Book Recommendations: Language over Culture

I love recommending books to people, so I figured I might start doing it here in the form of curated lists- a group of recommendations all revolving around a central theme. This week we’re going on a linguistic tangent.

Shakespeare in the Bush, by Laura Bohannon
Nonfiction Essay

This short essay shouldn’t take too long to read. It’s one of the classic texts of cultural misunderstanding. The author, anthropologist Laura Bohannon, attempts to tell the story of Hamlet to an audience of Tiv tribesmen in Africa, only to have them interpret the story in an unusual way.

220px-languages_of_paoThe Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance
Science Fiction

This is the classic linguistic science fiction novel. It was first published in 1957 in Satellite magazine, followed by an expanded novel version in 1958. The Languages of Pao is based in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis– the idea that the structure of a language affects the speakers’ culture, perception of the world, and even mode of thought. Jack Vance takes it one step farther, however, and postulates social engineering via language. The planet Pao is a heavily populated agrarian backwater. Its ruler, the Panarch, decides to try to reform the population by hiring outside consultants to craft new languages- a warrior language, a scientific language, and a mercantile language.

511Z3iQ5NwL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, by Daniel Everett

Don’t Sleep, There Are snakes chronicles anthropologist Daniel Everett’s career studying the Pirahã people of the Amazon. It chronicles his first contact with them as a missionary, and proceeds through his attempts to learn the language and translate the Bible into Pirahã into his education as a linguist and anthropologist, and eventually leading into his complete transition into the role of scientist. The Pirahã possess a unique language and culture, one which has become a hotbed of debate in the linguistic community- there are claims that the language provides evidence of linguistic relativity, among others. Even aside from that, it’s a fascinating language- no abstract color names, some of the fewest phonemes of any known language, no linguistic recursion, etc. My favorite part of their language is their directional system- instead of having a system like North/South/East/West or Left/Right, they instead have a directional system that relies on Upstream/Downstream/Away from the River/Towards the River. The book received a lot of attention online due to the story of Everett’s loss of faith (no Pirahã among other Pirahã has ever been known to convert to Christianity during all the centuries of contact), but his embrace of atheism only takes up a single chapter of the book- the rest is dedicated to his experiences among the Pirahã, their language, and culture.

51FDKbsmJ7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Embassytown, by China Mieville
Science Fiction

This one takes a slightly different bent- it goes after an alien language. The Ariekei have a language that can only be spoken by a few humans that have been genetically engineered in pairs to do so, since it requires two words to be spoken at once. Lying and speculation are both apparently impossible in the language, and they create living similes by drafting individuals into strange ordeals- like the protagonist. Everything starts to fall apart when a new translator appears- one who hasn’t been engineered to do so, and is merely two individuals linked together. It’s an incredibly strange novel, like anything written by Mieville, but definitely worth the read.

Darmok, Star Trek: The Next Generation
TV episode (Season 5, episode 2.)

Alright, this one isn’t something to read, but it fits right into the theme. In Darmok, Captain Picard is stranded on a planet with a member of an alien race who is completely unintelligible. The Universal Translator (woo, ridiculous Star Trek devices!) works- the individual words the alien speaks makes sense, but they don’t make any sense while put together. One of my favorite episodes of all time.


This is obviously not a comprehensive list- if you’re interested, there’s a lot more like it out there. Here’s a couple more:

  • The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin- This science fiction novel explores the Safir-Whorf hypothesis as well, along with anarchism, collectivism, and a host of other topics.
  • The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman- this book explores a series of tragic cultural misunderstandings between the family of a Hmong child and her American doctors. A depressing but brilliantly insightful book.