Sunday, December 03, 2006

Two Linguistics Short Stories
The other day, I found myself looking through some old issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction, trying to find a story I vaguely remembered the plot of, but nothing else. It turns out that search was in vain, but I did find two other short stories featuring linguists. They were both about women working as interpretors and translators, though very different in their understanding of the profession.

The first one I read was "Universal Grammar" by Mary Soon Lee. Unsurprisingly, the author says that she wrote it after reading Chomsky's Language and Problems of Knowledge. In the story, aliens have been visiting Earth with some regularity, as tourists. They always arrive able to speak a known human language, and refuse to teach humans anything of their own language or culture. One group of them had used a gestural communication system, which the main character of the story had figured out, gaining her some stature in her governmental linguistics department. Now, new aliens have come to Earth, and appear to be trying to actually communicate with humans. However, they look like octupi and, since they are floating in a tank, are nonverbal. Our intrepid linguist sets about trying to decode their gestures, on the basis that all languages have the same underlying structure, the universal grammar of the title. But when she makes no headway, she begins to question this assumption, bringing up the most interesting question of the story: why would alien species from other planets have the same basis for language that we do? As it turns out, though, the squid-things are just animals sent out for exchange. When a tank of fish and pages of math are put into the airlock of the spaceship, the real aliens feel confident to approach the humans to begin a true exchange of ideas. Then the story goes back to the expected path, with the initial "one, two, three" number exchange, etc., and lo and behold, the language functions in a more or less expected way, the linguists prevail, and the aliens and humans become friends, valuing their warm feelings of cultural exchange. Ta-da! Not the most surprising plotline, but a fairly good story, with an almost noir feeling to it, which amused me. The gritty linguist, working from the neighborhood bar, out to solve the case of the nonsense gestures.

The second story was "The Roaring Ground" by Sheila Finch. Delfin, the main character, is supposed to undergo her final exam to become a "lingster," member of a professional guild of translators who make themselves unemotional conduits of purely verbal information. Apparently, this is done by putting oneself in a sort of gestalt state through the judicious use of psychotropic drugs. However, Delfin is a natural empath, and since she can't help but interpret people's emotions, she is failed for not being unemotional enough. There is a small alien child in the school, though, the only survivor from some disaster on his home planet, and no one has figured out how to communicate with him yet. It turns out Delfin's empathic abilities are the key to breaking the code of his language, (and what he was saying was he was lonely and wanted to go swimming, which should have been obvious, since he was the only survivor from his water world planet, but I guess lingsters aren't expected to be very intuitive, or even use basic common sense.) Even though I thought the writing in this story was good, and the author created an interesting professional society, her understanding of language was rather flawed. Given how much time I now spend immersed in autism literature, it has become quite clear to me just how big a part emotional and nonverbal communication plays in actually understanding language fully. If the lingsters truly kept themselves open as utterly unemotional conduits for verbal expression, they would be performing essentially the same function as Babel Fish. There is also reference made to a chip implanted in people's minds that allow them to understand the language of dolphins (tutors at the school,) so I find myself wondering why the world needs lingsters if they already have automatic translation devices.

Anyway, I enjoyed getting a look at some more SF interpretations of the role of linguists in the future. It's interesting to see the difference in a story written with something of an understanding of how language works, and one written purely from the mind of writer. I have to say, I liked the first one better.

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