“What Is Language Anyway?”

ESD May 31st, 2629

Malinowski Research Station, Trobriand Sector, Ryosh c

Ryosh System

What is language anyway? How long can I bang my head against a wall before I get permanent brain damage? Because that’s all it felt like I was doing for the last four weeks waiting on Len to finish that damn neural map Larisha and I have been waiting for. I’m guessing the threshold for irreparable damage is four weeks and a day; that or I’ve already succumbed and am simply too concussed to know it. But there is good news. Our initial hypothesis has proven at least a little bit correct: there is evidence of linkage between Ryosh chromatophore regions and regions of the brain associated with emotion. These linkages are too complex for me to do much with on my own and it’s gotten to the point where we’re in a real chicken-or-the-egg dilemma when it comes to future comparative data. We could ask our intelligent and communicative collaborators for their own understandings of these features but in order to do this, we’d first need to be able to talk to them in their own language, which we can’t do yet.

Not that we haven’t tried, though. Larisha and I set up a fairly simple experiment where we’d use holo projections to illustrate different situations in order to elicit chromatic responses. And yes, whoever might read this twenty years from now, we received informed consent, at least as informed as we could make it given our embarrassing signal-to-noise ratio so far. These responses were holo-recorded to include gestures and give us a more complete picture of how rapidly these chromatic responses fire following exposure to a stimulus.

Believe me, explaining the testing procedure using only gestures ourselves was probably the stupidest-looking thing anyone in Alpha Group had ever seen. I mean, imagine two grown women trying to mime their way through eating and sadness and shock and a whole list of other things, all while trying to make these situations relatable to a non-human sentient being with no context to understand even remotely what we’re getting at. I shudder to think that someday a room full of five hundred first-year anthropology students will have to sit through a presentation on that, much less watch the tapes…

Now back to the problem at hand. Once we’d established the fact that we wanted to conduct an experiment, we had to come up with a way to replicate the situations we would test for. These included things like receiving a gift of food, seeing an animal wounded, a mother holding a baby, things that we thought would be pretty straightforward in provoking anger, happiness, sadness, etc. What we noticed instead was an unexpected variety of hue and pattern responses for even things as simple (at least to our minds) as “someone offers you food”. What does this tell us? This is not a rhetorical question. I really don’t know yet, though I have my suspicions that what we’re dealing with here is more complex than simply a stimulus-response relationship of “see happy thing, display happiness color”. That would make my job a whole lot more complicated, but that’s why they brought along a linguistic anthropologist and not a linguist.

I’m not really here to just figure out the mechanics of Ryosh communication. What I’m really here to get at is the old competence/performance dichotomy [12] and see whether it’s really a dichotomy after all. The assumption that this communication would be a series of direct stimulus-response relationships has been one I’ve had a hard time overcoming. Instead, I find myself assuming that this language (or dialect, should we get data supporting this hypothesis from other societies in addition to Alpha Group) is fully expressive of just as wide a range of signals as is human language, if not more.

What it really comes down to is de Saussure’s [13] langue and parole, the other classic dichotomy that drives linguists up the wall. It’s something I’ve considered for a while now but lack the data to sufficiently address the hypothesis that what we’re seeing here is more than just the direct answers we assume our questions should provoke. While the biomechanical functions that produce and contextualize Ryosh communication (langue) may be universal, or at least as universal as a culturally transmitted phenomenon can be, the pragmatic use of this communication in any of its forms (parole) could have a variety equal to the number of members in each speech community.

You know, I’m starting to get tired of correcting myself every time I use an academic term that would be accurate for any other field research in human space but is suddenly inaccurate or potentially offensive here. I’ll just have to remind myself to say “communicative community” from now on. Probably not that, though, because it sounds strange. Community of practice could work instead. Yeah, I’ll just go with that. Anyways…

We know that this is an intelligent species for them to have made the scientific progress they have so far. More than just intelligent, they’re also well-organized; even a comparatively primitive space program like Alpha Group’s requires a significant degree of social cohesion to coordinate sufficient labor and knowledge to put something into orbit.

I just can’t figure out what I’m missing here. Maybe it’s best to approach this in a Peircean fashion [14]. First, there’s the sign (the color patterns and gestures that represent the emotion, thought, question, statement, etc. in question) that could be more complex than I’m anticipating. After all, we know that the Ryosh have an understanding of electromagnetics and can send signals in the infrared and ultraviolet spectra. I’ll have to double-check with Errin for the exact wavelengths but I know it’s a wider range than the human visible spectrum. But I can’t discount the fact that the signs are simply too complex for me to understand with my present knowledge.

Next, there’s the semiotic object, or the emotions and thoughts themselves being signified by the sign. It’s certainly possible that these objects are simply not within human understanding, at least entirely. Some interactions with our collaborators have showed us that there are comparisons to be made between human and Ryosh emotional states, but the complicating factor is that the data we received in our trials didn’t show us enough commonality among our collaborators’ responses to establish a baseline. Either we’ll need to run more tests, make our stimuli more straightforward, or come to terms with the idea that we might not be able to understand one another entirely, that our cognitive processes are too disparate. I’m hoping it’s one or both of the other two, because the third one would put me out of a job real quick.

Last, the interpretant: my understanding of the sign’s semiotic meaning. It could just be that I’m getting clear data but can’t understand it for one reason or another. I think I’m mostly done with the self-loathing of the first few months but it still stops by every so often, usually after I’ve spent a day and a night reviewing the same holos of collaborator responses again and again. There’s gotta be something I can do to break out of this cycle, because staying up all night isn’t helping and sleeping on it isn’t much better.


      12. American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky (1928-2021) defined linguistic theory as being “concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech-community, who knows its (the speech community’s) language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of this language in actual performance” (Chomsky 1965). Similar views have also been expressed more recently in Erillen 2498 and Willice 2652. This paradigm posits a divide between competence (one’s ability to use a language “correctly”, or follow its grammatical and syntactic rules) and performance (one’s ability to use a language “authentically”, or replicate speech patterns with native fluency).

      13. Swiss-born Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is considered one of the most important linguists and semioticians of the 19th and 20th centuries for his contributions to philology and the development of structuralist theory.

      14. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was an American philosopher and mathematician who made many contributions to the field of semiotics, the most famous of which being the triangular paradigm of sign interpretation.


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