Monday, November 17, 2014

On Xenolinguistics and Snow

Guys.  Guys.  I am reporting live from a third-floor window in Ohio, where there are *multiple inches* of snow on the ground.  This is not a drill.

There is snow ON THE SNOWMEN. 
Up is down. Freedom is slavery.  Ignorance is strength.
There are many wonders in this foreign land.  In the past three days, I have driven on ice (and not died), attended services at my New Favorite Church (and not not-cried), paid a toll for driving on an Interstate (and felt Eisenhower rolling in his grave), parked on the lawn like a mannerless double-wide Visigoth because I couldn't see the curb for all the leaves, eaten insanely delectable quorn kimchi, gotten from somewhere to somewhere else in less than ten minutes, and experienced firsthand the power and majesty of a well-tuned ukulele.  This kind of thing is liable to happen when you work with a linguist who is smart enough to craft languages for your books, but dumb enough to tell you where he lives (and let you spend a weekend living there too.  Thanks, Jason!)

And y'all, I'm just so geeking out about all the wordomancy we did together.  I love that the fishmen have a human racial slur that translates to "belly button".  I love that Vuchak uses men's speech and Weisei doesn't, and now I know what that sounds like.  I love that ei'Krah now has words for deer-haggis and the drowning song and a "bite the bullet" expression that sounds like AND means "suck your teeth", and even though 95% of my readers will never notice or care, *I* know all those things are there, and someday somebody is going to discover them and love them to pieces.


You can't love any of our cool new language stuff until Medicine for the Dead comes out next year, but here is an amazing thing that you can love RIGHT NOW.

You see, there are not one but TWO genius linguists living in this Midwestern house of miracles, and the one who didn't stay up 'til 1AM crafting past-particles with me was in fact freshly returned from the SETI Institute, where she gave a presentation on xenolinguistics.  That is a great, smart, scholarly-sounding term for a thing that we actually know nothing about – namely, alien languages.

But let me tell you: just because we are wallowing in ignorance doesn't mean we can't have a phenomenal conversation about it.  I'd often thought about the Han and Chewie problem – you know, what it would be like to have mutual intelligibility, but lack the anatomy to actually speak the other person's language – but Sheri brings up an even more dire possibility: what if we just don't have the brain-wiring to understand each other at all?  Like, think back to Helen Keller, and how enormously difficult it was for her to first realize that the sensations she experienced with one hand were linked to the signs that Annie Sullivan spelled into the other.  As Sheri says, we need that "oh, that's what we're doing here!" epiphany before we can connect the things/ideas/actions/qualities to the sounds/signs/smells/colors/temporal-disturbances that name them.  The notion that we would have trouble communicating is not a new one to me – but the idea that we might not be capable of realizing that someone is trying to communicate just blows my mind. 

After all, people who can't speak or write or sign in the usual way have been enormously creative in finding ways to communicate with the muggle world.  Think about Stephen Hawking's voice synthesizer, or Jason Becker's grid-alphabet, or the book Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote by blinking his left eye.  So many times, we have moved heaven and earth to connect with each other – but none of that can happen until we realize that there is another mind to connect with.  (And now I'm thinking of Odo from Deep Space Nine – an infant shapeshifter whose natural form is a fluid, and who spent years being tortured by a curious, well-intentioned scientist who never realized that the goo in the glass was a sentient life-form.)

Though there is always hope for the next generation.
Anyway, this-all isn't meant to sound as gloomy as it does: after all, anticipating challenges is a great first step to recognizing and overcoming them.  Definitely, definitely check out Sheri's presentation for all the wonder and wisdom that this blog post is so lacking, and stay for the questions afterward.  Should animal communications ever count as language?  When it comes to intelligent life in the universe, is our sample size really n=1?  If it's so cold that wiper blades routinely freeze to their windshields, are humans flaunting God by living here?

I'll work on that last one and get back to you.  Stay warm in the meantime, e-friends – I'm off to go learn how to wear a scarf!

Do you like it?  Does it smell good?  Does it have teeth?


  1. He's teaching his baby for form different shapes!

    1. And it is ADORABLE. Why limit yourself to "mama" or "dada" when you can greet the world with "rectangular prism"?

  2. What always gets me is assuming aliens are even going to be vaguely humanoid. E.T.s are just as likely to be some methane based form that communicates in stench clouds as it is a bi-pedal human with blue skin with vocal chords. I blame Captain Kirk for the necessary "doability" of the alien forms most people imagine.

    1. Oh, we gotta go at LEAST as far back as Buck Rogers, Tom Corbett, and of course, Captain Proton... !

      But yeah, it's only recently gotten easier to do TV aliens who aren't just nose putty and forehead appliances. Movie aliens have always been good at pushing the envelope, though - The Abyss, District 9, Alien... actually, come to think of it, don't most sci-fi disaster/invasion movies have wildly inhuman aliens? (What does that say about us, eh?)

  3. This post is so full of geeky coolness that my brain just exploded. Seriously, brain goop everywhere. (Someone's gonna have to clean that up.)

    1. Annie, I can only imagine that your brain-goop is something like peppermint-cyanide pudding. If that's so, then it will be my life's last delight to suck it out of the throw-pillows!

  4. Do you wanna build a snowman?


    1. It doesn't have to be a snowman!

      (But if it is, I will find a way to get chocolate on it.)