7 Books That Explore the Boundaries of Language

The Tower of Babel by Tobias ver Haecht and Jan Brueghel the Elder

The film “Arrival,” based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” follows a group of scientists as they attempt to determine a way to communicate with aliens who have recently made their presence known on Earth. It’s the stuff of classic science fiction, but in Chiang’s hands, it turns into a meditation on memory, loss, and perception — while diving headfirst into the kind of satisfying big ideas that its genre does so well. In Chiang’s story, explorations of language prompt readers to question time and causality, leading in turn to a greater understanding of what makes us human.

Those questions of humanity and communication are essential to understanding ourselves. A number of books have memorably explored the evolution, effects, and permutations of language — from historical investigations into the development of language to speculative visions of what ill effects it might cause. But there’s also an inherent challenge in this, in that these books are ostensibly being written using the same tools that they seek to explore. And so the range of literary explorations of the nature of language can take a host of forms across genres.

Here is a look at seven that, through both fiction and nonfiction, can expand our knowledge of what language can do.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

“Story of Your Life” may be the story in this collection that deals most explicitly with language, but its larger themes of knowledge and the unexpected consequences knowledge can bring run throughout the book. Several of the stories explore permutations of now-discredited scientific theories, while others take age-old stories (the Tower of Babel, for instance) and reimagine them from a new perspective. “Story of Your Life” sets the tone for the book as a whole, taking into account essential questions of the human condition while also investigating the headiest of linguistic concepts.

Landmarks by Robert MacfarlaneLandmarks by Robert Macfarlane

While some books that explore the minutiae of language trace its evolution in the here and now, Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks takes a very different approach. In this book, he travels to remote corners of Britain, documenting words (some of them archaic, some not) that describe deeply specific phenomena related to the natural world. One of the overarching themes of the book is a kind of lament for the knowledge and specificity that is lost as these words fall out of use. To that end, he includes pages upon pages listing some of the terms in question. It’s both a fascinating exploration of language and space and an enlightening one — perhaps some of the words in here will help you reach a greater understanding of the world around you.

In Other Words by Jhumpa LahiriIn Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

The list of writers who have created memorable works in multiple languages is small but notable: Vladimir Nabokov (English and Russian), Samuel Beckett (English and French), and Ananda Devi (French and English) all come to mind. Jhumpa Lahiri joined their company with In Other Words, a book about her process of learning Italian that’s also written in Italian. (Ann Goldstein handled the translation into English.) How does one express oneself in a new language? How does working with the stuff of a different language affect one’s understanding of grammar, of structure, of the act of creation? These are some of the questions Lahiri memorably explores in this work.

The Flame Alphabet by Ben MarcusThe Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

In the hands of a master surrealist like Ben Marcus, the effects of language can be the stuff of chilling, visceral fiction. Such is the case in The Flame Alphabet, in which a plague is spread through language, causing physical changes in those who hear it, and rendering the sounds of the voices of children toxic to those over a certain age. The way that language can affect us can be the stuff of beauty or revelation, but it can also lead to horrors — such is the ground covered by this strange and compelling book.

A Heart So White by Javier MaríasA Heart So White by Javier Marías

Translation is a running theme in novels by the great Spanish writer Javier Marías. This is also true of his nonfiction: his book Dark Back of Time deals in part with the discontinuity between the real-life model of one of the settings of his novels and the perceptions readers had of it after reading his fiction. The central characters in A Heart So White are a pair of translators, who meet through their shared profession and gradually start a relationship. Questions of nuance and ambiguity, which are central to any understanding of language, run deeply in this novel. Reading this book about translation in translation adds one more layer to the proceedings.

Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty by Vikram ChandraGeek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty by Vikram Chandra

If you have any background in writing code in one of any number of computing languages, you may well have found yourself looking at that language’s relationship to the one you read and speak. Such is the case with Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime, which draws from his experience as both a writer and coder, and explores the surprising things that literature can learn from the languages powering our computers, phones, websites, and applications — and vice versa.

Embassytown by China MiévilleEmbassytown by China Miéville

China Miéville’s fiction uses fantastical locations, creatures, and concepts to explore core questions of morality, society, and government. Embassytown is set in the future, in a world occupied by beings from a number of different planets. It, too, uses science fiction to tear into the stuff from which languages are made: the name of this novel’s protagonist was, long before this book opens, used as a word in an alien species’ language. This is one of many high-concept treatments of language in a book meticulously constructed around the permutations of language, from the aesthetically striking to the potentially deadly.