Xenolinguistics – The Intercultural Barrier (Part 1.5)

Xenolinguistics – The Intercultural Barrier (Part 1.5)

In my last post, we explored the impossibility of successful communication with the first aliens we make contact (unless they are Hollywood aliens, which are all fluent in English). Before diving deep into the aspect of culture in the next post, which is vital in inter-species understanding, I’d like to give a short pause and share a freshly-written, absurd flash fiction piece I wrote to give a brief glimpse of what I think might happen in the event that humanity makes contact with an inter-galactic race. Let’s see what happens:


8 minutes 44 seconds in Earth time. The final stronghold fell much easier than its definition suggested. It was strategically a terrible location to fend off the final assault for the remaining few Orgics that had chosen to hole up here– weak concrete walls that could easily be bashed in, inviting, thin metal sheet reinforced glass doors, with no booby traps inside and all. 

Lost deep in his own, proper stronghold of thoughts, Captain Anders lingered through the main hallway, pushing aside the scattered glass remnants of the display cases on the floor with the side of his boots after each step. The Orgics had chosen to sacrifice their lives for whatever those fragile containers housed. What could be more important than life? Still preoccupied, Captain Anders hadn’t noticed he was standing right in front of a shattered glass door. He gently pushed the massive crack barely holding up in the centre with his gloved hand and watched the remaining glass fall and break into smaller pieces beneath his feet. So fragile! Then, it made sense a bit-  the last of the Orgics weren’t the military type as those were the ones first wiped out. What would they know about fortifications? Anders bent his head slightly and passed through the doorway.

Anders was greeted by Lieutenant Orrin once he entered the main room where a 10-feet marble sculpture of an orgic freshly riddled with bullet holes stood.

“We’ve secured the place,” Lieutenant Orrin said. 

Captain Anders saw the dead bodies of half a dozen Orgics piled up in a far corner. “Any survivors?”

“One, but it’s in a bad shape,” Lieutenant Orrin pointed at the giant statue. “Fought well trying to defend this. Didn’t leave its side.”

“I am guessing this one was too heavy to move.” Anders touched the feet of the giant statue and drove his hand up. It was hard and cold… just like death. “Why sacrifice life to save something so lifeless?”

The lieutenant shook his head, but Anders didn’t notice. His gaze was still fixed on the the colossal hardened form. “Take me to it.” He finally said, first prying his looks, then his touch away from the statue.

The small storage room had nothing but a wobbly metal chair in the centre. On it, was a loosely tied female orgic. Judging by the severity of her wounds, the loose ropes were there for her not to fall off the chair rather than prevent her escape. She had a couple of hours of life in her at most. Maybe less.

Anders lifted her chin up and saw the diminishing light in her empty gaze. Time was of essence and he had to pick the right questions to be able to make sense of the orgics’ purposeless actions. “Why?” He asked. “Why did you sacrifice your life for a heap of stone?”


Laura looked up and came into direct contact with the android leader’s blinking crimson eyes. She knew she was dying fast, and there was nothing else left the android could threaten her with to get answers. Besides, how would she be able to describe an alien concept to an alien race in the very limited time she had left? How could she explain art to those that never experienced it? On one note, the android seemed familiar with the concept of ‘sacrifice’ as it was the word it’d used. But, sacrificing one for other lives was one thing and willing to die for inanimate creations of their own doing was another. Besides even if she were able to make a little bit of sense, would it not get lost in translation on the way from the AI underlings to the alien masters? The androids were highly adaptable. They were the foot soldiers created to learn and adapt… To do the dirty work of their masters. And that adaptability alone caused Earth to fall in under a week: Thousands of live Trojan horses, dealing the unexpected final blow to the unaware human race. But, the whole dagger and cloak thing wasn’t to take humanity by surprise, it was merely to learn and record a race that was to be annihilated for good. The events of the past week started playing in Laura’s mind… 

The androids were sent to Earth by their extraterrestrial overlords. Humanity has always been naïve in thinking we would make contact with the real deal alien entities, but just as automobiles replaced horse carriages and factory workers with machinery on Earth, it was only logical to think dangerous space exploration or planetary invasions would be made remotely with easily controllable androids from the comfort of their spaceships by galactic conquistadors. The droids were a form of liquid machinery disguised in flesh that could take any shape and blend in for planetary missions and sadly, copying the physical appearance of humans were not that challenging for the creations of a far superior intergalactic race. The whole invasion happened in under a week and didn’t even requiring probing. Without humanity even noticing, the droids learned everything about humanity to ease off the invasion.  Well, learned about almost everything… culture and art wouldn’t make any sense to them even if they stayed concealed on Earth for a millennia. They had never had art. Nor culture!


“Why?” Captain Anders roared in frustration of the fact that a lowly race had secrets they weren’t able to figure out.

“Art… Culture…,” Laura mumbled in pain. “It’s what makes us human.” With her last breath, she wanted to make them understand that humanity was something to be preserved rather than destroyed. She’d always thought art was universal… literally… They would understand. They had to. The ropes holding Laura tightened as her head dropped down. 

Upon arrival, the droids learned that art was a way of expression and imagination of the human creative skill, and paintings or sculptures were the byproduct of… art. But, what exactly was ‘Culture’?

Anders looked at Lieutenant Orrin for collaborative brainstorming. The definitions he got by connecting to the planet’s database were conflicting. But, that wasn’t surprising. The Orgics spoke languages based on conflict. A stronghold didn’t always mean a difficult place to take over, yet he clearly heard an Orgic mentioning this place as one. They had names for non-existent concepts like god, religion, soul, magic, ghost, monster… and he would never understand why they used the same word to describe existent but unrelated concepts or things. For instance, among other meanings, ‘Coach’ meant both a ‘large wheeled transport to carry a large amount of people from one place to another’ and a ‘trainer in sporting events’. There seemed to be no logical connection. 

Orrin started speaking; giving definitions of the term ‘culture’:

“The manifestations of human intellectual achievement-“

“That can’t be it,” Anders cut in. “Not worth dying for something you can recreate. Besides, humans are not the intellectual type.”

“The ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular-“

“Not a chance. Creating a stone representation of yourself isn’t really an idea… as for social behaviour, there’s no scientific explanation to why they keep producing things that would never give them benefits.”

“Perhaps, it gives them benefits,” Orrin said. “We weren’t able to fully analyse them, yet.”

Anders shook his head. “They have 3D printers to create such things quicker and more efficiently. If one gets lost or broken, replication shouldn’t be an issue. Yet, they are willing to die for their own creations that can be recreated easily.”

“Thinking in Orgic’s way and speaking in their language affects my line of thinking and reasoning, is it necessary as I fail to understand even what you’re saying.”

“You know that total immersion is the best way to learn,” Anders coughed to clear his throat, which he felt no actual need to do so.

“I think I got it,” Orrin said. “It must be this one… maintain tissue cells, bacteria, etc. in conditions suitable for growth.”

Anders paused for a minute before speaking. “Have we detected any living organisms on… art?”

“Yes,” Orrin nodded. “Not on the newer creations, but older art is sometimes covered by vegetation and there’s also moss growth in time. It’s basically their breeding grounds! They ensure survival through inter-species transformation.”

“That’s it,” Anders agreed. “I am sending the report now.” He remained motionless as his eyes fluttered at intervals while compiling the final report.

And, a moment later he sent it. The final report that reached the outer ring of the 3149-R planet, read:

“The Orgics have found a way of immortality through creating lifeless representations of themselves and other things. Naturally induced tissue cells and bacteria are carefully preserved on these creations, only for them to spring out as a different life form in the future. This makes it possible for them to completely alter their DNA for a more suitable life form. Further study is not needed. Requesting permission to go on to the next planet.”

Transformation of the human DNA? or just plain old moss?

—- The End —-

Xenolinguistics – Deciphering the Impossible? (Part I)

Xenolinguistics – Deciphering the Impossible? (Part I)

It’s always been mind boggling how humans in sci-fi movies could communicate with Hollywood aliens whether they’ve come to our planet in peace, or just for the kicks of a planetary invasion. I’m well aware that it’s just for the sake of viewers’ getting the hang of the plot, but the ease of communication and getting fluent in alien language in less than an hour of screen time, is still an illogicality that doesn’t make any sense, just like extraterrestrial beings speaking with a distinctive English accent. A massive, interstellar galactic federation consisting of hundreds of super advanced alien races with the universal language being standard American English is yet another cosmic mystery.

A still from a great sci-fi movie: “Guardians of the Galaxy – Vol.2”, where the design of different alien races suffer either from lack of imagination and creativity or the fact that some people just watch these for the humanoid cast.

Xenolinguistics is a hypothetical subject which is basically the study and research of the languages of never-encountered-before extraterrestrial beings. Surprisingly, despite the missing extraterrestrials, xenolinguistics has been becoming more and more popular among linguists over the past decade. Surely, without ever encountering an alien race, allocating time and resources seems like a fruitless effort, but it might also be wise to brainstorm beforehand and be prepared to solve several issues likely to come up regarding the first contact with our very first aliens. For instance, the idea of using toddlers, who are just learning to speak, to communicate with aliens upon first contact, rather than expert linguists is the byproduct of such brainstorming. These toddlers would be the perfect candidates for picking up language in a natural way, as they’re just figuring out how to receive and give information in a world less known and somewhat still alien to them.

Perhaps imaginary friends in childhood are in fact aliens in disguise. Image Credit: Thrive

There is a fat chance that we will not even be able to communicate with aliens (unless they are gray and from Hollywood) through conventional methods like the use of sound, gestures, mimics, writing, mathematics or visuals. What if the first ones we meet are an advanced galactic race of invisible blob-like organisms that communicate through smell, giving bursts of different smells at various intervals to chat about a vast amount of subjects from interstellar travel to cosmic small talk. Will we even be aware of their presence, let alone communicate?

Before venturing into the depths of the universe to have a chat, isn’t it a better idea to solve the inter-species language barriers in our own tiny world as we aren’t the only intelligent life forms inhabiting this planet? (And, yes, I believe animals have intelligence, it’s just different from ours.)

Let’s have a quick peek at the communication patterns and our efforts in communication with the different species of our own planet… the ones (meaning all) we yet to decipher fully:

  • The meows! Kittens only meow to let their mothers know if they are cold or hungry. Once a kitten becomes a cat, they stop meowing to each other, and only meow to humans to get attention, let us know they are hungry or just to say welcome home. The irony is that they are the ones attempting to communicate with us…
  • The round dance and the waggle dance of honeybees is used to convey the exact distance, the direction and the quality of the pollen source discovered, to other honeybees. Yes, we’ve figured this one out, but understanding the method and even the meaning of communication between the members of a different species is very different from two species initiating communication with each other. You may think we are far more intelligent than honeybees therefore, there’s no need for us to communicate with them, but it’s another irony as far more intelligent extraterrestrials that might visit us in the future might think the same way, and just refrain from communicating with us.
To bee or not to bee!
  • Speaking of intelligence, dolphins excel at intelligence-based tests, are capable of complex problem solving, can individually learn and pass on their new knowledge to their young. They are also highly social and certainly do have a language consisting of a series of clicking sounds and whistles. So, have we attempted to communicate with them? Nope. At least, not in ways we are determined to communicate with equally intelligent extraterrestrials.

Just admit it, we will never be true horse whisperers in a literal sense with this attitude.

Perhaps, the first aliens we encounter would be pale humanoids? And somehow believe that sharing similar physical features is the key to bring down the intergalactic language barrier. It would really be easier to wave our arms, nod or just point at things! Or we could always try writing, drawing or typing in binary codes on a computer screen. If you think that can work, I suggest we have a look at our own world history and face the fact that we are far from deciphering most ancient forms of communication… ancient human writing, but let’s start with the ones we could decipher to lift up the spirit:

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics is one… but it still was an indecipherable tough cookie until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone which was a slab bearing three scripts carved in two languages (serving as translation): Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Greek… So, it was more thanks to the efforts of translators rather than linguists (xenolinguists) that we were able to crack ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Ancient Babylonian was deciphered more or less the same way; using ancient Persian as a reference in bilingual texts…

So, on most occasions a reference source, a key, was needed to decipher an unknown writing system… and even after that it took years to decipher some of these ancient scripts created by and cracked by the members of the same race! As Yuri Knorozov, the linguist who cracked Mayan hieroglyphs once said:

“What is created by one human mind can be unraveled by another!”

Yuri Knorozov

So true! But, how about what is created by an unknown alien race? Can it ever be unraveled by us?

It’s a tough question as there are still ancient writing systems and languages in our own human history that is far from cracking like;

The Harappan script of the Indus Valley Civilization is suspected to use the Boustrophedon style, written from right to left in first line and from left to right in second line meaning the alternate lines were reversed, sometimes with reversed letters.

Reverse Boustrophedon, where the text in alternate lines was rotated 180 degrees rather than mirrored, just like Rongorongo, the writing of ancient Rapa Nui, which we could only decipher the direction of the text but are still mostly clueless about the content.

Image Credit: How Reverse Boustrophedon looks like in Modern English by Kwamikagami

All these culs-de-sac were encountered in the attempts to decipher human originated scripts… now think about extraterrestrial language or writing systems! And, then add the effect of culture on top of that as culture, influences language greatly and it can never be ignored.

In the next post (Part II), we’ll look into how cultural elements influenced Earth languages up to now…

Non-Native Language Teachers versus Native Language Teachers

Non-Native Language Teachers versus Native Language Teachers

mapEnglish2

In an ever globalising world like ours, you can be born anywhere on the sphere (Perhaps, Antarctica is a less likely destination but still… there are plenty of places to be born on our planet.) You have an instant advantage in becoming the master of your culture and native tongue the moment you are born. You begin learning your native tongue without even being aware of the process. It’s total immersion.You do not even remember learning how to speak it, read it or write it. It’s almost automatic like breathing.

Breathing!

The first action we learn right after being born! Every soul born, masters it in just a few seconds. Everybody is excellent at it… We can easily say that we are all native breathers! Now, imagine that you are hired as a native breathing-instructor to teach how to breathe to a bunch of newborns (and just for the fun of it, imagine that they cannot learn it by themselves). What would you do? How would you even start? What would your first instruction be?

Open your mouth and suck in air through your mouth or nose???

In theory, being a native and having it done a zillion times, you should be an excellent teacher at Breathing – 101. However, that’s not the case, is it? Think about Albert Einstein or Dr.Michio Kaku (if you want a more contemporary example)! Did they start gaining scientific knowledge right from the time they were born? Were they native physicists? The answer is a big “no”. But, noone can claim that they are (or would be) “not so competent” in teaching Physics, can they? We should look at the non-native language teachers the same way. There may be marvels among us (language teachers) who will always fall behind in job hunts just because we are not passport holders of a country that we are teaching the language of. Having mastered the target language for decades will not put you in front of a native candidate (in a job application) who has no experience in teaching! Sometimes the label is more important than the content.

I have no intention of offending native language teachers in this article, but don’t we at least, deserve an equal chance in professional life? Below are some points which might make non-native language teachers a choice at least:

Non-native language teachers…

* have gone through a similar learning process as their pupils and can identify the tough parts in learning the target language and take precautions…

* can explain unexpected questions about grammar points as they have not learned it unconsciously unlike native teachers…

* can adjust their level of English according to the students’ level and communicate much easier with them…

* are more intercultural and aware…

* have better sppelign, speeling, splenig….spelleing…. (or maybe I should leave this one out)

I want to know what you think. Please comment!!!

Why we like what we like

As technology keeps developing, we start drifting away from other individuals of flesh and blood close to us, trapping ourselves in prisons of solitude of our own doing (like social media…and oh! The irony!). Soon, we realize what we are desperately looking for… ; being connected to others in the first place, creating a weird dilemma … perhaps strangers but people…to real people who are geographically distanced hundreds of miles apart.

Our quest to find such connections has also affected the language we had been using for ages in unimaginable ways (though if I’m writing it here, it’s imaginable). 

The term “selfie” is a good word to demonstrate how much we progressed in terms of being connected to others; the society. 

The verb/slash preposition “like” nearly became more commonly used in its “noun” form in an overnight with the sudden impact of the social media like (here it’s a preposition) Facebook, Twitter and instagram. As we started liking (and here it’s a verb) weird looking babies’ pictures along with photos of cats, we started enjoying the impact of being liked by people whom we have never met in person. Then, the number of “likes” (and here it’s a plural noun) started to matter. Some people even paid (or still pay) money to purchase virtual followers or automatic likers. The quality of the content we like has also degraded from real works of art to masterpieces of rubbish that our stranger friends post daily. We like to be liked and this makes us proud somehow.

Here are the specifics of a social experiment I did a while ago: I posted the picture below on one of my social media accounts without a caption and guess how many “likes” I got?

38 likes within minutes…Wow! Maybe I do have some artistic qualities I’m not aware of.

P.S: Hit the like button for this article to honor the content and I’ll like one of your…err…stuff you posted online. 

The mystifying power of letters, sounds and words

What’s your favorite letter in the alphabet? 

It may sound like a weird question but I believe everyone has that one favorite letter and people are drawn to it whenever they hear its unique sound that sets off a tingle in the soul.

Mine is the letter “o”. It has always been. I love  how it’s articulated more than its round shape and marvelous curve, so it’s not physical attraction obviously. It’s much deeper.

Check out some of my favorite words in English regardless of their meanings: Parasol, Pastoral, Aroma, Slope, Mountain, Mojo, Oyster, Coral and Loo. And have you ever heard a more beautiful preposition than “Over”? They all contain the letter I have always been in love with even though not every combination works out for me. The word “telephone” repels me instead. Perhaps, I have heard it countless times from other people, strangers around me and it doesn’t feel special, unique and not only mine anymore. 

I can never explain my attraction towards “o” but here’s a theory; all the words that have great significance for life, have it inside somewhere: Oxygen, Love, Soul, God, Women, People, Booze, Bacon…

And the names “Zoe”, “Monique” and “Olivia” have always drawn me to their owners.

Weird but my first girlfriend ever, who was not that attractive other than being a redhead, was the proud owner of the name “Rosemary”.

 

Before I finish… I want to mention how I find new music to my taste: I just Google (another sexy word) music, scroll down names of unheard bands and click on the band or the song name that attracts me. You’ll never believe how that will work out for you. If I hadn’t done that I would have never enjoyed “The Mojo Men”, “Voodoo Sex Stuff”, “Coeur de Pirate” and “Katja Vandl”.

The moral of this article? 

From now on, pay attention to the people you meet, the new words that you encounter and their names and see who or what you are attracted to, to find your own favorite letter or sound.

The colors of colors

What color is the sky?

It’s light blue when clear and cloudless…

Bright red at sun dawn…

A different shade of orange at sunset…

Pitch black with tiny bright white dots at night…

White when it snows…

And even green when northern lights make an appearence in the Arctic night…

How about trees? Do they have green leaves and a brown body? Or is it something we were taught in our infancy?

Nature doesn’t have one color per each creation. There are endless color combinations there but do we lack the vocabulary to describe each hue?

Homer described honey as green, and sea as the color of champagne. The words for color he used in his works never got more various than a simple black and white mentioned hundreds of times, with a tad of green and red appearing once or twice. Was he colorblind? Can honey be green? Can seas be the color of champagne? The color blue was not mentioned even once in his works. Since it was never mentioned that he was criticized about how he perceived colors in his time, should we assume that the whole ancient Greek population was incapable of distinguishing between colors?

Or are we still colorblind in the modern era in such a way that we have compound nouns that do not represent the colors of that we have in mind; is white wine, white? Are blackberries, black? Even a blackeye isn’t black.

Is it the evolution of the human eye or the creation of synthetic colors that created this confusion?

For more detailed insight, I recommend you read the first chapter of “Through the Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher…

It changed my perception of perception. 

Valencia diaries VII – The merry people of the city

image

What makes a city, a city? Although the unfolding, lengthy beach at the foot of the city helps, it’s not that. The answer is simply its people; the ones living in it and livening it up and giving it a soul.

Imagine a city where people greet their closest friends and strangers they’ve never met in the same fashion; with smiling faces and firm hugs. You can almost touch the sincerity in the air when you hear the musical word “Hola!” exchanged between complete strangers. Try saying it with a sulking face and you’ll discover that you can never do it. The face muscles won’t allow it. Not in Valencia anyway. English is spoken very little to none. Connecting to people with zero aid from language, befriending them with pure emotions, is indeed priceless. The term “language barrier” never exists there. Perhaps, this is because the city houses a mix of cultures; it’s a tiny mosaic from a world map of diverse nations.

On one of my upcoming blog entries, I will describe every single person that has made a positive impact on my life there, not because I don’t want to forget them (which will never happen) but because I want the whole world ( or the people who read my blog) to meet them. (The idea sounds boring for people who don’t know me or them but you can always choose not to read one blog entry) 😉