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The linguist’s passion

by Victor Kusak - Wednesday 1 February 2023 - 465 letture

[The version of this text that has come down to us in the Akkadian original is probably understandable to a human reader, of Western culture and living between the end of the 20th and the first two decades of the 21st century. What is ’western’, what is ’twentieth’ and ’twenty-first century’ may only be terms comprehensible to a small circle of readers].

It is always a pleasure, albeit in a rare and random way, to find in the course of the historical surveying we do in the universe, something similar to the same propensity that drives us in our research. Kindred spirits, analysts like ourselves, pervaded by this same joy, otherwise unexplainable, in wanting to put together the threads, the pieces of a puzzle, segments of time. For those in the eternity of the universe, there is no time, things do not exist. Everything is an eternal stillness. Nothingness and fullness are the same thing. Even a yawn has no meaning. It is when you immerse yourself in it that the void begins to populate. Things appear. The full and the empty. And things that are before and things that are after. In short, history. And in history also transformations, births, deaths, disasters... That’s how we historians realised how this teeming of things also implied the transformation of things and how within things there were also things different from the things themselves - animate beings, civilisations scattered across these universes. Each different from the others, each with its own characteristics. But where our hearts beat faster is when we find within these civilisations thinking beings who at some point found themselves investigating reality with the same spirit as us.

This is what happened, according to our reconstructions, at this place called Earth Third Planet - like all names, we believe the place name refers to Planet as a family, Earth as a person’s name, while scholars are still debating whether Third refers to the patronymic (i.e. Earth son of Third), or is directly a numeral: and thus Earth Third, meaning that there must have been a First and Second Earth before.

As I said, the debate is still open. In any case, on this planet Earth, which was inhabited by bipedal sentient beings, at some point a radio signal arrived from outside. Apparently, the inhabitants of this planet, for who knows what reason, had sent radio signals, and of a different kind, without evidently being aware of the customs and good manners that govern that part of the universe. They had sent a message in Klingon, a pizza recipe in Neapolitan, an ethanol formula with the words "cin-cin" [1]. In short, a bit of dog-whistle messaging and evidently more in the spirit of wanting to play games than knowing full well what they were doing. In any case, one of their messages was intercepted by a civilisation close enough to also be able to reply with a message of its own. Which was received. Only, the cultural skills of the inhabitants of the Third Planet were not very advanced. In short, they didn’t understand a thing. They studied it, analysed it. They used all their best ingenuity, the most advanced science at their disposal. Nothing. Then by chance the signal fell into the hands of a young apprentice linguist researcher in a peripheral university laboratory. Who knows by what illumination, he found the solution.

The signal was actually a bundle of several languages tangled together, languages largely unknown but some were known to the linguist. The message repeated every single meaning across thousands of idioms, languages, dialects, expressions from the entire history of the bipedal inhabitants of that planet. Instead of conveying a single word, with a single meaning, to make sure that the inhabitants of the Third Planet understood better, they had used all the words that the different civilisations that had succeeded one another on the Third Planet, had been able to use - and that the linguist himself could no longer know because they were dead languages to him. The linguist was fascinated by this. Evidently a superior civilisation, so evolved that it was able to speak with such a stratification of languages that a single concept could convey billions of pieces of information simultaneously. A linguistic bundle that took communication, and thus also the possibility of transmitting knowledge and knowledge itself, to an enormously higher level. Because it is one thing to say that A = B, but quite another to say that for example A is with B but is also partially with C and that all together they lead to something else that is A but is also beyond A... [2]

The young linguist was all about his discovery. He hastened to communicate his findings, first encountering hostility, perplexity - then even his senior colleagues had to accept his own conclusions about the type of communication that had reached them. At that point, the Third Planet scientists, having found the key to the communication, were almost immediately able to also find what the text of the message said. The message was actually even short and concise. It said: "We are coming to annihilate you."[[The message also had a suitable sound and image apparatus, with a cute animated smile depicting a skull with two small bones flapping delightfully to produce a drumming sound.] Indeed, the superior civilisation that had received the message sent by the Earthlings liked to make their victims tremble with fear before striking them - at least that was the intention of the message. Only, when the Earthlings were wiped out by the alien invaders, they were still arguing about the meaning of that warning, which they had managed to decrypt, having developed various conflicting and inconclusive theories about it. That ’annihilate you’ in fact, what could it mean? Someone had tried ’destroy you’: thus: ’We have come to destroy you’. But it was still ambiguous. In what way, and to what end? It is easy to say: ’destroy’... I mean, the debate was still going on...

However it turned out, it was thanks to the holographic recomposition of the residual background waves that it was possible to trace the plot of what had happened - that ancient planet and part of the galaxy having disappeared since time immemorial -, transcribed on an ancient document. A document that began with the inscription:

[The version of this text that has come down to us in the Akkadian original is probably understandable to a human reader, of Western culture and living between the end of the 20th and the first two decades of the 21st century...]

[1] For a more analytical list see: A postcard for extraterrestrials / Abigail Beall, New Scientist; in: Internationale, no. 1496, year 36, p. 94

[2] The "language bundle" solution is evidently a different solution from the one used in many intergalactic communities and referred to as the "StarWars solution" in which each community, when encountering other members of another alien community, simply uses its own linguistic universe without making any effort to use interlanguages or the language of others, which is often the source of errors and misunderstandings that, in encounters between different civilisations, is a fairly frequent and pernicious occurrence. Everyone, using his or her own language, can say exactly what he or she is thinking; it is then up to the specific decoder to be able to translate ’that language’ well into that thought or used by the other. Instead, an ’imperial solution’ is usually used in which a hegemonic language is used as a point of reference, but being usually from a foreign domination, the intermediate language is also associated with an enemy language and as such to be rejected at the first opportunity...

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