Rating: 4 stars

The humans of Embassytown live in an enclave in a city on the sufferance some of the strangest aliens known. Not only are the Hosts unable to lie, but a quirk of evolution has meant that they can’t understand their double-mouthed Language spoken artificially, only through the mouths of specially grown clone-twin Ambassadors, can Language be spoken such that it can be understood by the Hosts. Until now, when an impossible Ambassador arrives from the ether and everything changes.

We see Embassytown and the rest of this world through the eyes of a native, Avice, who was one of the few to make it off-world as crew of a starship that travels the ‘immer’ and who returns with her off-world linguist husband, who is fascinated by the unique language of the Hosts.

Avice is a likeable first-person narrator, and seeing things through her eyes makes it all the more shocking when things start changing and going wrong, because for her, her entire world — whose horizons are limited to the confines of the enclave of Embassytown — is changing.

MiĆ©ville loves playing with language, and the book is a delight to read, even if it is difficult at times (the narrative, not the language). He takes a risk and makes the entire plot swivel around semiotics and language (a la Babel 17), something which pays off, even if I’m not entirely sure that I understood it. One of the ideas that he runs with is that because the Hosts are unable to conceive of lying, to conceive a simile, they must first have the thing that they are comparing, so our heroine, when she is young, carries out something vaguely unpleasant but never fully described, and becomes a living simile. Things are compared to “the girl who ate what was given to her in darkness”. This is an intriguing idea, although one that seems an inevitable consequence of the thesis and it’s nice to see these sorts of ideas being fully thought through. This is definitely a book that has ideas big enough that it deserves a re-read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780230754317
Publisher: Macmillan Publishers Ltd
Year of publication: 2011

Lost For Words

By John Humphrys

Rating: 4 stars

This is a book about language. Subtitled “the mangling and manipulation of the english language”, Humphreys is more interested in manipulation than mangling, although he has a a decent grump at the latter as well. It’s when he starts discussing the (mis)use of language by business, politicians and journalists that you really feel his passion coming through. A very informative read that helped open my eyes to the tricks and abuses that politicians in particular subject the language to, it’s also very entertaining, filled with anecdotes from the Today programme and beyond.

Book details

ISBN: 9780340836590
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2004

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