Learning Ursula Le Guin’s Pravic: can we think without language?

What comes first, thought or language? Some notes on the philosophy of language with reference to Le Guin’s great science fiction novel The Dispossessed.

IIlustration by David Lupton in the Folio Society edition of The Dispossessed published in 2019.

Nothing is yours

One of the world’s most intriguing features is Pravic, the language spoken on Anarres, designed by the planet’s first settlers to embed the shared belief system that makes their society possible.

Nightschool on Anarres

A few years ago the novel featured in Utopia 2016, a series of events to mark the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s genre-defining Utopia. King’s College London ran a ‘Nightschool on Anarres’, immersing participants in everday life on Anarres. The classes included a set of intriguing workshops devised by Martin Edwardes, an English language and literature lecturer at the College, teaching the essentials of Pravic. Assisted by a dictionaries and grammars written by Edwardes that elaborated on the linguistic principles outlined in the novel, participants received a thorough grounding in Pravic basics. To quote some of the rules (which are available in full on Martin Edwardes’s website):

  • Put the active noun at the end of a sentence. Don’t think: The friend was met by Shevek in the park under the oak tree. Think: Thefriend was met in the park under the oak tree by Shevek.
  • There is no ‘I’ or ‘me’. Don’t think: I like apples. Think: Apples are liked by a speaker.
  • There is no ‘you’. Don’t think: You like apples. Think: Apples are liked by the listener.
  • There is no ‘she’, ‘he’, ’it’ or ‘they’. Say: the known person, the known people, the unknown person, the unknown people.
  • Nobody owns anything. Don’t think: I have a pencil. Think: A pencil is being used by a speaker.
  • You cannot tell other people what to do. Don’t think: Shevek must do it. Think: This thing maybe is a good thing by Shevek.
  • Refer to yourself as a-speaker. The-speaker is the person who last spoke. Don’t say: That was a good idea, but I have a better one. Say: An idea good was made by the speaker, but an idea more good maybe becomes from a speaker.

Sapir-Whorf at the movies

Pravic is one of several well known explorations of the hypothesis in literature and philosophy. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated the theory a few years before it appeared, claiming that ‘We cease to think if we do not want to do it under linguistic constraints’, a saying often translated incorrectly, though evocatively, as referring to language as a ‘prison-house’. Ludwig Wittegenstein came close to the sentiment with his suggestion that ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’

A London-based business writer and essayist. Find me at translucence.io and @_translucid.

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