Novels about language?
April 7, 2013 11:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some recommendations of novels that are in some way about language.

I'm open to sci-fi and novels about third-culture characters negotiating native and adopted languages, but ideally I'd find something else.

I'm going to be using the books with high school age students, so preferably not extremely long (say <400 pp? I'm flexi on this, I guess), extraordinarily academic (again, somewhat flexi--Foucault and Certeau are on the syllabus), or, um, notably "adult," por favor.

For context, the unit will include a bunch of readings and media about linguistics (Sapir-Whorf, Chomsky, Pinker, Bloom), conlangers, hobo language, paleolinguistics, cockney rhyming slang, etymology, attempts at "language purity," neuroscience, etc. The novel will run alongside all these other shorter readings.
posted by Joseph Gurl to Writing & Language (48 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
How about A Clockwork Orange, in which the reader has to pick up a language as they go?
posted by pompomtom at 11:32 PM on April 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker is more specifically about poetry but might be useful for you.
posted by neilb449 at 11:33 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Riddley Walker.
posted by nkknkk at 11:36 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nineteen Eighty Four could work too, if not too obvious.
posted by pompomtom at 11:36 PM on April 7, 2013

Anything by Nabokov, though Pale Fire in particular.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 12:12 AM on April 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Finnegan's Wake?
posted by nelljie at 12:12 AM on April 8, 2013

Response by poster: I've considered A Clockwork Orange. Good suggestion...maybe a bit "adult" (?)...haven't read it in twenty years; I might should.

The Anthologist? I've ordered it and will give it a read.

The vast majority of my students will have read 1984 already, unfortunately.

Pale Fire, another good suggestion...will definitely consider it.

Finnegans Wake (no apostrophe) is a very clear no-go. Come on now! :)

Keep em coming, gentle Mefites!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:23 AM on April 8, 2013

Snow Crash? Babel 17 by Delaney? I think the sci fi cannon has a few more entrants too.
posted by chrchr at 12:30 AM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Partially about language is Sophie's World, which high school students enjoy.

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston is about the power of language and words to construct identity, community and culture. The great thing about this book is that you can teach a chapter discretely, rather than read the whole text with students. The first Chapter in particular, No Name Woman, directly talks about the power of language and utterance to call forth entire identities that are occupied for generations.

The Handmaid's Tale
posted by honey-barbara at 12:32 AM on April 8, 2013

Ian Watson's The Embedding
This site links to other sci-fi novels about linguistics
Diego Marani's The Last of the Vostyachs and New Finnish Grammar
posted by TheRaven at 12:34 AM on April 8, 2013

Perhaps If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino? Possibly too obtuse, and maybe not enough about language, but definitely about writing and constructing a narrative...
posted by Bella Sebastian at 12:38 AM on April 8, 2013

China Mieville's Embassytown is about about language - chiefly about an embassy to an alien species who speak with two mouths (necessitating genetically engineered pairs of twins to speak for the humans) and have no symbology or secondary meaning in their language.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:39 AM on April 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Ella Minnow Pea?
posted by knile at 12:42 AM on April 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure it quite fits your requirements, but any Tolkien is all about language. It's arguable that he wrote the stories just to expand and explore on the languages of Middle Earth. If this is part of a learning package, it might be fun for the student to learn/write Elvish as they read the stories in the Silmarillion. Lots and lots of scholarly work out there on the Elvish languages.
posted by sbutler at 12:48 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The classic SF novel about the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is The Languages of Pao. If you're into the SF thing I recommend you read it before Embassytown so you have some idea of the context that gave rise to that novel.
posted by bswinburn at 12:49 AM on April 8, 2013

Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence.
posted by judith at 12:49 AM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

The languages of pao sounds perfect for this - absolutely topical, and not a complex novel on its own.
posted by jacalata at 1:33 AM on April 8, 2013

perhaps on the outer edge of meeting your request, but Georges Perec/Gilbert Adair's A Void?
posted by russm at 1:38 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

David Brin's Uplift Universe novels get fairly in-depth about the changes that have occurred to produce "Anglic", a language descended from English that is spoken several centuries in the future as the international lingua franca, and the differences between Anglic, the languages spoken in the wider non-human Galactic Civilization, and the languages that humans have developed for "neo-chimpanzees" and "neo-dolphins", which have been genetically engineered from animals to increase their intelligence.
posted by XMLicious at 2:04 AM on April 8, 2013

Best answer: Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic fits the bill. It's a novel written as a lexicon. It's fiction, but the Khazars were real. Because its written as a dictionary, readers assemble the chronology and what plot exists in a way other than by reading it in the usual narrative form. It's a playful way to read.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 2:41 AM on April 8, 2013

Babel 17 is amazing
posted by frequently at 2:54 AM on April 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

William Golding's The Inheritors concerns contact between Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens, and is written in first-person format from a Neanderthal's perspective for most of the novel, shifting to an omniscent viewpoint for the penultimate chapter and the viewpoint of the Homo sapiens for the final chapter. There is an accompanying shift in the complexity of the writing as Golding's attempts to demonstrate the gulf in linguistic and other capacities between the species.
posted by drlith at 3:04 AM on April 8, 2013

Also, not to argue with other commenters, and just my personal opinion, but I think Pale Fire may be a bit too complex and non-linear of a novel for many (though obviously not all) high school students.
posted by drlith at 3:09 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Obligatory Ted Chiang: Story of Your Life. Novella length.
posted by vasi at 3:24 AM on April 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I second China Mieville's Embassytown, which I just finished reading and found quite interesting from a linguistics perspective.

Guy Gavrie Kay's Tigana is less explicitly about language, but the identity-granting power of names is a major plot point. It's pretty long, though, and I'd go for the Mieville over Kay for this particular purpose.

Oh! If you're studying conlangs, you might be interested in Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin. Elgin is a linguist as well as a writer, and invented Láadan as a political thought experiment of sorts.
posted by serelliya at 4:05 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Malcolm Bradbury's Rates of Exchange is all about a linguist and language in an obscure Eastern European country.
posted by ebear at 4:25 AM on April 8, 2013

Diego Marani's New Finnish Grammar is about language and identity.
posted by mister_kaupungister at 4:34 AM on April 8, 2013

Ursula Le Guin's The Disposessed contains several interesting ideas about language. It is also one of my favorite books of all time and I think everyone should read it.
posted by Cygnet at 4:47 AM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's not a novel, but might be interesting reading and a useful book for engaging your students because it is a wonderful memoir of a man who translates novels for a living: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

You possibly can't teach it to high school kids without odd looks, but Lolita is fundamentally about language. Nabokov plays a lot with words and metaphors, which is what gives the book its unique style. It is Nabokov introducing a lot of his ideas, learnt as a non-native speaker, about English. Most people at high school focus on the unreliable narrator, but the real interest is how Nabokov treats the English language, plays with it and crafts it. In his later novel, Pale Fire, there is constructed language, of course, and that is also worth reading.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:48 AM on April 8, 2013

Just as an aside, I have read in several places (including the wikipedia article) that Nabokov actually learned English before Russian, surprisingly.
posted by Cygnet at 4:53 AM on April 8, 2013

Erik Orsenna, La Grammaire est une chanson douce. (Which, to my surprise, has apparently been translated into English.)
posted by brianogilvie at 5:01 AM on April 8, 2013

Seconding Native Tongue. Bonus: you get gender politics, too!
posted by rtha at 5:09 AM on April 8, 2013

Another China Mieville, The City & The City
posted by snorkmaiden at 5:28 AM on April 8, 2013

Best answer: Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai could be good -- see the 'Language' section of its Wikipedia article. There's a funny bit right at the start about someone trying to read a dry German text which I found very similar to my own experience. (It's not related to the Tom Cruise movie).
posted by rollick at 5:31 AM on April 8, 2013

"The Lecturer's Tale" by James Hynes, about life in a university English department. Very funny too, especially on post-modernism vs. trad-canon, etc.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:19 AM on April 8, 2013

> Just as an aside, I have read in several places (including the wikipedia article) that Nabokov actually learned English before Russian, surprisingly.

Not true, and in fact absurd on the face of it.

> Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai could be good

It's not good, it's great, and the first book that came to my mind. I wrote a long and enthusiastic piece about it here.
posted by languagehat at 6:33 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember a book from my childhood called The Avion my Uncle Flew which was of the sort where you learn quite a bit of French as the book goes along -- I think there might be some letters later on, etc., that aren't translated, e.g. It's not really *about* language, but the effect is there.

For more overt musings, you might try the Thursday Next series -- I feel like one of the latter books (3rd? 4th?) gets particularly deep into grammatical wanderings and amusements. And, of course, the Phantom Tollbooth...
posted by acm at 7:27 AM on April 8, 2013

I also thought Embassytown was fantastic. Great exploration of some linguistic concepts.
posted by gnutron at 7:56 AM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I vote for Paul Auster's City of Glass.
posted by third rail at 8:20 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came in here to recommend three books, all of which have already been suggested above. I love you guys! But seriously, check these out:

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin

Embassytown by China Mieville
posted by 168 at 9:02 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of my favorites: Don Delillo's The Names
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:24 AM on April 8, 2013

Seconding Riddley Walker.

Babel 17 I find a bit too...ingenious.

At Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien is a lovely book, highly influenced by Joyce, but hopefully comprehensible enough for highschoolers? It plays with language and has about three different idioms going, one representing heroic Gaelic, one representing modern stream-of-consciousness and another, Irish-inflected English.

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani, which was surprisingly difficult to search for. Not sure if it's out of print. "Funny, disturbing, and written in the exuberant language of its protagonists - a mix of slang, texting, Punjabi and bastardised gangsta rap - Londonstani is about tribalism, aggressive masculinity, integration, alienation, bling-bling economics, and "complicated family-related shit."
posted by glasseyes at 11:42 AM on April 8, 2013

Don't forget The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance. Published in 1958, it's an interesting take on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
posted by ninazer0 at 2:36 PM on April 8, 2013

Best answer: I read Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy in high school. It's about a linguist who ends up in an unfamiliar city and struggles to deconstruct the language so he can understand it. I don't think it's quite what you are looking for but I specifically selected it at the time for an assignment because I was interested in linguistics.
posted by themoonfromthesea at 4:53 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Two Patricia McKillip books fit the bill: The Bards of Bone Plain and Alphabet of Thorn. They both deal with discovering languages that people don't currently know how to read.
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:42 PM on April 8, 2013

Came to say Story of Your Life. Seems like the most obvious fit. And one of the greatest stories ever, really.

If short stories are fair game, Borges' Funes, the Memorius is also a good choice.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:45 AM on April 12, 2013

Response by poster: Funes is already in the curric :)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:08 PM on April 12, 2013

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