INT – DAY – Officers mess
Helton sits, staring at the book, absently stirring a cup of tea. On the table-top (the whole thing of which is a screen) appear snippets and pieces and tables of text, some in English, some in the Futhark- and Bengali-like letters of the Planet-Mover text. More is scattered about on wall screens. He closes his eyes, rubs them, and leans back in his seat tiredly, sighing in frustration.
Helton: (quietly to himself, just as Allonia walks in) Damn holes!
Allonia: How’s it going?
Helton: Making progress, but every step gets slower.
Allonia: Slower? I’d think the more you knew, the FASTER it would go.
Helton shakes his head, ruefully.
Helton: Math and physics are pretty straightforward. Progressive in very logical steps. If you have a good idea what they are going to be talking about, making good guesses is easy. Same for the chemistry – atoms, molecules, stoichiometry and reactions, physical properties. Language is not just WHAT you think, but HOW you think. No need for words about things you don’t think about. That’s why children get so frustrated sometimes – they don’t have words yet to express their feelings and vague thoughts. Teach them language properly, and they can think clearly. Math and science are pretty universal, so it’s like drawing a straight line. It’s funny that they have both upper and lower case NUMBERS, though.
Allonia: I don’t follow.
Helton: Upper case for known, certain, counted, or exact values, lower case for approximations, rounding, or estimates. Kind’a cool, and it tells you something about how they view the world. They are EXPLICIT about how much they know about something when they put a number on it. Pi, for example, ALWAYS ends in a lower case number, because it’s irrational and goes on forever. THAT’S the one simple thing that took us a while to puzzle out. Neat, but no human analog other than putting on explicit error estimates on every number, which is kind of awkward. Allows inferences on numbers and whether they came from experimental or theoretical processes, or are statistical data.
Allonia: So why is it slowing down?
Helton: We are missing things from the grenade hit. But as much as that, there are some subtleties that we are definitely missing, because they appear to be using words we don’t have an exact analog for, so we either have to use short gross approximations, or use really long better guesses. But…
Allonia: Such as?
Helton: … What does “dinosaur” mean?
Allonia looks taken aback, and frowns, shrugging her shoulders.
Helton: Does “terrible lizard” sound familiar?
Allonia brightens at the common phrase, and nods her head in recognition.
Allonia: That’s right. Quinn said that a while back, I think. Also said it wasn’t quite correct.
Helton: Leave it to a kid to know about dinos. He’s right. That’s the common way it’s translated, but it’s a really bad translation.
Allonia: Why? Sounds pretty good.
Helton: At first glance, maybe. The root, deinos [DAY-nōs], is a Greek word we don’t have an English equivalent for. It means potent, powerful, glorious, awesome, but in a way that is uncontrollable or terrifying. Sort of fearfully great. Gods and titans were deinos. Humans were deinos. It means a LOT more than simply “terrible.” We are running into things that we suspect have simple but woefully incomplete English analogs, as well as a lot that are pretty straight-forward. Nouns like “planet” are easy. “Heat” is easy. “Tragic love” like Romeo and Juliet, or “honor?” Not so much.
Allonia: Ah… See what you mean.
Helton: It’s also got a case system, similar to Latin. Ten declensions at least, so there are different forms of a noun, depending on if it’s the subject, object, possessor, possessed, and so-on. I think. At least 25 verb forms for sure, no irregular ones. Also explicit is that any sentence is a statement of fact, question, assumption, hypothetical, and so-forth. Same for past, present, possible future or definite future event. Elegant, exacting, no apparent exceptions, but not very poetic. There is exactly one way to say “the boy threw his ball.” And you know explicitly that it either is a current event happening NOW, or a past event, and whether the ball was actually HIS by ownership, or just in his possession at the time.
Allonia looks at him like she doesn’t quite get it.
Helton: In English, is there any difference between “the boy threw the ball” and “the ball was thrown by the boy”?
Allonia: Noooo… Don’t think so. Well, one is possibly past tense, or at least very… passive? Haven’t studied grammar in a while.
Helton: Teaching, I fought with grammar all the time. Do you know if it’s happening NOW, or in the past, just from the words, the first way?
Allonia shakes her head.
Helton: In this language, there are a slightly different forms for those two possible meanings, and only seems to be one way to say each one, so it’s very hard to misunderstand something. An honest lawyer would LOVE this language. Contracts would be easy to write explicitly, clearly, and short. A dishonest lawyer would HATE it – no ambiguity to weasel around with.
Allonia: What’s that tell you about THEM?
Helton: If it’s their native language, I think I’d like them a lot. Honest. Exact. Clear. But it MIGHT just be a created language for establishing inter-species communication. Kind of a coincidence that there are some obvious binary bases, like 512 total symbols. 12 digits, 52 letters, upper and lower case for each. 128 basic letters and numbers, 384 symbols for the math and science.
Allonia: WOW. That’s a lot!
Helton: Not really – about the same as English, plus all the Greek alphabet, and normal science and math symbols.
Allonia looks like she doesn’t believe him.
Helton: Symbols for degree. Greater than. Equal to. Plus. Minus. Divide. Square root. Parentheses. Apostrophe. Quotes. Brackets. Integral. About a hundred just for set notation. The letter “i” gets used for imaginary numbers, electrical current, irradiance, inertia-
Allonia: -Yeah, yeah, OK, I get the point. So, what’s your best guess, then, with a heaping side-order of caveats and maybes?
Helton: Top line, literal, is “appear when all done”. In English, “we, the Planet Movers, will reveal ourselves to you, the readers of this, when you have shown you have done all of the following things.”
Allonia: I see what you mean. Like the short version, understand the long one.
Helton: Exactly. The next line we’re pretty sure about. The “≡” more or less means “as shown by” or “as demonstrated by”, and the “ʘ” means “thus it is proven,” or Q.E.D. They use them in proofs. “Master science and engineering, demonstrated by reading this”. The “Master” word is troubling, though. I’m pretty sure it has a LOT of nuance that I’m missing. Basically, you have to know enough of science and technology to achieve FTL flight, which you MUST have done to get to the stars, find these inscriptions, and translate them, so by virtue of the fact that you are reading this, you MUST have FTL and have a pretty good understand of science and engineering. Simple enough concept. Sort of a non-interference clause with technologically primitive cultures.
Allonia: OK, makes sense. But the other three lines DON’T have that circle-dot thingy, so we haven’t proven them yet, right?
Helton: That’s the assumption. The other three are a pain. Assuming “master” is right, and I’m not sure it is more than an approximation, like deinos meaning terrible, they are “one person master one person,” “one person master all people,” and “master war.” Maybe. Not a blipp’n clue what the other side is. Not even sure what the left side means.
Allonia: Well, master war is clear enough.
Helton looks at her skeptically.
Allonia: Well, it means you don’t fight any more. Right?
Helton: But not fight any more WHY? Can’t? Don’t want to? Don’t need to? No more enemies? Why not mean “be really good at it?” Or “everyone is a soldier?” Or “fight all the time?” Or “conquer all other known races?” Or “no wars in at least three generations?” Or “practice all military technologies and styles?” I mean, they DO have swords and spears surrounding the inscription. And how many people fighting, for how long, is considered a “war” as opposed to just a brawl, or kids growing up? There is vocabulary, syntax and grammar, and there is meaning. And the answers (he gestures to the grenade-damaged pages in the book in front of him, poking his finger into the middle of the missing pages) are in a hole-y book.
Fade to black
And, just because I mention Latin declensions, I feel obligated to add this little bit
Latin sounds a lot easier. Maybe this one is more like Finnish (15 cases, if I remember right).
Neat. Rolf, have you ever read John Chadwick, “The Decipherment of Linear B”? Nice short book about how Linear B, a script for which the language was not known, was solved in 1953. Wikipedia also has a good summary. It’s not quite the same problem but there are similarities.
Haven’t read that particular book, but I’ve read blurbs on Linear B before, as well as the “rediscovery” of other languages. There are still some ancient languages that haven’t been translated, and may well never be simply because of a lack of samples (only only fragmentary ones at that). Noun cases have their good points and their bad points, and if it is exception-free is has great power to add clarity and conciseness to speech and writing. A great book on that and other language-related weirdness is “the unfolding of language” by Guy Deutscher.
Like I said, I wanted this to be an educational story. A bit of gun safety here, a bit of language there, perhaps a bit of science elsewhere.
Yes, inflectional languages have a lot more freedom in word order, for example. Latin poetry uses this (or, students who have to deal with it might say it abuses that feature). Explaining that aspect of language is tricky for an English speaking audience, since English has very little of this while many other languages have far more. I’m not sure how well you did; I’m not a good one to comment because English is not my native language and inflectional languages (starting with German) are very familiar.
To be honest, the only language I speak is English. I’ve read a fair bit about language history and theory over the years, enough to get an idea how different ways of doing things reflect how a people think, and a vague insight into all the different ways things CAN be done. Some fascinating stuff out there, even without getting into body language and non-verbal communication. Things like stories about some native Americans (who had no written language) eating books (page piece by page piece) trying to gain the knowledge of what’s printed on the page, because they had absolutely zero comprehension of the concept of a squiggle representing a sound representing words representing ideas.
In light of recent revelations about the NSA, the IRS, and the surveillance society, I was just thinking that my near-the-beginning scene of Helton going through security and getting screwed isn’t that far off in the future. We almost have the technology NOW, and we certainly have the poor judgement, low intelligence, and perverse incentives in the security forces already. I figured we had at least a couple more years, yet.