The language is spoken by the inhabitants of the “northern continents” of the future earth, the Ascians, who are enslaved by their masters (the Group of Seventeen) in a way much like the people of Oceania in George Orwell's book 1984.
The Ascian language consists of two levels: On the low level it is just an ordinary language, of whose syntax, grammar and vocabulary virtually nothing is known. What makes the language unique is the second level.
Although Ascian is their mother tongue, adult Ascians don't understand plain Ascian sentences, unless they are direct quotations from governmental propaganda materials (called Correct Thought). So, in order to communicate, an Ascian has to know by heart thousands of these quotations (sentences) on many different topics.
As the northern continents are at war with the southern Commonwealth (where most protagonists of the books live), there are interpreters in the Ascian army to interrogate prisoners. These speak the language of the Commonwealth, but as they are unable to think outside the approved texts, what they say is just literal translations of the Ascian approved sentences.
The reason for the Group of Seventeen to impose on their people this complicated concept of a language is much like Orwell’s concept of Newspeak. In order to prevent the Ascians from ever developing critical thought (and subsequently inciting revolts), the language is limited as to make it impossible to express it. This corresponds to the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis.
Nevertheless, Gene Wolfe suggests that this concept doesn't work out like that. It is shown that intelligent Ascians are very well able to express, by means of approved sentences only, meanings that exceed those of the quoted sources. They simply quote sentences which have certain connotations, regardless of the actual meaning of the approved text.
In "The Citadel of the Autarch", the fourth volume of The Book of the New Sun series, there is a story told by an Ascian prisoner (who identifies himself only as "Loyal to the Group of Seventeen"), which is translated by people of the Commonwealth into our way of speaking. Some examples from this story:
- “In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone.”
“Once upon a time…”
- “The people meeting in counsel may judge, but no one is to receive more than a hundred blows.”
“He complained, and they beat him.”
- “How are the hands nourished? By the blood. How does the blood reach the hands? By the veins. If the veins are closed, the hands will rot away.”
“He left that farm and took to the roads.”
- “Where the Group of Seventeen sit, there final justice is done.”
“He went to the capital and complained of the way he had been treated.”
The word "Ascian"
Although unfamiliar to most readers, this is not a word invented by Wolfe, nor is it a form of "Asians". It means 'Tropic-dweller', and it came into English by way of medieval Latin as an adaptation of ancient Greek ἄσκιος, literally 'without a shadow'. In the Tropics, the sun is exactly overhead at noon twice a year, and at that time a person standing straight up will cast no shadow.
- Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, Volume 4 (The Citadel of the Autarch), ISBN 1-85798-700-4
- McCaffery, Larry (December 1988). "On Encompassing the Entire Universe: An Interview with Gene Wolfe". Science Fiction Studies, vol. 15, part 3. SF-TH Inc. at DePauw University. Retrieved 2008-01-16.
If you read the book carefully, it's clear that the action is taking place in South America and that the invading Ascians are actually North Americans. What I didn't anticipate was that nine tenths of my readers and reviewers would look at the word "Ascian" and say, "Oh, these guys are Asians!" This confusion got me accused of being an anti Asian racist—which I'm not. Actually, the word "ascian" literally means "people without shadows." It was a word used in the Classical world for people who lived near the Equator, where the Sun is dead overhead at noon and thus produces no shadow. I felt it would be an interesting touch to show that the ordinary man in the street in the Southern Hemisphere wasn't even conscious that their attackers are coming down from the Northern Hemisphere (they aren't even aware that there is another hemisphere).
- "Oxford English Dictionary". Archived from the original on 11 January 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-16.