The Language of China Miéville’s Embassytown

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Embassytown by China Miéville, published 2011

I just finished the novel Embassytown by China Miéville. It was recommended and loaned to me by my friend Federico. It’s a good read; I recommend it.

Embassytown is science fiction. I found its strength to be the description of a faraway world, though there’s plenty of alien description, nothing is quite as fleshed out and compelling as the alien language, which is ultimately central to whole book.

The setting is a human outpost on a world call Arieka inhabited by the Ariekei or the “Hosts”. When humans initially make contact with Ariekei, communication is difficult.

Here’s an excerpt:

When the ACLers [Accelerated Contact Linguistics] and the crews came to Arieka, there started more than 250 kilohours of bewilderment. It wasn’t that the Host language is particularly difficult to understand, or changeable, or excessively various. There were startlingly few Hosts on Arieka, scattered around the one city, and all spoke the same language. With the linguists’ earware and drives it wasn’t hard to amass a database of sound-words (the newcomers thought of them as words, though where they divided one from the next the Ariekei might not recognize fissures.) The scholars made pretty quick sense of syntax. Like all exot languages it had its share of astonishments. But there was nothing so alien that it trumped the ACLers or their machines. 

The Hosts were patient, seemed intrigued by and, insofar as anyone could tell through their polite opacity, welcoming to their guests. The had no access to immer [more-or-less space travel], nor exotic drives or even sublux engines; they never left their atmosphere, but they were otherwise advanced. They manipulated life with astonishing finesse, and they seemed unsurprised that there was sentience elsewhere.

The Hosts did not learn our Anglo-Ubiq. Did not seem to try. But within a few thousand hours, Terre linguists could understand much of what the hosts said, and synthesized responses in the one Ariekene language. The phonetic structure of the sentences they had their machines speak – the tonal shifts, the vowels and the rhythm of the consonants – were precise, accurate to the very limits of testing.

The Hosts listened, and did not understand a single sound.

It’s revealed that the Ariekei speak with two simultaneous voices and cannot understand mono-vocal voices, or even simultaneous voices that are not from what’s recognized as the same being. Over time, humans breed ambassador twins who can, together, speak Ariekei that the Hosts understand.

The double-voice thing is wild, but that’s not the most unusual thing about the language. The Ariekei language has evolved in a way that there are no lies – everything is literal. This is really alien! It’s hard to imagine a language without speculation… exaggeration… lying. Ariekei have similes but not metaphors. (Simile uses “like” – Metaphor doesn’t. Similie example: “her eyes are like the sun” Metaphor example: “her eyes are the sun.”) When Ariekei use similies, they actually act them out before they can put them in the language – for example “the rock which had been split and put back together again.” So, literally, outside the town there’s a big rock that’s been split and rejoined. It’s hard to see how they would have gotten the idea for this spit in the first place, if they’re entirely literal… but perhaps that’s a failure of my imagination of how this would work.

It does make me think about brains… about how our brains use shortcuts, and ignore some input that doesn’t match memories (that’s Joe’s really quick and inaccurate summation of some of how I understand VS Ramachandran stuff [which I touched on here, but you should watch this to get a sense for.]) So it makes sense to me that some ways of understanding are sort of acculturated and biological and at the core of consciousness… and the impossibility of lying is a cool twist on this… and very alien!

The book is well-paced and thought-provoking. The trajectory of the plot hinges on language… and has pleasant turns and twists that I won’t give away.

My only semi-critique would be of the first-person narrator. Though the narrator works well as sort of generic device to move the plot along, she didn’t feel all that developed as a person… maybe she didn’t need to be… so we readers are more focused on getting to know the alien place, and not focused on her.

I am going to go raid Federico’s shelves for some other books by China Miéville.

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