Once upon a time, there was a language textbook with a small, boxy declension table...
December 3, 2010 10:15 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend some good novels relating to language learning, linguistics, or translation?

When I was younger, I used to read novels all the time. I thrived on fiction. Nowadays, I still read a lot, but it's mostly nonfiction. I'm trying to get back into the fictional groove.

I really like languages, the acquisition of and otherwise. One of my favorite books as a child was Ella Enchanted. Surprisingly, there is a huge focus on linguistics in the book. Ella's constantly learning new languages and picking up on linguistic phenomena. Some of the major plot points come about because she's a huge language nerd!

I'd love to find some books that have a similar focus on language. The kinds of fictional books I'm looking for include:

1) Books that are specifically about linguistics and linguistics.
2) Books in which characters are strangers in a strange land, learning new languages and bumbling along.
3) Books about translation and translators.
4) Books which code-switch between several languages. A recent thread on All The Pretty Horses had some examples of macaronic texts.

The genre is unimportant so long as the book's good. I'm cool with everything from sci-fi to sappy.

Thanks in advance! I'm excited about the idea of reading fiction again!
posted by ElectricBlue to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
The Tensor has a series of posts on linguistics in science fiction. It may give you some ideas.
posted by Nomyte at 10:21 PM on December 3, 2010

The linguist Suzette Haden Elgin wrote some fun feminist scifi about clans of linguists dedicated to interpreting between humans and aliens in a society where women are minors - Native Tongue, the Judas Rose, and Earthsong. She even published a grammar of the "language designed to express the perceptions of women" conceived in the first book.
posted by runincircles at 10:28 PM on December 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's a short story, not a novel, but Ted Chiang's "Stories of Your Life and Others" (collected in a book of the same title) is a great story about language learning and cognitive linguistics between human and alien cultures. I've been assigned it in several Ling classes, but I'd already read and loved it.

There's also Maria Doria Russel's The Sparrow, which deals with a human traveling to another planet and trying to learn the language.
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:40 PM on December 3, 2010

The Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh has just what you're looking for, with a linguist main character on a fascinating alien planet. Try the first one (which is simply called Foreigner.) I have not read all the series' many many volumes but I liked the first five or so very well.
posted by tomboko at 11:00 PM on December 3, 2010

Blndsight by Peter Watts is about, among other things, how to communicate with aliens. It's a smart, gloriously nerdy book.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:40 PM on December 3, 2010

Three novels by David Carkeet (Double Negative, The Full Catastrophe and The Error of Our Ways) feature a linguist, Jeremy Cook, as the protagonist. Cook uses linguistics in the books as a tool for everything from murder-solving to marriage counseling. Second-language acquisition doesn't really feature as a topic, as far as I can remember, but I recommend them highly: alternately poignant and laugh-out-loud funny.
posted by muhonnin at 11:44 PM on December 3, 2010

In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, the character Rincewind is talented at learning languages. I remember that specifically coming up in The Colour of Magic and Interesting Times, but it's probably a trope in other Rincewind-focused Discworld books, as well.
posted by neushoorn at 1:30 AM on December 4, 2010

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (in which the author invents a futuristic teen language)
Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (Aboriginal song as ur-language)
Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated (features the adventures of a comically inept Ukranian translator as one of the main plot threads)
Bernard Schlink, The Reader (not about language or linguistics as such, but all about literacy - and of course, the Holocaust)
posted by Paris Elk at 2:00 AM on December 4, 2010

I am an ESL student teacher and I am also interested in this topic.

I just read Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. It's about a Chinese girl who just came to America with her mother and neither speak English. It was good. It's not just about learning English, she also gives you an insight into alot of Chinese idioms.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford takes place during WW II and is about a Chinese boy learning English, trying to fit in with his American classmates and his parents don't speak English.
posted by irishlady1234 at 4:59 AM on December 4, 2010

Babel-17 is a science fiction novel by Samuel Delaney that features some practical applications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I understand this makes it science fiction based on science fiction in the opinion of most linguists, but still a pretty good read with linguistic analysis as its main plot driver.

The Princess Hoppy by Jacques Roubaud has some very odd linguistic elements to it, and is delightful.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:06 AM on December 4, 2010

Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy is exactly what you're looking for. From the back jacket:

On his way to a linguists' conference in Helsinki, Budai finds himself in a strange city where he can't understand a word anyone says. One claustrophobic day blurs into another as he desperately struggles to survive in this vastly overpopulated metropolis where there are as many languages as there are people.

It's a fantastic book!!
posted by fso at 6:39 AM on December 4, 2010

I think Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai (which I love) is pretty much what you want. Not science fiction, full of languages and translation and all that good stuff.
posted by mlle valentine at 7:12 AM on December 4, 2010

I hope it's not inappropriate to mention my own novel, The Grasshopper King, which is (among other things) about the difficulty of writing and reading poetry in an absurdly hyperinflected language. There are lots of jokes about noun declensions in it. It's sort of meant to stand in the relation to linguistics that most SF does to physics, biology, etc.
posted by escabeche at 7:33 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite books, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, is a recursive tale about readers, writers, translators, and books.
posted by Miko at 8:50 AM on December 4, 2010

I heartily second The Last Samurai; I wrote about it at length here, and that should give you a pretty good idea of whether you'll like it.
posted by languagehat at 9:14 AM on December 4, 2010

This is probably blindingly obvious (and not a novel), but Pygmalion merits a mention.
I grew up with an obscure Jane Yolen fantasy novel called Sister Light, Sister Dark that might fit your criteria. It presents the folktales and songs of a fictional community of women as though they are actual historical documents, written in a completely fictional language. It's technically YA, but pretty sophisticated reading, not to mention a wonderful plot and characters. Worth a look. :)
posted by bookgirl18 at 9:23 AM on December 4, 2010

Ursula LeGuinn is another sci-fi writer who pays lots of attention to linguistics. With her it's not so much communication with aliens, but communication between humans who have been living separate lives on separate planets for hundreds or thousands of years, and the issues of language and communication tend to mirror cultural misunderstandings.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:27 AM on December 4, 2010

Also, it's not about translation per se, but I hope you've read AS Byatt's Possession. An absolute must for anyone who appreciates the sadnesses, intricacies, and joys of language. It only improves upon subsequent readings. :)
posted by bookgirl18 at 9:39 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not so much about linguistics, but John le Carre's "The Mission Song" is an amazing book about an interpreter (and he stresses the difference between "interpreter" and "translator", as the former involves nuance, tone of voice, intention, etc.) The interpreter in the book knows several obscure African languages.

Also Bel Canto comes to mind; this one also features a man who knows many languages.
posted by LauraJ at 9:43 AM on December 4, 2010

The Name of the Rose - a medieval monastic library is central to the plot and language, meaning, translation, etc. are recurring themes.
posted by scribbler at 11:27 AM on December 4, 2010

Thirding The Last Samurai, if I can get just one person to read that book it's a winning day.
posted by vito90 at 1:37 PM on December 4, 2010

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. It's a kids book, but it's awesome at any age. It's all about language.
posted by hought20 at 1:50 PM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

You might like Blindsight by Peter Watts (Link goes to full text of novel). It touches on linguistic stuff fairly tangentially, it is mainly about interesting mental configurations. The genre is dark sci-fi.
posted by Vulpyne at 4:47 PM on December 4, 2010

Translation involves nuance and intention too!
posted by runincircles at 8:46 AM on December 9, 2010

Wow! Thanks for the great ideas, everyone.

My local library carried most of your suggestions. I brought home a giant bag of books and have been slowly reading a bit here and there. I'm enjoying myself so far! I'll mark best answers once I've formulated an informed opinion.

I will say, however, that j'adore The Last Samurai so so much. It's fantastic! And A Clockwork Orange and The Phantom Tollbooth were two of my favorite books growing up. :)
posted by ElectricBlue at 6:17 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

« Older What do I cook for a high end chef?   |   Is there any legal danger to seeding the Wikileaks... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.