Study Guide

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift in Semiotics

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

This satire follows the adventures of Lemuel Gulliver: an explorer who documents the languages and culture of such strange, faraway lands as Lilliput, Brobdingnag, and Laputa (which, as you can probably tell, are made-up names). As a linguist, Gulliver spends a lot of time examining local dialects; however, he also observes the difficulties and deception that can come about through language (all that and gets to chill with tiny folk, giant folk, sorcerer folk, and horse folk).

So what about the language stuff? Well, jargon gets used in lots of different areas in real-life: we’ve all heard of “psychobabble” and “technobabble,” and, of course, academia has its own brand of fancy babble. If you’ve ever tried to get a grip on some of this stuff then you’ll know that it can be really annoyingly long-winded. And to that part, at least, the Brobdingnagians have come up with the genius solution—they tackle lawyer-speak by limiting the number of words that can be used when writing a law to 20, precisely so as to avoid jargon and confusion. Foolproof, huh?

The desire for language that’s clear and truthful shows up in lots of the strange and multi-lingual lands Gulliver encounters. It’s summed up by Gulliver’s favorites, the horsey Houyhnhnms, who have no written language and, what’s more, don’t even have word for lying: they believe that the whole purpose of communication is to be honest and truthful, meaning that there should be no need for a word that signifies deceit. Forget the “little white lie”: it’s 100% truth for these guys (remember that movie Liar, Liar? Same thing here).

The book therefore expresses loads of suspicions about the written word, which is kind of paradoxical given that Gulliver’s Travels is itself a written text. Still, this is a satire we’re dealing with, and satire is often pretty heavy on irony.

One example of satire is Gulliver’s account of meeting three professors at the grand academy of Lagado. These professors have come up with an inventive idea for renovating language:

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