Considering Lingustic Relativity When Writing SF

I’m not a linguist, nor do I play one on TV. I haven’t even taken a linguistics class thus far in my University career, but I find articles like this one to resonate with my inner geek. The writer in me is constantly collecting, as they say, grist for the mill and this particular article got me thinking about how the concept of linguistic relativity can be used in building more colourful sf stories.

Language can inform culture, scientific progress, and religious systems without ever intruding directly into the story. I suppose this would be one of the challenges in writing a really good historical novel set in another country and time. The Writer would be working with translated material where a lot of the original meaning is lost in translation. How did these ancient cultures think? What concepts did they use to express scientific ideas for which there was no corresponding vocabulary? I think, in this context, historical novels and historical texts are perhaps the closest analog to science fiction and fantasy, where the sf writer can learn a lot about worldbuilding, but that’s another topic altogether.

On the flip side you could be writing a wide-screen space opera a la Star Wars, involving dozens of alien cultures and bypass the whole linguistics quagmire by just using Universal Translation Devices. (Doctor Who does this as well with the TARDIS, but I’d argue that its almost essential to the plot and nature of the show.) With space operas, linguistic differences would lend credibility to the multitude of different alien species, rather than treating them as your cliche ‘bug-eyed-humans’.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind does this in spades, where the most important aspect of the First Contact trope is the unique way in which humans and aliens first communicate: music. Or more particularly: music as language.

In any case the language barriers between cultures definitely adds an interesting dimension to the story, and I’m looking at developing it as a part of my worldbuilding details for future stories I write.