I downloaded the audiobook version of Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin before a trip so I had something to listen to on a flight. It could not resist the purchase upon reading the premise of the short story collection: The airport serves not only as a space to wait for connecting flights, but also as a place where savvy and knowledgeable travelers can explore other planes of existence. “Changing planes” thus takes on a whole different meaning.
Changing Planes is written in the style of a travelogue, providing brief ethnographic vignettes of different fictional civilizations and cultures. The narration deserves a special mention: Gabrielle de Cuir’s dreamy ethereal voice lends itself perfectly to the fantastical voyages found in Changing Planes. Each of the short tales showcases the power and breadth of imagination that is inherent to the speculative fiction genre; Le Guin asks “What if…” and allows the narrative to take shape around the question. What if there was an island of people who never die? What are the consequences of having random people in a society growing wings? What if people and animals dream socially? What if there was a world of themed holiday islands ran by faceless corporations?
The Nna Mmoy Language is no different: What if there was a language so complex that no foreign visitors can comprehend it? From this one central question springs forth other equally interesting paths of exploration. What is so complex about it? How did it come to be so? And why do I consider it an Ekostory?
A Language of Ecology
“Texts written in Nna Mmoy are not linear, either horizontally or vertically, but radial, budding out in all directions, like tree branches or growing crystals, from a first or central word which, once the text is complete, may very well be neither the center nor the beginning of the statement. Literary texts carry this polydirectional complexity to such an extreme that they resemble mazes, roses, artichokes, sunflowers, fractal patterns.”
- Changing Planes, p.164
Nna Mmoy asks the reader to imagine a completely different approach of thinking and relating to the world. The meaning of each syllable depends on both position (where it is embedded in the sentence), and relationship (connections that it has with the other words in the sentence). The language naturally affects how the Nna Mmoy people relate to one another; they have no names, but are identified by “ever-varying phrases that seem to signify both permanent and temporary relationships of consanguinity, of responsibility and dependence, of contingent status, of a thousand social and emotional connections” (Changing Planes, p. 171). Their chief preoccupation lies in the invention of new patterns of speech, writing, and meanings. Learning to talk and write is a lifelong process, which is a good thing because their language is so complex:
“Learning Nna Mmoy is like learning to weave water. I believe it’s just as difficult for them to learn their language as it is for us. But then, they have enough time, so it doesn’t matter. Their lives don’t start here and run to there, like ours, like horses on a racecourse. They live in the middle of time, like a starfish in its own center. Like the sun in its light.”
- Changing Planes, p. 169
What Le Guin has created is a language grounded in the principles of ecology. Connections form the foundations of meaning; the people view the world through a relational lens. Individual words are important to the whole, but by themselves and without context, they have no concrete meaning.
It’s a fascinating concept, and one that doesn’t stray not too far from reality. There is increasing evidence that suggests the language people use can shape their relationships with others, affect their sense of space and time, and influence the way in which they see the more than human world. There are plenty of examples of how language affects thinking in various cultures. The language of the Western Apache evolved through a reciprocal relationship with their surroundings; the inhabitants do not merely embody the physical space, but live and speak through the landscape (Basso, 1988). Through their language, the Aymara of the Andes perceive the past as in front of them and the future as behind them (Falk, 2008).
Language profoundly affects how we view the world and how we act within it. While the fictional Nna Mmoy language might take the emphasis on connection and context to the extreme, consideration of those elements are crucial towards understanding how our complex world works. The narrator, a regular visitor to the Nna Mmoy world, had this to say:
“It might help to think of it this way: We talk snake. A snake can go any direction but only one direction at one time, following its head.
They talk starfish. A starfish doesn’t go anywhere much. It has no head. It keeps more choices handy, even if it doesn’t use them.”
- Changing Planes, p. 165
I love this metaphor and have adapted it in my day-to-day thinking: Instead of thinking snake, I try “thinking starfish” once in a while. In Ecomind: Changing the way we think, to Create the World We Want, author Frances Moore Lappé invites her readers to think like an ecosystem:
“Since ecology is all about interconnection and unending change, creating patterns of causation that shape every organism and phenomenon, “thinking like an ecosystem” for me means living in the perpetual “why.” It’s keeping alive the two-year-old mind that accepts nothing simply as “the way it is” but craves to know how something came to be. It’s understanding that all organisms emerge with specific potential, including the human organism, but its expression is enormously shaped by context.”
- Ecomind, p. 174
By attempting to think more non-linearly and ecologically in the truest sense of the word, I find that I am in a better position to recognize and understand the unseen connections and relationships that exist in the world.
Making the world a better place
Hints of the history of the Nna Mmoy world are scattered throughout the short story. There are ruins that suggest there once was a civilization that consisted of “a capitalistic economy and an industrial technology based on intense, exhaustive exploitation of natural and human resources.” (Changing Planes, p.164). The conclusion speculates that the world of the Nna Mmoy was actually an artificially created utopia, engineered by their ancestors through a desire to mold the world into a safer, better place:
“In their world, you know, there are no animals but themselves. Except for little, harmless bees and flies, that pollinate plants or break down dead matter. All the plants are edible. The grass is a nourishing grain. Five kinds of trees, that all bear fruit or nuts. One kind of evergreen, used for wood, and it has edible nuts too. One ubiquitous shrub, a cotton bush which produces fiber to spin, edible roots, and leaves for tea. Aside from the necessary bacteria there aren’t more than twenty or thirty species of animal or plant in the world. All of them, including the bacteria, are “useful” and “harmless” to human beings.
Life there is a product of engineering. It was designed. Utopia indeed. Everything human beings need and nothing they don’t need. Panthers, condors, manatees — who needs them?”
- Changing Planes, p. 173
A useful, comfortable, easy world was created at the expense of diversity. The narrator goes on to comment on the tragedy of the situation:
“Rornan’s Planary Guide says the Nna Mmoy are “degenerate remnants of a great ancient culture.” Rornan has things backward. What is degenerate on their plane is the web of life. The “great ancient culture” took a vast, rich, incalculably complex tapestry, like the life that clothes our world, and reduced it to a miserable scrap.
I am certain this terrible poverty dates from the age of the ruins. Their ancestors, with all the resources of science and all the best intentions, robbed them blind. Our world is full of diseases, enemies, waste, and danger, those ancestors said — hostile microbes and viruses infecting us, noxious weeds growing thick about us while we starve, useless animals that carry plagues and poisons and compete with us for air and food and water. This world is too hard for human beings to live in, too hard for our children, they said, but we know how to make it easy.
So they did. They eliminated everything that was not useful. They took a great complex pattern and simplified it to perfection. A nursery room safe for the children. A theme park where people have nothing to do but enjoy themselves.”
- Changing Planes, p. 173
The Nna Mmoy story is thus a parable about the perils of taking the concept of usefulness to its logical extreme. The well-intentioned pursuit of safety and usefulness resulted in the destruction of all that is wonderful, mysterious, and incomprehensible.
The Panther, Manatee, and Condor: The idea of Biopoverty
“The magazine was full of color photographs of animals, endangered species coral reefs and their fish, Florida panthers, manatees, California condors. It passed around the village, and people from other villages asked to look at it when they came visiting and bartering and conversing.
They showed it to the schoolteacher when she came on her rounds, and she asked me about the pictures, the only time any Nna Mmoy tried to ask me a question. I think what she was asking was Who are these people?
As I said, the pictures in my magazine interested them, the pictures of animals. They gazed at them with what seemed to me an uncomprehending wistfulness. I told them the names, pointing out the word written as I spoke it. And they’d repeat: Pan dhedh. Kon dodh. Ma na tii.
Those were the only words of my language they ever listened to, recognising that they had meaning.”
- Changing Planes, p. 172
Animals were the only foreign ideas that piqued the interest of the Nna Mmoy people; I find it intriguing that they thought of them as people. Their world is one deep in what I would like to call biopoverty – the lack of inherent biological diversity. The sense of emptiness and yearning expressed by the Nna Mmoy people has a tragic tinge to it. Given the accelerating extinction rates in our own world, I am forced to consider if how this fiction world relates to us. How will future generations respond to seeing photographs of animals that went extinct during our lifetimes?
I think back to my own childhood and the obsession I had with dinosaurs. How and why did I connect so strongly to creatures that have been gone for millions of years? Perhaps the story hints at a deep innate kinship we have to the non-human world, even if it is no longer part of our current reality, similar to how the Nna Mmoy people feel about the panther, the condor, and the manatee.
Ever Towards Complexity
Luckily, the tale ends on a more positive note. At the end, the narrator reveals her own speculation on why the Nna Mmoy language has evolved into such complexity:
“But the Nna Mmoy outwitted their ancestors, at least in part. They’ve made the pattern back into something endlessly complicated, infinitely rich, and without any rational use. They do it with words.
They don’t have any representative arts. They decorate their pottery and whatever else they make only with their beautiful writing. The only way they imitate the world is by putting words together: that is, by letting words interrelate in a fertile, ever-changing complexity to form shapes and patterns that have never existed before, beautiful forms that exist briefly and create and give way to other forms. Their language is their own exuberant, endlessly proliferating ecology. All the jungle they have, all the wilderness, is their poetry.”
- Changing Planes, pp. 173-174
One would expect that a simple language would be sufficient for dealing with a simple world. But instead, the Nna Mmoy people demonstrate the tendency towards the opposite. In their words is the inexorable march towards complexity. Sentences and ideas continue to mutate and evolve, come into being and die out; meanings becoming ever more nuanced and diverse, just like the process of life. Le Guin’s imaginary language is, in effect, a life form created by culture in response to the elimination of nature.
What motivates the Nna Mmoy to strive for such complexity? Le Guin hints that it is probably beyond reason and rationality, but leaves the question chiefly unanswered. Whatever the reason, The Nna Mmoy Language is a tale about the essence of complexity and how, despite our best efforts, it can never be suppressed.
So what makes this an Ekostory?
Language provides us with unique ways of perceiving, categorizing, and making meaning in the world. The Nna Mmoy Language demonstrates its power in shaping its speakers’ thoughts along with their relationships towards nature, culture, and self. Perhaps exploring different perspectives through language and adopting new metaphors, such as “thinking starfish”, can help us perceive our own world more readily as a place of relationships and interconnections.
- Do you find yourself thinking differently in different languages?
- How much is too much when it comes to the idea of “bettering the world”?
- Have you ever felt a sense of loss to an extinct species or a landscape that’s no longer there?
Next Up: The reason dinosaurs went extinct.
Basso, Keith. (1988). ‘Speaking with Names': Language and landscape among the Western Apache. Cultural Anthropology, 3(2), 99-130.
Falk, Dan. In Search of Time: The Science of a Curious Dimension. McClelland and Stewart. Toronto, Canada:2008.
Lappé, Frances Moore. EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create The World We Want. Small Planet Institute, New York: 2011.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Changing Planes. Penguin Group Inc. USA :2003.