Sokath, his eyes uncovered

17 May

Leading with a Star Trek picture is probably grounds for expulsion in some circles, but I intend to make it work.There’s an episode of TNG (that’s The Next Generation for people who aren’t cool enough to know the abbreviations) called Darmok, featuring Picard and a Captain of the Tamarians, Dathon. What could’ve been a dull and hoary ‘spend-an-hour-figuring-out-each-other’s-language’ episode ended being a fan favourite. This is largely because of the clever twist on the ‘unknown language’ trope, the universal translator converts what the alien says into English, but the language itself is made up of allusions to history and folklore, making it  easy to understand but totally incomprehensible. Patrick Stewart gets to do a lot of emoting in this episode, there’s a scene where he tries to communicate using sections of Gilgamesh that’s particularly moving.

I was reminded this after having read the fourth book of Gene Wolfe’s enormous Solar Cycle. The entire series is an exercise in unreliable narration that rewards a careful reading of subtext- imagine Lord of the Rings from Pippin’s perspective, with events explained only with his level of understanding and you’re close. The Citadel of the Autarch introduces the Ascians, the antagonists in a war that’s been going on for longer than anyone remembers. If you want to get political about it, there are suggestions that the Ascians are a sort of nightmare endgame for the policies of communist China. They’re fierce warriors with an all-encompassing sense of patriotism, so much so that they only speak ‘correct thought’, rote learnings of literally thousands of phrases praising the will of the people and the Group Of Seventeen. Like in Darmok, there’s a slow reveal that while Ascians speak in pre-approved phrases each has a deeper meaning when used in context, so the speaker can provide complex information, even definable narrative, once the listener knows what all the phrases mean.

The reasons I’m bringing this up is that yesterday I reread George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, where he stands on a tower and has a really verbose piss on contemporary language. In it, he worries for the state of the Mother Tongue and its slow degradation from outside forces, be it replacing Saxon root-words for Greek and Latin (which people attach an emotional feeling of ‘cleverness’ to), the dreaded ‘not un-‘ prefix, and the use of tired clichés. Worst of all are the politicians, who are constantly trying to hide unpleasant ideas behind big words, have washed out so much of language that words simply don’t have meaning anymore. For example, ‘fascism’ now means ‘something that isn’t good’.

Orwell wrote that essay in 1946, and I imagine that if by some power of necromancy or time travel Orwell were to travel to 2010 and read a single page of The Herald Sun, he would promptly die from prognosis-induced shock. I’ve taken a lot of criticism for the way I speak, which  summarised is ‘you talk like a fag, and your shit’s all retarded’.  The former is fair enough, but I feel I have to defend the latter. English is a really difficult language, up there with Japanese on the ‘what the fuck does that mean’ scale. One of the reasons it’s so hard is because English is riddled with ambiguity, and this can make everything nigh-on incomprehensible to non-English speakers, especially if they don’t already know the speaker. I always try and say precisely what I mean, except when I don’t. It’s important to keep things simple.

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One Response to “Sokath, his eyes uncovered”

  1. timetravelersguide May 24, 2010 at 3:18 am #

    Way to beat me to the Darmok article, mongrel.

    Or

    Armageddon, before Deep Impact screens.

    Still loving your work by the way.

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