Linguists are the technicians of the languages world. They work with the guts of languages, looking at the syntax, morphology, and other scientific things. They publish theories and papers on analysis of sounds and language connections. It’s all very scientific.
But what if some linguists put their writing skills to works of fictions? How might some popular and classic works of literature turned out if they had been written by word analysers instead of word smiths?
I don’t know. But I thought it would be fun to think about, and apparently others did to. We created a list of fun titles, and I have taken three of them to present what some classic stories could have been.
[Edited: March 18, 2015 – Some people have pointed out that Tolkien was a linguist. Yes, thank you. I know that. This article is done for fun, not to declare that linguists don’t write, or can’t write, fiction. ]
The Strange Case of Dr. Sapir and Mr. Whorf
In this gripping tale of cognitive introspection, we meet Doctor Sapir, a renowned linguist who is examining the way our language shapes our way of thinking. But he is not alone, for there is also Mr. Whorf, one of this students who is also intrigued by the idea, but with a twist: he calls it linguistic relativity, seeing it similar to Einstein’s principle of physical relativity. While these two men knew each other, and we now have the Sapir-Whorf Theory from their works, we learn that neither man ever put forth these ideas into an hypothesis. Moreover, they never co-authored anything together! Then how could this strange idea of world conceptualization come from to exist? And why does it have a dichotomy of stronger and weaker representations?
“I see and I have seen devilish little of the man. Such unscientific balderdash,” added the doctor, flushing suddenly purple, “would have estranged Boas and Kroeber.”
This little spirit of temper was somewhat of a relief to Mr. Harris. “They have only differed on some point of science,” he thought; and being a man of many scientific passions, he even added: “It is nothing worse than that!” He gave his friend a few seconds to recover his composure, and then approached the question he had come to put. “Did you ever come across a protege of his – one Whorf?” he asked.
“Whorf?” repeated Powdermaker. “No. Never heard of him. Since my time.”
That was the amount of information that the Semiticist carried back with him to the great, dark bed on which he tossed to and fro, until the small hours of the morning began to grow large. It was a night of little ease to his toiling mind, toiling in mere darkness and besieged by questions.
Of Root and Stem
Meet George and Lennie. They are best friends, travelling the roads of northern California together during the Great Depression, hoping to find work on the farms there. But being broke isn’t their only problem. They are also practising linguist, a hobby often misunderstood by the people around them. Despite their close friendship, they also seem at times to be unable to understand each other, for a deep rift exists between them that goes to the core of their being, which they are constantly arguing passionately about. What is the fundamental difference between the root and the stem? Until they find a way to solve their differences, they just may not survive.
The two men were at it again. The day had been particularly hot and the two friends were taking refuge in a small diner along their route.
The place, appropriately named “The Last Dime” considering the condition of its newest arrivals, had not been unaffected by the ravages of the economy, but seemed to still be having enough customers to keep it functioning and open. For now.
“You are absolutely wrong, as usual,” huffed George. He and Lennie were seated in one of the slightly less grubby booths of the diner, waiting for the lunch they had ordered from a tired looking waitress over half an hour ago. Neither men seemed too concerned by the wait, as they were arguing. Again.
“The distinction is in the derivation,” continued George, taking on a tone normally reserved for correcting children or scolding small pets. George had neither, but he had nevertheless somehow managed to perfect the condescending manner. “A stem-word is essentially chopping off the affix or suffix and whatever remains. The root needs to be a proper and valid word, and that means it must be morphologically the base. The root of “went” is “go”, but not the stem. When we add a suffix or affix, the root word is transformed, then root and stem may not be the same!”
“What complete and utter tripe!” exclaimed Lennie. His face was flushed red, but whether it was from the heat of the sun or the argument that made it that rosy shade, one could only guess. “Everyone knows that a root is a form which is not further analysable, neither in terms of derivational nor inflectional morphology. It is that part of a word-form which remains when all inflectional and derivational affixes have been removed. It is the basic part and is always present in a lexeme. You have words like ‘tabletop’ in which there are two roots, ‘table’ and ‘top’. A stem is of concern only when we are dealing with inflectional morphology.” He concluded this last statement with a hard slam with his open palm on the aforementioned tabletop for emphasis.
At that point, both men suddenly became aware of their waitress, a woman in her early thirties with a stained apron around her waist and a nameplate proclaiming “Stacy” affixed to her faded uniform. They had no idea how long she had been standing there, and were suddenly ashamed of their bickering, like two school boys under the eyes of a stern teacher.
“If you two big thinkers are done with your yelling,” she told them as she set a tray down on the table, “maybe one of you could tell me who ordered the corned beef and mustard on rye.”
To Kill a Mocking Verb
Discrimination runs strong in the southern states during the Great Depression, and the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama is no exception. There, young Scoub lives with her brother, Jim, and widowed father, Atticem. While the family is doing relatively well compared to the rest of the country, due mainly to Atticem’s secret contributions to the field of Linguistics (under the pseudoname “John Kneen”), things are not easy for them. A few people of the community suspected the family of practising linguistics, and they have been largely ostracised from the community. This is very hard on young Scoub in particular, who doesn’t understand their hostility. It is a story of growing up during linguistic inequality, which is relative to so many, even in our modern society.
I stared up at my father as we sat on our back porch in the early evening. It was July, and the day was only beginning to cool down to where sitting outside was something which could be done comfortably.
I did not understand him, and I don’t think anyone else really did. Well, mom did, I think. But she was gone now. It was just me and Jim now.
Our father didn’t do anything. He worked in an office, not in a drugstore. He did not run a bookstore for the county, he was not the librarian, he did not farm, work in a newspaper, or do anything that could possibly arouse the admiration of anyone.
Besides that, he didn’t wear glasses. He had nearly perfect eyesight, despite his age. How could anyone admire him for his intellect when he didn’t even show it with glasses? Everyone knew the smartest people have glasses, but here was my father, barefaced.
Still, he was my father, and thus we all shared the same exile brought on by his occupation. Being a linguist should not have been something to be ashamed of, but people didn’t understand what he did. They imagined he spent his days speaking in many languages or translating ancient hieroglyphics. How could they be so ignorant?
And so they mistrusted him. Us. What we did and who we were. And the mocking! So many insults we had hurled at us. Interpreter! Dictionary hugger! But the worst was the accusation of being verbers! We had never verbed anything! That would be too shameful to imagine!
But father didn’t do anything to stop them. I don’t know if he didn’t care or had just given up. I only know that I couldn’t take it much longer.
I hope you enjoyed these fun looks at possible works of literature. For the humour impaired, this was done purely in the interest of entertainment. I am not making fun of the original works, nor of linguists and what they do. I have the utmost respect for the profession, and to mock it would be, as Scoub says, just ignorant.