The Languages of Pao

Jack Vance
The Languages of Pao Cover

War of Words


First, a confession. I have not before this book read any of Jack Vance's novels. Even so I'm well aware of the fact that he has long been regarded as a very accomplished creator of planetary romances and "dying Earth" fantasies, of which many fine reviews have been submitted for the GMRC. Most reviewers laud his genius for coining memorable and believable nouns for unearthly beings and artefacts, all the more solidying successful attempts to create memorable, spellbinding worlds impregnated with Damon Knight's sense of wonder. In The Languages of Pao Vance has created another clever, original adventure story, radiating with verbal and world-building skills. As this is the only Vance I've read, I can't compare its magniloquence and style with other work, but can state that it certainly enticed me to read more from his corpus.

The focus of the novel is on linguistics, build around a plot structure powered by the idea of vocabulary as humankind's means of progress, but despite the seemingly high concept nature of the story, it's far from an academic read. It starts off with an assassination of Panarch Panasper, apparently by his son Beran. It's all a clandestine conspiracy by Beran's uncle Bustamonte, who becomes the Regent while Beran himself is spirited away to Breakness, a world dominated by the Wizards of the Institute, males with cunning intellects that are only matched by their cybernetic augmentations, which bestow them with superpowers. Beran's benefactor Palofax is the most augmented man on Breakness, and under his tutorage Beran grows to manhood while studying linguistics. From the outset Bustamonte's reign is beset with difficulties, and Pao is easily conquered by raiders from the planet Batmarsh and forced to pay substantial annual tributes. Bustamonte travels to Breakness to secure help from Palofax, who has his own designs on Pao. They agree that a new breed of Paonese is required, because until then Pao has largely been a rural population that was culturally, linguistically and politically identical. Even in their language the Paonese were conspicuously docile and dispassionate and devout of a fighting spirit. It’s inexplicable how a planet with 15 billion souls could be so easily overcome by a mere 10,000! Palofax is intent on changing the psychological foundation of Pao, which begins with the Paonese language:

Words are tools. Language is a pattern, and defines the way the word-tools are used…. Paonese is a passive, dispassionate language. It presents the world in two dimensions, without tension or contrast. A people speaking Paonese, theoretically, ought to be docile, passive, without strong personality development - in fact exactly as the Paonese people are. The new language will be based on the contrast and comparison of strength, with a grammar simple and direct. To illustrate, consider the sentence, 'The farmer chops down a tree.' (Literally rendered from the Paonese in which the two men spoke, the sentence was 'Farmer, in the state of exertion; axe agency; tree in the state of subjection to attack.') In the new language the sentence becomes 'The farmer overcomes the inertia of the axe; the axe breaks asunder the resistance of tree.' Or perhaps: 'The farmer vanquishes the tree, using the weapon-instrument of the axe.'

Consequently aggressive new languages are engineered, unleashing the latent scientific and military predilections of the Paonese.

The syllabary will be rich in effort-producing gutterals and hard vowels. A number of key ideas will be synonymous; such as pleasure and overcoming a resistancerelaxation and shameoutworlder and rival.

Palofax goes further and informs Bustamonte that the new languages will educate their speakers with different values:

To the military segment, a ‘successful man’ will be synonymous with ‘winner of a fierce contest.’ To the industrialist, it will mean ‘efficient fabricator.’ To the traders, it equates with a person ‘irresistibly persuasive.’ Such influences … pervade each of the languages.

The narrative follows what happens as these plans are implemented, and we also discover that, because of it, Beran formulates his own plans for reclaiming his birth right, conflicting with the designs of both Bustamonte and Palofax. There is, of course, a climactic showdown.

Students of linguistics will no doubt object to the simplistic application of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that the structure a language affects the ways in which its speakers conceptualize their world view and cognitive processes. Vance applies this quite aggressively - we see how the new languages come to determine the Paonese’s thoughts and ultimately changes their behavioural patterns towards a much more assertive, even aggressive, world view. In investigating the plausibility and Vance’s particular application of this hypothesis a little further, I came across some interesting research. For example, the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote an essay in 1940 “Warfare is Only an Invention – Not a Biologival Necessity” and used as evidence for her hypothesis the apparent absence of the word “war” from the vocabulary of a Himalayan people called the Lepchas and the Eskimos. Interestingly, these peoples did not participate in war. Of course, Vance approached the hypothesis from the opposite angle by forcibly introducing warlike vocabulary into the new languages of Pao. Another interesting titbit I came across related to the German word schuld, which can be translated as “debt” (i.e. financial debt), “guilt,” “blame,” or even as “sin.” Does it say something about the German mind-set pertaining to their particular work ethic?

I’m in no position to judge or analyse the validity of the hypothesis, but I do find Vance’s application thereof brilliant, and quite pure, giving it real life and feeling in a very plausible fashion. Orwell has done similar in 1984, and Delaney with Babel-17. Recently I’ve read Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” (winner of the 2000 Nebula award for best novella), equally brilliant in his application of the hypothesis, using two distinctly different languages for speaking and writing by the heptapods. Still, I found Vance’s version better, perhaps more so because of the swift-moving interplanetary intrigue and elements of quasi-renaissance imperialism that formed the background to the narrative.

I also had my fair share of concerns with the novel. The various subplots were distracting. Palofax’s efforts to completely out-breed (!) the Paonese, the earlier relationship Beren had with a woman from Pao soon after arriving on Breakness and the more than an odd few cardboard characterizations were very substandard. At times the novel read like a real masterpiece of belletristic ingenuity, and then simply fell flat with overt pulpiness that are just discombobulated. All in all the novel fell short of its literary promise. Despite these concerns, Vance wrote an exciting story full off intriguing ideas. A quick, worthwhile read, and though I’m sure it’s probably not Vance’s best work, it’s still holds up well as a decent example of how science fiction can create an imaginary world and at the same time tell us more about our own, particularly through the interrogation of the complex aspects of cultural engineering.