Friday, September 08, 2006

The Search for English-speaking Terrestrial Intelligence

Therese asks about alien languages. It is one of the amazing facts that we have all learned an alien tongue, both written and spoken, and spent so much time and energy on it we have all forgotten how hard it was while we were learning it as little children - for there is no human tongue which is natural to any human being. The best we can ever do in tasting that difficulty is to try to learn another tongue... We can delight, as GKC did when he found Greek: "To me the ancient capital letters of the Greek alphabet, the great Theta, a sphere barred across the midst like Saturn, or the great Upsilon, standing up like a tall curved chalice, have still a quite unaccountable charm and mystery, as if they were the characters traced in wide welcome over Eden of the dawn." [Autobiography CW16:60] Or, we might probe into the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, or the wedges of Babylon, or the pictographs of China - all curious to view, and so much easier to handle in ASCII, I mean in the Roman characters. Or we may encounter something far more startling, as when I learned that the Vietnamese title for the Fourth Station translates as "Her Majesty the Mother Mary meets His Majesty the Lord Jesus carrying the Holy Cross" - or "Holy Price" (there is an untranslatable pun here). And who among the theologians of the Early Church would have ever expected to find the chimes in English between "good" and "God", or "devil" and "evil"?

But until we find some authentic off-planet aliens, and try to start up a friendly conversation (Hi, I'm from Earth, have you ever heard of G. K. Chesterton?), I think we'll be plenty busy trying to find out what our fellow humans are talking about - even the ones who write and speak the language we grew up with!

Meanwhile, I found a couple of interesting quotes which suggest GKC was conducting his own SETI (that is, a Search for English-speaking Terrestrial Intelligence):

I like Americans very much. I like their sense of equality and their fighting simplicity and many other things rather wanting in my own civilization. But that is exactly the point - that even their virtues were strange virtues. If I went to the moon, I might like the Man in the Moon very much. He also might have simplicity, though he might have few opportunities of encouraging social equality. I might enjoy being in the moon more than being in some places on the earth - as in a den of robbers, a committee of financial experts, a millionaire's freak dinner, a scientific congress on eugenics, a temperance meeting, or any other horrible plague-spot on our own planet; but I should still feel it strange to be on another planet; and I really did feel as if I were on another planet when I was in the United States.
[GKC, ILN Feb 2, 1924 CW33:265-6]

the most extraordinary of all the experiences of a traveller and a sightseer in that town at that time. I mean the quite indescribable and unique character of the popular decoration, of what may be called the purely domestic decoration, in the very poorest quarters of the city. It is here that we find the presence of something almost without parallel on earth; and certainly quite without parallel in England. We may call it comic; we may call it creative; we may call it crazy or impudent; we may call it an outburst of barbaric fancy and imagery; we may call it all sorts of things, according to our particular taste of culture. But it is something in the most emphatic sense worth seeing; as the people on another planet would be worth seeing.
[GKC, Christendom in Dublin]

1 comment:

  1. Therese Warmus9/10/2006 9:29 PM

    Trust G.K. to point out the thing that we have missed entirely because it is right under our noses.

    Tom in AZ had introduced a capital topic and I seized it immediately. So you see, Tom deserves the credit--what I am about to say should earn me all the blame.

    My second question assumes a great deal: If alien, how could we be assured that it would be indeed language?

    "It" is any system of referents you like--sqiggly lines, grunts, even a primitive dance. Or a computer's bits and bytes.

    The answer--regrettably rotten, I admit--is that if we do recognize it as language ("scientists" who attempt to teach sign language to primates need not apply) it is not alien. Period. Language requires an act of the human mind. Any creature that can produce language is far more like us than unlike us, green Martian men included. Before you accuse me of circular reasoning, recall what Tom said in essence: We would have to be able to understand the referent, the thing used to express the idea. And there must be a Universal involved. Why? Because language takes place solely in the human mind, regardless of what you think these little squiggles I'm now producing may be. (How did Wittgenstein get back into this conversation?)

    The little cat seated next to me, with the great luminous yellow eyes, is more alien than anything you'll find on a distant planet. For confirmation, see Chesterton's "The Blue Cross." And now you have my apology for being such a spoil-sport. ;-)


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