Daily Archives: August 18, 2019

Talk like a post-human

A followup to Talk Like a Neanderthal Day

Thinking about how Neanderthals might have talked is one way to get at language evolution and how language works. Another way to do this is through science fiction. I’m not thinking so much of constructed languages like Quenya, Klingon, or Dothraki. There are whole communities of people out there – conlangers – busy inventing and learning such languages; some fun introductions are here and here. But mostly these languages are meant to fall within the range of variation of existing human languages. I’m thinking instead of some science fiction stories that imagine more radical alterations of language.

For example,

The Persistence of Vision. John Varley (1979)

A few decades into the future, the United States is falling apart. A drifter stumbles into a community of deaf-and-blind “Kellerites” who are doing pretty well for themselves in the New Mexico desert. They communicate partly by spelling out things in handtalk. “By handtalk I mean the International Manual Alphabet. Anyone can learn it in a few hours or days.” But Varley recognizes that handtalk is not a real language. For a real language the community uses shorthand. “Shorthand was not code for English or any other language; it did not share construction or vocabulary with any other language. … Each word was something I had to learn and memorize separately from the handtalk spelling.”

The Kellerites are fictional, but sign language is not. In Talking Hands, Margalit Fox (who also writes obituaries for the New York Times) writes about a Bedouin community in Israel with a high incidence of congenital deafness. Deaf kids there have spontaneously come up with their own sign language. This is a real language, not derived from Arabic or Hebrew, with soundless “phonemes” that are combined to make signs that are more-or-less arbitrarily paired with meanings to yield words that can be combined into phrases and sentences according to rules of grammar. A nice detail: deaf babies exposed to sign language will start off “babbling” with their hands, just as hearing babies babble by making sounds. The human Language Acquisition Device (Chomsky’s phrase), an “instinct to acquire an art” (Darwin’s phrase), will work with whatever material it can get ahold of.

gnome chomsky

So Varley gets a lot right; I suspect he did some research on sign language for this story. If the deaf-and-blind ever did form their own community, and come up with their own language, it would be a full-blown language a lot like his shorthand.

On the other hand, this bit, with the Kellerites merging verbal intercourse with the other kind of intercourse, is a little over the top:

But talk was talk, and if conversation evolved to the point where you needed to talk to another with your genitals, it was still a part of the conversation.

Or, as Eliza Doolittle said, “How kind of you to let me come.”

Gulf. Robert Heinlein (1949)

A tightly written spy tale, set a century or two in the future, where the United States went through World War III, went communist, and then got over it. It reads like a James Bond story as written by Francis Galton. The protagonist learns that there is a secret community of super-geniuses, who call themselves New Man (an allusion to real-life super-genius John von Neumann? By the way, “Neander” also means “new man”). They work behind the scenes to keep humanity safe from itself. This sometimes involves some antifa vigilantism: “ ‘Two weeks from now there will be a giant pow-wow of the new, rejuvenated, bigger-and-better-than-ever Ku Klux Klan down Carolina way. When the fun is at its height, when they are mouthing obscenities, working each other up to the pogrom spirit, an act of God is going to wipe out the whole kit and caboodle. … Sad.’ ”

And New Men have their own super-language, Speedtalk. Speedtalk violates one of the key design features of real languages, the duality of patterning. Real languages have one level of meaningless phonemes combined according to rules to make syllables (so spy fits the sound pattern of English, but psi – if you try to pronounce the p – does not). One or more syllables are then arbitrarily paired with meanings to make words, and then there is a second level where another set of rules determines what combinations of words make grammatical phrases. Even sign languages work this way.

But Speedtalk instead has just one level, pairing up individual phonemes with meanings. This is quite a stretch. In real languages, the inventory of words is orders of magnitudes greater than the inventory of phonemes. But Heinlein tells us that adding variations in length, stress, and pitch is enough “to establish a one-to-one relationship with Basic English [800+ words] so that one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire word in a ‘normal’ language, one Speedtalk word to an entire sentence.”

There’s more to Speedtalk than this. Heinlein was very taken with an intellectual fad of his time, General Semantics. General Semantics hovered somewhere between a serious intellectual endeavor and complete crackpottery. Firmly on the crackpot side of the line is Count Alfred Korzybski, who gets a chapter in a debunking book by Martin Gardner. Korzybski’s magnum opus Science and Sanity is all about how reforming language is the key to creating the first truly rational civilization. This means the verb “to be” has got to go. As Heinlein puts it. “One can think logically in English only by extreme effort, so bad is it as a mental tool. For example, the verb ‘to be’ in English has twenty-one distinct meanings, every one of which is false-to-fact.”

Entertaining, but silly. The score today is: “to be” 1, General Semantics 0. If you want some real semantics, Pinker beats Korzybski.

The Citadel of the Autarch. Gene Wolfe (1982)

This is Book Four of a tetralogy. Millions of years in the future, Earth has sunk to a medieval level, albeit littered with bits and pieces of advanced technology indistinguishable from magic. Wolfe really, really likes to have you figure things out, instead of telling you, but you can work out that the action takes place in South America. An endless war is going on against the Ascians, a totalitarian state to the north ruled by the Group of Seventeen. An Ascian prisoner of war tells a story, constructed entirely of canned slogans, while another character, Folia, interprets.

It starts off like this

The Ascian began to speak: “In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone.”

Folia interpreted: “Once upon a time …”

“Let no one be idle. If one is idle let him band together with others who are idle too, and let them look for idle land. Let everyone they meet direct them.  It is better to walk a thousand leagues than to sit in the House of Starvation.”

“There was a remote farm worked in partnership by people who were not related.”

“One is strong, another beautiful, a third a cunning artificer. Which is best? He who serves the populace.”

“On this farm there lived a good man.”

“Let the work be divided by a wise divider of work. Let the food be divided by a just divider of food. Let the pigs grow fat. Let the rats starve.”

“The others cheated him of his share.”

And so on.

Of course the story and its interpretation are fanciful. A functioning language has to be more than a collection of stock phrases. But the story illustrates something about the way real languages work. People don’t just communicate by encoding and decoding literal meanings, but by inferring one another’s communicative intentions, always thinking “I wonder what he meant by that.” There’s a whole branch of linguistics, linguistic pragmatics, that studies how this works. And pragmatic inference in language is just one instance of a special, powerful human aptitude for creating shared intentions. This aptitude means that there are always ways to subvert official speech, in any language, even Ascian or Newspeak. Or Korean: the news several years ago was that North Korea had banned sarcasm.

Officials told people that sarcastic expressions such as “This is all America’s fault” would constitute unacceptable criticism of the regime.

Gene Wolfe was a combat veteran of the Korean War. He died this year.