Friday September 29, 2006

"Shall We Have a Little Talk?" by Robert Sheckley

[This post is part of an occasional series about linguistics in science fiction.  Fair warning: spoilers throughout.]

This story has been on my to-blog-about list for a long time.  It was suggested to me early in the life of this blog in an email from someone, but unfortunately I was using Yahoo Mail at the time and so don't have a copy of it—you know who you are.  Let's get to the story.

Jackson is a first-contact specialist for Earth, of sorts.  He's an independent contractor who, in the employ of Earth's goverment, travels alone in his starship to planets with intelligent life, learns how to communicate with the natives, and opens up relations with them.  To do this, he first has to learn their languages; fortunately, Jackson is a natural-born linguist:

Jackson, like all the other contractors, was a polyglot of singular capabilities.  As basic equipment, he had an eidetic memory and an extremely discriminating ear.  More important, he possessed a startling aptitude for language and an uncanny intuition for meaning.  When Jackson came up against an incomprehensible tongue, he picked out, quickly and unerringly, the significant units, the fundamental building blocks of the language.  Quite without effort he sorted vocalizations into cognitive, volitional, and emotional aspects of speech.  Grammatical elements presented themselves at once to his practiced ear.  Prefixes and suffixes were no trouble; word sequence, pitch, and reduplication were no sweat.  He didn't know much about the science of linguistics, but he didn't need to know.  Jackson was a natural.  Linguistics had been developed to describe and explain things which he knew intuitively.  (pp. 50-51) [page numbers are for the Dell paperback edition of Sheckley's short story collection The People Trap and other Pitfalls, Snares, Devices and Delusions, as Well as Two Sniggles and a Contrivance.]

Jackson is, in other words, a linguist in the sense of someone who knows a lot of languages rather than a language scientist.  [Long-time readers will be familiar with this distinction; see here and here for more detail.]  After locating and landing on a new planet and making preliminary contact with its very nearly human inhabitants—a process which, to his gratification, does not involve them immediately killing him—Jackson applies himself to learning their language:

Jackson, well prepared for trouble, encountered none at first.  The main language (Hon) of this planet (Na) was spoken by the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants (En-a-To-Na—literally men of the Na, or Naians, as Jackson preferred to think of them).  Hon seemed quite a straightforward affair.  It used one term for one concept, and allowed no fusions, juxtapositions, or agglutinations.  Concepts were built up by sequences of simple words ("spaceship" was ho-pa-aie-an—boat-flying-outer-sky).  Thus, Hon was very much like Chinese and Annamite on Earth.  Pitch differences were employed not only intentionally to differentiate between homonyns, but also positionally, to denote gradations of "perceived realism," bodily discomfort, and three classes of pleasurable expectation.  All of which was mildly interesting but of no particular difficulty to a competent linguist.  (pp. 51-52)

Leaving aside the question of how a species whose technological development Sheckley describes as "Late Bronze Age" (p. 46) could possibly have a single global language (or indeed why they have a word meaning 'spaceship'), the linguistic situation on Na seems perfectly ordinary.  A linguistic typologist would describe Hon as almost completely isolating (a.k.a. analytic), meaning that most or all morphemes are independent words, so that sentences are composed using little or no morphology, only syntax.  Jackson correctly notes that the various Chinese languages are mostly isolating and that Vietnamese (Sheckley's "Annamite") is even more so.

This all sounds like good news for Jackson.  Having hired a language tutor and quickly acquired a smattering of Hon, enough to conduct simple financial transactions, he sets out to accomplish his true purpose: to purchase a piece of land that will, under Earth law, provide a pretext for Earth to move in and commercially exploit the planet.  (Jackson may have a natural talent for languages, but he's not a very nice guy.)  He heads off to a local real-estate office, where he encounters unexpected trouble.  Before he can purchase the land, he needs to fill out the ollanbrit form.  The first question reads, "Have you, now or at any past time, elikated mushkies forsically?  State date of all occurrences.  If no occurrences, state the reason for transgrishal reduct as found."

Hmm.  Jackson knows he's likely to encounter unfamiliar words in a new language, so he asks the clerk, name Erum, about them.  The answer doesn't help much:

"What does it mean," he asked, "to elikate mushkies forsically?"

"Mean?"  Erum smiled uncertainly.  "Why, it means exactly what it says.  Or so I would imagine."

"I mean," Jackson said, "that I do not understand the words.  Could you explain them to me?"

"Nothing simpler," Erum replied.  "To elikate mushkies is almost the same as a bifur probishkai."

"I beg your pardon?"  Jackson said.

"It means—well, to elikate is really rather simple, though perhaps not in the eyes of the law.  Scorbadising is a form of elikation, and so it manruv garing.  Some say that when we breathe drorsically in the evening subsis, we are actually elikating.  Personally, I consider that a bit fanciful."  (p. 54)

This goes on for pages.  All Jackson is able to figure out is that elikating mushkies forsically involves oneself and a twisted old piece of wood—though, as Erum unhelpfully points out, the wood isn't strictly necessary—so he returns to his language tutor to try to figure out why he's having so much trouble communicating.

It was simple enough.  He had merely been a trifle hasty in assuming an extreme and invariant isolating technique in the Hon use of radicals.  He had thought, on the basis of his early studies, that word meaning and word order were the only significant factors required for an understanding of the language.  But that wasn't so.  Upon further examination, Jackson found that the Hon language had some unexpected resources: affixation, for example, and an elementary form of reduplication.  Yesterday he hadn't even been prepared for any morphological inconsistencies; when they had occurred, he had found himself in semantic difficulties.

The new forms were easy enough to learn.  The trouble was, they were thoroughly illogical and contrary to the entire spirit of Hon.

One word produced by one sound and bearing one meaning—that was the rule he had previously deduced.  But now he discovered 18 important exceptions—compounds produced by a variety of techniques, each of them with a list of modifying suffixes.  For Jackson, this was as odd as stumbling across a grove of palm trees in Antarctica.

He learned the 18 exceptions, and thought about the article he would write when he finally got home.  (p. 58)

The next day, Jackson returns to the real-estate office and completes the form, truthfully able to answer that no, never, he hadn't.  He exchanges some platinum for local currency, and is then told that all he has to do is "trombramcthulanchierir in the usual manner."


As before, Jackson tries to get the clerk to explain to him what this new (and surprisingly long) word means, but he's unable to make sense of the reply.  Frustrated by the clerk's seeming obstruction, Jackson loses his temper:

"You're putting me on!" Jackson howled.  "And you better quit it, on account of we got laws against willful obfuscation, intentional obstructionism, implicit superimposition, and other stuff like you're doing.  You hear me?"

"I hear you," Erum trembled.

"Then hear this: stop agglutinating, you devious dog!  You've got a perfectly ordinary run-of-the-mill analytical-type language, distinguished only by its extreme isolating tendency.  And when you got a language like that, man, then you simply don't agglutinate a lot of big messy compounds.  Get me?"  (p. 61)

"Stop agglutinating, you devious dog!"  That should be a bumper sticker, don't you think?

In spite of Jackson's insistence (and implausibly large vocabulary of Hon linguistic terminology), he can't figure out what the clerk means.  He leaves, and tries striking up a conversation in a bar, with similar results.  He's starting to get an inkling of why he's having trouble with Hon, and the reason is very bad news for him.  Still, he applies himself to clearing this latest hurdle:

That evening Jackson went back to work.  He discovered a further class of exception which he had not known or even suspected.  That was a group of 29 multivalued potentators.  These words, meaningless in themselves, acted to elicit a complicated and discordant series of shadings from other words.  Their particular type of potentation varied according to their position in the sentence.  (p. 62)

These new exceptions bother Jackson:

"Hokay," Jackson said, to himself and to the universe at large.  "I have learned the Naian language, and I have learned a set of completely inexplicable exceptions, and I have also learned a further an even more contradictory set of exceptions to the exceptions."

Jackson paused and in a very low voice said: "I have learned an exceptional number of exceptions.  Indeed, an impartial observer might think that this language is composed of nothing but exceptions.

"But that," he continued, "is damned well impossible, unthinkable, and unacceptable.  A language is by God and by definition systematic, which means it's gotta follow some kind of rules.  Otherwise, nobody can't understand nobody.  That's the way it works and that's the way it's gotta be.  And if anyone thinks they can horse around linguisticwise with Fred C. Jackson—"

Here Jackson paused and drew the blaster from his holster.  He checked the charge, snapped off the safety, and replaced the weapon.

"Just better no one give old Jackson no more double-talking," old Jackson muttered.  "Because the next alien who tries it is going to get a three-inch circle drilled through his lousy cheating guts."  (pp. 63-64)

I think Jackson may be taking his expectations for typological consistency a little too seriously, although I'm sympathetic with his insistence that natural languages must be (mostly) regular.  Drilling a hole in someone's guts seems a little excessive, though—that should be reserved for conference attendees who ask hostile questions that begin, "Doctor So-and-so, would honestly have us believe..."

Having wrapped his head around the new exceptions, Jackson is able to trombramcthulanchierir as required and complete the transaction.  All that remains is a ceremony with some local officials that will finalize the deal.  He arrives the next day and meets a small delegation:

"Mun," said Erum, shaking his hand enthusiastically.

"Same to you, kid," Jackson said.  He had no idea what the word meant.  Nor did he care.  He had plenty of other Naian words to choose among, and he had the determination to force matters to a conclusion.

"Mun!" said the mayor.

"Thanks, pop," said Jackson.

"Mun!" declared the other officials.

"Glad you all feel that way," said Jackson.  He turned to Erum.  "Well, let's get it over with, okay?"

"Mun-mun-mun," Erum replied.  "Mun, mun-mun."

Jackson stared at him for several seconds.  "Erum, baby, just exactly what are you trying to say to me?"

"Mun, mun, mun," Erum stated firmly.  "Mun, mun mun mun.  Mun mun."  He paused, and in a somewhat nervous voice asked the mayor: "Mun, mun?"  (pp. 64-65)

Upon hearing a whole conversation take place along these lines, Jackson's impulse is to start shooting, but stays his hand as he realizes the horrible truth:

His impeccable linguist's ear had heard, and his polyglot brain had analyzed.  Dismayingly, he had realized that the Naians were not trying to put anything over on him.  They were speaking not nonsense, but a true language.

This language was made up at present of the single sound "mun."  This sound could carry an extensive repertoire of meanings through variations in pitch and pattern, changes in stress and quantity, alteration of rhythm and repetition, and through accompanying gestures and facial expressions.

A language consisting of infinite variations on a single word!  Jackson didn't want to believe it, but he was too good a linguist to doubt the evidence of his own trained senses.

He could learn this language, of course.

But by the time he had learned it, what would it have changed into?  (p. 66)

The Naians have stumbled, somehow, upon the only possible defense against Terran imperialism: their language evolves so rapidly that no outsider can keep up with the changes.  The legal fig leaf that Jackson is expected to provide for Earth's invading forces can't be procured because Hon simply won't stand still long enough for him to get the job done—Earth's laws explicitly insist that there exist a state of communication with the local population.

In effect, the Naians have a kind of linguistic immune system that protects them from invasions—or at least, from the kind of invasion the government of Earth prefers to use.  Sheckley does a pretty good job of explaining exactly what's going on, too, since he seems to be at least passingly familiar with the proper linguistic terminology.  In his list of language phenomena, for example, he nicely distinguishes intonation from tone.  He also mentions that Hon has tones for marking "perceived realism", which sounds an awful lot like evidentiality.  (I'm not sure if there are any Earth languages that marks bodily discomfort and pleasurable expectation at all, let alone using tone, though.)  What's more, he seems to have a grasp of the basics of linguistic typology, which is an extra bonus for me—it's not just SF about linguistics, it's SF about my area of focus!

Not surprisingly, Sheckley doesn't get every detail right.  The long dialogs in which Jackson tries to get Erum to explain an unfamiliar turn of phrase and gets the (apparently untentional) runaround are surely good fun—I was reminded of the dialog written by Paarfi of Roundwood—but I'm not sure they really reflect the sort of exchanges you'd expect in the linguistic situation Sheckley describes.  They seem to simply be cases where Jackson has encountered an unfamiliar lexical item whose meaning he isn't able to infer from context, and when he asks for clarification, it turns into an Abbott and Costello routine.  If the problem were really one of shifting morphology, I'd expect Jackson to recognize the parts of the utterance, but not to be able to figure out how they're put together, even in the face of comprehensible, non-circular explanations from Erum.

The linguistic situation that leads to these exchanges is, of course, absurd.  Each individual state of the Hon language is at least a possible language (although the final, all-mun state is surely a very improbable one), but what conceivable process of language change could cause it to mutate from one radically different state to another, overnight and all over the planet?  This implies some form of unconscious global telepathy, or maybe automated language module firmware updates.  I don't think my suspenders of disbelief can stretch that far.

Let's not be poor sports about it, though.  Sheckley is writing absurdist humor, so we can hardly fault him for absurdity if he delivers the humor, which I think he does.  And, after all, who among us can mun, mun-mun-mun, munMun mun mun-mun.

[By the way, if you're interested in fictional languages with improbably small lexicons, check out the language of the Marklars of planet Marklar from an episode of South Park.]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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Just dropping by for a quick visitI've managed to get myself stuck with too much work and too little timebut I wanted to call attention to Mark Liberman's exegesis of the phrase "new wine in old bottles" (and its confusing... [Read More]

Tracked on Oct 1, 2006 5:58:59 PM


"Jackson may have a natural talent for languages, but he's not a very nice guy."



Posted by: Doug Sundseth at Sep 29, 2006 10:11:11 AM

Thanks for this, Mr. Tensor! I've been meaning to read this one by Sheckley (whom I quite like) since I've read something by Umberto Eco mentioning him. Yet somehow I haven't been able to get my hands on a copy on this particular novel.

isolating (a.k.a. analytic)
Interesting... So you treat those as synonyms? To me, analytic = 'simple' morphology (i.e. English, Indonesian, Tok Pisin), while isolating = Chinese, Vietnamese, one of the main differences being in the use of affixes for word formation. English and Indonesian do employ prefixes and suffixes, while Chinese and Vietnamese behave very much the way you described Hon in the first paragraphs, i.e. just stringing words together.

"Stop agglutinating, you devious dog!" That should be a bumper sticker, don't you think?
I'd prefer a t-shirt, size xxl, please :o)

Posted by: bulbul at Sep 29, 2006 2:55:52 PM

Hmmm... is he claiming that mun is OT's hypothetical least marked syllable? :)

Posted by: Rachel Shallit at Sep 29, 2006 10:07:20 PM

Not directly related to your topic or sci-fi but I was wondering if you ever read fantasy? Specifically I'm thinking about the "darkness" series by Harry Turtledove which is supposedly modelled off of WWII but using magic instead of technology. Anyhow the series is quite good (not great, but good). I've started book 2 and am enjoying it and have noticed that in both books there are a number of language tidbits. It looks like turtledove did just enough research to sound like he knows what he's talking about without getting overly technical.

And for the record Turtledove is a professional historian, which makes, IMO, his books more interesting even if they don't directly follow history. If you have some spare time and are interested I recommend giving the series a read.

Posted by: EFL Geek at Sep 30, 2006 1:25:53 AM

I'm very curious about the written language these En-a-To-Na use in their bureaucracy, since it would have to remain comprehensible even as the language changes to forms that are mutually unintelligible with its earlier forms. Seems like the only thing that would work is representative art with some non-changing system for representing things that can't be included that way. But in that case surely Jackson would be able to understand how to elikate mushkies forsically...

Posted by: Matt at Sep 30, 2006 3:41:06 AM

The all-mun language reminds me of the restaurant scene in Being John Malkovich. "Malkovich Malkovich." "Malkovich?" "Malkovich!"

And here is this page run through the Malkovich Mediator.

Posted by: Ben Zimmer at Sep 30, 2006 7:07:02 AM

Maybe they were just saying that mun from Mun who mun other mun from Mun mun other mun who are munned by mun from Mun.

Posted by: Matt at Sep 30, 2006 8:16:46 AM

Check out Ijon Tichy's fourteenth journey in Lem's "Star Diaries" for a similar-but-different approach to the alien word that just can't be translated (for reasons of propriety).

Posted by: Wimbrel at Sep 30, 2006 6:10:25 PM

The gostak distims the doshes.

Posted by: Mark A. Mandel at Sep 30, 2006 6:16:22 PM


Posted by: agm at Sep 30, 2006 7:23:00 PM

Well, there must be some meta-rule governing the language change, even if it is synchronized by pheremones, or seasonal cycles, or even global unconscious telepathy. Presumably it would be possible to hang around through several cycles of language changing in order to figure it out. Perhaps a coding theorist could help?

The written language must be mercilessly phonetic, perhaps the equivalent of the IPA - everyone writes exactly how they speak, and a reader will read it exactly how it is supposed to sound. If the written language were in anyway symbolic (and therefore would not shift with the spoken language), then Jackson could have just performed his transactions in the written language, which would presumably be preferred.

And one final thought: the whole shifting-language-as-immune-system notion reminds me of a description of trypanosomes in Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex. Basically, the human immune system will learn the proteins expressed on the trypanosome's surface, and start killing them off. However, at some point, a new generation of trypanosomes will express a new protein on their surface, one that the immune system hasn't "learned" yet, and the trypanosome population will spike again until the immune system learns the new protein.

The cycle continues for a while, but the number of proteins that the trypanosome can express is of course finite.

Presumably, the number of languages that the Naians can form is finite as well.

Posted by: Owlmirror at Oct 1, 2006 1:51:51 PM

There are languages in which this sentence expresses the escape velocity of a body from the gravity of the Earth. There are languages in which the sentence before would be gibberish. Not that anyone speaks them anywhere or anytime, but they would, in principle, be possible. Presumably, there is an infinity of languages possible. PS: a recomended le\reading- J.L. Borges, Library of Babel.

Posted by: at Oct 1, 2006 3:04:23 PM

"Dude!" "Dude!!" "Dude." "Duuude." (Coversation expressing sympathy after a personal disaster.)

I thought of this, and also of the Sheckley story, when I overheard this conversation between one of my teenagers and a friend of his:

"Fuck you." "Fuck *you.*" "*Fuck you.*" "Fuck you." After which they burst out laughing. Apparently something was coveyed, but a parent can only speculate . . .

Posted by: kathe burt at Oct 1, 2006 4:50:04 PM

Interesting... So you treat those as synonyms? To me, analytic = 'simple' morphology (i.e. English, Indonesian, Tok Pisin), while isolating = Chinese, Vietnamese, one of the main differences being in the use of affixes for word formation.

You're right, the way I phrased that implies they're the same thing, but there is generally a distinction made between number of morphemes per word (the isolating-agglutinating axis) and number of meanings per morpheme (the synthetic-analytic axis). In the case of Hon, Sheckley makes it clear that the language is at the extrmeme low end on both of those axes—every word contains a single morpheme (totally isolating) that conveys a single meaning (totally analytic).

Posted by: The Tensor at Oct 2, 2006 5:59:23 AM

Surely those should be suspenders of disbelief, not disbelieve?


Posted by: david at Oct 3, 2006 2:11:01 PM

Surely those should be suspenders of disbelief, not disbelieve?

Doh! Fixed. It's amazing how the simple act of typing an error insulates it from my ability to proofread it.

Posted by: The Tensor at Oct 4, 2006 12:38:11 AM

Tensor, have you ever considered discussing the linguistics bit in Flowers for Algernon?

Posted by: AJ at Oct 6, 2006 4:20:08 PM

I saw a one-act play performed by high-school students in which "well" was the only word used.
It was about a girl introducing her date to her parents, the parents waiting-up for her, and her late return. It was
funny; probably still used in drama classes.

Posted by: at Oct 24, 2006 10:44:32 PM