In Metropole, the 1970 novel by Ferenc Karinthy, a linguist named Budai traveling to a conference in Helsinki boards the wrong plane and finds himself in a country whose language, despite all his training, he can’t begin to parse. Budai tries out a variety of common languages on hotel staff, with no success; he starts posting signs in different alphabets, only to see them ripped down. He spies what looks to be a phone directory, swipes it, and does the rational thing: he sets about writing down "all the different characters he could find" and calms himself with the thought that once he has a restricted range of data, he can start deciphering their writing system and find his way back home to his wife and young son. But "he soon realized that he had noted over one hundred characters and that he was still discovering more."
Metropole isn’t just about language–or rather, it is, but it gathers other systems under the rubric of language as well. It has been said that any cosmopolite could parachute into a new city and decipher its main features and transportation system instinctively. But in Metropole, Budai looks in vain for any sort of system that could direct him to a train to the airport: "He looked for intersections between lines, those circled stations that appeared more important, since in every major city the metro service was directly connected to the main railway routes." No luck. He can’t decide exactly where on the world map this city might be: "the majority of people here seemed to be of mixed race or at some transitional point between various races like that Japanese-looking, slant-eyed, young woman with light blonde hair and slightly Negroid lips." He gets himself arrested in hopes of encountering a translator through the legal system, but as we might expect by this point, that is no system either. He’s reduced to wondering if he’s even on planet Earth. He tries to recall what he knows of celestial navigation to determine his latitude.
Karinthy, himself a linguist, was born in 1921 in Budapest to one of the most difficult mother tongues in Europe. His sympathy is keen, then, as he tracks the progress of Budai’s logic, factoring all the variables that a linguist would juggle: should he read the newspaper left to right (like Hungarian), right to left (like Arabic), horizontally (like Hungarian) or vertically (like Chinese)? What if it is in boustrophedon (like ancient Greek)? He starts to look for articles: statistically probable, short recurring words. But when he doesn’t find any, he remembers that in some languages (like Romanian) end-signs take the place of articles, and in other languages (like Russian) there is no article. Numbers elude him: "Maybe there were several words for the same number, just as in certain languages the figure 0 can be indicated by nil, zero, nought or even love?" On the crowded street trying to navigate, he realizes "maybe they employed the kind of name that did not need a qualifier, such as the Strand and Piccadilly in London, Broadway and the Bowery in New York, Rond-Point in Paris, the Graben in Vienna and the Korond or the old Oktogon in Budapest." Even the attempt to isolate common words on street signs is a dead end.
Budai abandons his attempts to decipher the written word and decides "to keep his ears open" even though the phonetics of this language is so tricky he can’t seem to hear the same word the same way twice. He falls into bed with the elevator girl at his hotel, whose name he can’t quite pin down, and of course he discovers that intimacy is its own sort of translation machine. After making love, she begins talking sleepily, and even though her language is incomprehensible, it is suddenly transparent: "He could almost follow her speech, the rough drift of it anyway, the rest of it–the details–probably being pretty commonplace…. It was all coming out now: her life at home, how unbearable it was, how crowded the place with relatives, dependants, uncles and aunts, not to mention the two children from the husband’s first marriage."