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"Proper words in proper places": Gulliver's Travels, the subtractive fallacy, and the colonialist linguistic nightmare.

The above quote, shamelessly lifted from a letter Jonathan Swift wrote to a "young clergyman" in 1721, is often quoted by writers in composition studies because Swift intended it as a concise definition of "style". However, beyond its context as a call to an economy of words in prose, Swift's most famous statement concerning composition can also be seen as a link between the world of language (and hence the study of language) and the geographical world that was very much at the forefront of the English mind in the early eighteenth century in the form of the discovery of new lands and expos like The Great Exhibition. This excitement manifested itself in the extremely popular travel narrative genre that Swift so deftly satirized in Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, hereafter referred to as Gulliver's Travels. Proper words in proper places definitely means precision in word choice and syntax, but it can also mean using the right set of words in the right geographic location and linguistic context. What are improper words, and where are the improper places that they might come from? Do improper words in improper sources destabilize proper words and the legitimacy of their proper places?

This interpretation of Swift's maxim (though admittedly more than a little isogetical) is of particular relevance to a reading of the aforementioned 1726 satire for which Swift is most well known to modern readers. In Gulliver's Travels, the work's narrator, Lemuel Gulliver, claims "great Facility by the Strength of [his] Memory" in "learning the Language" of non-English speakers (Gulliver's Travels 325). Later readers learn that Gulliver had at least a "Smattering" of the following European languages before embarking on any of the voyages related in his narrative (in addition to the just referenced language, which may have been Malaysian): "High and Low Dutch, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and Lingua Franca [by which Gulliver, tellingly and anglocentrically, means 'English'" (332). Yet, Gulliver's catalog of acquired languages does not help him in the travels he records; indeed, we as readers learn of his breadth of language knowledge in the same sentence in which we witness its communicative failure: "I spoke to [the Lilliputians] in as many Languages as I had the least Smattering of [...] but all to no purpose" (332).

Gulliver's known languages may fail him, but his capacity for language acquisition does not. He picks up the languages of the peoples he encounters with astonishing rapidity and is rarely more than merely inconvenienced by his initial inability to communicate. Yet Gulliver's linguistic adaptability is not without its price; as Gulliver becomes more adept at using each individual language, he becomes less certain of the superiority of his own culture, less convinced that his "Englishness" (and his knowledge of English as a language) makes him extraordinary in any appreciable way. This is true not only in each individual part of the novel (i.e. Gulliver becomes less linguistically and culturally anglocentric the more time he spends on any one island acquiring their language), but true on a larger scale throughout the story as a whole (i.e. Gulliver becomes less sure of the superiority of England as the world's cultural and ideological center and of English as Lingua Franca the more foreign lands he visits). In this regression of anglophilia (or perhaps progression of proto-post-colonial consciousness), Gulliver, through his linguistic acquisitions, becomes a satire of the colonialist fear that increased exposure to native customs and ideas would weaken the traveler's loyalty to England, English, and their moral character. And if, as Ekhtiari and Amjad claim, "language is Swift's mightiest weapon" ("Gulliver; The Man-Mountain, The Crumb, The Historian and The Polyglot" 1), then the novel attacks colonialism itself by exploiting English anxiety about the mix of cultures and languages. In Gulliver's Travels, language is at the forefront of each individual story and of the book as a whole, and Gulliver's Englishness is both tied up in and tied closely to his English. As he encounters different countries, he also encounters different languages, and the effect that those languages have on his own is a mirror of the effect that their cultures have on his view of his own, a view that becomes less and less positive with every new land he visits.

Swift's novel is a satire of the eighteenth Century fear that excess exposure to foreign cultures (particularly along the lines of language) would weaken one's ties to their native country and their native language and thus their Christian faith and moral fiber. The prevailing eighteenth century view of non-European languages was one of condescension and dismissal. Sir John Narborough's response to the language of the West Indian natives he encounters in his An Account of Several Late Voyages and Discoveries is typical: "the Men have a harsh language, and speak ratling [sic] in the Throat, and gross, the Women shriller and lower: the pronounce the word Ursah, but what it means I could not understand, nor any word they spake. If they did not like any thing, they would cry Ur, Ur, ratling in their throats" (65). Narborough does not attempt to learn the natives' language or to examine it beyond his initial observation that he cannot understand it. For the rest of his description of the area he has visited, he assumes English as a Lingua Franca and does not reference the natives' language at all. This, combined with the unpleasant-sounding description of the way the sounds of the language are created vocally, shows Narborough to be, like his contemporaries (from Defoe to Dampier), only passingly interested in the communicative means of the groups he encounters. Linguistic imperialism was at full force in the eighteenth century, and the countries that England colonized experienced the language as "an alien invasive force, occupying the space of other languages and so threatening linguistic and cultural diversity" (Understanding English as a Lingua Franca ix-x), one that "intrude[d] on all the languages that it [came] into contact with" (Linguistic Imperialism 7). To the English colonist, foreign languages, like foreign lands, were something to conquer, and so they were regarded, as in Narborough, as having no value.

Nevertheless, the eighteenth century response to native languages was not simply one of dismissal; at times, it was necessary to at least have a passing knowledge of these languages to engage in trade and exploration. This created an uneasy power dynamic for European travelers, convinced of the superiority of their language and culture, but ultimately unable to accomplish what they had come to do without the assistance of some knowledge of the natives' language. Out of this dynamic sprang the idea that "non-native users ... threaten English" (Understanding English as a Lingua Franca x), both as a language and the culture, and the fear that excessive language acquisition or prolonged exposure to native culture could result in a weakening of the connection to one's cultural and linguistic roots, and, as a result, the disintegration of one's morality. This fear is expressed clearly in travel narratives like 1743's The American Traveller, which records that "Welshmen mingling with the barbarous Chimecae, one of the most uncultivated nations in America" have often "[lost] their Native language" (136). Manifest in this passage is the fear that over-exposure to "barbarity" of the natives will not, as was hoped, convince them to act more European, but will, instead, convince the Europeans to act more barbarous.

This fear is an embodiment of what Robert Phillipson, in his landmark book on post-colonial applied linguistics Linguistic Imperialism, calls "the subtractive fallacy". The subtractive fallacy is one of the five precepts of linguicism, an approach to language that Phillipson et al define in Language: A Right and a Resource as consisting of "ideologies and structures which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce unequal division of power and resources (both material and non-material) between groups which are defined on the basis of language" (455). The subtractive fallacy is the linguicist concept that holds that "if other languages are used much, standards of English will drop" (Linguistic Imperialism viii) and is one that "logically originates in monolingual societies" (214). This theoretical concept is borne out in Swift's novel in two ways, one literal and one synedochcal. In terms of the former, Gulliver's English deteriorates as the novel progresses, finally being shaken at its very core by Gulliver's interaction with the Houyhnhnms, whose language is the the most "othered". In terms of the latter, Gulliver's allegiance to English culture, represented metonymically by his allegiance to English as a language, is also severely undermined, and by the novel's end he is not only disillusioned with his homeland but with all of humanity. Of course, the subtractive fallacy is just that: a fallacy. Swift's nuanced satire must not be confused with the opinion that he is satirizing; fully cognizant of the linguicist paranoia of his countrymen, Swift is mocking (as well as problematizing) this view in Gulliver's Travels, not supporting it.


Gulliver's first voyage shipwrecks him on the island of Lilliput, populated by "human creature[s] not six Inches high" (Gulliver's Travels 327). It is in the episode, that we learn of the Gulliver's capacity for language and the first example of the languages the captain has already acquired failing him, as they do in the passage previously cited in which he is unable to communicate with the island's natives despite trying all of the languages he knows. From the beginning of his encounters with the Lilliputians, Gulliver is focused on language. He inserts into his re-telling of the narrative the proper versions of phrases that they used in first attempting to communicate with him and continues to do so for his other adventures. He constructs word for word translations of the edicts issued from the Lilliputian aristocracy concerning him. In an act that the narrator does not seem to consider remarkable, Gulliver is able to gain enough command of the Lilliputian language to address the King without a translator in less than a month, though he admits that he is not yet entirely fluent. He is, however, clearly so by the time he is granted his liberty a short while later, as he needs no translator to understand the precisely-worded legal document that enacts his liberty, and he even goes to the trouble of producing it verbatim for his reading audience.

This acquisition of language is concurrent with an adaption of Lilliputian culture that is initially motivated by Gulliver's desire to "cultivate [a] favourable Disposition" amongst his captors so that he might obtain freedom but that persists once this freedom is granted and that eventually results in Gulliver's decision to participate in the Lilliputians' ongoing war with their geopolitical rival, Blefuscu. Gulliver captures an entire fleet of ships from the enemy island, an act for which he is rewarded via language. Gulliver's reward comes in the form of language and language only: a speech act. He has conferred upon him the position of "Nardac","the highest Title of Honour among them" (346). Gulliver's transition from feared giant to Nardac occurs simultaneously with his own transition from being amused at the natives or even repulsed by them (he is "often tempted" to "dash" them against the ground) (328) to accepting their culture so entirely that he is willing both to participate in their never-ending military campaign with a people he has never met and has no ill will towards and to rescue several members of the royal family at the risk of exposure and great personal embarrassment in a scene in which he puts out a fire by means of urination. The latter act of selflessness unfortunately ends in his public condemnation and a scheduled execution that forces him to flee the island to Blefuscu for sanctuary.

Gulliver frames his disappointment in the Lilliputians in terms of those of the aristocracy of his homeland:
   I had been hitherto, all my life, a stranger to courts, for which I
   was unqualified by the meanness of my condition. I had indeed heard
   and read enough of the dispositions of great princes and ministers,
   but never expected to have found such terrible effects of them, in
   so remote a country, governed, as I thought, by very different
   maxims from those in Europe. (355)

Gulliver's decision to describe his feelings of betrayal in terms of the European courts represents a dissension from the view of Europe (and England specifically) as culturally and politically superior to "discovered" nations such as the Lilliputians. I believe that this dissension is causally related to his acquisition of the Lilliputian language, as well as the appropriation of and assimilation into the culture that accompanies it. Gulliver is eventually picked up by an English sea-captain after his flight and returns to England as an only slightly less enthusiastic nationalist, but his "insatiable Desire of seeing foreign Countries" (364) only allows him to stay in Europe for two months, after which he embarks on a second voyage.


In a move that invokes the Sinbad stories from Galland's translation of The Thousand and One Nights, Gulliver's second voyage brings the same results as the first: a shipwreck and his desertion on an uncharted island populated by strange creatures. This time it is the Brobdingnagians, human-like entities twelve times the size of Gulliver, who capture our unlucky narrator. As with the Lilliputian adventure, it is language that is central to the early encounters between Gulliver and the island's natives. He reports that he is saved from being dashed to the ground (just as he was tempted to do to the Lilliputians) by his being able to "pronounce articulate Words" (although he is careful to note that his captor cannot understand them) and that the giant "appeared pleased with [his] Voice and Gestures" (369). Again, Gulliver answer the natives "as loud as [he can] in several Languages", but, as in his previous voyage, he and his captor are "wholly unintelligible to one another" (370). The farmers who originally discover him observe that he "seemed to speak in a little Language of [his] own [and] had already learned several Words of theirs" (374), and by the time he is brought before the royal courts, he is given the opportunity, as in Lilliput, to address the Brobdingnagian royalty "in as few Words" as he is able. Readers of the lengthy dialogue between him and the Queen (including a "speech", by his own description) will note that his "Words" are not quite so few as he seems to imply, though the Queen does give "great Allowance for [his] Defectiveness in speaking" (378). Gulliver again acquires the island's language rapidly, and though we are given no indication as to how long this process takes, Gulliver makes no further reference to his lack of fluency hindering his communication with the Brobdingnagians.

As Gulliver's command of the Brobdingnagian language increases, so too does the degree to which he becomes a part of their culture. Though the role he occupies is not as regal as his role in Lilliput (here he is the royal pet rather than a tool of military power, a consequence of his size), Gulliver is beloved by the native aristocracy and is mostly treated with care and tenderness. And so too does Gulliver move from his earlier terror of the giants and disgust at the hideousness of their grossly enlarged features to a position of security and contentedness under their care, all within the context of his further acquisition of their language and culture.

It is because of the high regard that the royal family has for him that the King earnestly requests that he give an honest and informative description of his homeland. This is an important moment in the novel, and Gulliver is fully aware of his position as a rhetorician, a conscious and skilled user of language. Gulliver calls his description a "Discourse" and wishes for the "Tongue of Demosthenes or Cicero" to properly praise his home country (393). Here the novel's readers witness, as in the previous adventure, the same struggle within Gulliver between his duty to and love of his native England and the "extreme love of Truth" that compels him to reveal the flaws and vices of that same England (397). Demonstrating full competence of the Brobdingnagian language, Gulliver delivers an ornate speech detailing the wonders and intricacies of British government, law, religion, and history that stretches over five separate meetings, using his most "artful" rhetorical skill to avoid answering some of the questions that he feels will reflect particularly poorly on the English, ultimately in the hope that he will impress the King with the richness and splendor of English culture.

However, the King has taken extensive notes on Gulliver's speeches and has questions of his own, questions that undermine the notion of the superiority of English culture at the very moment when Gulliver is the most convinced that he has asserted it. Gulliver is not up to the task of defending his country against the accusations brought forth by the King, and it is noteworthy that he does not appeal to his insufficient mastery of the language in reporting this failure to his English readers, a foreshadowing of the idea that the ability to communicate about his homeland in his native tongue would not suffice to make his listeners revere it. This leaves the Brobdingnagian monarch free rein to conclude "the bulk of [Englishman] to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth" and that the entirety of English history is "only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce". The King excuses Gulliver from these accusations because he has "spent the greatest part of [his] life in travelling" (396), a further indication of the degree to which exposure to other cultures and languages distances one from those of one's country.

Though Gulliver is unable to refute the majority of the King's points about the folly and vice of English culture, he does not give up his loyalty to his home country so easily, saying that he feels that his "most beloved" homeland has been "injuriously treated" by the King's negative characterizations. Gulliver tellingly attributes this not to any actual strength of the English way of living, but to that "laudable partiality to [his] own country" (and, of course, to his own language) that causes him to "hide the frailties and deformities" of England, as well as to "place her virtues and beauties in the most advantageous light" (397).

Gulliver becomes more critical of the Brobdingnagians after his failure to present England in a positive light to the King, suddenly declaring the learning of the giants to be "defective" and their language "simple", choosing again to ground the worth of culture in language. By virtue of their flawed language, he concludes that "as to Ideas, Abstractions, Entities, and Transcendentals, [he] could never drive the least Conception into their heads" (399). It is not far after this episode that Gulliver finds himself transported away from Brobdingnag, this time unintentionally, a sign of his increasing reluctance to view England as a welcoming home. He is rescued again by an English captain and makes his way back to England. Once he returns, he is noticeably more affected by his stay amongst the Brobdingnagians than he was after his previous journey, to the point where many believe him to be out of his mind. This time, his allegiance to his home country lessened by the decreased conviction of English cultural superiority brought on by his progressing foreign language acquisition, he only stays for ten days before taking off on another voyage. The subtractive fallacy has begun taking its toll on his love for England and English.

Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Gkubbdubdrib, and Japan

Gulliver's third voyage results in he and his crew being overtaken by pirates, and Gulliver is "set-adrift" (410) in a small boat by himself and ends up on the floating island of Laputa. Language is again central in Gulliver's initial observations of these natives. This time he is confronted with a language that is more familiar than those he has previously experienced, the Laputan language being "not unlike in sound to the Italian", which causes him to answer in that same language, "hoping at least that the cadence might be more agreeable" to his listeners (412). Gulliver notes, in regards to the failure of this attempted discourse, that the Laputans are "so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, or [sic] attend to the discourses others without being roused by some external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing" (412). This paroxysm of abstract thinking necessitates the presence of Flappers, individuals who will provide the aforementioned "taction" (touch) to the mouth and ears when the Laputans have fallen into their speculative comas. Gulliver is offered a Flapper but reasonably declines, after which he once again tries to "[address] himself in all the languages" that he is in possession of, and, once again, can "neither understand nor be understood" (413).

Gulliver is sent to dinner and he immediately begins to acquire the Laputan language ("I made bold to ask the names of several things in their language") and, as before, makes quick progress ("I was soon able to call for bread, and drink, or whatever else I wanted") (414). After dinner, Gulliver is given a language primer, lasting four hours. He takes in the lesson with zeal and, "in a few days, by the help of a very faithful memory" (414), he is capable enough in the Laputan language to speak to the natives comfortably. A few days more are all that are required for him to be competent enough to speak directly to the Laputan king, the novel's benchmark test of fluency. As before, this feat does not appear to be particularly extraordinary to him, though he will later recount that he "obtained by hard study a good degree of knowledge of their language" (423), and further studies in mathematics helps him with his language labors because their "phraseology [...] depended much upon that science and musick [sic]", in the latter of which he admits he "was not a little unskilled" (415).

As Gulliver masters the language, he also begins to see the Laputan people as curiously similar to his countrymen (and women) in ways that were not true of the Lilliputians and Brobdignagians. At this stage in his process of linguistic and cultural acquisition, this is not a positive comparison. When he records that his description of the Laputan women "may perhaps pass with the reader for European or English story", he is referring to their qualities of silliness and insatiability, and he is quick to add that "the caprices of womankind are not limited by any climate or nation [...] they are more uniform than can easily be imagined" (417). This critique of women has an obvious misogynist reading, but, taken in context of Gulliver's larger comparison of the Laputans to European nations, it may also be seen as Gulliver tiring of the Europeanness of his new companions. In other words, the degree to which the Laputans are like his own countrymen is the degree to which he becomes "heartily weary" of them (422). This adds another layer to Swift's satire; if Gulliver's acquisition of the Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian languages pulls him further away from his own Englishness because he begins to view their cultures as superior through that acquisition, then his acquisition of the Laputan language, the first that has any real European counterpart, pushes him away from that same Englishness by revealing to him within it his homeland's most unappealing characteristics. The linguicism that has previously caused him to favor the English language is thus assaulted from two fronts, and his ties to England continue to weaken.

This "push" continues with his tour of Balnibarbi, one of the stationary islands ruled by the flying Laputan monarchy, led by one of the few Laputan aristocrats who shows in any real interest in him. As with the islands colonized by England during the First British Empire, the people of Balnibarbi speak the colonizer's language; Gulliver later refers to the language he has recently acquired when in Glubbdubdrib as the "Language of Balnibarbi" (436), with no evidence that he has picked up any new languages since his stay on Laputa. Given the trajectory I have outlined, it should not surprise readers to find that the capital city, Lagado, is compared to London or that Gulliver's principal occupation while on the continent is an examination of the Academy of Lagado, a thinly-veiled allusion to the Royal Society of London, whose experiments, which were at the forefront of the "interest and demand for establishing a universal language" that Sena argues first "became pervasive" in the seventeenth and eighteenthcenturies, Swift did not hold in high regard (145). Many, from Swift's contemporaries to contemporary readers, have read the Academy of Lagado as a criticism against the fruitlessness, myopia, and circularity of the Royal Academy's experiments and arguments. (1)

Of particular interest to this project is the "first Professor" that Gulliver sees, who has constructed a mechanism by which "the most ignorant person at a reasonable charge, and by a little bodily labour, may write books in philosophy, poetry, politicks [sic], law, mathematicks [sic], and theology" (428). Though the Professor's machine is a satire of the linguistic work of the Royal Society, Gulliver himself compares the machine favorably to the work of his English contemporaries, admitting that it is "the custom in Europe to steal inventions from each other" (429), which at least gives the Professor the advantage of having created the machine on his own. Gulliver also goes to the "School of Languages", where he encounters projects that attempt to "shorten discourse by cutting Polysyllables into one [...] because all things imaginable are but nouns" and to "entirely abolish all words whatsoever" (429), both of which serve to satirize the Royal Society's linguistic efforts.

Again disappointed by the pseudo-Englishness of his current location, Gulliver opts to leave Balnibarbi, arriving soon in the nation of Glubbdubdrib. As with Balnibarbi and Laputa, the island of Glubbdubdrib is almost immediately compared to Europe, being said to be "about one third as large as the Isle of Wight" (436) and the port of Maldonada being said to be "about as large as Portsmouth" (435). It is worth remembering that the decidedly non-European nations of Lilliput and Brobdingnag did not receive such comparisons.

Gulliver does not acquire a new language on Glubbdubdrib, as his guide understands the Laputan language sufficiently, and, instead, he is finally able to use the European linguistic catalog that has so often failed him in the scenes in which he has Glubbdubdrib's necromancers resurrect famous figures from the history of the Western world. Though there are historio-linguistic barriers (he has "great difficulty" in understand Alexander the Great's Greek), Gulliver has surprisingly (perhaps even suspiciously) little trouble communicating with individuals with as diverse linguistic backgrounds as Hannibal's Carthagian Phoenician, Socrates' Greek, Sir Thomas More's Middle English, and Descartes' Middle French. Such a linguistic triumph would seem to be a perfect opportunity for Swift to have Gulliver ruminate on the superiority of European language and culture, but, though Gulliver develops an even greater respect for most of the historical figures he talks to, he ends up seemingly less happy to be English than ever before:
   For having strictly examined all the persons of greatest name in
   the courts of princes, for a hundred years past, I found how the
   world had been misled by prostitute writers, to ascribe the
   greatest exploits in war, to cowards; the wisest counsel, to fools;
   sincerity, to flatterers; Roman virtue, to betrayers of their
   country; piety, to atheists; chastity, to sodomites; truth, to
   informers: how many innocent and excellent persons had been
   condemned to death or banishment by the practising of great
   ministers upon the corruption of judges, and the malice of
   factions: how many villains had been exalted to the highest places
   of trust, power, dignity, and profit: how great a share in the
   motions and events of courts, councils, and senates might be
   challenged by bawds, whores, pimps, parasites, and buffoons. How
   low an opinion I had of human wisdom and integrity, when I was
   truly informed of the springs and motives of great enterprises and
   revolutions in the world, and of the contemptible accidents to
   which they owed their success. (439)

Gulliver's invective against the corruption, foolishness, and immorality of (Western) history also includes a painful "slight examination" of "a very modern period" in which he "[discovers] such a scene of infamy that [he] cannot reflect on it without some seriousness" (440). This proliferation of "Perjury, oppression, subornation, fraud, panderism", in addition to sodomy and incest, is initially said to exclude the English, as Gulliver (possibly afraid to see the truth of the modern state of affairs in his homeland) adds quickly that, in regard to the above vices, he hopes "the reader need not be told that [he does] not in the least intend [his] own country in what [he says]" (440). Yet, England is not spared from the withering critique of modern European failure and folly, as Gulliver remarks at length upon his native people's "degeneracy", coming to a point where he has "descended so low as to desire that some English yeoman of the old stamp, might be summoned to appear; once so famous for the simplicity of their manners, dyet [sic], and dress" (441). Alas, Gulliver is not heartened by the appearance of these strong historical Englishmen, as the aforementioned simplicity only serves to remind him of how "these pure native virtues were prostituted for a piece of money by [these Englishmen's] grand-children" and how "vice and corruption" have overtaken the once proud English lineage of truth and virtue.

Where Gulliver has in the past only been uncomfortable when thinking about his native England, here, in the islands that most resemble England and whose languages most remind him of European languages; here, where he comes into contact with historical and modern figures from the culture he has been invested in for most of his life; here, where he is reminded most of England, he finds himself most disgusted by it. It is at the very point when he first encounters an Englishman and the English language on one of these foreign islands (albeit one from the past) that he is for the first time willing to directly criticize his native country. He does so in a style that seems on the surface a call to action, but that ultimately is closer to a disheartened lament.

Gulliver leaves Glubbdubdrib for Luggnagg with another guide who possesses "the language of the Balnibarbi" (442). Interestingly, though he stays in Luggnagg for three months, has audience with the King on several occasions, and explores the nation's major city, Gulliver makes no attempt to the learn the Luggnuggian language, instead relying entirely on his Balnibarbian translator except in those instances where he must engage in specific speech acts of obedience to show deference to the King, in which cases he translates the Luggnuggian into English for his readers. This indifference to acquisition, which occurs here for the first time in the novel, comes directly after Gulliver's first real criticism of English culture and, read in context of the parallels he continues to draw between the islands of his third voyage and European countries (Luggnagg, for its part, requires Gulliver to "call [himself] a Hollander") (442), represents a satiety of linguistic acquisition for Gulliver spurred on by the Englishness of these islands. Unlike the Lilliputian or Brobdignaggian languages, the Laputan and Luggnuggian languages, which correspond to pseudo-English cultures, remind Gulliver of the homeland he is developing distaste for. It for this reason that, already saddled with his European linguistic catalog and now the pseudo-European Laputan language, Gulliver is indifferent toward acquiring the presumably pseudo-European Luggnuggian, choosing instead to press on home to the England he now can only love half-heartedly. Gulliver makes one more stop in Japan before he arrives in England, communicating with the Japanese Emperor in Low-Dutch and again showing no interest in acquiring a new language. The subtractive fallacy looming via his increasingly burdensome collection of foreign languages, he finally arrives in his native country after an absence of five and a half years, noting laconically upon his return home that he "found [his] wife and family in good health" (451). It is a mere five months before he is at sea again.

The Country of the Houyhnhnms

Gulliver's fourth and final voyage takes him to a land that is different than all of the previous nations he has visited in many ways: it is unnamed, it ruled not by humanoids but by sentient horse-like creatures, it includes non-civilized humanoids (in the form of the repulsive Yahoos), and its national language is both not entirely unfamiliar to Gulliver and at the same time more "othered" than any of the other languages he acquires. The country of the Houyhnhnms is populated by a ruling class of creatures that resemble ordinary European horses and by a group (they can hardly be called a class) of animalistic humanoids who act as wild beasts. The Houyhnhnms, the nation's only intelligent life forms, speak in a language that is so similar to the whinnying and neighing of European horses that Gulliver believes them to, in fact, simply be ordinary horses. He soon perceives that they are capable of rational thought by their use of language, highlighting again the importance that language plays in establishing identity, culture, and personhood (or rather, horsehood) in the novel. Once he realizes they are sentient beings, he attempts to address them in English, and, as always, fails to communicate anything more than that he is capable of communication. Upon seeing the Houyhnhnms communicate with one another, Gulliver instantly attempts to discern as much as he can of their language. It is here that a close reader perceives both the inherent familiarity and otherness of the Houyhnhnm tongue: on the one hand, its resemblance to the whinnying and neighing of the horses he has previously been in contact with give the language an ease of conversion to English that exceeds any language he has met thus far ("The words might with little pains be resolved into an alphabet more easily than the Chinese" (457), he writes); on the other hand, precisely because the language is connected to a species that was at Swift's time popularly used as a contrast with humankind (2), it is positioned as a language of the animal-other, a language that exists in a linguistic sphere outside of the humanoid languages he has encountered. Moreover, though he can convert it to an English alphabet easily (and does within his first few days in the country), it takes him ten weeks to be able to "understand most of [his master's] questions" and three months before he can "give him some tolerable answers" (461). Only after five months (a lifetime by Gulliver's previous linguistic standards) is he able to "express [himself] tolerably well" (462). Thus, the Houyhnhnms' language is both extraordinarily familiar and alien to Gulliver; he can conceptualize and alphabetize it easily (a division that he has never made with any of the previous languages he has acquired), but he cannot actually acquire it without an unprecedented degree of difficulty, a fact that is all the more puzzling since he notes that it has some resemblances to High Dutch (though it is more "graceful and significant") (461), which readers already know him to be quite fluent in. It is perhaps in an attempt to counter this difficulty that Gulliver incorporates more direct phrases of this language in his re-telling than he does for any other. The potential for the subtractive fallacy to divest Gulliver of his remaining affinity for England and English is the strongest on this nameless island, and Swift, in a move that speaks directly to his satirizing of the very real fear of such an occurrence amongst his fellow Englishmen upon exposure to foreign cultures and languages, capitalizes on that potential. Gulliver's acquisitive trouble is accounted for by the profound and unparalleled alterity that the language represents. Though in some ways familiar, Gulliver cannot acquire the Houyhnhnms' language (and, by proxy, their culture) without almost fully and nearly irreversibly othering himself and, in doing so, coming as close as he ever does to disencumbering himself from his English and his Englishness. It is this struggle that slows down his normally speedy acquisitive process.

Gulliver's task of first importance, his "principal endeavor", is, predictably, "to learn the language" (461). The Houyhnhnms, who view him as a "prodigy" of the Yahoos, are all too eager to teach it to him. Thus begins a long series of discourses in which Gulliver gives a full account of his personal history and of the precepts of English/European culture. Like the Brobdingnaggian King, the Houyhnhnm Master attacks the foundations of the culture Gulliver ostensibly supports. Unlike the events in the second voyage, however, Gulliver does not provide a sincere defense for the English (though he will later feign to have done so), and he does not give his readers a succeeding passage in which he bolsters their faith in their own country by detailing the flaws of the one he now finds himself in. Instead, Gulliver relents to the questioning and dismissal of his Master, which seems less like the pitying wonder of the Brobdingnaggian king and more like a disdainful evisceration. In a critical linguistic moment that signals his near-total assimilation into Houyhnhnm culture and rejection of his own language and culture, he scornfully resents his having to translate the discourses into "our barbarous English" (468). The full effect of the subtractive fallacy is upon him; Gulliver's English has been corrupted by his acquisition of foreign tongues, and his linguicism has been inverted. Indeed, Gulliver justifies his rejection of Englishness (not to mention humankind) in terms of enlightenment:
   But I must freely confess, that the many virtues of those excellent
   quadrupeds, placed in opposite view to human corruptions, had so
   far opened my eyes and enlarged my understanding, that I began to
   view the actions and passions of man in a very different light, and
   to think the honour of my own kind not worth managing. (476)

In light of his newfound understanding, Gulliver resolves to stay in the country of the Houyhnhnms forever, but, though he has rejected his own identity, he cannot fully take on the forever othered Houyhnhnmness. The Houyhnhnms will not allow him to assimilate into their culture, and, at the moment where Gulliver has most thoroughly abandoned the notion of English superiority, he is told that he cannot transcend his Englishness. This is an abandonment that he has arrived at, through the progressive acquisition of non-European languages, culminating in this familiar, alien, supremely difficult tongue, and the subsequent rejection by the Houyhnhnms leaves Gulliver crestfallen.

Still deeply in love with the Houyhnhnm culture and language, the spurned once-again-Englishman resolves to isolate himself from all of mankind, but he is "rescued" by a group of European sailors and carried back to England against his wishes. In the culmination of the subtractive fallacy's linguicist inversion, Gulliver expresses supreme difficulty in returning to intelligible communication in his native English. He does not merely struggle with word choice or mechanics. Just as the foundation of his devotion to England, his pride in his Englishness, has depreciated, so too has the "Englishness" of his English. The very foundation his English, inflection and pronunciation, has been subverted, and his "tone of speaking" now resembles "the neighing of a horse", so much so that crew that has rescued him falls "a-laughing" (495). Gulliver's subsequent misanthropy (clearly a reflection of Swift's own) stems not only from the undermining of his English but also from the undermining of the Englishness that that command of the language is a representative of. As the book closes, Gulliver slowly begins to recover his English and Englishness, albeit with extreme reluctance, manifested most obviously in his suddenly sterling description of England as "an example to the whole world for [its] wisdom" (501). Ultimately, however, English as a language (and thus as a culture) will never be truly satisfactory for him again, and the book ends with Gulliver remarking sadly that the culturally superior Houyhnhnms have "no terms to express any thing that is evil" in their language (501).


It is clear that Gulliver regresses (or progresses) from anglophile to Yahoo-hater in Gulliver's Travels. Also, it is equally clear that he makes similar, gradational movements during his stays on the various islands he encounters. These movements (and the larger, novel-wide movement that they constitute) are based ultimately in Gulliver's acquisition of the languages of the people groups he comes across, through which he also acquires understandings of their respective cultures. As Gulliver acquires each individual language, he becomes less and less certain of the superiority of his own linguistic catalog and of the culture of his native land. The subtractive fallacy causes Gulliver to become increasingly less proud of his homeland as his new linguistic catalog of non-European languages grows, and his time with the Houyhnhnms ultimately undoes his English and his Englishness. Indeed, "after" the novel's composition, Gulliver writes a letter to his cousin in which he says that the "infernal Habit of Lying, Shuffling, Deceiving, and Equivocating" is "so deeply rooted in the very Souls of all my Species; especially the Europeans" (317)

The movement of this novel represents a satire of the eighteenth century fear that excess exposure to the foreign cultures (particularly along the lines of language and cultural immersion) would weaken one's ties to their native country and thus their moral character. It is this concept that Swift employs in the movement of Gulliver, through increased language acquisition, from happy Englishman to pessimistic barn-dweller. It is clear from the context of the novel itself and from Swift's other writings that the novel is satiric. Swift himself, as has been noted (perhaps to a fault) by George Orwell, Andre Breton, and others, had a profound dislike of humanity as a whole, whether European or "savage". Breton remarked that "from one end of [Swift's] life to the other his misanthropy was the only disposition that never altered" ("Swift and Black Humor" 759), and this idea is so prevalent in biographical accounts of Swift that when Orwell writes that Swift "hates lords, kings, bishops, generals, ladies of fashion, orders, titles and flummery generally; but...does not seem to think better of the common people than of their rulers, or to be in favor of increased social equality" (37), the reader knows that Orwell means that what Swift has "left out" from the equation is the notion of there being any redeeming group or section of humanity at all. (3) Orwell himself saw the goal of Gulliver's Travels as being to "humiliate Man" (38), not too far a cry from Swift's own claim about the book in a letter to Alexander Pope that the book was meant to "vex the world". (4) And both the historical and Orwellian Swift line up with the post-publishing remarks of Lemuel Gulliver himself, who laments that humanity-as-Yahoos is "utterly incapable of Amendment by Precepts or Examples" (315), as well as with more contemporary assertions, like this one by Ian Higgins, that the book is meant as a "a satire on contemporary European civilization and the vices and follies of humanity" (Swift's Politics: A Study In Disaffection 356).

Viewing the transformation that Gulliver undergoes both throughout the entire novel and within each respective voyage through this lens, it is difficult to imagine Swift being sincerely troubled by colonialist fears about the dangers of language acquisition on a cultural and moral level, and one is led to conclude that Swift most likely intended this seemingly cautionary move in the Gulliver's Travels as primarily satirical. Thus, Gulliver's journey from quintessential Englishman to depressed misanthrope, a journey that comes about through the disillusionment he suffers from his increasing acquisition of non-European languages (culminating finally in his acquisition of the Houyhnhnm tongue and subsequent self-othering, only to have that process forcibly reversed), is a clever and insightful satire on the fear of losing one's Englishness through the acquisition of other languages and the exposure to other cultures, one that, through the gradual manifestation of Phillipson's subtractive fallacy, calls into question the very value of maintaining Englishness at all, if not the stability of the English language itself.

Works Cited

The American Traveller, being a new historical collection of voyages and travels. 1743.

Crane, R.S. The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1967.

Ekhtiari, Ehsan, and Fazel Asadi Amjad. "Gulliver; The Man-Mountain, The Crumb, The Historian And The Polyglot". English Language & Literature Studies 2.3 (2012): 1. Supplemental Index. Web. 25 July 2014.

Higgins, Ian. Swift's Politics: A Study in Disaffection. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994. Johnson, Samuel, and Frederick Ryland. Johnson's Life of Swift. London: G. Bell, 1894. Narborough, Sir John. An account of several late voyages and discoveries. London. 1724.

Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. Mariner Books, 1970.

Patey, Douglas Lane. "Swift's Satire on 'Science' and the Structure of Gulliver's Travels". ELH (1991): 809. JSTOR Journals. Web. 25 July 2014.

Phillipson, Robert. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford UP, 1992.

Phillispon, Robert et al. (1999) Language: A Right and a Resource. Central European UP, 1995.

Sena, John F. "The Language of Gestures in Gulliver's Travels". Papers On Language & Literature 19.2 (1983): 145. Sociological Collection. Web. 25 July 2014.

Seidlhofer, Barbara. Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford UP, 2009. Swift, Jonathan, Claude Rawson, and Ian Higgins. The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

(1) For a thorough listing of reactions to the Academy of Lagado along these lines among Swift's contemporaries, see Douglas Lane Patey's "Swift's Satire on 'Science' and the Structure of Gulliver's Travels."

(2) I am here indebted to R.S. Crane's article "The Houyhnhnms, the Yahoos, and the History of Ideas," which argues that Swift's "horse as rational animal" is a deliberate reversal of the popular Porphyryean argument that used a contrast between man and horse to demonstrate man's uniqueness as the planet's only rational creature.

(3) Orwell attributes the contrast between the "sensible" Gulliver of Part I and the "intermittently silly" Gulliver of Part II to Swift's desire to "make the human being look ridiculous," but I think that Swift's "manoeuvre" is necessary more in regards to theme than craftsmanship.

(4) And vex the world it did. Samuel Johnson's remarks on the Houyhnhnm episode are characteristic of the general critical reception of the book (grounded, as they often were in the eighteenth century, within the framework of morality, either humanist or religious): "the part [...] which gave the most disgust must be the history of the Houyhnhnms" (Johnson's Life of Swift 1). The indignation here is not solely moral; it is also nationalistic.
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Author:Rearick, Zack
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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