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.

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

an we think without language? The question has entangled itself in my mind since I re-read Ursula K Le Guin’s classic science fiction novel The Dispossessed a little earlier this year.

The book seeks to loosen our fixed ideas about how society might be organised by immersing us in the contrasting political and economic systems of Anarres and Urras, worlds locked into a twin planet system orbiting the star Tau Ceti.

Urras is somewhat like our Earth, rich in natural resources, a swirl of competitive nation states, broadly capitalist, generally socially conservative.

Anarres is something quite different: a spartan desert world of some 20 million inhabitants living according to the principles of the anarchist philosopher Odo, whose followers broke away from Urras several generations ago to build a new society.

The Anarresti have no central government, no overarching rule of law, and no market place. Goods and services are produced according to need. Society is organised into a loose federation of self-governing collectives, cooperatives and syndicates. There is no formal division of labour, with citizens free to move in and out of vocations as they wish. There is wide engagement with philosophy, but little formal religion. There is indifference to gender, race and sexuality, and childcare is shared, though family units do form spontaneously.

But these freedoms come with stern obligations. The Anarresti are bound together by a profound sense of communal duty. Those whose actions harm others are held to account by their respective communities, and if necessary, outcast. Although formal working hours are kept as short as possible, everyone contributes signicant time to doing whatever work is necessary to sustain life on their arid world. There are no personal possessions apart from small essential items, and surplus production beyond necessities is modest.

It sounds radical, but something like the society Le Guin describes was the normal way of organising many traditional communities prior to the advent of farming and rural and urban settlement. And since then there have been significant experients with radical participative democracy: consider ancient Athens, the Paris Commune of 1871, or the worker assemblies of the early years of the Soviet Union. Today, the Rojava region in north eastern Syria follows in the same tradition.

But a thoroughgoing anarchism has never been pursued at significant scale in a technologically advanced modern society. The Dispossessed offers a convincing vision of how such a system might work. Although their material life is modest, the Anarresti are highly educated, making full use of automation to build and maintain their world’s infrastructure, and to organise labour schedules and resource distribution.

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.

Every element of Pravic is structured to assert the priority of the principle of collective enterprise over private ownership. So there are no possessive verbs like ‘give’ or ‘have’. There are no transactional terms to describe commercial exchange. And the whole language is in the passive voice, lacking possessive pronouns such as ‘my’ and ‘your’. Indeed all pronouns are replaced with noun phrases expressing roles: ‘I’ and ‘you’ become ‘a speaker’ and ‘the listener’. People don’t ‘do’ things — that would imply claim to ownership. Things are done to people. In a scene set in an Anarresti nursery an infant is corrected for laying claim to a patch of sunlight:

‘Mine!’ he said in a high, ringing voice. ‘Mine sun!’ ‘It is not yours,’ the one-eyed woman said with the mildness of utter certainty. ‘Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it you cannot use it.’

Ever since the book was published in 1974 the world of Anarres has engrossed science fiction readers and political radicals as perhaps fiction’s most subtle depiction of a working utopia. As the novel makes clear it’s a society with flaws like any other — there is jealousy, possessiveness, anger and selfishness. Productivity is lower than if there were a capitalist division of labour. There is no automated luxury communism here. But it works. And it does not occur to anyone on Anarres, or the reader, why it should not. The Dispossessed makes the possibility of a different way of organising life tangible.

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):

  • People don’t do things, things happen to people. Don’t think: Shevek likes apples. Think: Apples are liked by Shevek.
  • 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.

By the end of the course students were able to hold simple conversations in Pravic, much as Tolkien enthusiasists do in Middle Earth Elvish.

Pravic is inspired by the linguistic theory popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which holds that our experience of the world is structured by the language we speak. At its strongest the theory maintains that thought itself presupposes language: we need a system of symbols to allow us to conceptualise and communicate our ideas, and so our experience depends on the particular grammar and vocabulary of the language through which it is expressed. Language makes meaning possible. Without it there are just inarticulate instincts, drives and desires.

Sapir-Whorf was formulated in the 1920s with reference to the Hopi language spoken by southwestern native North Americans, which has interesting differences from Western languages, particularly regarding the words it prioritises for expressing the passing of time. Whereas English divides time into a linear sequence of past, present and future, Hopi measures time in relation to events that have occurred, are occurring, or are expected to occur.

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.’

The most famous manifestation of the theory in literature is Newspeak, the language developed by the totalitarian state in George Orwell’s 1984 to ensure conformity. In the novel’s appendix Orwell explains the language’s stark intent:

It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.’

More recently Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival, based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, explores the idea that an alien language might allow us to see the universe anew.

As she deciphers the language of extraterrestrial visitors to Earth gives linguist Louise Banks gains new insight into the nature of time. Whereas human language is linear, with sentences having a beginning, middle and end, the alien’s language is holistic, allowing them to see every moment in their existence, their future as well as the past. According to this extreme interpretation of Sapir-Whorf, the gift of the alien language gives humans a gods-eye view, transcending time itself.

These and other speculations encouraged by the hypothesis have brought it into some disrepute. Today most linguists believe thought precedes language, not the other way round.

In his influential book The Language Instinct Steven Pinker argues that we share a symbolic thought language, a ‘mentalese’ that finds particular expression through different languages. Following the linguist Noam Chomsky, Pinker contends that all languages are capable of expressing anything. If there is a need for a word, it will be coined. Every language can expand as required to give expression to all shades of meaning. We perceive, and language follows.

So the fact that Inuit languages have many different words for snow, to use an example often associated with Sapir-Whorf, does not mean that speakers of other tongues are blind to those differences. English may have far fewer words for snow, but is able to express the same distinctions through phrases: ‘closely-packed snow’, ‘powdery snow’, and so. The biological processes that allow us to perceive snow’s colour and texture are the same.

Or consider translation. When selecting seeking the right form of words to capture what has been said in another language, the translator must be able to weigh appropriate translations with reference to some mental construct indepedent of the two languages. Otherwise it would not be possible to render the thought accurately.

Both Orwell and Le Guin indicate they are aware of this nuance. In 1984 Winston Smith and Julia are able to conceive of rebellion, despite their saturation in an authoritarian culture. And Le Guin’s Anarresti can think outside their language. During a visit to Urras the main character, Shevek, says that although he has does not share his hosts’ religion, he, and all his fellow citizens, know what it is:

In Pravic the word religion is seldom. No, what do you say — rare. Not often used. Of course, it is one of the Categories: the Fourth Mode. Few people learn to practise all of the Modes. But the Modes are built of the natural capacities of the mind, you could not seriously believe that we had no religious capacity?’

Elsewhere he struggles to grasp a concept he understands, but which Pravic, as currently framed, provides inadequate tools for fully expressing:

This frame of words could not contain the totality of experience any more than any other, and Shevek was aware of the area left out, though he wasn’t quite sure what it was.

So, enticing as the prospect may be, we cannot speak utopia into existence. There is much work to do first in the world that precedes language.

The illustration above is by David Lupton, for the Folio Society edition of The Dispossessed published in 2019.

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

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