One of the key ideas of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels concerns the conception of language, which is a fundamental aspect of human nature. It is especially clear in the fourth book, “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms,” that Swift is embarking on a linguistic exploration. Through the use of human languages, especially Lemuel Gulliver’s English, contrasted with the Houyhnhnm language, Swift brings language to the forefront of the reader’s consciousness.
It is useful to first consider language as a literary trope used deliberately by Swift. In many ways, Gulliver is portrayed as an everyman, but one his defining characteristics is the quickness with which he learns new languages. He learns the Houyhnhnm language easily, “having from [his] youth a great facility in learning languages.” This ability comes from his attention to linguistic detail. From the first moment he encounters the Houyhnhnms, he observes that they are speaking “in some language of [their] own.” Gulliver “plainly observed that their language expressed the passions very well, and the words might, with little pains, be resolved into an alphabet more easily than the Chinese.” When he hears the Houyhnhnms say the word “Yahoo,” he immediately “endeavoured to practise this word upon my tongue; and as soon as they were silent, I boldly pronounced Yahoo in a loud voice, imitating at the same time, as near as I could, the neighing of a horse.” He confidently reduces their words into “the English orthography” while practicing the pronunciations.
This encounter is remarkable as it jars the human perception of language. People, especially monoglots, do not usually think critically about language. It is something that is “common sense,” an invisible aspect of life. So, the effect of Gulliver learning the Houyhnhnm language is all at once familiar and strange. The Houyhnhnms are shocked that Gulliver, a supposed Yahoo, is able to learn their language, “for they looked upon it as a prodigy, that a brute animal should discover such marks of a rational creature.” In Gulliver’s Travels, speech is equated with reason. One of the most telling details is that the Yahoos are incapable of language—the only sounds they make are “squalling” and “howling.” Once the reader is cognizant of these linguistic peculiarities, the novel moves into the philosophy of language.
The dueling concepts of words and reality constantly crop up throughout the fourth book. The constructs of human reality and Houyhnhnm reality are intertwined with the constructs of their languages. The most obvious way this emerges is in the absence of certain words in the Houyhnhnm language. They have no words for evil, lies, law, power, government, money, war, disease, and many other basic aspects of human nature. Gulliver struggles to explain many human things to his Houyhnhnm master. “It put me to the pains of many circumlocutions, to give my master a right idea of what I spoke; for their language does not abound in variety of words, because their wants and passions are fewer than among us.” It creates a question of if and how these concepts exist if there is no word to describe them. When speaking of negative human nature, Gulliver “was forced to define and describe by putting cases and making suppositions. After which, like one whose imagination was struck with something never seen or heard of before, he would lift up his eyes with amazement and indignation.” Gulliver spends several days explaining words for human vice, words that an Englishman would understand immediately.
Thus, it would appear that words have the power to affect society, and society has the ability to affect words. The perfectly rational and unemotional society of Houyhnhnmland does not have the same sort of law and politics as Europe, because “nature and reason were sufficient guides for a reasonable animal, as we pretended to be, in showing us what he ought to do, and what to avoid.” By the same logic, “they have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood.” Rather, they refer to “saying the thing which was not.” Gulliver also explains the word “opinion” with extreme difficulty, because “neither is reason among them a point problematical, as with us, where men can argue with plausibility on both sides of the question, but strikes you with immediate conviction; as it must needs do, where it is not mingled, obscured, or discoloured, by passion and interest.” The rational horses cannot comprehend “how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain; and beyond our knowledge we cannot do either. So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness, in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown among the Houyhnhnms.” Houyhnhnm morality and beliefs differ greatly from human nature.
Yet, both human language and Houyhnhmn language place importance on the idea of categories. Language is inherently a system of categories. In Houyhnhnmland, this is clearest in the words for the creatures themselves. The etymology of the word “Houyhnhnm” is “the perfect of nature.” However, while they have no direct word for “evil,” they denote the evilness of something “by adding to each [word] the epithet of Yahoo.” Gulliver, as a human being, is familiar with the associations of labeling. “I expressed my uneasiness at his giving me so often the appellation of Yahoo, an odious animal, for which I had so utter a hatred and contempt: I begged he would forbear applying that word to me, and make the same order in his family and among his friends whom he suffered to see me.” The words a society has are just as important as the words they do not have.
Finally, the form of the novel itself cannot be ignored. After all, it is contrived that Gulliver is writing down his experiences using human language. He is presumably the author. This raises the question of written language, because the Houyhnhnms conspicuously have none. Gulliver constantly writes everything down. “I pointed to every thing, and inquired the name of it, which I wrote down in my journal-book when I was alone.” He filters his experiences through the written word. “To help my memory, I formed all I learned into the English alphabet, and writ the words down, with the translations. This last, after some time, I ventured to do in my master’s presence. It cost me much trouble to explain to him what I was doing; for the inhabitants have not the least idea of books or literature.” This is a fascinating construct. It seems to suggest that books and literature are in the same category as wars and falsehoods—parts of human nature which are irrational. It contrasts with the idea that language is the mark of the rational creature.
From the beginning, in which Lemuel Gulliver’s “principal endeavour was to learn the language,” to the end when he has been completely changed by his interactions with the Houyhnhnms, linguistics plays a vital role in the novel. In a way, the novel is language. Gulliver observes and learns the Houyhnhnm language, describing it in “our barbarous English.” Houyhnhnm nature, and human nature by contrast, are constructed through words. Therefore, the words themselves become consciously used conceptions with which Swift and Gulliver explore the depths of human nature.