English’s Atomic Mutants

Michael D. Gordin

Every nuclear novel is concerned with describing the aftermath of catastrophe: the massive deaths, the infrastructural collapse, the political transformations. Each selectively chronicles only certain scenarios out of a wide range of possibilities, but an exploration of the discontinuity — using nuclear war as the deus ex machina to license the imagination to roam — is intrinsic to the genre.

There is, however, one discontinuity left largely unexplored: the great silence about language itself. In David Brin’s 1985 classic of the genre, The Postman (which begot the less-classic Kevin Costner film twelve years later), a drifter walks from Minnesota to Oregon decades after the entire social structure of the United States has collapsed due to a nuclear conflict and the post-nuclear survivalist militias who tore down what remained. He comes across a sack of mail by a long-dead postman’s corpse and uses it to talk his way out of trouble and, eventually, to a resurgence of some kind of civic structure. The key word in that description, for our purposes, is “talk.” Decades have passed, long-distance communication is gone, and communities have become highly local. And yet Gordon Krantz (our drifter) is able to understand everything that people say to him across thousands of miles. No confusions due to slang or word choice, no accent problems, no admixtures of other languages. Post-apocalyptic English is identical to the English before the catastrophe.

Everything else collapses, but the language — American Standard English (which isn’t even that universal in the United States of today) — remains unproblematically constant. Brin is far from the only author who writes this way; the overwhelming majority of nuclear novels present fascinatingly imaginative scenarios of destruction and transformation but just don’t talk about English itself, the medium in which they are written.

So let’s talk about it, taking as our launching point some of the exceptional books that explicitly address the collapse of language, in some cases making it a central metaphor for the post-apocalyptic state. Most share a common structure. You are plunged, in the first sentence, into a completely alien world — it might be a distant planet, for all the resemblances it has to the world you see around you. Soon, however, you come to realize that this is our planet (often, but not always, you are in what once was the United States), and the nuclear war that obliterated twentieth-century civilization lies far enough in the past that it has reached the status of mythology or folklore. (In the terminology I introduced in the first of these essays, the “language-y” nuclear books tend to be Epic.) The plot is driven by interactions and conflicts (typically violent) between tribes or clans that speak different, but related, languages. (You can call them dialects, if you will. Linguists consider this distinction, however articulated, very problematic, but the issue doesn’t concern us here.) A few individuals serve as translators, and in an aside the reader learns that these languages have a common ancestor, and that with a good ear a person could learn the vowel mutations and consonant substitutions that transform one language into another.

This is the linguistic undercurrent in such classics as Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), Paul O. Williams’s Pelbar Cycle (a series of seven novels that began in 1981 with The Breaking of Northwall), and Poul Anderson’s Maurai novels. The reader sometimes learns about how these languages emerged. In Canticle, we only hear details of the problem in the final part when the abbot Dom Jethra Zerchi’s translating computer goes on the fritz when trying to oscillate between Alleghenian and Southwest, and the reader is told that the characters often communicate in “antediluvian English,” which we are made to understand is mid-twentieth-century American English. (Sometimes, since many characters are Catholic monks, they also use Latin, or “Anglo-Latin,” whatever that is.) In the companion novel to Canticle — Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, published posthumously in 1997 — which takes place roughly in the second of the three widely-spaced temporal episodes of the original novel — a character explains that the languages consist of a mixture of English and Spanish with various pronunciation shifts. Miller’s exposition is a rare glimpse at the sociolinguistic scaffolding that undergirds the imagined future.

Poul Anderson offers something similar in his 1983 Maurai novel, Orion Shall Rise. The book follows tumultuous path of Talence Iern Ferlay as he navigates the geopolitics of a postapoaclyptic world. The plot is enormously complicated, but the gist concerns the renegade Northwest Union (roughly the Pacific Northwest of the today’s United States and Canada) attempting to reactivate the extremely controversial Project Orion, an American Cold War fantasia of using nuclear explosions to propel a spacecraft. The Maurai Federation (hailing from New Zealand and Australia) keep the world stable under a strictly anti-nuclear regime, and the Northwest Union chafes under their collaboration with the Domain (today’s Western Europe), which is kept in order through a Buckminister-Fulleresque solar-powered Skyholm tower.… This is a world of solar and wind power, where distances are vast and languages and peoples have become intermixed and fragmented. Almost every language from before the nuclear war has intermixed and evolved, with the surprising exception of Brezhoneg (Breton), Iern’s native tongue — rather remarkable given that Brezhoneg is struggling today.

Brezhoneg may have survived in Orion Shall Rise, but English didn’t. Here’s a capsule description of what happened, interjected in a conversation between Iern (from the [European] Domain) and his lover Ronica (from the [North American] Northwest Union):

“She spoke Unglish, but Iern understood. At odd moments along the way, she had led him in practicing it, and Vanna had shown him books in it. The written language was sufficiently near Angley that he knew he could quickly learn to read, if not to write very reliably. Speech would take a while longer. As yet, he could only follow Ronica, because he was used to her voice, and only in fragments. However, it had become clear to him — as Mikli had remarked on an evening at the campfire — that the two speeches transformed into each other according to fairly regular rules. Once he had mastered those, fluency would become just a matter of exercise and of acquiring vocabulary.

The dialects of Ingliss present in various parts of Oceania were something else again. As for Maurai, while its grammatical structure was basically Hinja-Uropan, scarcely half its words were related to Angley or Francey, and their line of descent had seen countless mutations.” (Poul Anderson, Orion Shall Rise [New York: Pocket Books, 1983] 271-272.)

Out of one language, emerged three. There’s an ironic twist here, because contemporary English is the product of a melding of languages (Old English, French, Latin, some Scandinavian dialects, and more) — the result of invasions and in-migrations. (To get a sense of this, click here1 to see the Latin/Romance-derived terms in the above passage; just about everything else is Germanic.)

It is not very difficult to figure out where Anderson and Miller got the idea from, for this is the basic picture of what happened to Latin in the centuries following Late Antiquity’s version of a nuclear apocalypse: the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. (The East functioned for centuries to come as the empire we now know as Byzantium — they continued to call it “Rome” — based in Constantinople, but they spoke Greek so we don’t need to worry about them for this story.)

You do not have to be intimately familiar with Roman history to understand and enjoy the nuclear novels, but if you happen to be conversant in your Diocletian and Ostrogoths, it certainly helps, for the parallels are deliberately built on several levels: empires that span what was for them the known world, built on military superiority and (the vestige of) republican institutions, technological innovation, implacable foes in the East (Persia mainly, but the Germanic tribes are sometimes invoked), and so on. And, in the end, Rome fell, spawning — with apologies to Medieval historians, but so the popular imagination would insist — darkness and chaos across Europe for about a millennium, until the Renaissance revived Roman traditions. In the nuclear novels, aspects of the decline and fall of Rome are rehearsed over and over again — implicitly and sometimes explicitly.

The linguistic version of this story is straightforward. When the Roman Empire collapsed, the populations speaking regional varieties of Latin across Western Europe and the Mediterranean began to diverge into separate languages, which we know today as the “Romance languages”: French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, and others. What Anderson (Angley, Ingliss, Unglish) and Miller (Alleghenian, Southwest) described for English was simply a direct parallel to the Latin. The books themselves were written in “antediluvian English,” but they didn’t need to be.

Consider what might be the most impressive of the linguistic nuclear novels: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980). Hoban, the American-born but English-resident author of children’s books both technical and culinary, portrayed the title character’s first-person account of the rediscovery of technology about a millennium or so after a nuclear war devastated England and collapsed civilization. Riddley’s report of the mythology of the nuclear war is perhaps more intelligible if read out loud (best with a Kentish accent):

“Wen Mr Clevver wuz Big Man uv Inland they had evere thing clevver. They had boats in the ayr & picters on the win & evere thing lyk that. Eusa wuz a noing man vere qwik he cud tern his han tu enne thing. He wuz werkin for Mr Clevver wen thayr cum enemes aul roun & maykin Warr. Eusa sed tu Mr Clevver, Now wewl nead masheans uv Warr. Wewl need boats that go on the water & boats that go in the ayr as wel & wewl nead Berstin Fyr.” (Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker, expanded edition [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998, 1980], 30.)

I could “translate” it into contemporary English, but that would ruin the fun. Hoban stated that he made this move in order to slow the reader’s thinking down to Riddley’s level, and along the way his coinages of new terms — “plomercy” for “diplomacy,” for example — imply folk etymologies that work poetically as a double entendre. The language itself, in its implied “decay” from our current speech, was meant to show the involution that would come as our societies degenerate into the roving violence and ignorance of Riddley’s universe.

These are powerful books, and linguistically they make sense. What keeps certain languages today mutually intelligible and relatively stable over large stretches of space and time — you can speak (a variety of standard) English all over the world and be understood, and you can read Benjamin Franklin without strain — is the persistence of educational and communication systems to maintain the standard language as standard. When those break down, the natural linguistic experimentation and improvisation that linguists have been documenting for centuries begins to pull apart this precariously stable system. Compared to the vision of a single emergent nuclear language that I discussed in a previous installment, this is much more plausible.

The linguistic-dispersion framework lacks for realism in only one aspect, and that itself bears an important historical and linguistic lesson. In all of these post-apocalyptic nuclear novels — with the partial exception of Miller’s — the divergences of English come from the evolution (or degeneration) of the language under its own internal power. It is not admixed with French or Spanish or Urdu or Cherokee. It is just English, full stop, under its own steam. Although the purported fall of the Roman Empire serves as the historical model, this mono-linguistic transformation was not what happened to Latin; Celtic and other regional languages mixed into it, giving us (via French) Gallic words like change or piece. Such recombinations would certainly happen to English as well. The reason the novels pretend it won’t is the same reason that Brin did not address language at all in The Postman: a belief that the United States is a basically monolingual place, which it really isn’t, and never has been. Most of the world is multilingual, and the United States is no different. Even fictional post-nuclear America.

The nuclear novel is essentially an obsolete genre today, as other ways of shattering the planet have displaced the once-omnipresent threat of atomic holocaust. But they are important to revisit because for several decades they provided a petri dish in which possible futures proliferated in the public imagination. Along with imagining the future, they also expose some of the assumptions of the present — the present in which they were written, and our present, too. The linguistic aspects of the novels show us one way in which those novels represented the authors’ imagination of their present, and also how they got it wrong — with lessons for how we should think about our own present, our own language. We are already speaking the English of their future, and that English will be shaped by its multilingual environment. As are we.

  1. “She spoke Unglish, but Iern understood. At odd moments along the way, she had led him in practicing it, and Vanna had shown him books in it. The written language was sufficiently near Angley that he knew he could quickly learn to read, if not to write very reliably. Speech would take a while longer. As yet, he could only follow Ronica, because he was used to her voice, and only in fragments. However, it had become clear to him — as Mikli had remarked on an evening at the campfire — that the two speeches transformed into each other according to fairly regular rules. Once he had mastered those, fluency would become just a matter of exercise and of acquiring vocabulary.

    The dialects of Ingliss present in various parts of Oceania were something else again. As for Maurai, while its grammatical structure was basically Hinja-Uropan, scarcely half its words were related to Angley or Francey, and their line of descent had seen countless mutations.”

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