is a very subjective language, expressing peoples thought and opinions (cf. 17f.), whereas in Babel-17’s conceptual system the grammatical category of subjectivity and self-reflexiveness is missing (cf. 139).

These conceptual differences make translation difficult, certainly. That is why the Butcher, the original speaker of Babel-17, who does not speak a single word of it within the text, has trouble communicating properly in English, he sounds harsh and brutal (cf. 146ff.). These difficulties do not, however, prevent him from learning in English the concepts of ‘I’ and ‘you’ that are missing in the conceptual system he operates with. His being able to understand Rydra’s teaching is the proof that the text offers for the validity of Lakoff’s distinction between understanding and translation.

The closest the text gets to simply restating Whorfian theory is when Rydra claims that “language is thought” (23, italics his) and the closest it gets to refuting the same theory is by saying that although “the original words were lost, the translation remained” (77). What may seem simply like a contradictory statement turns out to be, another one of the textual tactics of Babel-17, namely intrducing a contardiction to shake the readers grip on the meaning of the text and to leave him with questions. Similarly, the explanation of Babel-17’s function as programming its speaker “to become a criminal and a saboteur” (215) is so blatantly unscientific and implausible that it should quickly be realized that the text is not concerned with simple endeavors such as fictionally exploring Whorfian theory. On the contrary, it uses Whorf’s theory to make its own points.

Sometimes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is also called Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski Hypothesis, named after the founder of General Semantics, whose Motto is ‘The Map is not the Territory’ (cf. Eco 124f.), something we already encountered in Lacan’s thesis. Interestingly, this corresponds nicely with Broderick’s assertion that SF “maps utopia” (107). This connection should encourage us not to look for literalizations of utopias in works of SF, but to look instead for hints, absences, the “naturwissenschaftliche Wunderbare” (Todorov 54). Also, we should remember Moylan, who claimed, that we should not expect utopias in modern literature but only expressions of utopia (cf. Moylan 36). A cursory glance at Babel-17 reveals that there is no utopia in the narrow sense of the word. Still, there is a map of a certain, utopian change, as closer scrutiny will show. Babel-17 traces the contours of that change in the murky waters of language.

Naming things and using manipulated speech have been part of everyday language for several years now. The text shows just how manipulative everyday language can be by using the extreme example of the schizophrenia-inducing Babel-17 in several subtle ways. For instance it is pointed out that Babel-17 manipulates its speakers by using manipulative vocabulary: “the word for Alliance in Babel-17 translates literally into English as: one who has invaded.[…] It has all sorts of little diabolisms programmed into it.” (Delany, Babel-17, 215). This particular diabolism it shares with English, as we never get to know the word for the Invader’s home planets, they are just that: Invaders, meaning, those-who-have-invaded.

It is not easy to blame Babel-17 on the Invaders, as they used Babel-17 as a tool which only worked because it turned a weapon which was the Alliance’s all along, against the Alliance (see footnote 6). Babel-17 encourages us to look at language as an object, not as a given. “[T]he tool is not the weapon; rather the knowledge of how to use it” (213). This is where linguistic relativism comes into play. Some, among them Robert Anton Wilson, have claimed, that English is a highly manipulative language, with lots of possibilities to shroud the speaker’s intentions. That’s why they invented E-Prime, which appears to be sort of a new and improved English, wherin one is not allowed to use the verb ‘(to) be’ or any of its compound varieties (cf. Wilson 97-107). Changing the conceptual system changes minds, they claim. Exactly the same claim is made by Rydra Wong. After having uncovered every secret of Babel-17 and having stopped the sabotage she corrected Babel-17 “to build it towards truth” (Delany, Babel-17, 218).

Turning around what I said in the previous paragraph, I may also claim that its easy to blame Babel-17 on the Invaders, because the names suggest that. It is an „alien language“ (7) and the nameless Invaders wrought havoc with it (cf. 214f.). Sure, the Butcher was the Alliance’s tool, but it took the Invader’s cunning , the „knowledge how to use it“ (213) to make him a weapon. If it is that easy to change truths, how can Rydra believe herself to be able to make Babel-17 truthful?

Wittgenstein famously wrote: „Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen“ (Wittgenstein 111). Not to talk about something equals in this case not being able to say anything about that something that can have any claim to truth. Babel-17‘s status as a work of fiction and the loads of contradictions of which we have encountered several already, almost represent that Wittgensteinian silence. At the end of the day, what, really, has been said? What has been named? If „[a]ny given fiction reveals what it excludes“ (Broderick 133) the possibilities of what is revealed in Babel-17 are great, as it nearly never mentions the government, society, anything that borders on the issues of language is excluded from the text but not from the text’s discourse. Some kind of utopia is discernible in the text, but it’s precise shape is never named, which makes it all the more pervasive.

In Babel-17, we have earned, language is present in many ways, as language, linguistics, poetry and in the process of naming. There is one last aspect left, the one about the language-like qualities of SF. Samuel R. Delany encourages the reader of SF to think of it „as a language that must be learned or as a mode of writing as distinctive as poetry.“ (Landon 7). Each SF text is embedded in a „generic [SF] megatext“ (Broderick 59), which consists of all the other SF works that have been written and all the works that will be written. This means that every SF text has numerous references to numerous other SF texts which must be „not so much understood as simply recognized as proper names.“ (Broderick 57). Most importantly among those references figure certain stock terms that keep cropping up and the individual SF text is characterised by the way he takes up these stock terms and uses them in his own narrative.

This, of course, is nothing else but the notion of intertextuality that we already discussed. It is only now, however, that all the necessary elements for a sensible discussion of the dialogical functions of the SF megatext have been gathered. Babel-17 „showcas[es] the possibilities of SF’s invented languages“ (Malmgren 9) and a comparison with the SF megatext shows that Sfspeak is just another language in the bulk of the many already presented, but it is the process of naming that will become most important for the discussion of SF vocabulary.

Many SF texts play on the so-called „quest formula“ (Aldiss and Wingrove 393). These texts constitute a whole subgenre of SF: the space opera, which first appeared in the 1920s in pulp magazines such as Amazing and Astounding. (cf. Landon 72 ff.). Kingsley Amis remarks that what space operas resemble most are „horse operas“ (44) and Susan Sontag noticed, apropos of SF films, that their predictability remind her of Westerns (cf. 209). Space opera’s plots involve all the magic ingredients, space ships, black holes, hideous aliens, big guns and in a focal position: the heroic men who conquer the unknown universe (cf. Bogdanoff 82 f.). Space operas not only reinforce certain stereotypes, they also have social relevance in their advocacy of capitalism and colonialism (cf. Bogdanoff 85f.) They are propelled by a „missionary fervor and a sense of purpose“ (Landon 81). This crusade leads to frequent encounters with aliens. These encounters can be subsumed under the so-called first contact theme.

First Contacts are not restrained in their appearance nor are they more likely to appear in a space opera than in any other SF subgenre. They are first contacts with that which is alien, that which is the other. This theme is so pervasive that it has lead Broderick to say that SF both „writes the narrative of the other“ and „the narrative of the same, as other“ (51, italics his), which is a major insight, as C.G. Jung points out: „the alien is that which exists within humanity but which civilized humanity believes to have conquered“ (Golden 73). Also, according to C.G. Jung, the quest of the hero is a new myth (cf. 31) and corresponds with „the perennial human quest for meaning and wholeness“ (29). Fighting a war against an alien perceived as hideous would mean what the hero really fights is that within himself which he perceives as hideous. He finds himself a substitute enemy.
Turning to SF it soon is noticeable that the main problem in first contact scenarios is a failing of all kinds of communication, verbal as well as non-verbal (cf. Bogdanoff 244). In SF films the appearance of the alien usually is accompanied by silence (cf. Seeßlen 435), which in written SF texts is impossible to realize. As in the movies, however, the appearance of the alien has its importance. According to Bogdanoff communication works better the more human the alien appears. (cf. 230). This raises the question of what is really human: the humans, their shadow counterparts or both? What makes someone human ? It might well be language.

When talking about mythical references in the novel we already noticed the quest motive in Babel-17. Indeed, the novel has been derisively called a space opera often both by members of the academia (cf. Schulz 151) as well as by members of the SF ‚scene‘ (cf. Keim 503). It has been claimed that space opera’s underlying world view prevents any criticism of society or language (cf. Keim 514). In contrast, I would claim that the text „shows the need to understand codes and conventions“ (Samuelson 168) in order to work with them.

The stereotypes of space opera are conspicuously absent. The hero is a woman, who has weak moments (Delany, Babel-17, 15f.). She is a poet, not a warrior and although fights take place they have nothing to do with what turns out to be the hero’s victory. There’s none of the stereotypical male cocksureness in the events. It is poetry, science and Rydra and the Butcher‘s love that wins the day, not the big guns. The crew on Rydra‘s ship which is all the society the text permits us to see works in ways together that seem more like kibbutzim, working together as equals, work and love closely related. There is no trace of capitalism; colonialism, however, is hinted at, the headquarters of the Invaders are in a city called „Nueva-nueva York“ (218), a clear reference to New York and American colonial history. The missionary fervor, too, has its place in Babel-17, but it is a different fervor, a different purpose. In the end, Babel-17 is accorded no cultural value that could result in a cultural colonisation, it is assigned to other tools, it works as a go-between.

Speaking ‘SF’ means understanding the stereotypes and using them. Moylan wrote that he believed the productive powers of phantasy were situated in art (cf. Moylan 33). Using one’s phantasy to speak to the reader with the intent of swaying him to the cause, that aspect of Moylan’s belief are well taken care of by SF.

The key to the space opera motive in Babel-17 is found in Jung‘s observation as stated above: „the alien is that which exists within humanity but which civilized humanity believes to have conquered“ (Golden 73), a dark force within humanity. And language is exactly that, a manipulative force that we believe to have conquered through writings, through codes, through the disambiguation that we believe to occur in the process of naming. By transposing the palpable figure of the alien with something as vague as language, Babel-17 demonstrates what we should be afraid of: ourselves. „Who is this animal man“ is asked early on (Delany, Babel-17, 3). If we as human beings dump our fears of our shadowy side on the character of the Alien, this process assures that in the figure of that Alien can we ourselves be traced (cf. Golden 161). In language we can also be traced with all our arrogance in full display, all our weaknesses.

Language in space operas, we have found, mirrors the capitalist society from when they originated. Language mirrors our selves, but, as we learned, those same selves are absent in the language. Compared to other utopias, the traces of utopia visible in Babel-17 are not to do with enshrining a particular language or culture, as utopias generally have the tendency to do (Gordon 205). Languages, we learn, are deficient. English as well as the mysterious Babel-17. Communication also is deficient, personal as well as global, we have learned that, too. Maybe society, and we, too, who are mirrored in it are also deficient.

Language is mended as the events turn to a close (218f.). Another thing that is on the way to being mended is the political situation, meaning the interplanetary war, as Rydra and the Butcher are resolved to stop it. About earth society we receive nearly no information, we only encounter two earth people from the government, the General and a customs officer. Both are unhappy. The General, because he thinks that he cannot communicate with others. The customs officer seems to be unhappy with his whole life situation. He changes because he communicates with others, he changes his language system in parts: the process of naming is recognized as bad. This, actually is not portrayed in the novel, but when Rydra returns to earth the customs officer’s lifestyle resembles a lifestyle he claimed was perverted (cf. 191f.). Rydra’s quest, one might assume, mirrors the officer’s journey through his language in an allegorical way.

In his foreword to Delany’s seventh novel The Einstein Intersection, Neil Gaiman reviews some of the ways that particular novel has been read by all kinds of readers and interpreters. He closes that section of the foreword without passing judgement on the validity of these readings but instead he comments: „if that were all the book was, it would be a poor type of tale, with little resonance for now. Instead, it continues to resonate.“ (Gaiman ix). That holds equally true for Babel-17, which has been read as a black novel (cf. Weedman), as a gay novel and as an arrogant and trashy novel (cf. Keim)

SF, Delany says, is „a tool to help you think about the present […] in a way that allows you to question them as you read along in an interesting, moving and exciting story“ (Landon 35). This statement perfectly captures the effect of Babel-17, an exiting story about language and its mechanisms, questioning our sense of ourselves. Notions of free will and truth are under fire in this novel. That its narrative is open-ended is fitting. It leaves us with questions, not with answers. Questions that are about language, not about codes.

Languages have to be understood. When Rydra sits down with her tapes and transcriptions and works out all the grammar and vocabulary before passing judgment on Babel-17, maybe that is the text’s way of telling us to sit down likewise and consider the implications.Rydra’s understanding of herself and her understanding of the language happen at the same time. Babel-17 suggests, that it is always that way as understanding ourselves means understanding language first.

SF „shows human kind groaning in chains of its own construction, but nearly always with the qualification that those chains can be broken if people try hard enough“ (Amis 77) In Babel-17 these chains are language. Changing your life means changing your language. This is where mainstream criticism errs, which assumes that Babel-17 is about language and problems of language. They cannot see that it is about change. Trying hard enough not to succumb to the manipulations of language or to reflect the manipulation. These consequences are political as well as epistemological. Changing society also means changing yourself and your language, which is the lesson Wilson implemented when he started to advocate E-Prime.
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6. Bibliography

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. I really need it 🙂 . My other posts may not be *as* thorough as this one, but maybe still worth supporting? If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)