Linguistics and Speculative Fiction

We Talk, Therefore We Are

First humans communicated with pictures. image from PABS

Rene Descartes’s famous quote states “I think, therefore I am“. The premise is since we are thinking beings, we have consciousness, we exist. Even our species is named Homo sapiens, literally “thinking man”.

And yet, arguably it is our capacity for language, not our ability to think what makes us humans.

Granted, other species can communicate and are also highly intelligent. But communication by sounds, scents, and movement does not compare to talking.

Having a conversation requires thinking in abstract terms and creating symbols that can be decoded by the receiver.

Unsurprisingly, linguistics, the cultural study of languages is one of the four main branches of anthropology, the study of humans. Linguistics studies how languages influence our culture.

Indeed, just like there is no history without writing there can be no culture without language. Otherwise, there will be no way to transmit rituals, values, customs, and traditions to other generations.

Some critics argue anthropologists worry too much about the past. However, we need to understand our past and ancestry to better comprehend who we are and what will become.

Latin is a dead language but the Roman Colosseum endures.  Photo from Il Corriere della Storia

Therefore, we need to study humans through the language they communicate since language is central to everything we do.

Also, anthropologists concern themselves with language development, evolution, and language families. Another group of anthropologists works hard to document and preserve non-Western tongues before they become extinct.

Language extinction and evolution are not something new.

For example, outside the Pope, when was the last time someone spoke Latin? No one speaks Latin since Latin disappeared with the Roman Empire.

In fact, Latin evolved into thirteenth other languages, although these days only Castilian (Spanish), Portuguese, French, Romanian/Moldovan, Italian, Catalonian (Northeast Spain and Andorra), and Romansh (in some Swiss counties) are still spoken.

Thousands of languages are disappearing due to colonialism and the lack of education. Whenever a language becomes extinct, we lose a treasure from our collective history.

By the way, the list of endangered languages is a long one, although a few indigenous languages like Quechua and Aymara are making a comeback.

What can Linguistics Teach Speculative Fiction?

Sumerian tablet

Sumerian tablet, Wikicommons

We previously addressed how anthropology can inform speculative fiction. Yes, a discipline concerned with the past can teach plenty to science fiction which looks at the future, and fantasy which takes folklore to create modern myths.

But what about linguistics? What is the importance of the study of language within the narratives of possible, alternative, whimsical narratives?

Our language influences our values and the identities we chose for ourselves. Words have power.

Psychologists and self-help coaches preach changing our vocabulary changes our outlook. Moreover, the words we use sometimes have race, class, and gender connotations.

Also, some words’ meanings and spelling change over time. If there is one area in which linguistics is valuable for speculative fiction writers is world-building.

When creating new words, new cities, new toponyms, new planets, new races, new technology, et cetera, new terms will be needed. By the way, those terms need to feel right to the reader.

Creating neologisms is almost a speculative fiction tradition. Combining new words to make new ones helps the process. Also, language transmission is a process that we need to account for in our narratives.

image: European Day organization

For instance, Old English sounds nothing like modern English. Old Spanish is so different from modern Spanish. Some words fell out of fashion because the economy and culture changed.

Moreover, our writing must reflect those changes to feel authentic.

For example, we don’t take carriages, we don’t pay with Shillings, and men do not wear knickerbockers. However, if you are writing steampunk, those old fashion terms are a must.

Languages evolve, meanings change, and even spellings change (although some refuse to).

For instance, despite the letter X no longer being pronounced like a J in Spanish, México refuses to lose the X on its spelling as a matter of identity. Meanwhile, Texas is spelled Tejas in Spanish.

Besides language itself, there is another area linguistics can inform speculative fiction is in speculating how language will be used in the future.

For demonstration, in some dystopic science fiction novels, certain words are forbidden or language is heavily regulated by the oppressive government. And some meanings are tergiversated.

Language is something we take for granted and nonetheless primordial even for our biological survival.


image from Piku

Linguistics in general and language, in particular, deserve to be considered when world-building our societies. It adds verisimilitude to them and makes the experience more immersive for the reader.

No one can predict with certainty what we will speak and how in the future.

Did the first century Romans think their empire and their language disappeared? Did the ancient Incas think Quechua would become endangered? Of course not.

Hence, one, two, ten centuries from now we can safely predict our language will keep evolving. Change is inevitable.

language banner, IAFL

Moreover, it will evolve to the point that if we could travel to the future in a time machine, we would not recognize it.

Language evolution and cultural evolution have a circular relationship in the sense one informs the other and vice-versa.

We may not be able to predict but we can imagine. After all, that is what speculative fiction is about. Imagining the impossible and making it real.

Reader, do you feel language is overrated or underrated in fiction? Do you notice it when you read? Does it bother you? Do you enjoy stories with weird language? Share your opinions.

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March 2023