In the novel Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany, the "Invaders" construct an artificial language which renders anyone who learns it into an almost robotic ally of the Invaders.

This is obviously in line with the then popular strong Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, as was Vance's The Languages of Pao (1958)

The Wikipedia article about Babel-17 asserts

In this [influence of language upon thought and physical abilities] Delany's novel influenced a generation of writers: Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin[citation needed], The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin[citation needed], Embassytown by China Miéville, "In Luna Bore Coda" by Joshua Nilles, and, more evidently, the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang[citation needed]. Language as a weapon was adapted as a plot device in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.

Can any reliable sources be cited that show actual influence of Babel-17 on these works, or on any other SF works dealing with Sapir–Whorf or the influence of language on thought and ability generally?

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    "'Invaders construct an artificial language which renders anyone who learns it into an almost robotic ally of the Invaders." I mean... that just sounds like JavaScript.
    – Lexible
    Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 2:49

1 Answer 1


Haden Elgin was a linguist in her own right. She would not have needed to read Babel-17 to learn about Sapir-Whorf. That's not to say she hadn't read it, of course, just that "influence" may be a rather strong way of putting it.

I may be missing something, but I cannot recall anything in Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" that smacks of Sapir-Whorf. If anything, it's an example of the opposite - a society that has been engineered from the ground up, including the terms it uses, in order to adhere to a philosophy they already shared.

Another example of this anti-S/W approach would be M A Foster's "Gameplayers of Zan".

As to "The Story of Your Life", I think the claim is contradicted by Ted Chiang's notes on the story. He says "This story grew out of my interest in the variational principles of physics. I've found these principles fascinating ever since I first learned of them, but I didn't know how to use them in a story until I saw a performance of Time Flies When You're Alive, Paul Linke's one-man show about his wife's battle with breast cancer. It occurred to me then that I might be able to use variational principles to tell a story about a person's response to the inevitable."

There could be a case to be made for "Embassytown", but I don't know of any specific quote from Miéville, other than a general claim that he deliberately set out to have his writing span the style or modes characteristic of certain other authors. I think I might have read this in his notes accompanying "The City and the City".

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    Thank you. I tend to agree about The Dispossed There is an artificial language, but it is not weaponized, nor does it control the thinking of the characters. Can you give me a link to the Chaing notes? I am hoping to use info from answers here to update the Wikipedia article, and sources are essential for that. Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 14:36
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    This is probably as good as answer as there is. Agree on Haglin; she is nearly a generation older than Delany, and as you factually note was always interested in linguistics. Ursula Le Guin is even older. These are at best Delany’s peers if not his trailblazers, not the other way around. There is more merit in observing Babel-17 influence in sci fi such as with stories like 2016’s Arrival and Amy Adams’ Louise Banks character. Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 18:10
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    Just as a side note: I think Ian Watson's novel "The Embedding" (1973) is a better example of strong Sapir-Whorf than the more recent ones in the original query.
    – Ethan
    Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 20:09
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    @ethan I’m not sure I’d put it that explicitly. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis serves as the entire basis for the story that drives Arrival. I have no basis not to trust Chiang if he affirmatively has stated Babel-17 wasn’t an inspiration, but I am skeptical. There are a lot of similarities, especially in the early interactions between US and Banks vs.the General and Rydra. Whether this was done in the script vs. Chiang’s original would be interesting. Commented Nov 23, 2021 at 20:42
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    @SillybutTrue Arrival's script was rewritten like half a dozen times - it's hardly a faithful adaptation and would be tough to tell who and when made what change.
    – Mithoron
    Commented Nov 24, 2021 at 0:19

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