In Babel-17 Samuel R. Delany explores the nature of language and its relationship to thought. The theory of language on which the book is based derives from the work of Benjamin Whorf, who believes that the language people speak defines what they know and how they understand the world around them (the “Whorfian hypothesis”). Delany uses this idea to craft a story around Rydra Wong, a poet, telepath, and linguistic ge-nius who discovers an artificially constructed language, Babel-17, that has been “booby-trapped” to impose certain thought patterns on its speakers.
Specifically, it is designed to turn any speaker into a saboteur of Rydra’s government, the Alliance, and to prevent any criticism of this goal by removing the sense of self. Because Babel-17 does not contain the concept of “I,” it is impossible for the speakers to conceive of their own identity, needs, or goals. The Butcher, who has been programmed thoroughly by the language, also has had his memory erased in order to ensure that he has no possible external stance from which to criticize his own actions, that is, no remnant of the concept of “I.” Delany likens this lack of self-criticism to computer languages such as Algol and Fortran. Not only does Babel-17 program certain behaviors, but it also prevents the speaker from questioning those behaviors.
Like computer languages, Babel-17 also has formi-dable analytic properties. Simply by thinking about a...
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