17: I Hear You. Can You See Me?

The Sun-being, who is Cyrano’s friendly démon (spirit), has related many adventures and dropped many a name in recounting his attempts to shape Earth’s ancient and recent history. But he has seemed somehow tired, even worn out. We don’t know the half of it. Meanwhile, Cyrano observes how the Moon-beings talk. And then, suddenly, he is taken for a ride...

The visits paid me by this semi-official spirit mitigated the harshness and mistreatment I received from my master. I was able to converse with someone other than those who took me for one of the most thoroughly brutish of animals. And you can understand why they might have done so. Two languages are used in that country: one for the nobility and the other for the common folk.

The language of the upper classes consists only of different, unarticulated tones, something like our music only without words. All told, it is a very useful and pleasant system. When they become tired of talking or do not deign to sully their throats in doing so, they take a lute or some other instrument, which they can use as well as their voices in communicating their thoughts. Sometimes, when fifteen or twenty of them get together, they will discuss a point of theology or the difficulties of a legal case in the most harmonious concert that could delight the ear.

The other language, the one used by the common people, is expressed by shaking parts of the body. But not as you might imagine, because certain parts represent entire speeches. For example, moving a finger, hand, ear, lip, arm or cheek may amount to a sentence or paragraph. Other gestures only designate words, such as wrinkling the brow, flexing various muscles, turning over hands, tapping a foot, holding the arms in a certain way. They customarily go around naked, and when they speak, they make such rapid gestures that they look like bodies trembling rather than talking.

The spirit came to visit me almost every day, and his marvelous conversations helped me endure the abuse I suffered in captivity. One morning a being I did not know came into my abode. He licked me for a very long time and then gently took my shoulder in his mouth and, with one of the paws he was supporting me with to make sure I would not get hurt, he tossed me onto his back. Although I resented being treated like an animal, I was seated so comfortably that I had no desire to run away. Anyway, those men walk on four feet and go much faster than we; the heaviest of them can run down an elk.

However, I was extremely upset to have no news of my courteous spirit. After we had arrived at our lodgings on the first stage of our journey, I was wandering about in the kitchen of the tavern waiting until dinner was ready. My carrier, whose face was quite young and rather handsome came up to me and laughed. He threw his two front feet around my neck. I just looked at him.

“Don’t tell me,” he said in French, “you’ve forgotten your old friend?”

You can imagine how I felt. I was so surprised that it seemed like this whole world of the Moon, all that had happened to me, and all that I saw was only a magic spell. The beast-man who had been carrying me continued: “You promised you’d never forget the good things I did for you.” I protested that I’d never seen him before.

“I’m Socrates’ familiar spirit, who kept you occupied while you were imprisoned. As I promised, I left yesterday and went to alert the king about your misfortune. I covered three hundred leagues in eighteen hours. I was here at noon to wait for you, but...”

“But,” I interrupted, “how could all that happen? Yesterday you were extremely long, and today you’re very short. Yesterday you had a hoarse, weak voice; today it’s clear and strong. Yesterday you were a white-haired old man; today you’re young. What’s going on here?! In my country, we go from birth to death. Do the animals of this world go from death to birth? And do they get younger as they grow older?

“Right after I had talked to the prince,” he said, “and received the order to bring you to him, I felt the body I was occupying so weakened that all its organs were shutting down. I asked the way to the hospital, and as soon as I walked in I discovered the body of a young man who had just given up the ghost. I approached the body and pretended I had seen it move. I protested to all the attendants that he wasn’t dead and that his illness wasn’t even dangerous. Nobody noticed when I adroitly breathed myself into him. My old body immediately dropped dead, and I stood up in this fresh body. Everyone exclaimed that it was a miracle, and I didn’t stop to disabuse them. I immediately ran back and found you where you were being held captive.

Modern science fiction has occasionally dealt with the problem of language in communicating with space aliens or even other animal species on Earth. However, it typically metes out very cavalier treatment to linguistics in the process, and the results must be counted a failure. Two examples of particularly appalling naïvety: in John Berryman’s “Berom” the visiting space aliens have learned to speak and write in a human commercial code but are unaccountably surprised to learn that humans have natural languages. In H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual,” an archeologist explains why Martian scientific journals are so easy to decipher: they have been written in what amounts to encoded English.

One of the more entertaining recent treatments of language in science fiction is the episode “Darmok,” in Star Trek: the Next Generation. Even the artificial intelligence of the “universal translator” aboard the star ship Enterprise is baffled by an alien language that seems to consist entirely of literary allusions or, more generally speaking, idiomatic expressions. In terms of linguistics, the premise is impossible, but the episode is very well conceived dramatically.

Cyrano once again provides some profound ideas for modern writers. The Moon-beings’ society is divided into two castes that use entirely different languages: one is auditory (music) and can be generated by both speech and instruments; the other is visual (a sign language involving the entire body). Presumably, the members of each caste understand the language of the other. The reader can imagine what such a social structure implies in terms of politics and culture.

A French reader is more likely to understand the implications of Cyrano’s radically bilingual society than an English-speaking North American is. In Cyrano’s time, Louis XIV was undertaking to unify France as a modern nation-state rather than as a collection of post-feudal provinces. In the provinces, French had drifted naturally into often mutually incomprehensible dialects. In addition, Breton and Provençal — not French — were the common languages in their own regions.

In the 17th century, the establishment of the Académie Française and the emergence of standard French were political statements of national unity, and they remain so to this day. We miss that vital point if we smugly deride those who seem overly concerned with the “purity” of the French language; English speakers have no similar historical experience.