Linguistic Relativity in Middle High Martian

by Dr. Willis E. McNelly

At a recent cocktail party in Berkeley, a corporation lawyer bemoaned the generation gap. "These kids of mine act as if they live in another world and as if I'm from another planet. I can't get across tothem. I might as well be speaking Martian."

His companion, an editor of an avant-garde journal, but cursed by "over-thirty" stigma, replied enthusiastically, "You are absolutely right. I grok you. My daughter's a go-go dancer." Ten minutes later after some animated discussion about go-go dancing, someone thought to ask the editor what "grok" meant. Only one other person had heard the term before, but if the rapidity of dissemination at the cocktail party is an indicator of a larger acceptance, we will all be "grokking" within a year or so.

The word was created by Robert A. Heinlein, dean of American science fiction writers, in his provocative novel Stranger in a Strange Land (first publ. in 1961 and reprinted by Berkeley, N1571). It is the story, told in detail with sardonic humor, of Valentine Michael Smith, a Mars-born earth child. Raised by Martians after the death of his parents and all other members of the first Martian expedition, Smith is returned to earth by crewmen of the second expedition twenty-five years later. Having been nurtured by the Martians, who are so non-earthly as to confound earthly analysis, Mike Smith is a Martian in an earth body. He thinks in Martian.

The rest of the novel is well-written - perhaps "slick" is the best adjective to describe Heinlein's style - as a variation on the noble savage theme, coupled with some intriguing variations of the WhorfSapir theory of linguistic relativity. You can't really appreciate Mike Smith or the Martians until you learn to think in Martian, and you begin to think in Martian when you begin to grok. As one character put it, "I grok it. Language itself shapes a man's basic ideas." Grok is the only Martian word used in the novel,' but it is so basic to the Martian character, according to Heinlein, that an understanding of grok comes before an understanding of every other word in the Martian tongue.

As Heinlein handles the concept, the notion of grokking is crucial to the enlightened pantheism which is the religious construct of Stranger in a Strange Land. Grok means drink in basic Martian, and on a desert planet the sharing of water, or drinking together, becomes almost the highest, the only, religious sacrament. Those who share water become "water brothers," an unity so elevated that mistrust is impossible to one so internally baptized. Grok also means, in the words of one of the characters,

...even antithetical concepts. It means 'fear,' it means 'love,' it means 'map,' you cannot hate anything unless you grok it, understand it so thoroughly that you merge with it and it merges with you --- then you can hate...Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed --- identity in group experience. (p. 204)

If we benighted Terrans cannot grok grok completely until we learn to think in Martian, we can at least follow some of the extensions Heinlein gives the word. For example, Martians are sexless, They apparently reproduce by some sort of conjugate fission.

By a process of extension of meaning drawn from its earthly context, Heinlein adds a number of Terran modifications to the wildly alien Martian concept of grok. Grok seems first to mean know, understand, appreciate, comprehend. It resembles the hipster "dig." Gradually it comes to include love, cherish, create.* The Terrans in the novel do have sex, of course (they "grok growing closer," to use the terminology of the book). Thus the unsexual Martian grok becomes modified in the minds of the living Terrans: it broadens to include the fullest and most intimate communication humanly possible, the very essence of life itself, sexual intercourse. Thus transmuted, grok becomes a quasi-assonantal surrogate for its common Anglo-Saxon equivalent, and it revitalizes the archaic meaning of the Biblical know as well as emphasizes the ambiguity of the Terran word intercourse.

There are several further extrapolations of the term as Heinlein handles it. Grok also means life, as a logical extension of its meaning drink. In a most logical Martian way, all that groks is God. This concept leads Heinlein to build a quasipantheistic religious system with Mike Smith, man by ancestry but Martian by environment and thought processes, as its major prophet. The water ceremony is the sole sacrament: "Share water, drink deep, never thirst." In basic Martian this translates, approximately, into "Grok, grok, grok."

The salutation among water brothers is "Thou art God," with the central message of the novel being, as noted earlier, "All that groks is God." Alternately, God groks, in every sense of the word thus defined: God loves, drinks, creates, cherishes, infuses every being.

Heinlein carries the religious message of the novel even further by advancing the thoroughly Martian concept of ritual cannibalism. When a Martian groks death, he "discorporates," and the surviving water brothers eat the remains, grokking him in fullness. The custom on Mars is formalized and deeply religious. The survivors would, by eating the discorporated one, thereby acquire some of his characteristics, attributes, or even eccentricities. One character expresses it this way, "If I chopped you up and made a stew, you and the stew, whatever was in it, would grok - and when I ate you, we would grok together and nothing would be lost and it would not matter which one of us did the eating." Of course, Heinlein does not evaluate any qualitative or quantitative differences between the symbolic cannibalism of most Terran religous sects and the actual cannibalism of the Martians. He leaves those discussions to his readers.

One of Benjamin Whorf's great contributions in his studies of Hopi which led in turn to the thesis of linguistic relativity was his analysis of Hopi time perception. Heinlein has apparently read his Whorf well, because this concept of temporal discontinuity is another of the major theses of Stranger in a Strange Land. He puts it this way, "With eternity, to draw on there could be no reason for hurrying - 'hurry' was not a concept in Martian. Speed, velocity, simultaneity, acceleration, and other abstractions of the pattern of eternity were part of Martian mathematics, but not of Martian emotion" (p. 126).

Heinlein is quick to point out, as did Whorf in a similar connection, that ". . . the unceasing rush of human existence came not from mathematical necessities of time but from the frantic urgency implicit in human sexual bipolarity" (p. 126). Thus the Whorfian conclusion inevitable in the novel: the realities of time, space, and matter are almost totally dependent upon the verbal system one uses to speak of time, space, and matter. When we learn to think in another language, our entire perception of reality changes. What is more important, reality itself changes. Grok?

Accomplished literary craftsman that he is, Heinlein skillfully utilizes almost every technique to communicate his ideas. One specific device is Mike Smith's constant use of the participle or progressive verb form to indicate the eternal present of the Martian now. "I am been saying so." "We are growing closer." "I am savoring and cherishing." Further examples could be multiplied, but only one more need be cited. It is used so often in the novel that it becomes almost a ritualistic theme song: "Waiting is." Not "Waiting is necessary," or "Waiting is important,), or "Waiting is inevitable." Simply, "Waiting is." The phrase, a curious juxtaposition of tense forms, implies that one will wait, until eternity if necessary, before grokking in fullness.

In one of the most moving parts of the novel, Mike comes to understand that merely speaking about love is meaningless. If all that groks is God, Mike must demonstrate this truth, not simply repeat it. He says in a striking parallelism with the Crucifixion, "I'm ready to show them now - I grok the fullness. Waiting is ended" (p. 396).

But this is not the place to note the number of Christian parallels in Stranger in a Strange Land, nor to evaluate if they are wholly successful. From a standpoint of linguistic relativity, however, similarities of Martian grokking and English thought find an union in Mike's last benediction as he is being stoned to death.

Rocks have given him a "crown of blood." "The Truth is simple but the Way of Man is hard. First learn to control your self. The rest follows. Blessed is he who knows himself and commands himself, for the world is his and love and happiness and peace walk with him wherever he goes. Thou art God. Know that and the Way is opened" (p. 400).

Implicit in this Martian-Terran-Christian-Buddhist-Hindu benediction is the ultimate concept that "Love," however extrapolated from whatever widely divergent culture, will find an identity of expression. Many anthropological linguists will find this thesis highly debatable. In fact, the identity of expression seems to contradict the thrust of the novel: that a language "map" will alter reality any reality, including that of love.

The appeal of Stranger in a Strange Land is not limited to its intriguing development of Martian thought, or even to its more than adequate descriptions of the "growing closer" ceremony.' The sugar-coated, over-simplistic romanticism of the story has become almost a cult in certain areas of the country. Psychedelic bookstores in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco have sold dozens of lapel buttons engraved, "Are you a stranger in a strange land: Grok or share water." Martian-Terran nests of water brothers are grokking wherever grokking needs to be grokked. There is no doubt that the sense of alienation or anomie which troubles the flower children has caused many of them to turn to Stranger, as the cult calls it, with the same emotion that causes them to wear buttons reading "Frodo Lives" or "Go, Go, Gandalf!" Heinlein is almost Swiftian in his attack on some of the same American folkways that the hippies reject. His analysis of the hyprocrisies of religion, politics, economics, and, explicitly, the Protestant ethic, seems to supplement the strictures which the flower children themselves maintain against our society. Whether grokking is an adequate substitute for involvement or commitment is conjectural, but a certain vociferous element in our society has seized upon it as a way of life. Fiction has become reality.

Stranger in a Strange Land may not be a great novel. Perhaps science fiction has yet to produce one. Yet when a writer skillfully combines the varied themes of any work as well as Heinlein has done, science fiction has at least come of age.

Grok what I mean?


California State College at Fullerton

1Advance copies of Jubal Harshaw's A Basic Martian Dictionary (Marsport, Caxton Press, 2063) have not yet been received for review. - Ed.

2 Cf. the classic religious admonition: "You cannot love what you do not know."

8 Heinlein's humor should not remain unnoted. One of the major characters of the book is a journalist, Ben Caxton, ~,h. is a lippman, not a winchell.,, He. 11 nined by a happy medium, Madame Allie Vesan wb se ate husband was Professor Simon Magus.