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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

What Is Grammar?

with Martin Kerharo and Don Webb

The Dohani Language” appears in issue 519.

“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.”

[Martin K.] Cela m’amène à me soulever la question suivante : est-il possible de réfléchir sans grammaire, c’est à dire suivre un raisonnement logique sans langage pour le supporter ?

Prenons le cas de quelque chose qui n’a rien à voir avec le langage : une œuvre d’art comme un tableau ou un sculpture. Les critiques d’art analyseront tout en détail, mais l’être humain moyen embrassera d’abord l’œuvre dans sa globalité... Ce que je veux dire, c’est qu’on a là une forme de communication sans grammaire.

D’un autre côté, on peut dire justement que l’artiste ne peut que transmettre des émotions de cette façon, mais pas un message, pas une vraie information. Du coup, il faudrait définir ce qu’est une information... La notion même d’information a-t-elle un sens sans langage ?

Donc je pense que tu as raison quand tu dis que les Dohanis ne peuvent pas échanger d’information sans grammaire. Je n’ai pas tout à fait les idées claires sur ce sujet pour argumenter dans un sens ou dans un autre, c’est plutôt intuitif comme conclusion.

Nous avons un autre exemple de communication particulière dans le livre : les chenilles, la race extra-terrestre dont Dexter va entendre parler dans le chapitre 15. Au départ, les reines des chenilles ne communiquaient pas avec leurs ouvriers : ceux-ci étaient stupides et se contentaient d’obéir aux ordres.

Ces ordres constituent-ils un langage ? Il faut les coder. Les reines doivent dire à leurs ouvriers des choses du genre “Va à tel endroit et rapporte-moi de la nourriture,” etc. Des ordres simples, s’apparentant à un langage de programmation. Donc grammaire il y a, là aussi !

Notons que les abeilles elles-mêmes ont inventé un langage pour indiquer la position et la distance d’une zone où il y a de bonnes fleurs à butiner. Ce qui semblerait bien dire qu’un langage, un moyen de coder l’information pour la transmettre, est indispensable et naturel.

Nous sommes cernés par la grammaire !

That leads me to raise the following question: is it possible to think without grammar; that is, to follow a logical reasoning without language to support it?

Let’s take the case of something that has nothing to do with language: a work of art such as a painting or sculpture. Art critics will analyze everything in detail, but the average person will embrace it at first in its totality... What I mean is, it is a form of communication without grammar.

On the other hand, one can say that the artist can only transmit emotions in that way but not a message, not real information. And that means we have to define what information is... Does the very notion of information have a meaning without language?

Therefore I think you’re right to say that the Dohani can’t exchange information without grammar. My ideas on the subject are not quite clear enough to argue one way or another; rather my conclusion is intuitive.

We have another example of special communication in the book: the Caterpillars, the extraterrestrial race that Dexter will hear about in chapter 15. At the beginning, the Caterpillar queens did not communicate with their workers, who were dumb and simply followed orders.

Do these orders constitute a language? They have to be encoded. The queens have to tell their workers things like, “Go to this place and bring me food,” etc. Simple orders akin to a programming language. Therefore they have a grammar, too!

Let’s note that bees have invented a language to indicate the position and distance of a zone where there are good flowers to graze upon. And that would seem to indicate that a language, a means of encoding information for transmission, is indispensable in the natural world.

We’re surrounded by grammar!

[Don W.] Honeybees are pretty smart, all right: not only can they indicate the direction and distance of tasty flowers, they can also indicate the relative quality of the prize. Thus, if two bees show up at a hive at the same time to report their findings, the hive will know approximately how many workers should go to each place.

Now, do bees have language? Not in the human sense, of course. But do they have a grammar? Well, yes, from their point of view they do; otherwise they would not be able to understand and act on their explorers’ reports!

The visual and plastic arts, such as painting and sculpture, are by nature reflective; they implicitly pose a question: “What do you make of it?” One would expect an artist to have his own ideas about the meaning of his work, fair enough. But viewers, like readers, probably won’t know what they are; they’ll have their own ideas, and that’s equally fair.

Symbols, of course, are a special case of representational art. They communicate discrete messages to those who know what they mean. The messages may be as simple as those of traffic signs or as complex as those represented by flags or religious emblems. Symbols may or may not be decorated, but they always have the same shape.

Language depends entirely on symbolism, of course. And we need the key to the code; otherwise it’s only noise. Star Trek: the Next Generation addressed the problem in the episode “Darmok,” which is “Komrad” spelled backwards. The space aliens speak a language consisting entirely of literary allusions, i.e. idiomatic expressions. The universal translator aboard the Enterprise is stumped; it can translate the words but cannot interpret the meaning of their contexts.

Fortunately, Captain Picard saves the day by deducing the meaning of repeated expressions and communicating with the aliens. However, the aliens’ language is logically impossible: idiomatic expressions — metasymbols — may decorate a language, but they cannot be the basis of the language itself.

Can the Dohani communicate their emotions, ideas, visual and other sensory experiences telepathically by means of their implant? Well... why not? The structure of such communications would be very complex. A human being might find it akin to a guided tour to a section of an art gallery where the “audience” is treated to a full accompaniment of sensory and emotional overtones. Such “messages” would have to be highly compressed, of course, or their sheer bandwidth would make them cumbersome to transmit.

Would Dohani messages be more efficient than human language? In terms of information per second, probably. But to answer a question in Challenge 519, the Dohani script, at least, has a potential weakness: a lack of redundancy. If Dohani calligraphy is akin to a painting in human terms, a Dohani writer dare not make a “spelling error” or allow the text to be otherwise corrupted, for fear of changing the meaning significantly.

Furthermore, the English language is about three-fourths redundant. If part of a message is lost, the odds favor the readers’ or listeners’ reconstituting the original message. Does Dohani have the same safeguard against transmission errors?

Jane occasionally has to pause and gather her thoughts. Well she might: she and her fellow Dohani have a lot on their minds!

Copyright © 2013 by Martin Kerharo
and Don Webb

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