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SPEAKING AN ALIEN LANGUAGE

C.S. Lewis was a master philologist, demonstrating an interest and knowledge in a number of languages. In his book Out of the Silent Planet and the subsequent space adventure Perelandra, Lewis’s avatar Ransom describes the names and features of the “races” of Mars (Malacandra) and Venus (Perelandra), as well as providing some observations on their habitats and “cultures.”


Later in his story of what happens on Malacandra, Lewis constructs a dialogue between Weston, the evil scientist, and the Oyarsa (usually person represented as an eldil or angel), inhabitants of the planet. However, Lewis (or at least Weston) does not seem familiar with the fundamental features of an alien language. Although Weston’s knowledge of the Oyarsa language is almost non-existent, it is puzzling at how well the Oyarsa speak English. In this respect Lewis seems to have constructed a dialogue with intriguing questions, including why the Oyarsa speak in what is fluent English and Weston can only respond with a type of Pidgin.


The context is this: Weston has been shouting at a hross, one who is a “native” of the area, with the following exchange:

Weston: Why you take our puff-bangs away? We very angry with you. We not afraid.

Simply translated this means: “Why did you confiscate our guns? We are angry with you about this. We are not afraid of you.”


Except for “puff-bangs,” the deletion of “did” in the first sentence and “are” in the next two, this is a simple translation into English. However, we must assume that the Oyarsa understands question intonation and that Weston’s “anger” does not intimidate them.


At one point, Weston gets no response, so he continues:

Weston: “You let us go, then we talkee-talkee. You think we no power, think you do all you lie. You no can. Great big head-man in sky he send us. You no do what I say, he come, blow you all up—Pouff! Bang!”

What Weston seems to be saying is “Let us be free so we can discuss this. You don’t realize we are strong and we also believe that you are liars. You can’t do anything to us because the god of the sky has sent us. If you don’t do what I say, he will come and blow you up like this—Bang!”


Weston indicates to his accomplice Devine that he is trying to intimidate them. Devine, on the other hand, wants Weston to be honest about what has happened (Weston killed a member of the Oyarsa group). Weston continues:


Weston: “We kill him. Show what we can do. Everyone who no do all we say—pouff! Bang!—kill him same as that one. You do all we say and we give you much pretty things See! See!”

Again, my translation: “We killed him to show you our power. Anyone who does not do what we say will [shooting noise] be killed, just like that one (laying there). If you will do everything we want, we will give you some pretty things like this.”


Weston’s attempt to communicate betrays his lack of understanding of the Oyarsa language and culture in several respects:

· He believes that they are an inferior race and will be frightened of him

· He believes that he has already intimidated the inhabitants by shooting one

· He appeals to their knowledge of an alien god in the sky who is over all

· He claims that the alien god of the sky sent them

· He claims that the god of the sky will protect them and destroy Oyarsa

· He believes that they will want the “pretty” objects he has to offer

· He believes that he can communicate in a Pidgin variety of English

The dialogue Lewis has imagined is not unlike what has happened between the conquers and the subjugated in many historical contexts. When people cannot communicate adequately, there is misunderstanding and problems result. We listen to it every day in political, educational and religious contexts, so we should be aware and “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15)