Study Guide

Snow Crash Language and Communication

By Neal Stephenson

Language and Communication

"We've got two kinds of language in our heads. The kind we're using now is acquired. It patterns our brains as we're learning it. But there's also a tongue that's based in the deep structures of the brain, that everyone shares." (56.5)

The way Hiro explains it, we've all got the same linguistic structures in our brains as the rest of humanity, like it or not. And this might not be so bad, except that our unconscious brain language can be used against us. Which is the premise of the book in a nutshell. Whoopee.

Just ask the businessmen in the Nipponese quadrant…They more or less ignore what is being said—a lot gets lost in translation, after all. They pay attention to the facial expressions and body language of the people they are talking to. (8.4)

Communication is more than just words—it encompasses body language, facial expressions, and all that good stuff. Words may lie, but bodies have a harder time of it. That's the premise, anyway, behind Juanita's facial expression software. Which makes a ton of money, so it must be good.

"Anyway, you're saying that when God got angry and came down on them, the tower itself wasn't affected. But they had to stop building the tower because of an informational disaster—they couldn't talk to each other." (13.50)

The Biblical fall of the tower of Babel turns out to be more complex than most people think. The real issue wasn't knocking down a tower; it was taking away people's ability to communicate while building it.

"You can't even rez what Y.T. says," Y.T. says. (6.21)

It's true, the MetaCops Y.T. is talking to are too meat-headed to keep up with her verbal acrobatics, let alone catch all her slang. Speaking like a street punk doesn't automatically make you stupid.

"The belief in the magical power of language is not unusual, both in mystical and academic literature. The Kabbalists—Jewish mystics of Spain and Palestine—believed that super-normal insight and power could be derived from properly combining the letters of the Divine Name." (36.21)

If language is believed to have magical power, we shouldn't be too surprised that both glossolalia and programming languages are ways to hack people's brains in this book. Want to study stuff like this in college? A rhetoric degree just might be the thing for you.

"Babel led to an explosion in the number of languages. That was part of Enki's plan. Monocultures, like a field of corn, are susceptible to infections, but genetically diverse cultures, like a prairie, are extremely robust." (56.36)

According to Hiro's interpretation of history, Babel was an event planned by Enki (not God, as the Bible has it) in order to make humans more resistant to linguistic viruses. If the current linguistic diversity of the world is any indication, mission accomplished. Except that Snow Crash was manufactured to have a physical vector of transmission, too. Er. Not so good.

"If one's native tongue influences the physical structure of the developing brain, then it is fair to say that the Sumerians—who spoke a language radically different from anything in existence today—had fundamentally different brains from yours. Lagos believed that for this reason, Sumerian was a language ideally suited to the creation and propagation of viruses." (36.66)

It's starting to look more and more like Babel, or Enki's nam-shub, or whatever caused people to speak different languages, was a good thing for the human race. Unless you, like Rife, want a population that is easily infected and controlled. It's just like a monoculture in terms of crops, though: If all your plants are exactly the same, and a virus comes through and decimates them, you'll starve. Check out the Irish Potato Famine if you don't trust us.

"The Sumerian word for 'mind,' or 'wisdom,' is identical to the word for 'ear.' That's all these people were: ears with bodies attached. Passive receivers of information." (56.23)

Ancient Sumerian culture sounds just swell, doesn't it? No free will, just the ability to pass on information and carry out orders. Isn't is great that Rife wants to return contemporary culture to that state of existence?

Can't understand a f***ing word. You could buy tapes, learn-while-you-drive, and learn to speak Taxilinga… They said it was based on English, but not one word in a hundred was recognizable. (2.2)

Linguists are always whining about languages dying out. Well, Snow Crash is here to deliver the great news: there are new languages evolving in the future. Including Taxilinga, the language of taxi-drivers. Too bad it's so hard for non-speakers to grasp.

"The Church was willing to accept a little xenoglossia if it helped convert heathens, as in the case of St. Louis Bertrand who converted thousands of Indians in the sixteenth century, spreading glossolalia across the continent faster than smallpox. But as soon as they were converted, those Indians were supposed to shut up and speak Latin like everyone else." (56.43)

Language can be dangerous when it gets out of control. The Church tried to utilize glossolalia to gain converts, but they wanted to rein it back in when that goal was accomplished. But as we saw throughout the book, sometimes you can't control language or ideas once they've been unleashed. And that's a pretty scary thought.