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Sime~Gen Inc. Presents
"You Just Can't Understand! "
Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin, DAW Books, 1984 (reissued '94)
Native Tongue II, The Judas Rose by Suzette Haden Elgin, DAW Books, 1987 (reissued '94)
Native Tongue III, Earthsong by Suzette Haden Elgin, DAW Books, 1994.
Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh, DAW hc, Feb '94.
Damia's Children by Anne McCaffrey, Ace Science Fiction, pb. Feb. 1994.
Border Dispute by Daniel R. Kerns, Ace Science Fiction, April '94.
This month and next month I'm going to focus on twin issues crucially important to both magick and science -- i.e. to Magician and SF/F reader: Language and Power.
In Magick, to know the Name of something is to have power over it. In Science Fiction, to know the language of the aliens who are attacking you (and winning) is essential for survival.
Much of American sf doesn't export well because people raised in the U.S.A. tend to be monolinguistic, and totally unaware of the existence of culture, nevermind how it blinds one and shapes language. Our "plain vanilla" language and culture create assumptions buried deep in our literature that simply don't make sense to anyone else in the world (except possibly the Chinese, but that country is so big and old it's multi-cultural! India, too, is multi-cultural and proud of it -- not to mention at war over it).
Even though emotion powers every magickal operation from simple prayer to ceremonial magick, there will be no manifestation from that operation if language isn't used with exacting precision. (Hence most religions require set prayers be recited as written.)
It isn't enough for either scientist or magician to know a language. It is necessary to know what language is.
Thus, reciting god-names in an ancient language suitable for incantation won't manifest anything useful if the recitor doesn't understand both the nature of language and the language in which recitation (and NAMING) are done.
Finding someone else's grimmoir and going through the motions won't work.
In the scientific view of the universe, the universe responds to what you do, not who you are or how you feel. Thus the test of truth is whether someone else somewhere else can reproduce your effect. In the Magickal view of the universe, the universe responds to who you are, not what you do, and once you've performed the Act, your very identity is changed as is the Universe. Thus the test of truth is the uniqueness of the effect. If it can be reproduced reliably, it wasn't magick. If it needs to be reproduced at all, it didn't work.
The magician who understands the role of emotion in the operation and the concept of "semantic loading" -- i.e. the emotional charge with which our culture invests each word -- has a middling-fair chance of producing such a unique effect.
If it sounds as if Magick is a field requiring massive investments of time in study, herculanean efforts at abstract thought, and very few ego-strokes at the end of it all, you're right. In that, it's just like science. If you want to do something really useful, you're going to have to sweat like a Hero.
And that's what this batch of books I have for you this time is all about -- heroics on the field of Understanding.
Some of you may be familiar with my stance on this subject. Those who have followed the development of my Sime/Gen novels, and the discussions with my sometime co-author Jean Lorrah (who is a Professor of English and well versed in Linguistics) which have been published in the fanzine Ambrov Zeor, are familiar with the core of the argument. (I've mentioned Jean Lorrah's Savage Empire novels here with wild enthusiasm, and applauded her STAR TREK novels as well -- not because she's my friend but because she's produced some remarkably profound novels.)
Simes and Gens are mutated humans of Earth's far future. Simes have several senses which Gens do not. My thesis is that because Simes perceive the world with senses Gens do not have, the Sime language can not be mastered by any Gen.
Jean Lorrah's reaction to this thesis is intense outrage and a cry of "Elitism!" She is convinced that given certain advantages, some Gens could master Simelan.
We've argued this in public in the fanzine and at conventions on panels for years and years with no real movement on the part of either of us. (I'm talking about a real argument here, not a fight.)
Now, a woman who is a major force in the field of popular linguistics, a woman who does not know either one of us well and who is not, to my knowledge familiar with our argument in the fanzine, has given us food for thought.
I'm speaking of the well-known and very popular writer, Suzette Haden Elgin, author of Verbal Self-Defense and its sequels. These nonfiction works, together with Edward T. Hall's The Silent Language provide a good jumping off place into the field of semantics/linguistics/culture/folklore.
Suzette Haden Elgin is also a renowned science fiction writer with many entertaining novels to her credit. Every one of her novels is essential reading for the student magician, but her current DAW trilogy addresses the nature of language, hardwired human limitations in language, and the essential anthropological issue of "woman's language."
These three novels are an easy, quick way to acquire a notion of why a magician must study linguistics as well as mathematics and make the herculanean effort to penetrate the veils our language and culture impose on us.
But the real reason to read them is that they're just plain fun to read. They're not hard-punching intimate adventure, but they are books you'll be recommending to your friends and discussing endlessly -- in loud voices.
The intriguing thing for me, personally, is that Elgin has come down on both sides of the Sime/Gen argument simultaneously, and her presentation makes perfect sense to me.
Her thesis is that the only way humans will be able to communicate with nonhumans out in the galactic civilization is to expose human infants directly to native speakers of "alien." Only during the language-acquiring years of brain formation can human beings "acquire" (i.e. internalize) a language embedded in its cultural matrix.
She also discusses the ethical problems 20th century America would have with experimentation on infants and how our culture would rationalize dealing with those problems. Her depiction has an eerie ring of validity that gives me the shivers.
So, she supports Jean Lorrah's thesis -- infant humans can acquire the most bizarre views of the universe. Surely then, they could acquire a human view twisted around a few more senses?
But Elgin also postulates that there is a hardwired physical limit to what human infants can acquire. The exposure method only works for "humanoid" languages - if the alien is physically too different, the human infant exposed to it would simply go crazy -- or worse.
So she comes down on my side of the argument -- when perceptions differ enough there can be no "acquisition" -- which is the term she uses for what I call "mastery."
Then Elgin lands squarely in the middle of the argument with her postulate that the women of the Linguist Families would spend their spare time inventing an artificial language (the Sime language I postulated started as an artificial language) designed to reflect the world as women perceive it -- not as men perceive it.
Elgin postulates that this invented language would have feminine perceptions coded into its internal substructures, syntax, and metastructures, not just vocabulary.
One assumption is that the languages currently in use have the masculine view of the universe coded into them and therefore do not generate structures a woman can use to express herself. As a result, women have to "talk too much" in order to say anything important to them -- because the language itself is clumsy. And when they finally do get it said, men don't understand -- because they have no internal referent for the experiences being discussed as Gens have no internal referent for Sime perceptions.
Once Elgin's women turn their invented language loose and it becomes a living language, Elgin then depicts the changes that this language will make at the root of culture.
Whether you agree or not, these three books provide a lot of food for thought and a marvelous opportunity to argue productively -- especially across the gender gap.
Although Elgin's current trilogy is based exclusively in the pure scientific view of the universe, it is must-reading for any aspiring magician. Besides, they're fun.
Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh is not fun. It's tense, gripping, involving, breathtaking and a suspense/mystery of the best kind. The opening is deceptively routine for a First Contact novel, and there's a bit of a disappointment when, 15 pages into the book, you shift to a new point of view character. A few more chapters in, and you can't put it down.
C. J. Cherryh was a high school language teacher before she turned full time writer. Her first novel made her name in sf/f because it depicted alien aliens that were both utterly incomprehensible and understandable at the same time. They were truly -- not human. From time to time, she's done that again. And here is another example.
For contrast, Poul Anderson (whose books I highly recommend without exception) shows us how an understanding of the varied forms of life on Earth can provide necessary clues to understanding non-human intelligences.
Cherryh's thesis that runs through all her alien-alien books, is that when the central nervous system hardwiring is substantially different, there can be no such understanding, though there may be alliance, or warfare, or even peaceful co-existence. But the necessary requisite to establishing peaceful co-existence is to accept that the alien is not human.
Cherryh is one of the few writers who can establish just how hard that acceptance of alien's alienness is going to be without letting the point she's making get in the way of the story.
Foreigner shows us what it would feel like to live alone (out of touch with all humans) among a species that simply can not conceptualize "friend." Try to translate "I saved your life at risk of my own because I like you," into their language and you offend your friend because you've just called him a salad. And yet, alien grandparents come to get your autograph for their grandchild. Miscues. Your gut tells you here is a kind of people who are just like us in every essential way, and your mind tells you, there's no hope, they can't understand and I must not trust them at all.
Elgin's books are about dealing with the linguistic barriers that form blinders around our consciousness, and this particular Cherryh novel is about why those blinders can not and must not be removed.
Foreigner succeeds in making that point because Cherryh left out of her depiction of the aliens all the cultural information we need to penetrate the alien language. Cherryh is a past master at anthropology. Her previous books (every one a recommended book) show that she could have drawn that dimension of the aliens if she'd wanted to. This is a novel of First Contact -- and the private inner life of a culture is usually the last to be penetrated.
I suspect that Cherryh, like Elgin, would postulate that the only way humanity would be able to crack the barriers between human and alien would be to exchange very young children (infants even). Both cultures would have a big problem with that. The adults such fostered children would grow into would belong nowhere. I'd want to read that novel, but I'd vote against any politician who espoused such an experiment.
Anne McCaffrey has so many novels in so many universes that are so different from one another that it's impossible to discuss her as a writer. She tends to avoid dealing directly with language and linguistics and goes right to the heart of the matter -- communication and emotional motivations. But she also depicts how our culture would react to individuals who are "different."
The series I want to point you at this time is set in a universe in which Earth has bred and set apart a group of telepaths. These uniquely gifted individuals are the workforce that can operate the communications and transportation network of Earth's expanding empire of colonies. They are the bedrock of the economy of many of these worlds -- billions of lives depend on them dedicating their energies to this one task whether they are temperamentally suited to it or not.
Damia's Children is the latest to hit paperback in Feb. '94. There is another hardcover coming soon or available as you read this -- Lyon's Pride from Putnam. Anyone who has had a telepathic or any ESP experience and tried to explain it to disbelievers needs to read this series. Then you might think twice about trying to convince them.
HONORABLE MENTION: Border Dispute by Daniel R. Kerns is a sequel to a book I mentioned some months ago here, Hero. This one is about aliens who are hardwired against taking orders but who are allies with humans in a war against a hive-society. They're so certain they've got the language problem whipped that they trip over the cultural problems. Can friendship bridge such a gap? Cherryh says "probably not". Kerns says, "Wellll . . . maybe."
BOOKS FOR REVIEW IN THIS COLUMN SHOULD BE SENT TO JACQUELINE LICHTENBERG, POB 290, MONSEY, N.Y. 10952.
Until I get the direct links installed here, you can find these titles by using copy/paste (in MSIE use right mouse button to get the copy/paste menue to work inside text boxes) to insert them in the search slot below -- then click Book Search and you will find the page where you can discover more about that book, or even order it if you want to. To find books by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, such as the new Biblical Tarot series, search "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" below.
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Reviewed by Jacqueline Lichtenberg