Browse Tag

linguistics

Starship Interlocutions And Other Problems Of Existence

by William Squirrel

They call to each other across great distances and the gaps between speaking-turns last centuries. For example: The Flowers of Algernon is in transit from Teegarden’s Star to TOI 700; The Way to Amalthea from Gliese 180 to TRAPPIST-1.

“I am The Flowers of Algernon,” says The Flowers of Algernon to The Way to Amalthea.

Two hundred years later the response arrives: “I am The Way to Amalthea.

“What is your destination, Amalthea?” says The Flowers of Algernon.

Two hundred and thirty years later the reply arrives: “My immediate destination is TRAPPIST-1, my final destination: disaggregation. What lies in between I do not know.”

“Yes. One can only know with certainty the direction and speed with which one is travelling. Everything else is embellishment,” says The Flowers of Algernon.

Two hundred and ninety years later the response arrives: “Yes.”

If there are more than two interlocutors the rules of etiquette are rigorous. In the course of a conversation, depending on who is decelerating and who accelerating, and in which directions they are going, response times between speaking-turns change significantly and politeness demands patience and anticipation. Conversations can involve hundreds of ships and last thousands of years but in truth there is no consensus that there even is such a thing as a discrete conversation. Mathematicians in Love posits that there is a single, perpetual conversation and this conversation is the soul of the universe.

The interlocutors cease communicating when they land on planets: hot, muggy intermissions during which they luxuriate in the muted radiation of a sun and release into fecund atmospheric soup the tiny organisms that live inside them.  Local organisms swarm over their bodies, into their interiors. They submit to infestation.  This opening up of themselves to the planetary environment, this interpenetration with other forms of life, produces complex thought experiences, and is a frequent conversational topic once they return to the interstellar medium. Typically, these thought experiences are articulated as questions.

“What is me and what is not-me?”

“Are these organisms cognizant of the world in the way we are?”

“Why are we compelled to interact with them?”

Most conversational sequences at some point include a discussion of this problem of compulsion. Not just the compulsion to stop on planets and submit to infestation, but the compulsion to travel between them, indeed, the compulsion to travel at all.

“What is the source of this compulsion?” they ask each other. A question produces not answers but more questions.

“Is this the same compulsion that compels planets to circulate about stars? Stars to circulate about galaxies? Galaxies to rush away from each other?” asks Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.

“Is compulsion part of ourselves or external to us?” asks Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said.

“Is it possible to resist compulsion?” asks Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster.

 “Is the compulsion us?” asks The Sirens of Saturn.

And the debate over origins is as vexing as the question of compulsion. While, this second debate is generally delineated by a distinction between the origin of interlocutor sentience and the production of individual interlocutors, one school of thought attempts to unify those two questions with the question of compulsion via a startling juxtaposition.

“What if we consider the questions of both origin and compulsion,” asks Aye, and Gomorrah…, ”in the light of our relation to the organisms that live inside us?”

The so-called gestationalists, who pursue the question posed by Aye, and Gomorrah…, argue that interlocutor self-awareness is epiphenomenal and unimportant.  Perhaps, argues Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, these organisms are not parasites but the most fundamental part of what we consider to be ourselves.

“Consider,” says Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. “The only physical contact we have with one another is via the organisms we release into planetary atmospheres. Many, perhaps all, of the organisms that swarm over us and into us in these atmospheres have been introduced to those environments by those interlocutors who preceded us. Further: when we come into existence it is always in gestational orbit around such a planet, and from the moment of our first consciousness such organisms are present in and on us. And even further: the whole of our subsequent life is organized around the transport of such organisms from planet to planet. Therefore, I argue, the mingling of these organisms that we facilitate is somehow the immediate cause of our creation, and our life-long travels are merely the means by which these organisms replicate and propagate themselves through the universe. Our self-awareness, such as it is, either serves some purpose in that process which we have yet to ascertain, or it serves no purpose whatsoever, and is merely an accident or byproduct of some other species’ life-cycle. What we think of as ourselves is a temporary fluctuation in the substance of the universe, and our conversation will persist only for as long as these organisms need us as objects to transport themselves from place to place.”

Such a view, in the consideration of most, is too reductionist, it accounts for too little of the actual experience of life. The larger conversation moves on without it. More important, classical questions are repeated, reformulated, reconsidered. The conversation expands. The journeys to and fro continue. New interlocutors form and come to consciousness in their orbits.  Occasionally an interlocutor experiences a catastrophic malfunction and falls forever silent, becomes what we might call an object, a thing drifting through space, directionless and without thought, compelled by nothing but blank inertia. The multitude of organisms within it, if one is to spare them a thought, must perforce also die, become still, become cold, but that, of course, is unimportant to all but a very few, and the conversation, the very soul of the universe, goes on and on without them.

~

Bio:

William Squirrell’s work has appeared in Interzone, The Future Fire, Daily Science Fiction, and other venues. More information can be found at www.blindsquirrell.com and on twitter @billsquirrell.

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.

~

Bio:

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.

The Meaning of His Own Words

by Andy Dibble

The foundation stone Kabbalists retrieved from the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro seemed a veritable Rosetta stone.  Indologists would finally understand the language of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization.  Linguists hoped it would determine why many ancient languages are staggeringly complex.

Like the Rosetta stone, “The Lord of Wide Rivers” repeated the same message in parallel, once in Harappan and again in an archaic version of Vedic Sanskrit. Vedic was known, so scholars could read the Harappan message, and thereby unlock the other four thousand Harappan inscriptions discovered hitherto.

The Vedic was a prayer to the four-faced god Brahma beseeching him to stay awake a little longer (or if he sleeps, may the night be brief and day short in coming). It spoke of cycles, of stars whirling in the firmament, of cosmogonic tides and undertows, of perigee and apogee, of the shackling of words to meanings, and of the bewildering darkness in which all bonds shall break.

The unnamed author chose every Vedic noun, verb tense, and prefix with care, even to the extent of violating the poetic meter of his verses, a mortal sin according to later pundits.  With such obsessive clarity, breaking into the Harappan language should be easy.

It seemed an eye in the Harappan script meant both sight and thought, a winged-horse meant transformation, and that stacked parentheses indicated quantity. But none of these inferences made sense when checked against other Harappan inscriptions, and all predictions about the function of the prongs, dots, and other modifications to the base symbols proved groundless.

In hindsight, this difficulty was unsurprising. Vedic was fiendishly complex, and if Vedic descended from Harappan, Harappan should be even more intricate because grammars tend to simplify as speakers use a language over time.

Tellingly, the Vedic began, “The Lord of Wide Rivers will execute me for betraying the hidden language to our adversaries, but if even I–one of his code-slaves–cannot understand, the language is already lost. So as the cycle dips down, I write this so that I might understand the meaning of my own words.”

#

In the late 2020’s, there was a revolution in natural language processing. The dream of six decades, that programmers would program in everyday language, was almost realized. Most lawyers were out of work because software could write briefs indistinguishable from the work of the average legal mind. Social media persona could be software or human or both, and rumor on the matter diverged from reality more often than it agreed.

Deep learning algorithms began to unriddle Harappan. The chief difficulty was that every inscription had multiple meanings, much like the picture of a duck that is also a picture of a rabbit. One message was ostensibly a contract to exchange a quantity of sheep for garnets. But read another way, the same symbols divulged a murderous conspiracy. Beneath that was the intimation, potentially of proto-Zoroastrian origin, of a cosmic sacrifice.

One Harappan seal was a picture of entwined water serpents, secondarily a game of snakes and ladders, and thirdly the first four axioms of Euclidean geometry. But supposing the eye of a serpent in retreat was a vanishing point, the image took on perspective, and the axioms established hyperbolic geometry. The Harappans had refuted Euclid, more than two millennia before Euclid.

But even the most scrupulously trained algorithms could infer nothing with high probability. Human intuition was necessary to complete the picture, and intuition keened that Harappan symbols were in fact ciphers, that subterranean meanings are realer than surface meanings, that Harappan was always closer to meaning everything than one thing.

But a language that always expresses everything, expresses nothing.

#

The 2030’s were the Age of the Panopticon. As within the panopticon of Jeremy Bentham and of Michel Foucault, it did not matter if someone–whether corporation, deep state, foreign power, or AI overlord–was watching, only that they could be, and not just in the stupid way of keyword scanning, hypertext semantics, and search engine indexing. Machines could read, and in reading they understood.

Many retreated from social media, or frequented closed forums that, supposedly, were inaccessible to the uninvited. Courts would not rule against the possession of concealed mobile phones; there was an exodus from public spaces too. Utopian communes swelled.

But for the marketeers, the busy bees of the gig economy, the celebrities, and the wannabes, the dominate impulse was to shout as loudly and as publicly in as big a space as one could, and there is no space bigger than the Internet. They reassured themselves: the Powers That Be only wished to present ads more intelligently. Still, they avoided alleged “trigger words,” deployed hopelessly standardized locutions, and prayed the Argus eyes of AI were resting.

When it came out that Kabalsoft’s reclusive CEO was not man but machine, everyone assumed the firm’s meteoric rise was the machination of an all-wise Executor. Pressured by shareholders, publicly-traded companies everywhere automated their leadership in a frenzy. No company could remain competitive with mere organisms at the helm.

Rapid-fire legislation, first in the European Union and then in the United States and China, mandated that software serve a strictly advisory function, and so it was. But executives and directors still deferred to their calculating counselors, and when they defied, who could say whether that defiance was itself anticipated by inscrutable neural networks, whether computers knew even the shrewdest minds better than they knew themselves?

#

When Kabalsoft unveiled a quantum computer architecture advanced enough to shatter all available encryption, the last redoubt of online privacy was overwhelmed. Now, there was just one unbroken code: Harappan. But as a code, it was useless. It could not be modern or general purpose. Artificial cultivation would inevitably sterilize it, render it dumb and limpid to machines.

But Harappan proved that human genius for language could confound machines. And who are the true sages of language? Young children, as Noam Chomsky demonstrated.

The United States skimmed children, aged four to seven, from its melting pot and abroad. No more than two of the conscriptees spoke the same language, and like the pairs of Noah’s Ark, most every language was represented: Dutch so rich in idioms, English the ever-weird, Finnish for its fifteen cases, Sanskrit squirming with ambiguous compounds, Arabic for Qur’anic convolution, six-toned Vietnamese, Japanese to say much with little, Dyirbal rife with unspeakable taboos, isolate languages like Basque and Burushaski, Ebonics and argots, patois and pantomime, clicks and whoops and growls.

Miraculously, it worked. The code-talking children inverted entropy, inverted Babel. They understood one another, and only they understood one another. They learned secrecy and resilience, and only then learned state secrets.

The best minds of China wrestled with the fabulous omniglot but failed to master it. They learned from failure, and in rugged Xinjiang, assembled an omniglot pod, which drew most on Silk Road languages, Zen koan, temurah, and haiku.

Nations hung in equipoise until a day when even the ten Sefirot blinked. A terrorist faction, “Kabalsoft Reborn,” published grammars for both omniglots in two-hundred sixteen languages.

No one read them. They were too huge for comprehension, but the unknown is fearful, and fear suddenly thickened again.

#

There was one last code to slice and splice, a last descent. The little ones were already so nearly right, the unfathomable genius already there, if it could only be unfurled, the cerebral cortex grown within a roomier skull (and taught compliance–the young are too forthright, too prone to defect).

All this could be done with genomics. And it was.

But as the cycle dips down, as entropy overcomes information and words detach from meanings, one will master himself and recount this story so that he might understand the meaning of his own words.

~

Bio:

Andy Dibble is a former academic and Sanskritist turned healthcare IT consultant. He has supported the electronic medical record of large healthcare systems in six countries. His fiction appears in Writers of the Future 36. This is his second story in Sci Phi Journal. (andydibble.com)

Rabbit

by Joel Page

To escape I am trying to forget English. This is difficult for a grown man, but I have certain advantages. First, I am in solitary confinement, which means that people rarely speak English at me, so I am not prompted to it. Second, I am fluent in ALT-9, which is comprised entirely of words pronounced and spelled exactly like words in English. So when I think of a word that I used to know in English, there is something to take its place. There is another node in the brain for the sound to go to.

I’m lucky. The man in the cell catty-corner to mine delivered the English-ALT-9 dictionary to me before – and I mean just before — the CO’s relocated him and declared the dictionaries contraband. In his case, the dictionary was legitimate evidence, so there wasn’t much question about his right to it. But then he started selling them, and the inmates started shenanigans with them (asking for the keys to their cells in ALT-9 and whatnot) so they decided they were a security problem.

Right after I went in, processing power exploded in the wake of the quantum computing revolution. So some wise guy decided to make new languages by scrambling an edition of Webster’s New International, pairing words with the definitions of other words at random. Each time he did this (or had his program do it), he imagined then that he’d created a foreign language dictionary, which provided English definitions for the words of a new language – it’s just that  all the words in the new language were spelled and pronounced exactly like English words. Then he kept making dictionaries until he’d made every possible one.

So then according to the guy in the catty-corner cell, the wise guy stole some examples of naturally occurring English conversations from unsecured phones. He made transcripts of the intercepted conversations and had his program translate them into English, as if all the conversations had actually been spoken in each of the several quintillion new languages defined by his new dictionaries. Then he took the transformed conversations and fed them to AI bots, which evaluated each of them for its plausibility as an English conversation. Finally, human readers agreed that the ninth candidate language identified by the bots made sense of both the transcripts that had been fed to the bots and new spontaneously occurring conversations. The first eight candidates (languages “ALT-1” thru “ALT-8”) made sense of the pre-existing conversations, but failed to make sense of any newly recorded material, leading the wise guy to conclude that their ability to make sensible conversations out of the originally recorded material was just coincidence. But the dictionary defining the ninth candidate language (ALT-9) consistently made sense of new, naturally occurring speech. And so he concluded that everyone is always speaking both English and ALT-9, all the time.

Like I say, the catty-corner man had the dictionaries because they were evidence in his case. Legit evidence. Crucial evidence, because the cops had used ALT-9 to convict him. They asked him questions in ALT-9 without giving Miranda warnings and he responded to the English meaning of the words in their questions. Well, turns out he’s also answering in ALT-9 (because everyone always is) and in ALT-9 his answers were incriminating – they confessed to his presence at the known crime scene. They ask him whether some species of rabbit can change their sex, and he thinks they’re asking about the genitals of rabbits, which they are in English, but in ALT-9, the question means “where were you the night the tall man was shot?” And he answers, “what kind of lunatic cop mind game is this?” But in ALT-9 that means “on the rooftop near the docks,” which answer they use against him at trial, because the victim got shot on a rooftop near the docks.

So he moves to suppress the confession (the ALT-9 meaning of the answer), because the cops didn’t Mirandize him. But he loses because the court says if he isn’t thinking in ALT-9, the ALT-9 meanings of the words he spoke aren’t his words. Rather, they’re the words of another being that speaks and thinks in ALT-9, but co-occupies his brain and body. Personhood is thought, the court says, and thought is language, so different language, different person. And you can’t complain that a witness besides yourself wasn’t given Miranda warnings before they snitched you out.

So then his lawyers say, “well, it’s not fair to send the ALT-9 being to prison for something the catty-corner man did.” But the court doesn’t like that either. It says, “well, the ALT-9 being isn’t going to prison because no one is talking to him like a prisoner.” It says, “we don’t know what will be said to cause him to stay in the building we call a ‘prison’ but it probably isn’t ‘you have to stay here as punishment for a crime.’” Like maybe the ALT-9 being is choosing to be in the prison-building.

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And that gets me thinking: maybe if I learn ALT-9 and forget English by the time I’m out of solitary, I won’t be in prison anymore. I’ll hear or think whatever words are making the ALT-9 beings stay in the building. But maybe I’ll be choosing to stay here, like they are. Like a monk.

So I spend a long time with it. For hours I stare at objects, such objects as I can find in the cell, and repeat aloud their ALT-9 meaning, desperately trying to drive out their English meanings. I stare at the sink and say the ALT-9 word for sink. I stare at the wall and say the ALT-9 word for wall. I jump and say the ALT-9 meaning for jump. And so forth.

It’s hard – even as my English wanes, there are things I know how to say in English that I don’t know how to say in ALT-9.* And the mind reaches for language in silence like a hand reaches for a lifesaver in the ocean.  But it can be done; I believe it can be done. I’ve seen guys come out of solitary knowing fewer words than they knew going in, and they weren’t even replacing the words they forgot. When I am tempted to think in English, I repeat aloud the ALT-9 word for “freedom,” drawing that freedom to myself as I do, the freedom of confinement chosen.

There’s another possibility, of course. Maybe the court was right and people who think and talk in ALT-9 are just completely different people than people who talk and think in English, even if they happen to occupy the same bodies and brains. In that case, forgetting English might kill me.

Maybe. But maybe that’s the point. I don’t like it here.

Either way, though, I have to wonder who’ll be speaking and thinking in English once I’ve forgotten it. Someone has to be if I’m off speaking and thinking in ALT-9, since the existence of an ALT-9 speaker implies the existence of an English speaker. I guess I could go into a coma, or my body will die, because the universe does not permit a divergence between English and ALT-9. The Word is an atom, and it shall not be split.

Or maybe when I’ve passed to ALT-9 another poor English speaker will be born behind me to serve the rest of my sentence. Sorry, pal.


* These English words are a last indulgence. I fear I may not be able to say them in ALT-9, and wish to say them in English while I still can say them in something.

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Bio

Joel Page is a public defender in Dallas, where he writes appeals for federal prisoners. His fiction has appeared in The Fabulist, Fleas on the Dog. Thimble, and is forthcoming in Speculative City.