Many linguistic interactions in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy accentuate the inherent shortcomings of language. Moreover, the characters’ failures to communicate effectively with one another demonstrate how difficult it can be to rely on language when trying to connect with others, especially when a conversation’s participants are faced with navigating cultural differences. This is because cultural differences often manifest themselves in language. However, Adams doesn’t simply frame language as something that is ineffectual and destined to fail. He also exemplifies the flexibility language can grant a person, showcasing the ways in which somebody can use intelligent rhetoric to his or her benefit. Through his examination of the ways in which people communicate, Adams challenges readers to avoid taking language for granted, ultimately suggesting that its idiosyncrasies are worth bearing in mind when trying to connect with others.
Communication, Adams intimates, is complex and unwieldy. Whereas one person might find a certain sentence harmless and unremarkable, that very same phrase might deeply offend somebody else. This is made overwhelmingly apparent in a conversation between Arthur and Slartibartfast. On his way out of Slartibartfast’s office on the planet of Magrathea, Arthur mumbles a small aside, saying, “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my life-style.” For Arthur, this sentence is nothing more than an idle observation about the fact that things haven’t been going his way. However, Adams chooses to use this moment to illustrate that even banal sentiments like this one are subject to misinterpretation. “It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives,” Adams notes, adding that “the full scale of th[is] problem is not always appreciated.” Indeed, at the same exact instant that Arthur complains about his “life-style,” a “freak wormhole” opens in space, carrying his sentence to a “distant galaxy” where two civilizations are teetering on the brink of war. Unfortunately, Arthur’s sentence about his “life-style” translates—in this galaxy—into “the most dreadful insult imaginable.” Since the leaders of the two opposing civilizations each think that the other has said this, they embark upon a long and bloody war. Of course, readers know that Arthur’s statement is nothing more than a simple expression of mild discontent. However, in a different context, the very same words spark anger and violence. In this way, Adams shows that language and communication are both highly contextual and that “careless talk” can easily bring about disastrous circumstances.
Although Adams portrays language as unwieldy and potentially even dangerous, he also highlights the ways in which a person can harness linguistic flexibility and use it to his or her advantage. Ford Prefect, for instance, is a master at manipulating words when he wants to convince somebody to do something. When, for example, he needs to tell Arthur that the world is about to end, he finds himself having to trick Mr. Prosser—the construction foreman—into waiting to demolish his friend’s house, otherwise Arthur won’t feel comfortable coming with Ford to the pub, since he thinks he needs to continue lying in front of Prosser’s bulldozer. Approaching Prosser, Ford asks him to assume that Arthur will continue lying in front of the machinery all day. Having established this, he then asks if Prosser’s men are “going to be standing around all day doing nothing” if this happens. Prosser admits that this is likely. “Well,” Ford concludes, “if you’re resigned to doing that anyway, you don’t actually need him to lie here all the time do you?” Rather hilariously, Prosser thinks about this and then admits that he doesn’t “exactly need” Arthur to continue lying in front of the bulldozer. “So if you would just like to take it as read that he’s actually here,” Ford says, “then he and I could slip off down to the pub for half an hour. How does that sound?” Prosser says that this seems “perfectly reasonable,” though Adams notes that the foreman is a bit confused. Ford then adds that if Prosser himself wants to “pop off for a quick one” when they return, he and Arthur would be happy to “cover” for him. “Thank you very much,” says Prosser, who is suddenly confused. In this moment, Ford has completely turned Prosser around, confounding the man by acting as if he’s trying to help him, not dupe him. By offering to “cover” for Prosser later on, he puts himself in the position of doing him a favor, which forces Prosser to assume the role of somebody who should be grateful, not bitter. This, Adams suggests, is how somebody can influence an interaction. By making use of the instability of linguistic communication, Ford manages to get what he wants.
Whether or not somebody uses language to gain control over a situation, it’s clear that communication emerges in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as inherently idiosyncratic. Indeed, Arthur often finds it difficult to communicate with the people he meets in space. For the most part, this is because these people are from other planets, which means they have different ways of connecting with others. Ford, on the other hand, is a seasoned hitchhiker who has been to many planets. As such, he knows how to talk to people from different cultures, rendering him a deft and competent communicator. In other words, he is well-acquainted with the fact that cross-cultural communication is rather peculiar and unpredictable. This aligns with Adams’s general outlook—language is unstable, but this is simply a fact of life. When Arthur’s “life-style” comment sets off an enormous war, Adams notes: “Those who study the complex interplay of cause and effect in the history of the Universe say that this sort of thing is going on all the time, but that we are powerless to prevent it. ‘It’s just life,’ they say.” The fact that people are “powerless to prevent” miscommunication and misunderstandings suggests that the unwieldiness of language isn’t worth worrying about. Rather, Adams insinuates that people ought to embrace problems of communication and—when possible—use language to their benefit.
Language and Communication ThemeTracker
Language and Communication Quotes in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The word bulldozer wandered through his mind for a moment in search of something to connect with.
The bulldozer outside the kitchen window was quite a big one.
He stared at it.
“Yellow,” he thought, and stomped off back to his bedroom to get dressed.
Passing the bathroom he stopped to drink a large glass of water, and another. He began to suspect that he was hung over. Why was he hung over? Had he been drinking the night before? He supposed that he must have been. He caught a glint in the shaving mirror. “Yellow,” he thought, and stomped on to the bedroom.
Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what’s so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what’s so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be.
“But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
“Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”
“So all your men are going to be standing around all day doing nothing?”
“Could be, could be…”
“Well, if you’re resigned to doing that anyway, you don’t actually need him to lie here all the time do you?”
“You don’t,” said Ford patiently, “actually need him here.”
Mr. Prosser thought about this.
“Well, no, not as such…” he said, “not exactly need…”
Prosser was worried. He thought that one of them wasn’t making a lot of sense.
Ford said, “So if you would just like to take it as read that he’s actually here, then he and I could slip off down to the pub for half an hour. How does that sound?”
Ford was very kind—he gave the barman another five-pound note and told him to keep the change. The barman looked at it and then looked at Ford. He suddenly shivered: he experienced a momentary sensation that he didn’t understand because no one on Earth had ever experienced it before. In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth. On Earth it is never possible to be farther than sixteen thousand miles from your birthplace, which really isn’t very far, so such signals are too minute to be noticed. Ford Prefect was at this moment under great stress, and he was born six hundred light-years away in the near vicinity of Betelgeuse.
The barman reeled for a moment, hit by a shocking, incomprehensible sense of distance. He didn’t know what it meant, but he looked at Ford Prefect with a new sense of respect, almost awe.
One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in It’s a nice day, or You’re very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you all right? At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behavior. If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months’ consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favor of a new one. If they don’t keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working. After a while he abandoned this one as well as being obstructively cynical and decided he quite liked human beings after all, but he always remained desperately worried abut [sic] the terrible number of things they didn’t know about.
“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
“The argument goes something like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.’
“ ‘But,’ says Man, ‘the Babel fish is a dead give-away, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. [...]’
“ ‘Oh, dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
“ ‘Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next pedestrian crossing.”
“Yes, do continue…” invited the Vogon.
“Oh…and, er…interesting rhythmic devices too,” continued Arthur, “which seemed to counterpoint the…er…er…” he floundered.
Ford leaped to his rescue, hazarding “…counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor of the…er…” He floundered too, but Arthur was ready again.
“…humanity of the…”
“Vogonity,” Ford hissed at him.
“Ah yes, Vogonity—sorry—of the poet’s compassionate soul”—Arthur felt he was on a homestretch now—“which contrives through the medium of the verse structure to sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other”—he was reaching a triumphant crescendo—“and one is left with a profound and vivid insight into…into…er…” (which suddenly gave out on him). Ford leaped in with the coup de grace:
“Into whatever it was the poem was about!” he yelled.
This is a complete record of [the sperm whale’s] thought from the moment it began its life till the moment it ended it.
Ah…! What’s happening? it thought.
Er, excuse me, who am I?
Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life?
What do I mean by who am I?
Calm down, get a grip now…oh! this is an interesting sensation, what is it? It’s a sort of…yawning, tingling sensation in my…my…well, I suppose I’d better start finding names for things if I want to make any headway in what for the sake of what I shall call an argument I shall call the world, so let’s call it my stomach.
[…] What’s this thing? This…let’s call it a tail—yeah, tail. Hey! I can really thrash it about pretty good, can’t I? Wow! Wow! That feels great! Doesn’t seem to achieve very much but I’ll probably find out what it’s for later on. Now, have I built up any coherent picture of things yet?
“You want to check your legal position, you do, mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job, aren’t we? I mean, what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives you his bleeding phone number the next morning?”
“That’s right,” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”
“I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
“But it was the Great Question! The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything,” howled Loonquawl.
“Yes,” said Deep Thought with the air of one who suffers fools gladly, “but what actually is it?”
A slow stupefied silence crept over the men as they stared at the computer and then at each other.
“Well, you know, it’s just Everything…everything…” offered Pouchg weakly.
“Exactly!” said Deep Thought. “So once you do know what the question actually is, you’ll know what the answer means.”