Languages of Pao Q3 The Hypothesis

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What do you think of the think of the central hypothesis of the novel - Language defines culture through semantic and other linguistic linkages. Did the novel explore the concept thoroughly?

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    I think there is a lot to explore here, and Vance seemed to have a vague sense of how to do that. Very early Paonese is described as very passive and a few demonstrations are provided. I would have been very interested in seeing the new languages demonstrated in some way rather than merely being told that they function the way they do. There really seems to be no linkage between the change in language and the change in behaviors other than that we were told the linkage was there.

    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis came into the English speaking world via the German concept of geist -- the spirit or soul or psyche of a culture. Hegel's dialectic provides a dynamic by which to explore two different cultures' geist coming into contact with each other and producing something new from that interaction, but that's not what's happening here. Semiotics provide a structure by which to examine how a sign (words) refer to whatever it is that is referred to, but that's not what's happening here. Semantics provide a structure for looking at how the elements of sentence structure and grammar relate to each other, and Vance does seem to use this in his explanation of the need to change the language of Pao. Now that I write this up, I do think he made the right decision to use semantics, which is dynamic (diachronic) rather than semiotics, which is static (synchronic). I think he could have made more of it, though.

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    Ditto - I thought it was a bit of a wasted opportunity, actually. The nature of these languages, or language itself, was really glossed over. I think I'd like to read the Kim Stanley Robinson novel that explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to see where this really might go.

    While reading this, I kept thinking of how the Trump camp might describe events to their followers, vs how the Biden camp might do it. Those two descriptions are really different because of their choice of words and phrasing, even though they use the same language. I suppose that falls under the semiotics category, so I think I'm agreeing with @WildCard that the book would have been more interesting if this had been explored, more.

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    It's a problem for an author to try to describe multiple languages all in English, and US English at that, especially here, where the concept is that they differ so much as to reshape their whole culture. In a film or TV show you can do this through subtitles, and depict how the body language of a speaker varies (think how Star Trek presents Klingon speakers, for example). In a book you have no such easy option.

    Tolkien tries to do this through poetry (as I blogged about a few times while we were slow-reading LOTR) by creating distinctly different poetic forms for the major cultures, including "weak imitations" of them where a culture like the hobbits admired another one but didn't quite get it right. Le Guin tries to do it by throwing in a few words of the original dragon speech (eg tolk = stone), and describing the effect on both speaker and listener. CS Lewis (in That Hideous Strength) tries to do it by focusing on the exhaustion brought about in a human speaker by grappling with the Eldil tongue, and using narrative phrases such as "words like castles".

    How does Vance try? Well, so far as I can see, only by describing the changes in society and social relationships brought about by the language, eg the changes in the warrior group as contrasted with the mainstream of Pao, and similarly the slow transformation to the new version of society as the new lingua franca takes hold. This fits with what I see as his focus on the collective rather than the individual.

    Did it work? Not really for me - it came over as simple assertions of the way he thinks it ought to happen, rather than emerging naturally from the situation in a compelling manner.

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    I didn't really get it, I'm afraid. I felt like there was a really interesting bit where Palafox explained the three languages and their introduction, and then... it just happened. We have a violation of Chekhov's Secret Identity, where Beran is discovered but nobody cares (including the reader), and although he's a gifted linguist (maybe because he already speaks the two languages they're working in) he doesn't offer any more insight as to the differences of the languages or how that might actually change their cultural character.

    I wonder if some of this failure is because I never really got to grips with the Paonese culture, or what they stood for. As the base state of the language, they just seemed a bit... boring... and I couldn't put my finger on any distinctive cultural traits for them.

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    @BurnAfterRunning said:
    I wonder if some of this failure is because I never really got to grips with the Paonese culture, or what they stood for. As the base state of the language, they just seemed a bit... boring... and I couldn't put my finger on any distinctive cultural traits for them.

    I suppose in a certain sense, that is (part of) the point of the story... the Paonese at the start are so insipid that they are not only unmemorable, but easily conquered by an absurdly small force. Their only form of revolt is a kind of civil disobedience which means they do even less than usual. They are in almost every way undistinguished. Whether that state continues - after all that has happened to them, and the shift of their language away from the original - is left as an open question at the end.

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