Language is a sticky thing. In some ways, what it does is straightforward and clear, but in other ways it’s soft and subtle and refuses to submit to imposed boundaries. It can be used to convey facts or meaning, intention or deception, abstract ideas and concrete descriptions. Language can literally open up new worlds, or expand a person’s current world, by taking things and ideas already known and putting them together in new ways to create new thoughts in a person’s mind or to completely change their way of looking at what they thought they already knew. Even subtle nuances mostly hidden within words, when paired together, can have an incredible and visible impact.
It’s remarkable how few people realize the power inherent within language. I’m sure established poets must know, and even amateurs must have some hint of what they’re doing when they’re crafting groups of words together. But day-to-day usage is just taken as a fact of life and most people assume they’re using language for its most basic purpose: to get things done. They don’t realize that their subconscious choice of words betrays their ideological biases, their opinions of another person, or the details that they’re not sharing. Even more profoundly, most people have no idea that the language they speak constricts their available ideas and opinions, and gives preference to a limited few, constrained by the range of vocabulary available to the group of people in their place and time.
If I had never learned to speak another language, and then a couple more after that, each from different language families, I may have never known either. But it’s true: each and every language is a construct of its culture, both allowing and constraining people’s thoughts and ideas to those areas considered most valuable and positive, or simply useful, to the culture which produced it. Have you ever heard that Eskimos have 17 words for snow? I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s the idea: their language frees their mind to consider the subtle differences in types or uses of snow, a thing for which they have unending experience. They have a perspective of snow that I could never approach, not without living among them and learning their language for a considerable amount of time, observing both the instances in which a particular word is used and the impact it has on those who hear it. But I bet they have incredibly limited capacity to consider a desert, or indoor heating, or a palm-laden beach – at least not before they adapted English as a secondary or primary language.
Another example may be more familiar to most reading this: most Latin-based languages (of which English is sort of a half-sister) distinguish between singular and plural “you,” and it often doubles for informal and formal occasions. A French or Spanish speaker subconsciously considers both the number of people he’s speaking to and whether or not the situation calls for a degree of formal respect. English doesn’t even have that capacity, and thus our language, like our culture, is incredibly informal. It can be made a bit more formal with added adjectives (i.e., “sir” or “ma’am”), but it can never approach the level of formality dripping from every pronoun and verb conjugation that French can. And thus it also never enters our minds: we native English speakers are an informal group of people. In the US, to recapture a bit of lost usage from not having a distinction between singular you (the “thee” and “thou” which was present in King James’s English) and plural you, we’ve invented combination phrases: “y’all” or “you guys” (my favorite). But if anything, those are even less formal, and thus formality isn’t even a category in our language, and it rarely enters our thoughts.
The current language I’m speaking and learning (Malagasy, the Antakarana dialect to be specific) constricts/expands speech on the opposite side of the table. There are two words for “us”, an us that’s inclusive of the listener and an us that’s excluding the listener. Both forms of “us” are used far more frequently than “you” or “me”, because they imply that the speaker is part of a group or community. The important question (to native Malagasy speakers) is whether or not the listener is part of my group that is acting or expressing opinion, whether we can make that claim or should give them some freedom to decide themselves where they stand. It’s amazing though the incredible difference this causes in my way of thinking when I’m communicating in Malagasy. In Malagasy, I’m thinking of groupings and common identity and where I belong. Discussions in Malagasy are an attempt at congregating, figuring out where people fit in the larger whole. In English, I’m thinking of concrete individual identities, and each person stands where they want to and they belong only to themselves. Discussions in English are more often negotiations, figuring out how each person gets what they want, but informally, of course.
An extended family group in rural Madagascar.
I know some of this (and I’m only scratching the surface), not because I’ve studied linguistics from a psychological perspective or anything like that, but because I’ve lived with people who speak the new languages I’ve learned. I’ve learned most of these languages not through book or study, but through trial and error and friendly helpers. People let me know when I’ve used the word correctly and when I haven’t. And when I hear other people’s speech, I can tell when they use a word I thought I already learned in a surprisingly new way. And I can tell which words they use most often and can model my speech after them. Though I didn’t grow up among those people, and thus my own ideological leanings aren’t naturally the same, yet in speaking their language I begin to constrict my thoughts (because the new language doesn’t have words for it) and expand them in areas that are most important to the people whose language it is. And so my world is opened up to not only new places and experiences, but to new ideas and thoughts and subtle but new differences between them… at least inasmuch as I have the new language abilities to keep those new thoughts in my head.
But some speakers of foreign languages still don’t realize any of this. They’ve learned from a book, or were taught by people of their own nationality (rather than by native speakers). Or they’ve remained utilitarian in their worldview and they construct sentences that are crude translations of their desired communications without having any idea of the subtleties and changes in meaning that those words, when grouped in certain orders, can have on their native-speaking hearers. That’s when you get really funny linguistic blunders, that are often sub-titled in comedy movies, or just from plugging something into Google translate. It’s not that the other language itself is funny, or that it’s lost its power to communicate deeply, only that the person using it doesn’t have the adequate knowledge or respect for it.
Imagine a group of people who not only knew of this power inherent in every language, but they examined and investigated it, and the effects it has on different types of people, with the same razor-edged precision as a neurologist. These people could know the details not spoken, from what was said; not just recognize a lie, but know the truth behind it. They could craft sentences precisely designed to elicit a specific thought or action from a person, without that person even realizing they were being manipulated. With enough knowledge of linguistics and people grouping, and skill in applying it, these people could control anybody; they could rule the world! This is where we find Max Barry’s “Lexicon”.
“Lexicon” is science fiction at its most basic; it takes some aspect of science (in this instance, linguistics and psychology) and applies it in a new and inventive way. What’s atypical about it is that what happens in “Lexicon” isn’t really new at all, even if it hasn’t been fully explored or exploited yet. As Barry points out continuously throughout the book, this is already happening all around us: demographics are being compiled, personality tests are being administered, and marketing strategies are being deployed – all with the purpose of controlling your behavior, to vote for the right candidate, or to buy the right product. Very few people have any idea how fully they’re being manipulated or have much resistance to it when they are.
In “Lexicon”, it’s taken just one step further. Compile lots of info about how the neurochemical pathways in the brain are affected by words, even by syllables, and a simple sentence or phrase, a “spell”, could be spoken which would have complete control over the hearer. But since each person is so deeply affected by their language or dialect, and by their personality type, some knowledge is needed of the specifics of the individual. Again, just figure out which words are used more often by which personality type and how it affects them emotionally, and you’ve got the ingredients necessary to formulate your spoken spell, to enthrall the listener. In “Lexicon”, those with the knowledge and skill to deploy these linguistic powers at a highly successful level are known as “Poets”, and the whole world is at their fingertips, with very little to stand in the way.
To me, the idea itself is fascinating and more than worth the time to read Max Barry’s latest book. But it only took me a few days to read it, because “Lexicon” is action-packed, full of intrigue and suspense, likable and unlikable characters, and I just couldn’t put it down. Max Barry has long been one of my favorite modern authors, ever since I played NationStates online in college and finally bought the book (Jennifer Government) for which it was a marketing tool. Since then I’ve read all his books and haven’t had a single moment of letdown yet. Quite the contrary: I’ve owned “Lexicon” for almost a year, but I’ve put off reading it until now because I didn’t want it to be finished too quickly. You know, the same reason you save the dessert for last. This book was as good as I hoped, and even better, even if I did finish reading it in a couple of days.
So whether you have any interest in linguistics or foreign languages or marketing or none of the above, I’m sure you’d still enjoy Max Barry’s “Lexicon”. The twists and turns are unpredictable but fascinating, there’s an underlying mystery that’s slowly revealed throughout, there’s tons of action, and the characters grow and change before your eyes. And the most powerful word in the book is “love” (though the author may argue that the English translation of it is a poor equivalent). So, expand your vocabulary and read this book!