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First edition
AuthorSamuel R. Delany
CountryUnited States
GenreScience fiction
PublisherAce Books
Publication date
May 17, 1966[1]

Babel-17 is a 1966 science fiction novel by American writer Samuel R. Delany in which the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (that language influences thought and perception) plays an important part. It was joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1967 (with Flowers for Algernon)[2] and was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1967.[3]

Delany hoped to have Babel-17 originally published as a single volume with the novella Empire Star, but this did not happen until a 2001 reprint.[4]

Plot summary[edit]

During an interstellar war one side develops a language, Babel-17, that can be used as a weapon. Learning it turns one into an unwilling traitor as it alters perception and thought. The change is made more dangerous by the language's seductive enhancement of other abilities. This is discovered by the beautiful star-ship captain, linguist, poet, and telepath Rydra Wong. She is recruited by her government to discover how the enemy are infiltrating and sabotaging strategic sites. Initially Babel-17 is thought to be a code used by enemy agents. Rydra Wong realizes it is a language in and of itself, and furthermore that during her journey the she has a traitor on the ship. Rydra later finds that she herself is becoming the traitor as she learns more about Babel-17. She is rescued, however, by her dedicated crew, figures out the danger, and neutralizes its effects.

The novel deals with several issues related to the peculiarities of language, how conditions of life shape the formation of words and meaning, and how words themselves can shape the actions of people.


The language portrayed at the center of Babel-17 contains interesting linguistic features including the absence of a pronoun or any other construction for "I". The heroine finds her perceptions (and even her physical abilities) altered once she has learned Babel-17. In this Delany's novel influenced a generation of writers: Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin[citation needed], The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin[citation needed], Embassytown by China Miéville, "In Luna Bore Coda" by Joshua Nilles, and, more evidently, the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang[citation needed]. Language as a weapon was adapted as a plot device in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. It also resembles a few preceding science fiction novels which deal with how languages shape the political and cultural stratum of societies, such as The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance or Anthem by Ayn Rand.

Other media[edit]

In 2014, the work Babel-17 was told in tandem with a partial biography of Samuel R. Delany's early years in the form of a play The Motion of Light in Water, based on a 1988 autobiography with the same title, produced by Elbow Room, an Australian theatre company directed by Marcel Dorney.[5]


  1. ^ "Books Today". The New York Times: 44. May 17, 1966.
  2. ^ "1966 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-08-24.
  3. ^ "1967 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-08-24.
  4. ^ Delany, Samuel R. (December 2001). Babel-17 / Empire Star. Vintage Books / Random House. ISBN 0-375-70669-0.
  5. ^ What if? Elbow Room’s Ray Chong Nee on The Motion of Light in Water., Theatre Works, 3 July 2014


External links[edit]