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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

The Dohani Language

with Martin Kerharo and Don Webb

In chapter 11 of the Dohani War, why might one surmise that the Dohani use numbers at base 10? Why does Jane use a scale of 1,024, i.e. “Dohani = +512, human = −512”?

[Martin K.] Les Dohanis comptent en binaire, bien sûr :) Ils ne pensent pas comme nous : à force d’être en symbiose avec leurs implants depuis plusieurs millénaires, leur façon de penser a évolué.

Si j’allais au bout de cette logique, Jane devrait être incapable de parler ; elle comprend le concept de mot (équivalence symbole ≠ concept), mais la grammaire n’a pas de sens. Les Dohanis communiquent par images mentales.

Par exemple, quand tu parles du problème de la traduction de “Jane aime infini Dexter,” j’aurais dû penser à rendre l’écriture de Jane plus graphique. Logiquement, elle devrait mettre chaque mot dans un cercle et utiliser différentes flèches pour indiquer les relations entre ces mots. Du coup, “aime” “infini” devraient être liés, dans le même cercle ou quelque chose comme cela.

The Dohani count in binary, of course! They don’t think like us: since they’ve been in symbiosis with their implants for thousands of years, their way of thinking has evolved.

If I took the process to its logical conclusion, Jane should not be able to speak; she understands the concept ‘word’ and that a word is not the same as the concept, but grammar has no meaning. The Dohani communicate by mental images.

For example, when you talk about the problem of translating “Jane aime infini Dexter,” I should have thought of making Jane’s writing more graphic. Logically she should put each word in a circle and use various arrows to indicate the relationship between those words. Thus, “aime” and “infini” would be linked together within the same circle, or something of the sort.

[Don W.] When Jane lists her family members, in chapter 11, she also gives their “nest” designation: 753450911. It’s not a “name,” strictly speaking; it looks for all the world like a U.S. Social Security number! And it’s all in base 10. A numeral in binary would be staggeringly long. And heaven help the Dohani who misremembered it or made a typo; it would be very difficult to know there was an error without redundancy such as a checksum. And then finding and correcting it, well...

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what the base of the Dohani number system is. Jane will adapt it to decimal for the benefit of Dexter and his comrades.

As for grammar, all modes of communication have one, by definition; otherwise they would not exist. Jane has to know that instinctively. If she diagrammed her sentences to show that “infini” modifies “aime” rather than “Dexter,” she would simply be drawing a picture of the grammatical distinctions that humans make verbally.

Jane would surely conclude very soon that diagramming is a waste of time and that it’s a lot easier to use the language’s own ways of indicating function. In other words, once she learns that the suffix −ment means that infiniment can modify only the preceding word, namely aime, she doesn’t need to draw a map!

Are the Dohani words composed of a series of “letters,” as in alphabetic scripts, or are the words a single symbol in Dohani, as in ideographic scripts?

[Martin K.] Ni l’un ni l’autre ! Les symboles des Dohanis sont interprétés par leurs implants. Dépassant le besoin d’un langage symbolique, la communication dohanie s’effectue directement de cerveau à cerveau, les implants se contentant de coder les impulsions nerveuses. Du coup, tout passe : les idées, mais aussi les émotions, les images et tout autre stimulus sensoriel.

Donc, lorsque Jane lit ou écrit en dohani, elle ne se rend pas compte de ce qu’elle fait. Elle ne voit pas les symboles, elle ne voit que leur signification.

Oui, si on lui retire son implant, elle devient incapable de parler. C’est comme ça qu’elle est capturée au début : l’implant est endommagé et doit s’auto-réparer. Heureusement que la panne n’est pas grave, sinon elle serait restée dans le coma.

Pour parler le langage humain, il faut qu’elle reprogramme son implant pour associer ces symboles primitifs à ses propres concepts. Peu à peu, le processus s’automatise, l’implant dessine directement les lettres sur l’écran, puis les mots entiers, sans qu’elle ait besoin de se concentrer. Son implant apprend en même temps qu’elle.

Que penses-tu de ça ?

Neither one! The Dohani interpret the symbols by means of their implants. Since they no longer need a symbolic language, Dohani communication is made directly from brain to brain, and the implants simply encode impulses from their nervous systems. Thus, everything goes through: ideas, but also emotions, images and any other sensory stimulus.

Thus, when Jane reads or writes in Dohani, she doesn’t realize what she’s doing. She doesn’t see symbols; she sees only their meanings.

Yes, if her implant is removed, she’ll be unable to speak. That’s why, when she’s captured at the beginning of the story, her implant is damaged and has to repair itself. Fortunately the damage was not serious or she would have remained in a coma.

To speak human language she has to reprogam her implant to associate the primitives symbols with her own concepts. The process gradually becomes automatic; the implant draws letters directly onto the screen, then entire words, without her needing to concentrate on them. Her implants learns at the same time she does.

What do you think of that?

[Don W.] Jane appears to learn human language in much the same way as humans themselves do!

The Dohani neural implant does appear to allow for telepathic communication. And it raises an important question that science fiction has seldom touched upon: to what extent is telepathy a mixed blessing?

If literally everything were transmitted between the Dohani neural implants — concepts, emotions, images, and sensory stimuli — the Dohani would drown in sensory and information overload. A single “message” would mentally paralyze the Dohani; they’d lapse into a hallucinatory trance, and no work would get done.

The Dohani language, whatever it is, must have a grammar; otherwise it will consist only of a flood of incoherent data. As human languages indicate how words relate to one another, Dohani must have a system that is similar if not exactly the same. For example: a Dohani “sentence” might consist of an idea expressing cause and effect. It might be modified by emotions, images, etc., included as a gloss, like adjectives and adverbs.

Some animals, for example, communicate by song, such as birds, from tree to tree, and whales, from one ocean to another. Not only have patterns been identified, but modulations and “dialects” have been, as well. Humans have even begun to understand a few of these patterns. The various forms of animal communication have grammars of their own.

Perception is somewhat similar. The human brain appears to be hard-wired to “edit” visual input by “clipping” the perception of motion. We “see” only sequences of stationary images; that is the “grammar” of human vision. Otherwise our perception would collapse from incoherent overload; we’d see all motion as indistinct blurs. And that may indeed happen at the limits of perception, when the brain detects motion but cannot visually isolate the moving object.

The Dohani can engage in multimedia telepathy all they want, but in the end they can exchange information only by systematically telling each other what the information is. To do that, they must “edit” the content of their messages according to function and relative emphasis; in other words, grammatically.

All the above considerations notwithstanding, The Dohani War is very unusual. It brings on stage sentient space aliens who are a little like humans but not very much; that is, the Dohani are depicted as very alien and yet not impossibly so. Thus, the novel deals directly with the most practical problem in all “first contact” stories: communication. So much for Star Trek’s “universal translator”! Such an achievement has to rank high in the canon of science fiction literature.

Copyright © 2013 by Martin Kerharo
and Don Webb

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