Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper asks how a theory of ontologies can be developed in relation to language and linguistic practice using an examination of orientations to language, translation and difference as depicted in contrasting ways in two science fiction texts-- the universal translator within the Star Trek universe, and the film Arrival (and Ted Chiang’s story on which it was based). These two widely popular works capture two possible extremes in the interpretation of the meaning of language difference and translation – Anthropological approaches to studying imagined futures or speculative worlds provide particular insights into how we understand past and present social realities (Collins 2005, Helmreich 2017). Here, I apply this approach to the question of how communication happens across difference, in the encounter with alien others. The ways in which stories account for and depict these acts of communication functions not only as a plot device, but also as a way of inscribing particular assumptions and responses to ontological questions about the nature of language, linguistic difference, and potentials and possibilities for communication. This paper will explore the ontological underpinnings of each of these imagined views of language contact, translation, and difference in relation to the thematic concerns that emerge in light of the “ontological turn”. While using fictional linguistic encounters to build this analysis, I argue that these imagined forms are rooted in ontological assumptions that also characterize theories of language that are manifested in real-world social relationships, including the marginalization and attempted eradication of Indigenous languages throughout the world.