[First in a series about Linguistics in Science Fiction. Fair warning: I plan to spoil the ending.]
How would you decipher texts in an unknown language, written in an unknown writing system? H. Beam Piper's short story "Omnilingual", originally published in 1957, is about an archaeological expedition on Mars, exploring the remains of a dead civilization. The expedition's linguist is confronted with a seemingly insurmountable problem: texts in an ancient language with no remaining speakers, and for which no bilingual text exists. What's an Earth linguist on Mars to do?
This story is good-old-fashioned science fiction. Mars is almost, but not quite, dead: the Martian civilization is gone and the Martians are extinct, but there's still some oxygen in the atmosphere, and some life survives in the dry ocean basins. The expedition is large and well equipped, and a bit reckless—for working space, they're in the habit of caulking up all the cracks in 50,000-year-old buildings, pressurizing them, and then smoking cigarettes in the resulting pure-oxygen environment, presumably all the while laughing in the face of danger.
Our heroine is Martha Dane, Archaeologist. She's been collecting scraps of Martian writing, trying to decipher the language, but it doesn't look promising.
"There is no Rosetta Stone, not anywhere on Mars. A whole race, a whole species, died while the first Cro-Magnon cave-artist was daubing pictures of reindeer and bison, and across fifty thousand years and fifty million miles there was no bridge of understanding."
The few written materials that Martha has found include what appears to be a magazine (on some kind of long-lasting silicone rather than on paper, Piper is careful to mention). She's pored over it (while smoking!) and figured out the basics of the writing system:
It was readable, in the sense that she had set up a purely arbitrary but consistently pronounceable system of phonetic values for the letters. The long vertical symbols were vowels. There were only ten of them; not too many, allowing separate characters for long and short sounds. [A bit of a leap, I think—maybe they have rounded and unrounded versions of five vowels.] There were twenty of the short horizontal letters, which meant that sounds like -ng or -ch or -sh were singles letters. [A strange way to phrase it—I think Piper means every consonant is written with a single letter, because how could she know if those sounds existed in Martian?] The odds were millions to one against her system being anything like the original sound of the language, but she had listed several thousand Martian words, and she could pronounce all of them.
The magazine's title, in her scheme for pronouncing the writing system, is Mastharnorvod Tadavas Sornhulva. But what do the words mean? She's found some illustrations with captions, but there's no obvious correlation between the captions and the contents of the pictures. Worse, another character points out that captions probably aren't going to help much:
"A caption is intended to explain the picture, not the picture to explain the caption. Suppose some alien to our culture found a picture of a man with a white beard and mustache sawing a billet from a log. He would think the caption meant, "Man Sawing Wood." How would he know that it was really 'Wilhelm II in Exile at Doorn?'"
Martha thinks she has identified the (conveniently decimal) numerals and, if she's made a correct guess that part of the magazine's cover includes the date, the name of a Martian month, but other than that, she's stuck. Without a true bilingual text like the Rosetta Stone, or even proper names correlate in the undeciphered texts, how can she hope to go further?
Things start to go her way when the expedition cracks open a building that appears to be a university. A huge store of books is found (the university's library). This gives her much more data to play with, but it's still not the key Martha needs. [Aside: Piper's writing in the 50's, so this won't have occurred to him, but I wonder what kind of results you could get by throwing a huge wad of cheap early-21st-century computing power at a corpus of this size.]
Her break comes when they find the department of physics/chemistry (Martians don't distinguish the two). On one of the walls, they find a diagram of a simple atom and a table of words and numbers:
Ninety-two! That was it; there were ninety-two items in the table on the left wall! Hydrogen was Number One, she knew; One, Sarafaldsorn. Helium was Two; that was Tirfaldsorn. She couldn't remember which element came next, but in Martian it was Sarfalddavas. Sorn must mean matter, or substance, then. And davas; she was trying to think of what it could be.
Martha's companions are able to confirm it's really the Periodic Table by pointing out that the values for the atomic weights are correct. With their help, she decides davas must be the word for "metal". This really is a 50's SF story, then, because it has turned out that Science Is The Key!
"That isn't just the Martian table of elements; that's the table of elements. It's the only one there is...Look, hydrogen has one proton and one electron. If it had more of either, it wouldn't be hydrogen, it'd be something else. And the same with all the rest of hte elements. And hydrogen on Mars is the same as hydrogen on Terra, or on Alpha Centauri, or in the next galaxy—"
Piper claims that the Periodic Table is better than a bilingual text—it's the same everywhere, so it's "omnilingual". I think he may be overestimating the extent to which such a find would be the key to figuring out an entirely unknown language (how are they going to figure out the non-technical vocabulary?), but it's a clever twist and makes for a fun story. The details of the decipherment problem are pretty plausible too, although Piper stacks the deck in his characters' favor—most notably, he makes Martians basically physically identical to humans, so Martha has a starting point to make some guesses about the phoneme inventory. Piper was inspired, I think, by way that real historical decipherments were based on finding the narrowest of toeholds, and climbing on from there: the names of pharaohs for the Rosetta Stone, or the names of Minoan cities for Linear B. Piper's insight is that the laws of science can serve the same purpose. It's an interesting point about linguistic universals, before they became such a hot topic in linguistics: all languages, even Martian languages, are spoken by people whose bodies and experiences have to conform to universal physical laws.