Communicator (communicator) wrote,
Communicator
communicator

riff

Tenser said the tensor sounds like my kind of blog. He announces that it will be about the interface between linguistics and science fiction, and such issues as "The problem of maintaining continuity in long-running multi-author works (like comic books and television shows)"

The most interesting entry so far is about H Beam Piper's short story 'Omnilingual'. In this story, a team of Earth archaeologists are attempting to reconstruct the language of an extinct 'Martian' civilisation from textual samples only , and lacking any Rosetta Stone which cross-references to any known language. They are after the meaning of the texts not the pronounciation.

If you haven't read the story you may like to try and deduce a solution to this problem.


They use the periodic table, which is a constant between the two civilisations. They therefore discover the Martian words for Hydrogen, Helium etc. and this gives them enough textual content in other scientific text to work out from there.

It helps BTW to know from outside this story that in Piper's wider imaginary world the 'Martians' are actually human beings from an earlier diaspora. I find this additional fact makes the story more plausible, as I think it is hard to imagine whether other beings would conceptualise the organisation of matter in the same way that we do. Of course 'hydrogen' is the same stuff everywhere, but would alien beings conceptualise it as a little ball (an electron) flying around a bigger ball (a proton)? Would they even have a digital number system like us? And even if a different civilisation conceptualised microscopic matter as we do, would they lay it out as a 'table' with columns and rows?

All in all I am not convinced by the story, but it is one I have often brought to mind over the years, because I think it gives the brain a good work-out.

NB Tenser asks a further question - with the computing power available to us nowadays, could we somehow abstract order from a vast textual collection, even without the 'clue' of the periodic table? I wonder.
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