Words about words
March 2, 2018 1:27 PM   Subscribe

I have recently enjoyed Lexicon by Max Barry and the Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus, both of which were fiction novels about language used as a supernatural force. What other fiction or non fiction books would I enjoy that are also about language, linguistics, speech, symbolism, etc?

As far as non fiction books, a description of the origins of language written in layman's terms might be interesting, but other suggestions would be welcome.
posted by sacrifix to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
(I loved Max Barry's novel SYRUP when I read it years ago.)

Came in to recommend DUNE by Frank Herbert.
posted by jbenben at 1:32 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Isn't Snow Crash in this category?
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:33 PM on March 2, 2018 [7 favorites]

Orwell's 1984 is built on the idea that, since thought is shaped by language, controlling the language people use controls the kinds of thoughts that are possible to think. (Editorial: one of the two major US political parties has learned this lesson much better than the other one.)
posted by number9dream at 1:33 PM on March 2, 2018

A Void by Georges Perec is a good book which on the surface is about finding out what happened to the character Anton Vowl and the letter E (which doesn't appear in the book) but is also about the difficulty of figuring out what's wrong without having the language to describe the problem. It's a fairly quick read (only 26 chapters, but chapter 5 is missing) and full of self referential humor.
posted by mattamatic at 1:39 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Kory Stamper's Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries was pretty great.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:39 PM on March 2, 2018

Embassytown by China Miéville

Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang was made into the movie Arrival

The Power of Babel is an introduction to historical linguistics for the lay reader by John McWhorter
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 1:40 PM on March 2, 2018 [9 favorites]

Ella Minnow Pea is a novel that involves the banning of letters, at which point they disappear from the novel itself - sections after the banning of a letter are written without that letter. (I own it but haven't had time to read it yet; comes highly recommended from people I trust.)

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is the definitive nonfic book about the importance of punctuation.

Elgin's Native Tongue trilogy is a near-ish future SF, in which women create a language of their own. (Warning: background dystopia which has gotten frighteningly plausible.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:40 PM on March 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet.

It's a violent and funny novel about an investigation into the murder of Roland Barthes and I don't want to say too much more because spoilers.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:40 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others includes several fascinating takes on language as it relates to things like super-advanced AI’s, aliens, magic-like energy systems... it’s a really fun and compelling collection you may enjoy (and includes the story the movie Arrival is based on.)

On preview: oops well consider this nthing Ted Chiang!
posted by elephantsvanish at 1:41 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Wonderful O, by James Thurber, is a children's novel about a community in which the letter 'o' is banned.
posted by darchildre at 1:42 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

One of the earliest instances in fiction is Delany’s Babel 17 from 1966.
posted by monotreme at 1:47 PM on March 2, 2018 [6 favorites]

Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17!
posted by miles per flower at 1:48 PM on March 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

The best linguistics book I've ever read is The Stories of English by David Crystal. It's a romp (ok, it's like a thousand pages long, but it felt like a romp to me) about the history of the development of the English language and how it shaped culture around it and vice versa. Stamper's Word by Word is definitely a close second! If you're interested in people trying to use language to create change, though, Arika Okrent's In the Land of Invented Languages is the one I would choose. It's a history of constructed languages in vignette form, with a focus on those conlangs used to attempt social change through language use-- Esperanto was supposed to create world peace, Loglan was supposed to enable rational thought, Blissymbolics was supposed to mystically change the fabric of the universe but actually did open up communication for folks supposedly uncommunicable... it's great.

People have already recommended you all the fiction I was thinking of except Milorad Pavic's the Dictionary of the Khazars, which plays around with linguistic determinism and is also structurally innovative...
posted by peppercorn at 1:53 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh shit I forgot! How do you feel about IF? Because the book-length Counterfeit Monkey by Emily Short is all about using language and its manipulation to change the world around you. It is both very fun and existentially troubling, highly recommended!
posted by peppercorn at 1:55 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Shorter than a book: Poul Anderson's Uncleftish Beholding is a scientific essay written in English with all the non-Germanic words removed.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:16 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Blake Charlton's Spellwright is a fantasy novel where the spells need to be written out but the main character is dyslexic
posted by kbuxton at 2:46 PM on March 2, 2018

Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker.
posted by paduasoy at 2:55 PM on March 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

The main character in Janet Kagan's Hellspark is a linguist from a planet of linguists, and the book looks at how language and perception interact.
posted by Lexica at 3:11 PM on March 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

I get to recommend G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen! In the past, I have started my reviews of this title as such:

Religion, metaphor, rebellion. The Quran and the Internet. Hackers, effrits, and sheikhs. Douglas Hofstadter shoutouts.

Hopefully that will be enough to sell you on this delightful title.
posted by redsparkler at 3:12 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Embassytown is pretty much definitively about language used as a quasi-supernatural force.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 4:30 PM on March 2, 2018 [3 favorites]

In the category of light, young adult novels, Rainbow Rowell's Carry On fits the bill. It's a sort of Harry Potter-ish story but spells are powered by "muggle" language use. A spell might weaken if an expression, snippet of song, or saying goes out of use, but new spells can be created from language that comes into heavy use. It's a fun read.
posted by Orlop at 4:35 PM on March 2, 2018

I've read Lexicon, The Flame Alphabet, and many of the (excellent!) suggestions you've gotten so far. You should definitely put Terrence Holt's short story "'O Logos" (῾O λόγος) on your list--it's available online and in a collection.
posted by Wobbuffet at 4:41 PM on March 2, 2018

Ian McDonald's Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is about not just language, but typography.
posted by zadcat at 4:51 PM on March 2, 2018

Thirding Embassytown. When I recommend it to people it is primarily for the creation of a new kind of language.

In a different way, I also recommend The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt. Language acquisition and linguistics plays a large role and it is one of my all time favorite books so there ya go.
posted by janey47 at 7:26 PM on March 2, 2018

It might be worth mentioning that Tolkien's work was largely created as a way to give his invented languages life. The languages his characters speak aren't an adjunct to the stories, but the other way around.
posted by lhauser at 7:39 PM on March 2, 2018

Oh, your mention of 'speech, symbolism' as possible topics eventually made me think of Greg Egan's story "TAP," which I love for its picture of a future where people 'speak' using 'Total Affect Protocol'--full representations of what they mean/feel/experience.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:10 PM on March 2, 2018

Another vote for Arika Okrent’s book. A quick, fun read (though I still feel bad for that one kid brought up as a native Esperanto speaker).
posted by AwkwardPause at 8:26 PM on March 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Karen Elizabeth Gordon's books -- Torn Wings and Faux Pas, The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, The Disheveled Dictionary, etc.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:40 PM on March 2, 2018

Genevieve Cogman's YA fantasy The Invisible Library — which I'm reading right now, as a matter of fact — features a magic system called The Language. It's about librarians who travel between alternate universes on bookish missions, and seems to promise a lot of metafictional fun.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 9:38 PM on March 2, 2018

You might like to read the play Dogg's Hamlet by Tom Stoppard, which is about language.
posted by paduasoy at 2:08 AM on March 3, 2018

If you don't mind YA and a bit younger, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K LeGuin and Diane Duane's Young Wizards series all deal with language in different ways. The first is funny and punny and delightful; the second is a coming of age book but also lays a foundation for how magic and language are inextricably intertwined that not only affected pretty much all fantasy written since, but is near Sapir-Whorfian. Duane clearly owes a lot to LeGuin, but the way she interweaves wizardry (which is performed using The Speech), language and science is very cool indeed.
posted by Athanassiel at 3:19 AM on March 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Don DeLillo's The Names is partly a meditation on language. Lurking around the periphery of the story is a murderous cult obsessed with the alphabet.
posted by baseballpajamas at 1:25 PM on March 3, 2018

I will enthusiastically echo the recommendations for Embassytown and the works of Ursula K. Le Guin. An excellent Le Guin story I haven't seen mentioned yet is The Author of the Acacia Seeds.

In a slightly different direction, I also rec The Avion My Uncle Flew by Cyrus Fisher, which is unlike anything else I've read. It's a children's adventure novel that starts out written in English, and by the end of the novel it has transitioned to being written entirely in French.
posted by nicebookrack at 7:17 PM on March 5, 2018

Came in here to say Embassytown by China Mieville and The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet (which I'm currently in the middle of reading). Super different from each other, and both seem to hit the Ask perfectly.
posted by taltalim at 8:15 AM on March 7, 2018

Seconding Suzette, Haden Elgin's Native Tongue and the sequels The Judas, Rose and Earthsong.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:56 PM on March 7, 2018

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