Communication In The Inky Blackness Of Space

by Mina

Code 46 is a little-known dystopian SF film bursting with good ideas, but what concerns us here is that woven into the film is a lingua franca or global pidgin. The DVD I bought in Germany includes a glossary of pidgin words (“kleines Wörterbuch der Code-46 Zukunft”) with elements of Spanish, French, Italian, Persian and Mandarin mixed into the English used in the film, for example:

                al fuera (“bastardised” Spanish) – the outer world, outside the State-controlled cities

                coche (Spanish) – car, taxi

                khoda hafez (Persian) – goodbye

                ni hao (Mandarin) – hello

                papeles (Spanish)– papers, a visa to the outer world

                par avion (French) – by plane

                ti amo (Italian) – I love you

                vite (French) – schnell

This blend of languages reminded me of “Sabir”, a pan-Romance lingua franca or pidgin spoken in the Mediterranean (mare nostrum) by sailors and traders in the Middle Ages over five centuries (15th – 19th), which was a blend of Italian (Genovese), Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and French (Occitan), with some Arabic, Greek and Turkish influences. The name came from the question “sabir sabir?” (do you know Sabir?). The speaker would speak the simplest form of their own Romance language and throw in shared pidgin phrases with basic grammar (e.g. using the infinitive form of the verb instead of conjugating it), such as:

                mi intender/ablar/sabir/sentir – I understand/speak/know/hear

                ti /ellu/ella/noi/voi/elli pensar/tazir – you (sing.)/he/she/we/you(pl.)/they think/be silent

                mi non pudir venir subito – I can’t come right away

                come ti star? / mi star bonu – how are you? / I am well

                mi andar poco poco in la casa del Signor M. – I’m going slowly to Mr M.’s house

I actually found a basic Sabir course on the internet, which allowed me to construct these phrases. This led me to ask myself what an interstellar lingua franca or pidgin could look like.

Before going further into what a common language might resemble, I had a quick look at how many “invented” languages I could find in SF. The answer was, surprisingly, not very many. The most well-known constructed language is of course Klingon in the Star Trek (ST) universe, but much has already been written about it. A less well-known fictional tongue is Drac, a language invented by Barry B. Longyear in his novel Enemy Mine (which later became part of a trilogy, along with The Tomorrow Testament and The Last Enemy). The film made of Enemy Mine is a highly watchable SF “B movie” but lacks the depth of the book, which is truly excellent SF (and which wanders into the realms of Sci-Phi as the trilogy progresses and Longyear builds on Drac philosophy and politics). We will focus here on Enemy Mine, The Author’s Cut.

Longyear is no Tolkien, so you are not presented with a whole language system, but there are a couple of hundred words that recur (rarely going beyond short phrases). All in all, the author has done a good job, in particular with how he ties the language into Drac culture, religion and philosophy. Being an SF and language geek, I was very happy to buy the omnibus edition (The Enemy Papers) on my kindle including the trilogy, an article on devising your own language (“On Alien Languages”), excerpts from the Drac holy book (the Talman) and a basic Drac-English-Drac dictionary. I did laugh when Longyear stressed in his article that he chose Drac names and words that his reader could actually pronounce (no clicks, trills, hyphens or apostrophes). And his language began by inventing an insult hurled by the human protagonist (Davidge) at the Drac protagonist (Jeriba Shigan) right at the beginning of Enemy Mine: “In a matter or mere paragraphs, the human and the alien are both speaking pigeon (sic, should be “pidgin”) versions of the other’s language, in addition to trying to survive”. Longyear tells us in his article: “It always bothers me when, in a SF film or story, beings who evolved on worlds thousands of light years away from Earth all speak English like Lawrence (sic, should be “Laurence”) Olivier”. The author is not a linguist, and he openly admits it, so he invents a straightforward language; it is how he uses Drac in his novels where things become really interesting.

In addition to giving us an accurate image of two beings initially communicating in a pidgin mix of both their languages (Gavey? Ae, I understand), as they learn each other’s languages properly, the author shows us that Davidge has truly mastered Drac when he learns to speak, read and write “high” Drac to be able to study and memorise the Talman, and to be able to recite Jeriba Shigan’s lineage. When Davidge returns to Earth years later, he meets only prejudice against the Dracs, even though the two races are now supposedly at peace. As a protest against the anti-Drac propaganda all around him, he replies to the customs official only in Drac. Later, travelling to Drac, Davidge meets prejudice from Dracs because he is human. At first, he pretends not to understand Drac but finally loses his temper with a particularly obnoxious Drac retorting in fluent Drac with an insult that also shows his understanding of Drac culture. The Number Two on the vessel persuades Davidge to apologise for the insult not because he treats him like a human but because he treats him like a Drac with a deep understanding of Drac religion and philosophy. Above all, what is a rare pleasure in Enemy Mine is that the human protagonist is, at the beginning of the story, barely able to articulate himself emotionally or spiritually, and he learns to do both from the alien, making a nice change from the human superiority trope when encountering alien civilisations.

The SF film Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s novella, Story of Your Life) shows us aliens who communicate using elaborate symbols (semagrams, i.e. semantic symbols (pictures or glyphs) associated with concepts). The main protagonist and interpreter in the film version, Louise Banks, masters the alien language when she realises that it is a language that is not spoken in a linear fashion but in a circular, all-encompassing fashion, allowing the speaker to experience “memories” of the future in the past. Louise of course then single-handedly avoids the outbreak of interstellar war using her new linguistic skills. The language presented in the novella itself is more complex and not constrained by the need to create tension to captivate film audiences (although the film does capture the aching sadness of the novella). In Ted Chiang’s story, Louise concludes that the heptapods have two languages because their speech (Heptapod A) and writing (Heptapod B) are independent of each other, with Heptapod B being semasiograhpic (i.e. not based on speech utterances but on symbols). In the novella, the focus shifts to communicating through Heptapod B, where it transpires that the heptapods do not write a sentence one semagram at a time but draw all of them simultaneously, suggesting that they know what the entire sentence will be beforehand. And here the novella and film do meet when postulating a language based not on causality (i.e. sequential events) but on teleology (i.e. all events are experienced at once or, rather, the purpose of any statement is interchangeable with the premise behind it).

No world war is avoided in the novella, but Louise accepts with courage the inevitability of the events in her future that she has been “remembering”. Louise comes to the conclusion that her new way of experiencing consciousness through Heptapod B negates free will, but she does not perceive this to be negative: “freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion”. For her, language has become performative in that, although she knows what will happen in her future, it does not become a reality until she has said/thought/acted on it. Based on Fermat’s “principle of least time”, i.e. that a light ray takes the shortest path from A to B when it passes through water and therefore “knows” its destination from the very start, Louise muses: “From the beginning, I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly. But am I working toward an extreme of joy, or of pain?” The most interesting thing about Heptapod B is that it changes the way in which Louise (and the reader) thinks. Woven into personal tragedy, Heptapod B haunts us after the last sentence is performed.

Heptapod brings us halfway to imagining an interstellar lingua franca beyond words. In John Wyndham’s novella Chocky, twelve-year old Matthew’s imaginary friend turns out to be an alien consciousness who, among other things, teaches Matthew to count using binary code. C.J. Cherryh takes this idea even further in her Foreigner series, where the alien Atevi languages are heavily influenced by arithmetic (e.g. to form plurals) and have a philosophy based on numerology. Some numbers are felt to lack harmony, whilst others are felicitous: the glossary at the end of the first Foreigner book contains the word agingi’ai meaning “felicitous numerical harmony”. Cherryh does not just imagine a language that functions in a radically different way but also an entire culture based on man’chi or “primary loyalty to association or leader” rather than on the human understanding of affection. Political allegiance is not anchored in territory but on man’chi and assassination is a legal means of settling disputes (when intent is properly filed). The main protagonist Bren Cameron is a human interpreter or paidhi who speaks the Atevi language spoken in the association that has a treaty with the human enclave on the planet. He is responsible for maintaining and updating the dictionary, and observing and reporting on social change (more specifically the transfer of technology from the human enclave to the Atevi in exchange for peaceful coexistence). In the first book, he becomes the focal point of a haronniin (“accumulated stresses on the system, justifying adjustment”) through an unsanctioned assassination attempt, lacking in biichi-gi (“finesse”). His youthful arrogance and mishidi (awkwardness, not understanding the allegiances of those around him) become tempered with experience and real understanding for the alien mindset as the first three books progress.

We could therefore imagine a lingua franca based on mathematics or teleological symbols. I must admit my non-mathematical linguist brain balks at this idea and would much rather imagine a lingua franca based on telepathy. In the ST universe, for example, we have the Vulcan mind meld first used by Spock in the original ST (an example of touch telepathy) and telepath-empaths like Deanna Troi in ST The Next Generation (NG), a half Betazoid who can sense strong emotions. Both forms of telepathy do still seem to be, at least in part, word-based. One of my favourite ST NG episodes “Tin Man” includes a sentient spaceship (Gomtuu) that communicates with a full Betazoid (Tam) at a speed that would suggest communication beyond words. There is also an episode of ST Voyager “Remember” where communication (accidentally) occurs through dreams. B’Elanna Torres learns of Enara’s shameful past history through the memories of an Enaran transmitted to her telepathically in her sleep. And dreams are tied much more to images and emotions than to words.

One of the advantages of telepathic communication would seem to be its instantaneous nature. In Ender’s Game – the “Buggers” (perceived as the enemy for most of the book and almost completely annihilated in an intergalactic war) communicate instantly with each other through telepathy. The humans create a communication device (ansible) to communicate instantly across space like the Buggers do. At the end of the book, the last Bugger queen (in pupa form) communicates with Ender telepathically (and Ender realise that the Buggers had tried to communicate with him before through the “mind game” he played as part of his training). Through this telepathic communication, Ender understands why the war happened and that it could have been stopped; he pledges his life to bringing an almost extinct civilisation back to life, in penance for his role in the mass genocide.

Certainly, imagining an interstellar lingua franca based on telepathy or mathematics is more fun than H.G. Wells’ fascination with C.K. Ogden’s “basic English” as a possible universal language, with a vocabulary of 850 words that are in common use divided into operations (100), things (400 general and 200 “picturable”) and qualities (100 general and 50 opposites). The most interesting words are the “operations” which include words with grammatical functions, e.g. verbs are reduced to 16 simple operators (come, get, give, go, keep, let, make, put, seem, take, be, do, have, say, see, send) and two auxiliaries (may, will) by relying on combinations formed by these operators with prepositions (e.g. “go in” for “enter”), adjectives (“get ready” for “prepare”), nouns (“give pain” for “hurt”), etc. It is not clear how far H.G. Wells believed in a universal, simplified English for communication in the world of the future, but he did feel that a living language would work better than an artificial language like Esperanto (I discovered his interest in such things in an article written by Sylvia Hardy, A story of the days to come: H.G. Wells and the language of science fiction). In his opinion, successful communication was crucial to be able to establish social cohesion because language structures the thinking of any community and shapes its view of itself and the world in which it exists. Many of his stories are reflections on the breakdown of communication leading to a breakdown of social order, or at the very least lack of effective communication being a symptom of dystopian worlds.

Having taught business English for several years in Germany, I felt that most students found it a chore because “international English” is often taught in a cultural vacuum. English may be the international language of commerce today, but there are many variants of English: British, American, Australian and Indian, to name but a few (and there is that English that is spoken in a room with not a single native speaker in sight). As a language teacher, I insisted on including culture in my business English classes. Bored students would come to life when I would ask them to analyse the accents in the first twenty minutes of Love Actually and what their accents tell us about each character’s class, education and origins. They would laugh their way through the beginning of Everything is Illuminated and throw themselves enthusiastically into the task of working out why the interpreter’s English was wonderfully strange (i.e. full of anachronisms, with a complete lack of respect for collocations and register). That said, I am not interested in a form of Basic English taking over the galaxy; I would simply like to see more SF authors imagining what interstellar communication could look like, particularly if it is not limited by words. Sci-Phi is most fun when it marries anthropology and philosophy in universes where aliens are truly alien, not just in their appearance but in their way of thinking.



Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

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