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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Language and Communication

By Douglas Adams

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Language and Communication

Hence a phrase which has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is." (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.) (3.8)

There's not a lot of slang in Hitchhiker's Guide, which is good for Americans, because British slang can be weird. Luckily this little bit of slang comes with its own translation, but notice how silly that translation is: "sass" can mean everything from "meet" to "have sex with," while they have two separate words for different levels of "together guy." And then there's the whole meaning of "towel." This is not slang that's easy to understand for outsiders. But maybe that's the point of slang?

"I like the cover," he said. "'Don't Panic.' It's the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody's said to me all day." (5.56)

Language is supposed to get a message across, whether it's information or advice or just a joke. It almost seems to work here, but, this being the sort of absurd book it is, Arthur isn't so great at following this advice. This simple advice doesn't really help him very much—he soon starts panicking (5.95-8).

"Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation." (6.26)

We usually think that wars could be prevented if only people could talk to each other and share their feelings. But Hitchhiker's Guide turns this notion around, noting that wars are started because people can communicate. Oops.

With a microsecond pause, and a finely calculated micromodulation of pitch and timbre—nothing you could actually take offense at—Marvin managed to convey his utter contempt and horror of all things human. (11.37)

Marvin may be a robot, but like all robots, he's very subtle with his body language. The narrator really pushes the subtlety at the beginning of this sentence—"microsecond, finely calculated, micromodulation"—and then wallops us the hugeness of Marvin's message: "utter contempt and horror of all things human." That's a huge message to pass in a tiny bit of body language. Do you think anyone there got it?

"That's very good thinking you know. Turn on the Improbability Drive for a second without first activating the proofing screens. Hey, kid, you just saved our lives, you know that?"
"Oh," said Arthur, "well, it was nothing really ..."
"Was it?" said Zaphod. "Oh well, forget it then. OK, computer, take us in to land." (18.14-6)

As we noted in the Writing Style section, Adams enjoys reworking these clichés to make us pay attention to what they actually say. So when Arthur says "it was nothing," Zaphod believes him and moves on. In other words, this moment of communication fails because Zaphod receives the message that Arthur says but not the meaning that Arthur intends.

Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now. (18.36)

As with the whale (oh, poor, sweet whale), the bowl of petunias is just talking to itself here—but somehow we get to listen in its final thoughts. Unfortunately, we have no idea what the bowl of petunias was trying to communicate here, and the narrator comes out and tells us as much. If communication worked in Hitchhiker's Guide, we might have a better idea of what all this absurdity means.

"Hey, have you any idea what these strange symbols are?"
"I think they're just strange symbols of some kind," said Zaphod, hardly glancing back. (20.51-2)

Zaphod may be the worst communicator in the galaxy. Here's another example of why he's a terrible communicator: he doesn't bother to search for the meaning of things. Zaphod merely sees the surface of communication—to him, strange symbols are just strange symbols, not a message. Then again, Zaphod might be one of the most successful people in this book. (His planet hasn't been destroyed, after all.) So maybe communication is overrated?

The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the "Star Spangled Banner," but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish. (23.3)

In many cases, the narrator likes to present us with the communication and the miscommunication right next to each other. This way, the narrator can stress how far the real meaning is from the received meaning. Here, he tells us right off the bat that the "message was misinterpreted" before he tells us what the message really was. It's also funny to us that the message gets misinterpreted because the humans put it into a context that they understand (dolphins performing tricks) which is not the context that the dolphins understand (that they are smarter).

"Look, sorry—are we talking about the little white furry things with the cheese fixation and women standing on tables screaming in early sixties sitcoms?"
Slartibartfast coughed politely.
"Earthman," he said, "it is sometimes hard to follow your mode of speech. Remember I have been asleep inside this planet of Magrathea for five million years and know little of these early sixties sitcoms of which you speak. These creatures you call mice, you see, they are not quite as they appear. They are merely the protrusion into our dimension of vast hyperintelligent pandimensional beings. The whole business with the cheese and the squeaking is just a front." (24.51-3)

This is another of those onion comments, where there's layers and layers of things to analyze—well, at least two layers. First, we start off with Arthur's comment, which we can understand because we have the same background as him. Slartibartfast emphasizes this point by noting that he doesn't share a background with Arthur. Second, Slartibartfast notes how the mice have been deceiving humans, sending them a message about how mice are just stupid creatures, instead of the other way around. In other words, the mice are purposely miscommunicating.

"I figure this," said Zaphod. "Whatever happened to my mind, I did it. And I did it in such a way that it wouldn't be detected by the government screening tests. And I wasn't to know anything about it myself. Pretty crazy, right?" (29.38)

But the mice-human relationship is not the only relationship that's based on lies and secrets. Another relationship full of miscommunication is Zaphod and… himself. In this case, the Zaphod-in-the-past thought Zaphod-in-the-present would be better off not knowing something. Here we agree with Zaphod: it is pretty crazy to hide things from yourself, but as he later notes, he (in the past) had a good reason for miscommunicating with himself (in the present) since he's so untrustworthy (29.68).

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