The Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance

Anthony G Williams

Apr 18, 2007
I remembered this one from decades ago (it was first published in 1957, and my copy is dated 1974), and picked it up again because it focuses on a subject which is still fascinating today: the relationship between language and behaviour.

In The Languages of Pao, humanity has spread beyond the Solar System and settled on many planets, including Pao. There is no mention of aliens, or indeed of any kind of alien life: that is not what this story is about. Each planet has its own, very different, culture and there appears to be little interaction between them except for some trading. Pao has a large and mainly rural population which is culturally, linguistically and politically homogenous and ruled by an hereditary Panarch. The Paonese language is remarkably passive and dispassionate, as described on the second page of the novel:

"The Paonese sentence did not so much describe an act as it presented a picture of a situation. There were no verbs, no adjectives; no formal word word comparison such as good, better, best."

The people of Pao are also very passive and intensely conformist, hating change and resisting any progress.

A palace coup results in Beran, son and heir to the Panarch, fleeing Pao to take refuge on the planet Breakness with Lord Palafox, a Breakness dominie. Breakness is a harsh world devoted to intellectual pursuits, with the Breakness Institute (a university) effectively forming what passes for a government: the dominies are simultaneously professors of the Institute and lords of the planet. They back up their intellectual prowess with biomechanical modifications which have given them the reputation of being wizards. Beran, a spoilt and idle youth, is forced to work, initially to learn the difficult Breakness language, very different from Paonese.

In the meantime, Pao has suffered an invasion from another planet, which its passive people are incapable of resisting, and is forced to pay a heavy annual tribute. Palafox has a suggestion: a major project to change the mindset of a part of the population by introducing new languages, starting with a militaristic one called Valiant. As Palafox explained:

"The syllabary will be rich in effort-producing gutterals and hard vowels. A number of key ideas will be synonymous; such as pleasure and overcoming a resistance - relaxation and shame - outworlder and rival."

This would be taught to a large group of young men, brought up in a separate military enclave on Pao and trained in competitive and violent activities to make them dedicated soldiers.

Two other languages would also be inculcated in the same way: Cogitant and Technicant. The first to develop intellectual and inventive abilities to encourage industrial development ("The grammar will be extravagantly complicated but altogether consistent and logical") and the second to facilitate trading with other cultures ("…elaborate honorifics to teach hypocrisy, a vocabulary rich in homophones to facilitate ambiguity…").

The novel follows what happens as these plans are carried forward, in particular as seen through the eyes of Beran as he tries to reclaim his birthright.

No doubt a modern linguist would object that these notions of dramatically changing a culture by changing the language are simplistic, but the idea has a compelling appeal. Incidentally, I recently discovered an interesting fact: the German word for debt - schuld - also means guilt, fault, blame or sin. I wonder if that is connected in any way with the fact that the Germans are noted for being such a hard-working, thrifty nation?

Despite the passage of the decades, this book is well worth reading on three counts: it's an exciting story; the ideas are intriguing and thought-provoking; and the book is refreshingly short at less than 160 pages.

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