In the 1960s/early 1970s, I read a lot of science fiction short stories and anthologies from Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. One of the stories was about an interview for an order of monks who were the keepers of the English language.

At one point, a monk asks an applicant a question and the applicant's reply is "Howz?" which sort of became a joke in my family.

I'm trying to track down this story to give as a gift. Does anyone know the name of it?

  • 7
    It sounds similar to A Canticle for Leibowitz, but I don’t think that has the “Howz?” line.
    – alexwlchan
    Commented May 13, 2014 at 19:59
  • Thanks, but it was definitely a short story, not a novel.
    – Lisa
    Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 14:31

2 Answers 2


“Brother John's Day Out” by William P. Roessner

Such a delight to find one of the obscure “Monks in an order” science fiction short stories I’ve been searching for for years. (It’s not over.)

English had not become more precise or efficient. It had devolved into lazy, slurred, shortened inner-city slang. The story makes it apparent that it paralleled lazy thinking.

The monks didn’t speak it. The boys to whom Brother John spoke in the Capital city said “Howz?” and “Fushuh I compa no funna home.”

The monks were in an order preserving more than just the “traditional” standard English. There were the English brothers, and the math and science brothers. All applied their specialties in preserving some specific knowledge and a way of life.

past the animal compound, past the weaving shed where the tweeds were made, past the dairy, past the winery, past the fields with growing things . . . such as they were.

Was it worth it, this obsession to keep the old skills alive when they weren’t wanted or needed and might never be?

But of course it was. The catastrophe would come, in whatever form: war, environmental collapse, another ice age, madness —

Preserving knowledge, to help people start over after a worldwide collapse of civilization: English, math and sciences, animal husbandry, farming, weaving and making their own clothing, tanning hides, leather work, making their own shoes. Doing their own math.

The whole problem is that so few men join the order. The story describes long empty dining tables with only a few men sitting at them.

The story makes occasional references to their habit: their traditional “tweed and leathers”. I find it reminiscent of the Oxford Dons.

Brother John, an “English brother”, briefly meets a man during his one-day stay in the Capital city, who challenges him: Why do you preserve knowledge -- and what for?

To keep the knowledge through an Ice Age? He says that machines can do all that – people don’t even have to think any more. He is articulate and thoughtful; it is clear to Brother John that the man thinks. He apparently learned “oldstyle” English as a hobby. For something interesting and challenging to do, in a world gone to machine-like people depending on machines and instruments for everything, even thinking.

The story written as recently as 1977 now seems even more prescient to me, even knowing that that’s the job of science fiction.

It’s a vignette that doesn’t end with some conclusive plot and ending. Brother John finds parts of both lifestyles distasteful: both the “outer world’s” completely synthesized food, lazy-thinking English, and dependence on machines to an extent that people decayed into incompetence; and the stringy or moldy food and soured milk and wine in his own order’s dining hall.

There are no easy answers.

  • 2
    "Howz" is in there! Well done. Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 3:44

You might be thinking of the first short story in Arthur C. Clarke's The Other Side of the Sky. It's called the Nine Billion Names of God and has an interview with a monk at the start who wishes to buy a supercomputer to calculate all possible words which God could be called. It's a long-shot, but might help since it could be that it is a Clarke story since the themes are similar.

  • 2
    Monks, language, interview, short story, C. Clarke - common themes which could lead to the exact story.
    – BenjaminJB
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 11:30
  • 3
    It's definitely not this.
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 5, 2014 at 11:31
  • Thanks, but it's not Nine Billion Names of God, either. I've searched using every combination of terms I can think of, and I can't find it anywhere!
    – Lisa
    Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 14:35

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