Know Your Medium, Part 1

The concept behind Linguistic Relativity1 has been around for quite a long time (predictably, Greek philosophers had musings on the topic). Summarised, it is the idea that the language we speak shapes the way we think.

Now that sounds fairly reasonable. But it has caused controversy when it has been presented as linguistic determinism; that your language restricts what you are able to think. In this form, it is argued that if a language has no word for something, then people who speak that language cannot conceive of that thing. English itself is a fantastic counter to this—for example, we had no word for Schadenfreude, so we nabbed3 it from German.

The evidence does support, however, that particular concepts become easier/harder to consider/discuss in different languages. And again, this is fairly intuitive—it’s harder to express yourself to others if you lack the vocabulary4. Where I find it particularly interesting, though, is the ways the concept applies to other forms of communication. For example, the same tune could be expressed differently for different instruments (guitar chord diagrams for example).

One of my jobs has been (essentially) training problem-solving, and an important tool in solving any problem is notation. If you’re faced with a problem like:

My grandson is about as many days as my son in weeks, and my grandson is as many months as I am in years. My grandson, my son and I together are 120 years. Can you tell me my age in years?

You may find it much easier to work with (and ultimately solve) once you translate it (where g, s, and i are the grandson, son, and “I”‘s ages respectively)5:

g x 365 = s x 52
g x 12 = i
g + s + i = 120

Where am I going with this? The point is that any form of communication involves a vocabulary (in the more general sense), which will be more accommodating to some ideas than others. I plan to delve into some more specific examples (comparing books and movies, as I am wont to do), but this has gotten long enough (and I’m getting muddled with my footnote numbering), so that will have to wait for next time. Ciao6.


1 You may have heard of it as the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”, an honourific title at best as the two (Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf2) never directly collaborated.

2 Whorf also helped popularise the famous not-really-a-fact about Inuit having many different words for snow.

3 I’ve always liked James Nicoll’s quote: “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

4 Case in point, 2-year-olds. Eternally frustrated that Mum and Dad just don’t seem to get them. Some would argue this phase lasts about 18 years. Others would say it never ends.

5 If you’re interested, their ages (in years, rounding to the nearest year) are 6 (grandson), 42 (son), and 72 (“I”).

6 In English it means “goodbye”, but it was purloined from (Venetian) Italian where it could be used as either greeting or farewell. A more literal translation might be “at your service”. Just thought you might like to know that.

Real, True, or Plausible?

People sometimes make the distinction about whether aspects of fiction are “realistic” or not. Generally, I feel fiction doesn’t have to be (it is fiction after all), and that it’s more important that it be “true”.

What I mean is that some aspect of the scene has to be presented truthfully. The reader/audience’s reaction should be “that’s how that character would behave”, “people are like that”, or “that’s what would happen”. It’s about resonance, often on an emotional level. If you (the writer) have achieved that, then the audience will be following you, even if events are not realistic.

It does help, though, if events are also plausible. They don’t need to match how things behave in the “real world”, but they should fit with the way things work in the fictional world that is presented. If a fantasy novel establishes how magic works, then it’s cheating to have it suddenly do something different, and smacks of a writer who has painted themselves into a corner.

Alternatively, you can focus too much on making a scene work on an emotional level, so the audience/reader goes along with it, but later on thinks that something seemed not quite right1.

For an (extended) example, I recently was watching a scene described as a “spies goodbye”. A couple of agents had been captured, their covers were blown2, and their only option was to “retire” from the game and never make contact with their former allies/co-workers. The two are morosely drowning their sorrows in a dimly-lit bar. The waitress brings over a drink, saying it’s a gift from another table. They glance around, and spot one of their (former) colleagues at another table in the corner. This happens several more times, as they realise their whole team are lurking in various parts of the room3. One by one, they make (tearful) eye contact, raise their glasses, then quietly leave.

Emotionally, it hits the mark. It’s fiction, so it doesn’t matter that in the real world this would be a blatant violation of the “cannot make any contact” restriction, but on reflection, it still feels a bit implausible. My main issue is that it breaks one of the cardinal rules of subterfuge: have a reason for being there4.

Is this fixable? A similar effect could be achieved by having the team members nabbing a nearby table and loudly sharing a toast to absent friends—they’re all wearing black (or at least dark colours), anyway, so they’ll give other patrons the impression that they’ve come from a funeral. Far less likely to draw unwanted attention than several people buying drinks for and saluting an otherwise inconspicuous couple. You can still use largely the same camera angles, but without the sense that people are staring at those they supposedly don’t know.

The advantage of being a writer is that any painted corner is escapable. And, if you do it right, you can reinforce other aspects of character/world, without the audience ever realising you were in a pickle to start with.


1 TvTropes refers to this sort of thing as “fridge” moments. As well as the “wait, how does that work?” they also note things that seem brilliant, or horrifying, when thought about later.

2 You know the drill—a mission goes wrong, agents have to improvise, “if you are captured, the Agency will disavow any knowledge of your actions (or even existence)”, etc.

3 And clearly want to get them really drunk.

4 It’s been frequently shown that people (only) remember things they focus on. Details that “fit” an expected pattern, that don’t stand out, will likely be forgotten.