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Language in Ruins: Exploring the Dystopian Cautionary Tale with Alena Graedon

Posted by March 13th, 2014

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Photo © Beowulf Sheehan

The death of print is a fear that comes hand in hand with the rapid technological developments of our digital age, but in Alena Graedon’s THE WORD EXCHANGE, it has become reality. She presents a not too far-off future where over-reliance on smart digital devices impairs our ability to communicate—even think. What goes into imagining a world in which technology inhibits our thought processes? How about our speech patterns? We talk to Alena about THE WORD EXCHANGE’s “language in ruins.”

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NG: THE WORD EXCHANGE is based in the recent future—and yet the death of print and the onslaught of sixth-sense digital technology have already tremendously changed the way people live. You had to coin new words and concepts that only exist in the futuristic sci-fi world of the book and think through how a language virus would change people’s speaking and thought patterns. Can you talk about that process of creating language in a novel about language?

AG: Language is really at the center of the book, you’re absolutely right. In some sense, it’s the hero of the story. Our relationship to language has been profoundly changed by technology, and I’ve been fascinated by the implications of inviting lots of beautiful, blinking machines into our lives, and of gradually relinquishing functionalities to them that we once viewed as fundamental to ourselves—decision-making, creating and interpreting things, communicating. Setting the book in the near future helped me explore what might happen when these processes have advanced just slightly, and how things could go really wrong.

A lot of the decisions I made in writing the book came from its focus on language. For instance, I always knew that lexicographers would tell the story. Dictionary-makers are especially attuned to words—to their diachronic evolutions over time, as well as to synchronic snapshots of what our living language means at any given moment. It was also interesting to have lexicographer protagonists because the publishing industry is changing so quickly, and the shift from print to a more fragile, ephemeral digital medium leaves us vulnerable to certain losses and threats. In the book, these include the hijacking and corruption of language, and also a disease, “word flu,” which makes communication nearly impossible, increasingly isolating and alienating its victims.

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