Sunday April 4, 2004

"Story of Your Life", by Ted Chiang

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

"The Story of Your Life" is a short story by Ted Chiang about a linguist trying to learn an alien language and writing system. Chiang's protrayal of Louise Banks, his linguist character, is very convincing—so much so that I was surprised to discover that he has no formal linguistics background. Louise approaches the alien language using all the tools of her profession, and discovers that it's even more alien than she expected.

Ships arrive in orbit above the Earth, and strange artifacts being to appear all over the world. Louise is contacted rather suddenly at her university by an colonel and a physicist. They've got something they want her to hear.

"You said you wanted me to listen to a recording. I presume this has something to do with the aliens?"

"All I can offer is the recording," said Colonel Weber.

"Okay, let's hear it."

Colonel Weber took a tape machine out of his briefcase and pressed PLAY. The recording sounded vaguely like that of a wet dog shaking water out of its fur.

"What do you make of that?" he asked.

Not surprisingly, Louise can't make anything out of it without any context. She can tell that the aliens' vocal tracts are vastly different from humans', but she can't say much more than that—especially since the colonel won't even confirm that she's listening to a recording of alien speech, let alone describe their anatomy to her. She proposes to learn their language by interacting with them, and so joins the project.

She's taken to one of the strange objects that have been appearing in meadows all over the world. It appears to be a large semicircular mirror resting on the ground. When approached, it activates, and shows a semicircular room somewhere else, presumably inside one of the ships. It's called a "looking glass".

The aliens aren't at all humanoid. Called "heptapods", they look like barrels supported by seven legs, and have seven-sided radial symmetry. They appear to talk out of an orifice at the top of their bodies. Louise, armed with recording and playback equipment, begins a monolingual discovery procedure. Fortunately, the heptapods are cooperative. She tries a few times to immitate their voices, without success, so she conducts the entire procedure by rearranging and playing back recordings of the heptapods' utterances. She points at objects to learn what they're called, and also mimes a few simple actions such as eating. This is cumbersome, so she adds a video screen and shows the heptapods (who she's named Flapper and Raspberry) that she wants to try to learn their writing system instead, hoping that it will be simpler.

It's not. It appears logographic, but it's like no writing system on Earth.

Then Raspberry brought the gourd down between its legs, a crunching sound resulted, and the gourd reemerged minus a bite; there were cornlike kernels beneath the shell. Flapper talked and displayed a large logogram on their screen. The sound spectrograph for "gourd" changed when it was used in the sentence; possibly a case marker. The logogram was odd: after some study, I could identify graphic elements that resembled the individual logograms for "heptapod" and "gourd." They looked as if they had been melted together, with several extra strokes in the mix that presumably meant "eat." Was it a multiword ligature?

Louise finds that each sentence forms a single super-logogram, with the various component logograms stretched, rotated, and smeared together. It's kind of like Chinese characters on steroids, except that the Chinese writing system maps very closely to the language it was designed to write. The heptapods' written language is not isomorphic to their spoken language. Louise refers to it as a "semasiographic" writing system, which makes it unlike all human writing systems—they're "glottographic", meaning they represent speech. The heptapod writing system is more like mathematical or musical notation. It directly encodes meaning in a non-representational way through a complicated graphical syntax. The individual signs are not "logograms" since they don't represent words, and because the word "ideograms" already means something different and inappropriate, Louise decides to call the heptapods' signs "semagrams". The spoken and written languages are so different that Louise takes to calling them "Heptapod A" and "Heptapod B".

Heptapod A is pretty straightforward.

It didn't follow the pattern of human languages, as expected, but it was comprehensible so far: free word order, even to the extent that there was no preferred order for the clauses in a conditional statement, in defiance of a human language "universal." It also appeared that the heptapods had no objection to many levels of center-embedding of clauses, something that quickly defeated humans. Peculiar, but not impenetrable.

Heptapod B, on the other hand, just gets weirder and weirder.

Much more interesting were the newly discovered morphological and grammatical processes in Heptapod B that were uniquely two-dimensional. Depending on a semagram's declension, inflections could be indicated by varying a certain stroke's curvature, or its thickness, or its manner of undulation; or by varying the relative sizes of two radicals, or their relative distance to another radical, or their orientations; or various other means. These were nonsegmental graphemes; they couldn't be isolated from the rest of a semagram. And despite how such traits behaved in human writing, these had nothing to do with calligraphic style; their meanings were defined according to a consistent and unambiguous grammar.

While Louise studies the heptapods' languages, her physicist friend is trying to understand their science. I won't go into too much detail, but it becomes clear that heptapod mathematics have developed along very different lines that human mathematics. Concepts that are basic to humans require complex formulations in heptapod math, and vice-versa. In particular, the heptapods seem to conceive of everything in terms of goal-oriented processes.

Louise comes to believe that the heptapods have a very different conception of time than we do. Where humans see a sequential series of events with an unknown future, the heptapods seem to perceive all the moments of time simultaneously. She realizes this when she observes the order of strokes a heptapod makes as it constructs a complex Heptapod B sentence.

I picked one of the longer utterances from the conversation. What Flapper had said was that the heptapods' planet had two moons, one significantly larger than the other; the three primary constituents of the planet's atmosphere were nitrogen, argon, and oxygen; and fifteen twenty-eights [sic] of the planet's surface was covered by water. The first words of the spoken utterance translated literally as "inequality-of-size rocky-orbiter rocky-orbiters related-as-primary-to-secondary."

Then I rewound the videotape until the time signature matched the one in the transcription. I started playing the tape, and watched the web of semagrams being spun out of inky spider's silk. I rewound it and played it several times. Finally I froze the video right after the first stroke was completed and before the second one was begun; all that was visible onscreen was a single sinuous line.

Comparing that initial stroke with the completed sentence, I realized that the stroke participated in several different clauses of the message. It began in the semagram for 'oxygen,' as the determinant that distinguished it from certain other elements; then it slid down to become the morpheme of comparison in the description of the two moons' sizes; and lastly it flared out as the arched backbone of the semagram for 'ocean.' Yet this stroke was a single continuous line, and it was the first one that Flapper wrote. That meant the heptapod had to know how the entire sentence would be laid out before it could write the very first stroke.

Louise immerses herself in Heptapod B, becoming better and better and writing complex sentences of her own. She believes that her increasing fluency is affecting the way she thinks; not only does she find herself thinking in graphical terms, but she finds her perception of time becoming less human and more like the heptapods'. In fact, there's a second thread interwoven into the story having to do with her perception of time that I haven't been mentioning, since it doesn't much concern linguistics. Go read the story! It's available in Chiang's collection Stories of Your Life and Others as well as in the anthology Starlight 2 (edited by one of the blogosphere's own).

Chiang successfully walks a fine line in this story. He's not a linguist, but his use of linguistics terminology as well as his description of the theoretical attitudes and research methods of a working linguist really rang true. (I especially enjoyed it when he has Louise attack an old science fiction plot device, the idea that aliens could learn human languages simply by observing our radio and TV broadcasts, but without special teaching materials or interaction with a live speaker.) At the same time, when he's describing in detail the certainly speculative, and perhaps impossible, heptapod languages, he stops short of the point where my suspension of disbelief fails. I also liked his description of Louise's experience of learning the heptapod languages, especially how she finds her way of thinking affected by the new languages—a rare example of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (weak version) being considered speculatively and thoughtfully, rather than just naively assumed. In general, Chiang's speculations about language universals, writing systems, and consciousness are fascinating. He was apparently inspired to think along these lines, especially the strange Heptapod B graphical language, by some similar two-dimensional syntax and morphology in human sign languages. Now I have to go read more about sign languages!

[Now playing: "Say It Ain't So" by Weezer]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Tracked on Jul 13, 2006 1:59:21 AM


Is that really a universal? Doubtless, "If you want to go, we can go" is the normal order in writing, but I suspect that nobody really knows whether "We c'n go if ya wanna" or "If ya wanna we c'n go" is more common in speech. Certainly I have no intuition about it.

Posted by: John Cowan at Jan 29, 2005 8:28:27 AM

That's a good question; we'd have to ask Chiang where he found that one. If the claim is, as he phrases it, that there is a preferred order for the clauses in conditional constructions in all languages, it's pretty hard to disprove—you'd need a language in which both orders were equally "preferred"...whatever that might mean. A stronger, and therefore more testable, claim would be that any given language only allows one ordering, but (as you point out) that's false.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 29, 2005 11:55:15 AM

T. Chiang's stories are very thought provoking. I like them.

Your blog title makes me think of Sardines. I can't seem to get it out of my head.

Posted by: at Apr 30, 2005 12:33:49 PM

Great review, Ozarque pointed the way here and I'm glad to revisit.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at Mar 2, 2006 6:38:47 PM

typos and nitpicks:

My copy of the story has "15/28ths" instead of "fifteen twenty-eights", "spider's silk" instead of "spiker's silk", and 'semagram for "ocean."' instead of "semagram fo 'ocean.'"

Just in case you want to correct the post at this late date.

Posted by: Owlmirror at Jan 21, 2007 8:15:16 PM

Ah, I'll bet you're looking at the version of the story in Chiang's collection Stories of Your Life and Others, which has "15/28ths" and double-quotes on "oxygen" and "ocean". I read it in Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction 16, which has "fifteen twenty-eights" and single quotes. You're right about "spiker's" and "fo", though, those were my typos. I also fixed "notiation" and "langauge".

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 21, 2007 9:28:21 PM

I don't mean insult, but if a graduate student of linguistics cannot even respect the concept of written language enough to proofread (and let's be honest, it *is* possible to catch every last typo in something as short as a blog posting), what hope is there for humanity?

Posted by: Emotionless at Dec 14, 2007 11:17:35 AM

The story seemed rather odd. The aliens came to visit us, showing some kind of curiosity. Clearly they are intelligent and scientifically advanced. Were any aliens working on understanding some of our languages? They surely had more experience in exo-linguistics than the linguist in the story. Were they probing for our state of the art in learning alien languages? Perhaps the two languages were mere puzzles.

Maybe this is because I've been reading The Spacehounds of IPC which has its own set of heptapods, and it has spaceship pilot's orbiting Jupiter and pounding out messages in Morse code. One big challenge of science fiction is figuring out which technologies are going to advance at what rates. Surely aliens with flying saucers, teleportation, and possibly other technologies would not be daunted by our planet's native tongues.

Posted by: Kaleberg at Jan 13, 2008 9:46:04 AM