Startide Rising – The Politics of Dialect

After a long hiatus (the semester began, complete with ridiculous amounts of reading for seminars and 40 freshman writers), I am back with David Brin’s Startide Rising, which won both the Hugo and Nebula in 1984. For starters, 1983 Brin had a much better idea of how to use paragraph breaks than 1980 Brin, and I found myself overall less troubled by the writing. Furthermore, I found Brin’s illustrations of the high stakes of English language politics just down-right admirable.

The Plot: Startide Rising takes place quite a while after Sundiver and features two of Jacob Demwa’s students in primary roles. The novel opens as starship Streaker, crewed by 150 dolphins, seven humans, and one chimpanzee, crashes on a supposedly uninhabited planet after suffering damage from being chased all over the galaxy by hoards of alien races. The crew of the Streaker had discovered a fleet of derelict spaceships, perhaps belonging to the Progenitors, as well as one alien body, and the information that they have collected is both so precious and so dangerous seemingly everyone in the galaxy wants to either claim it as their own or destroy it. As the Streaker‘s crew tries to make repairs to their vessel, dissension breaks out among the ranks, resulting in an attack on the dolphin captain that causes severe neurological damage. Meanwhile, the crew discovers a race of natives who are prime candidates for uplift, which they seek to hide from the warring aliens in the skies above to prevent these little creatures from being unfairly exploited by malicious alien patrons. As those members of the crew who are still loyal to the now-injured captain and the human crew of the Streaker devise a plan for escaping the planet and returning home through the alien armies — a plan that does not guarantee the survival of all — the sinister nature of one crew member is fully revealed.

As I mentioned in my post on Sundiver, Brin establishes English (or Anglic as he calls it) as the official language of Earth, and those species who the humans uplift are genetically manipulated to be able to speak English with varying degrees of proficiency. By the time we get to the events of Startide Rising, uplifted species’ ability to speak English has been much improved. Previously, chimps had trouble speaking English and relied on writing, and dolphins could only manage a few English words; now, chimps are fully capable of English speech, and fins (as dolphins are called now that they have been uplifted) speak three languages with equal proficiency: Primal, or original dolphin whistles and clicks; Trinary, a whistle language that takes the forms of haiku-like poems that humans can construct as well, and Anglic, which dolphins can speak underwater as well as above. These different languages, however, are not created equal. Reverting to speaking Primal is consider a major faux pas, something equivalent to a fin losing his or her mind, completely returning to a primitive state. Trinary is primary used in situations of immediacy, when fins need to communicate quickly with each other, in moments of intimacy, and for its artistic value — that is, both humans and fins craft trinary poems for artistic pleasure. In formal situaions, though, fins are expected to speak Anglic, and very precise grammatically correct Anglic at that, and this kind of speech has a lot of social capital; humans and fins alike frequently comment on how well-spoken the Streaker‘s captain is in Anglic and how conscientious he is about his language construction, a way of reaffirming his position as the captain. Proficiency in Anglic has other, more material, consequences as well. Since humans are still in the process of uplifting and genetically modifying fins, fin reproduction is highly regulated and those fins who do not demonstrate proficiency in Anglic may not be allowed to reproduce.

Given my background in rhetoric and composition, I can’t help but draw parallels between Brin’s novel and the numerous discussions that were going on when the novel was published and continue to go on concerning what language students should be taught. While many scholars advocate recognizing and valuing students’ “home languages” and respecting their right to use it in the composition classroom (see “Students’ Rights to Their Own Language“), other of us can’t get away from the fact that different kinds of Englishes have different assigned values in our society and that it might be a disservice to tell students otherwise. Brin’s novel plays out the realities of this in a way that, to be sure, exaggerates the consequences but also demonstrates the ways in which race (or species) and class work together in language stratification.

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