Eons, as I typed it, made me think of Valentine Michael Smith. I'm not sure why -- probably because the Martians, the real Martians, in Stranger In A Strange Land lived so long. Or maybe because it's late. Who knows? I spent most of my night acting out scenes from Monster House with Mr Bunches and tickle-fighting Mr F. It's not like I'm logical at the end of the day.
Or maybe it popped into my head because of the Martian Language in Stranger. Specifically, how once people learned to speak Martian, they would be able to do some of the amazing things that Mike was able to do -- telekinesis and I think telepathy and the kind of control over his body that let him shape it or perform minor tricks and I believe he could heal it.
One of the things I like about that -- and one of the things that makes it more remarkable than a simple replacement code like the Futurama alien alphabet that began this -- is that it makes me think about how powerful the letters and words are that we use. I've often heard people say that they learned to think in another language, something that's always eluded me. I've learned (at various times) Spanish, Arabic, and Japanese (I particularly liked Japanese) but when speaking them I almost always had to translate in my mind -- to take what the other person was saying and translate it, then work out what I was going to say and give it words.
I've often wondered what it would be like to think in a different language -- because doing that would involve replacing not just the symbols I know, the letters:
(That's Arabic for alien alphabet, but you figured that out.)
Language imposes rules on us, and alphabets impose rules on us and prejudices. In English, we're not supposed to end sentences with prepositions or split infinitives -- to boldly go, as opposed to to go boldly. Those are rules that we follow when we speak English; other languages may not be as hidebound, or may be more tedious than English.
Letters of the alphabet, too, say something about us. In my poem Twenty-Six Letters I noted that some letters make more than one sound, and some barely make one sound. Some letters we barely use -- why would we have an X at all, I wonder? -- but the fact that they exist says something about how we think.
So alien alphabets would not necessarily mirror ours at all -- they might not have letters. They might use pictures, like Egyptian hieroglyphics. Or something stranger -- what if aliens don't symbolize the sounds they make, at all?
Try thinking about that, for a second: It seems almost inconceivable to me, and probably to everyone reading this, that you could have a language that cannot be written down.
But consider sign language. I know a little sign language -- I've picked it up for Mr Bunches and Mr F -- and you can't really write down the letters of sign language. Bath, for one, is simply holding your hands in fists and moving them up and down on your chest, as though you're scrubbing.
Creole language was said to be untranscribable, although lately people have begun writing it down and trying to make an essentially spoken language bend to the symbolism of an alphabet. It won't be the same.
Imagine, now, meeting someone who has never spoken anything but sign language and trying to interact with them -- especially if that person is deaf and cannot understand what you say. That person would not understand that a word you wrote down meant something, and it would take longer than normal to translate that person's
arms scrubbing up and down motion
b a t h
as you tried to convey that each symbol meant something different and that altogether they take on meanings that are different depending on the order in which you write them -- and then imagine trying to describe the sounds they make to someone who doesn't know sound.
I think of Mike Smith, trying to explain what grok means, and getting frustrated that he cannot explain it precisely, settling on the fundamentally incorrect "Thou Art God" (which then gets further misunderstood by people.) The problem isn't just one of translation; it's not a matter of converting this symbol into that symbol. It's one of converting a way of thought into a different way of thought.
In Stranger In A Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith grew up just speaking the Martian language; he thought in Martian and so he was able to experience a human life in an almost entirely nonhuman way; his alphabet did not translate into ours almost at all, and so he never translated, either, not entirely.
If we do meet aliens -- I should say when, for I firmly believe that eventually we'll conquer pesky things like interstellar travel -- will we fully be able to understand them? Michael Smith at least was human, in a fashion -- he had our senses and shape, so he would experience the world in ways similar to how we experience it.
In my story IO17, I came up with aliens that I tried to make as alien as possible:
They appeared to be large shambling balls, almost. And he wasn't sure about the shambling. The aliens were almost perfectly round and Tom attributed the lack of perfect roundness to the gravity he could feel pulling him down, too. The one that had spoken to him had an eye in its center, staring at him, and a clawlike appendage not far from that eye, folded up, he could see, the claw attached to what was obviously an arm-like mechanism. He could not see the mouth and regretted that he had missed it when the thing spoke, but then it spoke again and he could see that it did not use a mouth at all to speak.
**does it frighten you** the thing asked again and Tom saw that several tiny little holes round its globelike body moved when it spoke, each producing a different part of the sound so that the words actually came out all at once, jumbled, almost: his brain was sorting them out quickly and assembling them into words, and he wondered if the alien knew that.
And as I did it, I tried to think how those aliens would speak, how they would form words in our language, and then I tried to think how aliens would experience the world if they had eyes that weren't placed near the top of their head and binocular in vision, if the way they moved wasn't a continuous sort of falling-forward-and-catching-oneself as it is for us. Would they use letters? Would they have an alphabet at all? Different cultures have different ways of structuring sentences and alphabets based on, really, what are infinitesimally tiny differences; as Douglas Adams pointed out in a totally different context, one is never really that far from home on Earth, whereas in the Universe one can be really really far away from the familiar.
I don't have the answers; I'm just firing neurons randomly at this point. It's late and I'm tired. And I'm out of time to talk about those dolphins. So let's get question 48 of the Blogathon, but first:
Andrew and I are demonstrations of convergent evolution.
The newest TriWeekly Blogfest Challenge! is to write/draw/create something that incorporates the theme
"Han shot first, but Time-Traveling Elvis shot second."
And Andrew pointed out that I was using "his" Time-Traveling Elvis -- but Andrew and I came up with this thing independently, as Andrew unveiled his in his Indie Book Review interview, whereas I came up with the concept on Twitter back before September.
So what can I say? Great minds think alike. Or... Time Traveling Elvis has been wreaking havoc on the space-time continuum. Probably the latter. We'll have to share the rights, Andrew, which works for me as I can lazybones my way into richness while you write this up. (As I tell my clients: My favorite thing to do is nothing, after which I'll take credit.)(I really do say that. It makes sense in context.)
Okay, also: I had to adjust the point total because I forgot that Proviso Number 2 of the WHAMMY! question is that the frontrunner cannot wager more than the highest wager made by someone who's not in the lead.
Look, I told you it was complicated. So Rusty... excuse me, Emperor Blutonatine, is still in the lead, but his lead has been cut, as he couldn't wager more than PT Dilloway wagered, that being the next highest, and the standings have been repaired by Time Traveling Elvis.
Finally, now, here's that question, worth 33 points:
How many "Darths" are mentioned in the Star Wars movies?
I ask this question because according to Star Wars lore, the word Darth has a specific meaning -- a word chosen to emphasize that a Sith was going to try to bend others to his will. 5 extra points per Darth mentioned in the movie named by an answerer -- only the first person to name someone gets those points. And commenter number 2 gets 10 extra points if he/she isn't commenter 1.