Futuristic Human Language

Many science fiction novels have noted how difficult, illogical, unscientific, and inefficient the English language is (did you know that "ghoti" should be pronounced "fish?"). It is certainly a burden for people to learn as a second language, and even more so to try and teach to an alien race. SF novels postulate some ultra-logical "universal" language with names like "League Latin", "Anglic", "Basic", "Interlac", and "Triplanetarian."

There is a good overview of the topic here.

And go here for a discussion of using sign language while wearing space suits.

…adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.

But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.

And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.


Chirashigaki is an archaic form of Japanese calligraphy where the opening and most important parts of a text are indicated not by their position on the page, but by the size of the characters and the boldness of the ink.

In a poem, for example, written in the Chirashigaki style, the opening or most significant lines can be literally anywhere on the page, their relatively importance is identified solely by the size of the lettering and boldness of the ink, not their relative spatial positioning.

Centuries later, we use the same ideas to create Word Clouds.

by Incunabula (2019)

Mind Amplifying Languages

In some SF stories there are languages that actually help the users think faster and better. These include Speedtalk from Robert Heinlein's "Gulf", Babel-17 from the novel of the same name by Samuel R. Delany, Tenno Glyphs from the Exordium Series by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge, and the real-world language "Lojban."

Many of the novel of Harry Harrison promote the language "Esperanto." However, Esperanto as a language has many flaws.


In my opinion, a much better choice is the language Lojban. The language has many advantages. The grammar is based on Boolean algebra (it is possible to use a subset of Lojban as a computer programming language).

The letters in Lojban each denote a single phoneme, instead of the multiple phonemes English uses. For example: "gh" is pronounced "f" at the end of rough, but pronounced "g" at the start of ghost. The "g" is silent in sign but not silent in signature. "ea" is pronounced two different ways in mean and meant. "s" is an s-sound in ticks but a z-sound in pigs.

What is worse is in English there are some different word sounds that share the exact same letter coding and there are no alternatives. For example then and thin both use "th" even though they are two different word sounds, and there are no other letters that can be used distinguish the voiced and unvoiced "th" sound.

Lojban has none of this mess, there are no silent letters and each letter has one and only one sound.

Lojban also has an interesting intonation and word structure. It is created in such a way that even if one speaks a Lojban sentence with no spaces between the words, you can parse the sentence unambiguously in your mind (the technical term is "lack of word boundary ambiguity"). This is not possible for, say, English, if you remove the spaces between the words in the following sentences, all the sentences sound the identical:

  • It’s not easy to wreck a nice beach.
  • It’s not easy to recognize speech.
  • It’s not easy to wreck an ice beach.

Lojban forces completeness. Some types of words (called "selbri") are Predicate words. They require other words (the "sumti" or "arguments") to complete them. For instance, the Lojban word for "make" literally means "x makes y using material z" (e.g., "Thomas makes a blowgun using bamboo"). Unless you fill in the words for the arguments x, y, and z you do not have a complete sentence. A complete sentence of this form is called a "Bridi".

Lojban's grammar was validated with the help of YACC, which is a software tool used to validate computer programming languages. Since Lojban's grammar is based upon Boolean algebra, it is remarkably unambiguous. Consider the English sentence "A pretty little girls' school". Horribly ambiguous. There are no less than sixteen possible interpretations of that sentence.

  1. A pretty (little (girls' school)) = An attractive small school for girls
  2. A pretty ((little girls') school) = An attractive school for small girls
  3. A (pretty little) (girls' school) = A fairly small school for girls
  4. A ((pretty little) girls') school = A school for fairly small girls
  5. A (pretty (little girls')) school = A school for attractive small girls

and so on.

In Lojban, it is impossible to create such an ambiguous sentence. Instead, there are sixteen sentences one can make, each one unambiguously expressing one of the sixteen possibilities.

Robert Heinlein promoted this language's predecessor "Loglan" in his novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

By then Mike had voder-vocoder circuits supplementing his read-outs, print-outs, and decision-action boxes, and could understand not only classic programming but also Loglan and English, and could accept other languages and was doing technical translating — and reading endlessly. But in giving him instructions was safer to use Loglan. If you spoke English, results might be whimsical; multi-valued nature of English gave option circuits too much leeway.

From THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert Heinlein (1966)

Dennis Pejcha proves that my understanding of Lojban is imperfect:

I have done some reading about Lojban and I just wanted to comment that you seem to have misunderstood a bit of how the language works. There is nothing in the language that forces you to be unambiguous, but the speaker and listener would always be completely aware of precisely where the ambiguities are. The language certainly allows "Make!" as a complete sentence - there is nothing grammatically incorrect about that at all. However the excruciatingly correct translation of a sentence consisting of just the word for "make" would actually be something like:

<unspecified> makes/made/is making <unspecified> using <unspecified>

A person or computer fluent in Lojban understands that the word for make has a "place structure" of three variables essentially, and in this case the speaker or writer has chosen to omit values for these variables either because they are unknown, unimportant, or understood from context. If I have already given you an order to make blowguns from the local bamboo equivalent and later came back to find you instead puttering around trying to design an atomic rocket, I might bark at you "Make!" - I am obviously barking at you as the one who is supposed to be doing the making, and I am expecting you to remember what it is you are supposed to be making and what I asked you to make them out of. Actually, perhaps I never even specified what you are to make them out of - you might be the weapons specialist and obviously much better suited than I to decide what the appropriate materials are, so I might have just told you to make blowguns and omitted what to use because I don't know.

Lojban allows for such ambiguities, the key is that there is a rigid logical structure within which these ambiguities exist, so the speaker and listener should both be aware of exactly what the speaker is being ambiguous about and the listener can ask for clarification on any of those pieces of information if they so choose.

So, no, a language like Lojban will probably not, in and of itself, lead to an ultra-logical, Vulcan-like race that is over-precise and excruciatingly pedantic (although it would probably be just the sort of language they would choose to use), but it might lead to a race that shakes its collective heads at other races and their frequent miscommunications.

Dennis Pejcha

Jon Brase points out a pitfall with Lojban:

The concept of a logical language (such as Lobjan or Speedtalk) is quite intriguing, but it might be good to let people know that a bit of a handwave is required to make it work as an actual spoken language for a culture. It's not a very drastic handwave though.

Basically, the problem is that such a language can exist as a scholarly language, but as soon as people (even the scholars that are already using it as a scholarly language) start speaking it in everyday life, the logicality of the language goes down the drain. The human brain has the tendency to mercilessly hack away from any sentence whatever information is not needed. If we know that the only material in the area that could be used for making blowguns is bamboo, we are unlikely to specify that bamboo was used in the manufacture of a given blowgun, no matter how much our Lobjan teachers scream in frustration.

However, if you are of the opinion that design-a-baby Genetic Engineering and/or Strong AI are possible, it should be easy to hardwire Billy's Concise Grammar of Lobjan into the brain of your new strain of super-logicians (Could this be the origin of the Vulcans?), or into the CPU of your Real People Personality Robot. That could make for an interesting plot: Tensions between Genetically Engineered Super-Brains who are always over-precise and pedantic and the average run of the mill Homo-Sap who can never finish.

Jon Brase



      In their underground classroom Gail had available several types of apparatus to record and manipulate light and sound. She commenced throwing groups of figures on a screen, in flashes. "What was it, Joe?"
     "Nine-six-oh-seven-two-That was as far as I got."
     "It was up there a full thousandth of a second. Why did you get only the left hand side of the group?"
     "That's all the farther I had read."
     "Look at all of it. Don't make an effort of will; just look at it." She flashed another number.
     Joe's memory was naturally good; his intelligence was high-just how high he did not yet know. Un- convinced that the drill was useful, he relaxed and played along. Soon he was beginning to grasp a nine-digit array as a single gestalt; Gail reduced the flash time.
     "What is this magic lantern gimmick?" he inquired.
     "It's a Renshaw tachistoscope. Back to work."

     Around World War II Dr. Samuel Renshaw at the Ohio State University was proving that most people are about one-fifth efficient in using their capacities to see, hear, taste, feel and remember. His research was swallowed in the morass of communist pseudoscience that obtained after World War III, but, after his death, his findings were preserved underground…

     …Speedtalk was a structurally different speech from any the race had ever used. Long before, Ogden and Richards had shown that eight hundred and fifty words were sufficient vocabulary to express anything that could be expressed by "normal" human vocabularies, with the aid of a handful of special words — a hundred odd — for each special field, such as horse racing or ballistics. About the same time phoneticians had analyzed all human tongues into about a hundred-odd sounds, represented by the letters of a general phonetic alphabet.
     On these two propositions Speedtalk was based.
     To be sure, the phonetic alphabet was much less in number than the words in Basic English. But the letters representing sound in the phonetic alphabet were each capable of variation several different ways — length, stress, pitch, rising, falling. The more trained an ear was the larger the number of possible variations; there was no limit to variations, but, without much refinement of accepted phonetic practice, it was possible to establish a one-to-one relationship with Basic English so that one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire word in a "normal" language, one Speedtalk word was equal to an entire sentence. The language consequently was learned by letter units rather than by word units — but each word was spoken and listened to as a single structured gestalt.
     But Speedtalk was not "shorthand" Basic English. "Normal" languages, having their roots in days of superstition and ignorance, have in them inherently and unescapably wrong structures of mistaken ideas about the universe. One can think logically in English only by extreme effort so bad it is as a mental tool. For example, the verb "to be" in English has twenty-one distinct meanings, every single one of which is false-to-fact.
     A symbolic structure, invented instead of accepted without question, can be made similar in structure to the real world to which it refers. The structure of Speedtalk did not contain the hidden errors of English; it was structured as much like the real world as the New Men could make it. For example, it did not contain the unreal distinction between nouns and verbs found in most other languages. The world — the continuum known to science and including all human activity — does not contain "noun things" and "verb things"; it contains space-time events and relationships between them. The advantage for achieving truth, or something more nearly like truth, was similar to the advantage of keeping account books in Arabic numerals rather than Roman. (ed note: try doing long division with Roman numerals sometime)
     All other languages made scientific, multi-valued logic almost impossible to achieve; in Speedtalk it was as difficult not to be logical. Compare the pellucid Boolean logic with the obscurities of the Aristotelian logic it supplanted.
     Paradoxes are verbal, do not exist in the real world — and Speedtalk did not have such built into it. Who shaves the Spanish Barber? Answer: follow him around and see. In the syntax of Speedtalk the paradox of the Spanish Barber could not even be expressed, save as a self-evident error… (ed note: old pardox, A Spanish Barber shaves all the men in his town who do not shave themselves. Does the barber shave himself?)
     …An economical language cannot be limited to a thousand words; although almost every idea can be expressed somehow in a short vocabulary, higher orders of abstraction are convenient. For technical words Speedtalk employed an open expansion of sixty of the thousand-odd phonetic letters. They were the letters ordinarily used as numerals; by preceding a number with a letter used for no other purpose, the symbol was designated as having a word value.
     New Men numbered to the base sixty-three times four times five, a convenient, easily factored system, most economical, i.e., the symbol "100" identified the number described in English as thirty-six hundred — yet permitting quick, in-the-head translation from common notation to Speedtalk figures and vice versa.
     By using these figures, each prefaced by the indicator — a voiceless Welsh or Burmese "I" — a pool of 215,999 words (one less than the cube of sixty) were available for specialized meaning without using more than four letters including the indicator. Most of them could be pronounced as one syllable. These had not the stark simplicity of basic Speedtalk; nevertheless words such as "ichthyophagous" and "constitutionality" were thus compressed to monosyllables. Such shortcuts can best be appreciated by anyone who has heard a long speech in Cantonese translated into a short speech in English. Yet English is not the most terse of "normal" languages — and expanded Speedtalk is many times more economical than the briefest of "normal" tongues.
     By adding one more letter (sixty to the fourth power) just short of thirteen million words could be added if needed — and most of them could still be pronounced as one syllable…
     ...The ability to learn Speedtalk at all is proof of supernormal intelligence; the use of it by such intelligence renders that mind efficient. Even before World War II Alfred Korzybski had shown that human thought was performed, when done efficiently, only in symbols; the notion of "pure" thought, free of abstracted speech symbols, was merely fantasy. The brain was so constructed as to work without symbols only on the animal level; to speak of "reasoning" without symbols was to speak nonsense.
     Speedtalk did not merely speed up communication — by its structures it made thought more logical; by its economy it made thought processes enormously faster, since it takes almost as long to think a word as it does to speak it...
     ... Any man capable of learning Speedtalk had an association time at least three times as fast as an ordinary man. Speedtalk itself enabled him to manipulate symbols approximately seven times as fast as English symbols could be manipulated.

(ed note: I will mention that back in the early 1960's when I was in grade school, I was among the students who scored high enough (color code purple) on the SRA Reading Kit to be allowed some training with a weird gizmo that I now know was a tachistoscope. I am now a fast reader, and do tend to notice things that flash by quickly. However, correlation does not imply causation, so I do not know if my tachistoscope training created my speed reading, or if I was just born a fast reader and the tachistoscope did absolutely nothing.)

From GULF by Robert Heinlein (1949)

Jon Brase points out a flaw with Speedtalk:

It bears noting that languages like Speedtalk would probably not work well because of signal-to-noise ratios. One of the reasons that languages tend to be so trigger-happy about cutting away unneeded information is so that they can make needed information multiply redundant.

Yx cxn xndxrstxnd Xnglxsh fxxrlx wxll wxth xll thx vxwxls x'xd xxt.

Y cn vn ndrstnd t frl wll wth th vwls cmpltl rmvd.

Try doing that with Speedtalk.

And it's not just "noise" that we need to be redundant against, it's stuff like inattention and the speaker being cut off.

Jon Brase

Concensual Two

Xorialle sighed. "Even your primitive tongue would be endurable if you used it correctly. You have complete knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and syntax now. Why not make use of it?"

"Habit, I guess," Dammy said indifferently. "Or maybe I just don't want to sound like a nance."

"I know a solution," Xorialle said grimly. "You'll learn Concensual Two, a simple form of speed-speak."

"Hold it, Doc," Dammy demurred. "You said human skills, remember? I don't want any weird alien kind of stuff pumped into my brain."

"Nonsense. C-2 is designed for interspecies communication and is as free of specialized bias as the concept of language permits. It won't warp your personality any more than a knowledge of Navajo would."

"What's it sound like?" Danny asked anxiously as his tutor settled the catalyzer in place.

Xorialle made a scraping noise with his tongue and hard palate. "That was Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. I confess it loses something in translation."

From THE ULTIMAX MAN by Keith Laumer (1987)

Brain Wave

In Poul Anderson's novel, Brain Wave, a cosmic accident raises the IQ of everybody on Earth by a factor of five.

Language: The men of the Institute, who knew each other, were involuntarily developing a new set of communication symbols, a subtle and powerful thing in which every gesture had meaning and the speeding brain of the listener, without conscious effort, filled in the gaps and grasped the many-leveled meaning. It was almost too efficient, you gave your inmost self away. The man of the future would likely go naked in soul as well as in body, and Corinth wasn't sure he liked the prospect...

...Lewis was in his laboratory, waiting for him. "Late," he grunted.

"Sheila," replied Corinth.

The conversation here was rapidly becoming a new language. When your mind was of quadrupled capability, a single word, a gesture of hand, a flicker of expression, could convey more to one who knew you and your mannerisms than whole paragraphs of grammatical English.

"You're late this morning," Lewis had meant. "Have any trouble?"

"I got started late because of Sheila," Corinth had told him. "She's not taking this well at all, Nat, frankly, I'm worried about her. Only what can I do? I don't understand human psychology any more, it's changing too much and too fast. Nobody does. We're all becoming strangers to each other - to ourselves - and it's frightening." ...

..."Hullo, Pete," she said. The smile that twitched her mouth was tired, but it had warmth. "How've you been?"

Corinth spoke two words and made three gestures; she filled in his intention from logic and her knowledge of his old speech habits: (Oh - all right. But you - I thought you'd been co-opted by Felix to help whip his new government into shape.)

(I have,) she implied. (But I feel more at home here, and it's just as good a place to do some of my work. Who've you got on my old job, by the way?)

(Billy Saunders - ten years of age, but a sharp kid. Maybe we should get a moron, though. The physical strain may be too much for a child.)

(I doubt it. There isn't much to do now, really. You boys co-operate pretty smoothly since the change - unlike the rest of the world!)...

..."Wife," said Rossman with a note of gentle reproach. It could be rendered as: (I still don't see why you wouldn't tell your wife of this, and be with her tonight. It may be the last night of your lives.)

"Work, city, time," and the immemorial shrug and the wistful tone: (We both have our work to do, she at the relief center and I here at the defense hub. We haven't told the city either, you and I and the few others who know. It's best not to do so, eh?) We couldn't have evacuated them, there would have been no place for them to go and the fact of our attempting it would've been a tip-off to the enemy, an invitation to send the rockets immediately. Either we can save the city or we can't; at the moment, there's nothing anyone can do but wait and see if the defense works. (I wouldn't worry my Liebchen - she'd worry on my account and the kids' and grandchildren's. No, let it happen, one way or the other. Still I do wish we could be together now, Sarah and I, the whole family-)

From BRAIN WAVE by Poul Anderson (1954)


We deal here with psychologists - and not merely psychologists. Let us say, rather, scientists with a psychological orientation. That is, men whose fundamental conception of scientific philosophy is pointed in an entirely different direction from all of the orientations we know. The "psychology" of scientists brought up among the axioms deduced from the observational habits of physical science has only the vaguest relationship to PSYCHOLOGY.

Which is about as far as I can go in explaining color to a blind man - with myself as blind as the audience.

The point being made is that the minds assembled understood thoroughly the workings of each other, not only by general theory but by the specific application over a long period of these theories to particular individuals. Speech as known to us was unnecessary. A fragment of a sentence amounted almost to long-winded redundancy. A gesture, a grunt, the curve of a facial line - even a significantly timed pause yielded informational juice....

...The Student smiled shyly, and the First Speaker responded by saying, "First, I must tell you why you are here."

They faced each other now, across the desk. Neither was speaking in any way that could be recognized as such by any man in the Galaxy who was not himself a member of the Second Foundation.

Speech, originally, was the device whereby Man learned, imperfectly, to transmit the thoughts and emotions of his mind. By setting up arbitrary sounds and combinations of sounds to represent certain mental nuances, be developed a method of communication - but one which in its clumsiness and thick-thumbed inadequacy degenerated all the delicacy of the mind into gross and guttural signaling.

Down- down- the results can be followed; and all the suffering that humanity ever knew can be traced to the one fact that no man in the history of the Galaxy, until Hari Seldon, and very few men thereafter, could really understand one another. Every human being lived behind an impenetrable wall of choking mist within which no other but he existed. Occasionally there were the dim signals from deep within the cavern in which another man was located - so that each might grope toward the other. Yet because they did not know one another, and could not understand one another, and dared not trust one another, and felt from infancy the terrors and insecurity of that ultimate isolation - there was the hunted fear of man for man, the savage rapacity of man toward man.

Feet, for tens of thousands of years, had clogged and shuffled in the mud - and held down the minds which, for an equal time, had been fit for the companionship of the stars.

Grimly, Man had instinctively sought to circumvent the prison bars of ordinary speech. Semantics, symbolic logic, psychoanalysis - they had all been devices whereby speech could either be refined or by-passed...

...The same basic developments of mental science that had brought about the development of the Seldon Plan, thus made it also unnecessary for the First Speaker to use words in addressing the Student.

Every reaction to a stimulus, however slight, was completely indicative of all the trifling changes, of all the flickering currents that went on in another's mind. The First Speaker could not sense the emotional content of the Student's instinctively, as the Mule would have been able to do - since the Mule was a mutant with powers not ever likely to become completely comprehensible to any ordinary man, even a Second Foundationer - rather he deduced them, as the result of intensive training.

Since, however, it is inherently impossible in a society based on speech to indicate truly the method of communication of Second Foundationers among themselves, the whole matter will be hereafter ignored. The First Speaker will be represented as speaking in ordinary fashion, and if the translation is not always entirely valid, it is at least the best that can be done under the circumstances.

It will be pretended therefore, that the First Speaker did actually say, "First, I must tell you why you are here," instead of smiling just so and lifting a finger exactly thus.

From SECOND FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1953)

(ed note: Our Heroes are with the Foundation Project, established at the very rim of the Galactic Empire on the planet Terminus. The Project is led by a board of naive idealistic ivory-tower idiots under Dr. Pirenne. The civilians of Terminus are led by a pragmatic practical take-charge hero named Mayor Hardin, who is nominally under the control of the board.

The Galactic Empire is falling, and is gradually withdrawing control away from the rim. The tiny local stellar kingdoms are rising up and taking control of every planet they can grab. The little kingdom of Anacreon wants to seize control of Terminus.

Terminus and the board become alarmed and plead to the Galactic Empire for help. The Empire sends diplomat Lord Dorwin, who hangs around Terminus for about a week, giving assurances. Dorwin then travels to Anacreon and signs a treaty between Anacreon and the Galactic Empire.

The board then tells Anacreon to go away and stop threatening Terminus. Anacreon sends Terminus an angry ultimatum.

Mayor Hardin meets with the board, and carefully explains to the board that they are a bunch of naive idealistic ivory-tower idiots.)

     (Hardin said) “All right. I’m not that vitally interested. It’s just my opinion that it was your diplomatic transmission of Lord Dorwin’s valuable contribution to the situation” – he lifted the comer of his mouth in a sour half-smile – “that was the direct cause of this friendly little note (the ultimatum from Anacreon). They might have delayed longer otherwise – though I don’t think the additional time would have helped Terminus any, considering the attitude of the Board.”
     Said Yate Fulham: “And just how do you arrive at that remarkable conclusion, Mr. Mayor?”
     “In a rather simple way. It merely required the use of that much-neglected commodity – common sense. You see, there is a branch of human knowledge known as symbolic logic, which can be used to prune away all sorts of clogging deadwood that clutters up human language.
     “What about it?” said Fulham.
     “I applied it. Among other things, I applied it to this document here. I didn’t really need to for myself because I knew what it was all about, but I think I can explain it more easily to five physical scientists by symbols rather than by words.”
     Hardin removed a few sheets of paper from the pad under his arm and spread them out. “I didn’t do this myself, by the way,” he said. “Muller Holk of the Division of Logic has his name signed to the analyses, as you can see.”
     Pirenne leaned over the table to get a better view and Hardin continued: “The message from Anacreon was a simple problem, naturally, for the men who wrote it were men of action rather than men of words. It boils down easily and straightforwardly to the unqualified statement, when in symbols is what you see, and which in words, roughly translated, is, ‘You give us what we want in a week, or we take it by force.’
     There was silence as the five members of the Board ran down the line of symbols, and then Pirenne sat down and coughed uneasily.
     Hardin said, “No loophole, is there, Dr. Pirenne?”
     “Doesn’t seem to be.”
     “All right.” Hardin replaced the sheets. “Before you now you see a copy of the treaty between the Empire and Anacreon – a treaty, incidentally, which is signed on the Emperor’s behalf by the same Lord Dorwin who was here last week – and with it a symbolic analysis.”
     The treaty ran through five pages of fine print and the analysis was scrawled out in just under half a page.
     “As you see, gentlemen, something like ninety percent of the treaty boiled right out of the analysis as being meaningless, and what we end up with can be described in the following interesting manner:
     “Obligations of Anacreon to the Empire: None!
     “Powers of the Empire over Anacreon: None!
     Again the five followed the reasoning anxiously, checking carefully back to the treaty, and when they were finished, Pirenne said in a worried fashion, “That seems to be correct.”
     “You admit, then, that the treaty is nothing but a declaration of total independence on the part of Anacreon and a recognition of that status by the Empire?”
     “It seems so.”
     “And do you suppose that Anacreon doesn’t realize that, and is not anxious to emphasize the position of independence – so that it would naturally tend to resent any appearance of threats from the Empire? Particularly when it is evident that the Empire is powerless to fulfill any such threats, or it would never have allowed independence.”
     “But then,” interposed Sutt, “how would Mayor Hardin account for Lord Dorwin’s assurances of Empire support? They seemed – ” He shrugged. “Well, they seemed satisfactory.
     Hardin threw himself back in the chair. “You know, that’s the most interesting part of the whole business. I’ll admit I had thought his Lordship a most consummate donkey when I first met him – but it turned out that he was actually an accomplished diplomat and a most clever man. I took the liberty of recording all his statements.”
     There was a flurry, and Pirenne opened his mouth in horror.
     “What of it?” demanded Hardin. “I realize it was a gross breach of hospitality and a thing no so-called gentleman would do. Also, that if his lordship had caught on, things might have been unpleasant; but he didn’t, and I have the record, and that’s that. I took that record, had it copied out and sent that to Holk for analysis, also.”
     Lundin Crast said, “And where is the analysis?”
     “That,” replied Hardin, “is the interesting thing. The analysis was the most difficult of the three by all odds. When Holk, after two days of steady work, succeeded in eliminating meaningless statements, vague gibberish, useless qualifications – in short, all the goo and dribble – he found he had nothing left. Everything canceled out.
     “Lord Dorwin, gentlemen, in five days of discussion didn’t say one damned thing, and said it so you never noticed. There are the assurances you had from your precious Empire.”
     Hardin might have placed an actively working stench bomb on the table and created no more confusion than existed after his last statement. He waited, with weary patience, for it to die down.
     “So,” he concluded, “when you sent threats – and that’s what they were – concerning Empire action to Anacreon, you merely irritated a monarch who knew better. Naturally, his ego would demand immediate action, and the ultimatum is the result – which brings me to my original statement. We have one week left and what do we do now?”

From FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1951)

Lingua Franca

A lingua franca is a language specifically for trade or otherwise communicating with aliens and/or human colonies with differing tongues. It may or may not be the "official" language of a galactic empire. It can be a real chore creating something every species can speak, with the difficulty rising geometrically with the number of different species.

It is often called something like Common, the Common Speech, the Common Tongue, or Basic.

The language will be simplified, logical, and contain no irregular verbs or similar pointless inconsistencies. Learning an alien language is hard enough as it is without having to deal with the alien equivalent of "knew, known, and knowing"

It can also be valuable if a galactic empire falls. The Lingua Franca will then allow different empire fragments to communicate. Much in the same way that Latin allowed different countries to talk after the fall of the Roman empire, even though Spanish is not much like French. And, like Latin, it could become the official language of scholars.

  • Basic (or Anglic): Andre Norton's space operas
  • Esperanto: Harry Harrison's novels. This is a real-world attempt at a lingua franca. Harrison is always promoting Esperanto in his novels, but it still does not catch on. Lojban is better at any rate.
  • Federation Standard: Star Trek
  • Galach: Frank Herbert's Dune novels
  • Galactic Basic: Star Wars
  • Galactic Standard: Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy
  • Galacto: Edmond Hamilton's Starwolf Trilogy
  • Galanglic: The Traveller role playing game
  • Galactese: Frank Herbert's The Godmakers
  • Galbasic: Andre Norton's Cat's Eye
  • Galingua: Brian Aldiss' Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand
  • GalLing (galactic lingua franca): Janet Kagan's Hellspark. It only uses phonemes common to all human languages for ease of use (by humans).
  • Imperial Universum: James Schmitz's The Witches of Karres
  • Intergalact: Harry Harrison's No War, Or Battle's Sound
  • Interlac: Babylon 5
  • Interlingua: David Gerrold's Space Skimmer
  • League Latin: Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League novels. Official trade language of the merchant princes, because communication makes it so much more easy to sell things to aliens.
  • Lingua Terra: Robert Heinlein's Tunnel In The Sky, H. Beam Piper's Space Viking
  • Lingua Spatia: John Brunner's Born Under Mars.
  • Symbospeech: Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth. This originally designed for Human and insectoid Tranx vocal cords. But as it turned out other aliens could handle it as well, thus becoming a de facto lingua franca.
  • Tongue: Alastair Reynold's House of Suns
  • Trade: Liaden novels (because that is mostly what it is used for)
  • Triplanetarian: E. E. "Doc" Smith's Triplanetary

A lingua franca also known as a bridge language, common language, trade language or vehicular language, is a language or dialect systematically (as opposed to occasionally, or casually) used to make communication possible between people who do not share a native language or dialect, particularly when it is a third language that is distinct from both native languages.

Lingua francas have developed around the world throughout human history, sometimes for commercial reasons (so-called "trade languages") but also for cultural, religious, diplomatic and administrative convenience, and as a means of exchanging information between scientists and other scholars of different nationalities. The term originates with one such language, Mediterranean Lingua Franca.


Lingua franca is a term defined functionally, that is "independently of the linguistic history or structure of the language". Pidgins and creoles often function as lingua francas, but many such languages are neither pidgins nor creoles.

Whereas a vernacular language is used as a native language in a community, a lingua franca is used beyond the boundaries of its original community and is used as a second language for communication between groups. For example, English is a vernacular in the United Kingdom but is used as a lingua franca in the Philippines and India. Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Turkish and French serve a similar purpose as industrial/educational lingua francas in many areas.

International auxiliary languages such as Esperanto have not had a great degree of adoption globally so they cannot be described as global lingua francas.


The term lingua franca originated as the name of a particular language that was used around the eastern Mediterranean Sea as the main language of commerce and diplomacy, from late medieval times, especially during the Renaissance era, to the 18th century. At that time, Italian-speakers dominated seaborne commerce in the port cities of the Ottoman Empire and a simplified version of Italian, including many loan words from Greek, Old French, Portuguese, Occitan, and Spanish as well as Arabic and Turkish came to be widely used as the "lingua franca" (in the generic sense used) of the region.

In Lingua Franca (the specific language), lingua means a language, as in Portuguese and Italian, and franca is related to phrankoi in Greek and faranji in Arabic as well as the equivalent Italian. In all three cases, the literal sense is "Frankish", but the name was actually applied to all Western Europeans during the late Byzantine Empire.

The Douglas Harper Etymology Dictionary states that the term Lingua Franca (as the name of the particular language) was first recorded in English during the 1670s, although an even earlier example of the use of Lingua Franca in English is attested from 1632, where it is also referred to as "Bastard Spanish".

As recently as the late 20th century, the use of the generic term was restricted by some to mean only hybrid languages that are used as vehicular languages, its original meaning, but it now refers to any vehicular language.


Main article: List of lingua francas

The use of lingua francas has existed since antiquity. Latin and Koine Greek were the lingua francas of the Roman Empire and the Hellenistic culture. Akkadian and then Aramaic remained the common languages of a large part of Western Asia from several earlier empires. Examples of lingua francas remain numerous and exist on every continent. The most obvious example as of the early 21st century is English, which could be defined as the main lingua franca but there are many other lingua francas, such as French, Spanish, Urdu, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, German, Arabic, Bengali, Mandarin, Turkish and Swahili.

In certain countries, the lingua franca is also the national language. Urdu is the lingua franca of Pakistan as well as the national language.

Indonesian has the same function in Indonesia, but Javanese has more native speakers. Still, Indonesian is the sole official language and is spoken, often as a second language, throughout the country.

Finally, the only documented widespread lingua franca to be a sign language is Plains Indian Sign Language, used across much of North America. It was used as a second language across many indigenous peoples. Alongside or a derivation of Plains Indian Sign Language was Plateau Sign Language, now extinct. Inuit Sign Language could be a similar case in the Arctic among the Inuit for communication across oral language boundaries, but little research exists.

From the Wikipedia entry for LINGUA FRANCA

      Of course, there was a communications problem.
     With eleven thousand inhabited planets (at last known census), that implies eleven thousand local languages. At least.
     More than a few of those planets were divided into nations. More than a few of those nations were multi-cultured. Many of those cultures had several different languages — technical, literate, colloquial and argot. Plus subdivisions. Not to mention dialects.

     So the Empire distributed the Oracle machines, gave them out freely to its member states. The standardized keyboard-and-scanning-plate configuration of the machines was familiar from one end of known space to the other; anyone with access to an Oracle and a translating tab could read information out of any other stasis bite in existence.

(ed note: Oracle tab "stasis bites" are like USB flash drives containing eBooks,
translating tabs are flash drives containing an Oracle format Interlingua-to-your-language translation database,
and the Oracle proper is like an eBook reader.
Unlike contemporary data formats, the Oracle format has been frozen for hundreds of years. This is to avoid the digital preservation problem, e.g., why you cannot read the data on your old floppy disks.)

     The Empire hadn't collapsed overnight, but just how long the collapse had taken and to what extent it had occurred, no one knew.
     The collapse of the Empire meant the collapse of organized communications.
     A few straggling ships every now and then, some unreliable rumors, and the occasional wisp of years-old radio waves — too many member planets knew too little of what had happened.

     But even as the Empire died, it was proving its power. It left as its legacy a universal standard for all men—the Oracle machines and the language.
     Interlingua had been the language of trade and the language of science. Without the Empire, it was a dead language — but like a language called Latin known millennia earlier, it continued to be taught and used, first in the hope that the Empire might be resurrected, then later with the realization that the language was now the only link left to the other worlds of men. A man who spoke Interlingua could travel anywhere and survive. He could make his wants known, he could converse and he could trade.

     Without the Empire, trade still continued—not on the same vast scale, of course, but between neighboring systems. It was enough to keep the language alive.
     Interlingua was also the language of the Oracle machines; they still remained. The cultural heritage of mankind was not lost; it merely lay scattered across the galaxy in a thousand thousand machines and in a million million tabs. It was there for the asking — it needed only a man to reach for it. The knowledge waited for a man to begin the arduous task of once more gathering it all together.

From SPACE SKIMMER by David Gerrold (1972)

The Nevians being as eager as the Terrestrials to establish communication, Nerado kept the newly devised frequency changer in constant use. There is no need of describing at length the details of that interchange of languages. Suffice it to say that starting at the very bottom they learned as babies learn, but with the great advantage over babies of possessing fully developed and capable brains. And while the human beings were learning the tongue of Nevia, several of the amphibians (and incidentally Clio Marsden) were learning Triplanetarian; the two officers knowing well that it would be much easier for the Nevians to learn the logically-built common language of the Three Planets than to master the senseless intricacies of English.

From TRIPLANETARY by E.E."Doc" Smith (1934)

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Lojban's predecessor Loglan had as one of the motives for its creation a possible test for the controversial Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. The hope was that speaking and thinking in Lojban would amplify ones effective intelligence. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been explored in several SF novels.

In the SF story "Gulf" by Robert Heinlein (mentioned above), the Speedtalk language allows the user to manipulate symbols about seven times as faster than an English thinker.

David Freiberg brought my attention to the constructed language called Ithkuil. It apparently is more logical than Loglan, has a speed approaching the fictional Speedtalk, and also was intented to leverage the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.

In George Orwell's novel 1984, the language Newspeak was invented as yet another tool for the totalitarian government to oppress the people. After all, it is difficult to even think about a revolution, much less plot one with co-conspirators, if you do not even have a word for revolution.

In Samuel R. Delany's novel Babel-17 the synthetic language allows the enemy nation to think faster and more effectively. But the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is used to add a booby trap to the language to ensnare Our Heroes. To say more would be a spoiler, refer to the link for more details.

Other examples of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis in SF include Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao, Iain M. Banks's The Culture series (Marain), Fred Hoyle's novel The Black Cloud, Ayn Rand's novel Anthem, Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash (Sumerian), and Robert A. Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land (Martian).

In the real world, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has fallen out of favor. Jon Brase puts it this way:

The problem with Sapir–Worf is that it is simultaneously mindnumbingly obvious (a great part of what goes on inside our heads is verbal, and thus our language will affect every process of thought that relies on it for a source of symbols), and utter bilge (A useful human language probably has to be Turing complete, and not everything that goes on inside our heads is verbal. Some of our thoughts take the form of simply imagining an image). In other words, the Sapir–Worf hypothesis is such a broad and ill-defined concept that you can essentially prove or disprove it from whatever data you please.

A Newspeak type language where a revolution cannot occur because there is no word for revolution is... bilge. You can formulate the concept of a revolution from words whose primary use is for, say, computer programming. "I don't like this program. The source code is ill maintained spaghetti code, and still supports features that were dropped 3 versions ago. Let's delete it and write a new one."

"I don't like this government. The constitution is ill-maintained spaghetti code (and buggy too!), and still has provisions for things that haven't mattered for three centuries. Let's delete the government and write a new consitution."

Jon Brase

'You haven't a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,' he said almost sadly. 'Even when you write it you're still thinking in Oldspeak. I've read some of those pieces that you write in the Times occasionally. They're good enough, but they're translations. In your heart you'd prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don't grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?'...

'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make Thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we're not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.'

From 1984 by George Orwell (1948)
Babylon 5

      POLITICAL OFFICER JULIE MUSANTE: Anyway, enough politics. How are things here on the station?

     BABYLON 5 STATION COMMANDER SHERIDAN: Fine. Status quo. We've had a few problems with the lurkers, but nothing --

     JULIE MUSANTE: Lurkers?

     SHERIDAN: Our version of the homeless. In some ways we have the same problems Earth does.

     JULIE MUSANTE: Earth doesn't have homeless.

     SHERIDAN: Excuse me?

     JULIE MUSANTE: We don't have the problem. Sure, there are a few... displaced people here and there, but they've chosen to be in that position. They're lazy, or criminal, or mentally unstable --

     SHERIDAN: They can't get a job.

     JULIE MUSANTE: Earthgov has promised a job for anyone who wants one. If someone doesn't have a job, it must be because they don't want one. Quid pro quo. ( She says it with the air of a true believer, as though dropping some totally accepted fact. Sheridan is boggled. )

     SHERIDAN: And poverty?

     JULIE MUSANTE: The same.

     SHERIDAN: Crime?

     JULIE MUSANTE: There's some, but it's all caused by the mentally unstable. We've just instituted correctional centers to filter them out at an early age.

     SHERIDAN: Prejudice?

     We're just one happy planet. Well, except for the Marsies, but that won't change until they stop fighting Earth rule.

     SHERIDAN: And when, exactly, did all this happen?

     JULIE MUSANTE: When we rewrote the dictionary.
     Captain, you're a good man. A fine soldier. A leader. You understand that before you can deal with a problem sometimes you have to...redefine it.

     SHERIDAN: You don't deal with problems by pretending they don't exist.

     JULIE MUSANTE: Why embarrass our leaders by pointing out flaws in society that they're aware of and dealing with in their own time, in their own way? Some people enjoy finding fault with our leaders: they're anarchists, trouble makers, or simply unpatriotic. None of which describes you. Do you want people thinking otherwise, Captain?

(The "cloud" is an intelligent alien creature whose body is a small space nebula. It has to leave the solar system soon on a pressing errand, but it wants to leave us humans on Terra a bit of its wisdom)

     "...But there's another question that I want to ask." Kingsley then asked (the cloud) his question:
     "You will have noticed that we have made no attempt to ask for information concerning physical theories and facts that are not known to us. This omission was not due to any lack of interest, but because we felt ample opportunities would present themselves at a later stage. Now it appears that the opportunities will not present themselves. Have you any suggestions as to how we may occupy what little time remains to the best advantage?"
     The answer came:
     "This is a matter to which I have also given some attention. There is a crucial difficulty here. Our discussions have been carried out in your language. We have therefore been limited to ideas that can be understood in terms of your language, which is to say that we have been essentially limited to the things you know already. No rapid communication of radically new knowledge is possible unless you learn something of my language.
     "This raises two points, one of practice and the other the vital issue of whether the human brain possesses an adequate neurological capacity. To the latter question I know no certain answer, but there seems to be some evidence that justifies a measure of optimism...

     ...The Cloud resumed its message:
     "All this suggests that the human brain is inherently capable of a far improved performance, provided learning is always induced in the best way. And this is what I would propose to do. I propose that one or more of you should attempt to learn my method of thinking and that this be induced as profitably as possible. Quite evidently the learning process must lie outside your language, so that communication will have to proceed in a very different fashion. Of your sense organs, the best suited to the receiving of complex information is your eyes. It is true that you scarcely use the eyes in ordinary language, but it is mainly through the eyes that a child builds up his picture of the intricate world around him. And it is through the eyes that I intend to open up a new world to you.
     "My requirements will be comparatively simple. I will now describe them." Then followed technical details that were carefully noted by Leicester. When the Cloud had finished Leicester remarked:
     "Well, this isn't going to be too difficult. A number of filter circuits and a whole bank of cathode ray tubes."
     "But how are we to get the information?" asked Marlowe.
     "Well, of course primarily by radio, then through the discriminating circuits which filter different bits of the messages to the various tubes."
     "There are codes for the various filters."
     "That's right. So some sort of an ordered pattern can be put on the tubes, although it beats me as to what we shall be able to make of it."...

     ..."If everybody else is too bashful, I guess I'm willing to be first guinea pig." McNeil gave him a long look.
     "There's just one point, Weichart. You realise that this business may carry with it an element of danger? You're quite clear on that, I suppose?" Weichart laughed.
     "Don't worry about that. This won't be the first time I've spent a few hours watching cathode ray tubes."
     "Very well, then. If you're willing to try, by all means take the chair."
     Shortly after this, lights began to flash on the tubes...

     ..."How's it going, Dave?" No answer.
     "Hey, Dave, what's going on?"
     Still no answer.
     Marlowe and McNeil came one to each side of Weichart's chair.
     "Dave, why don't you answer?"
     McNeil touched him on the shoulder, but there was still no response. They watched his eyes, fixed on first one group of tubes, then flicking quickly to another.
     "What is it, John?" asked Kingsley.
     "I think he's in some hypnotic state. He doesn't seem to be noticing any sense data except from the eyes, and they seem to be directed only at the tubes."...

     ..."I don't like the position, Chris. His temperature is rising rapidly. There isn't much point in your going in to see him. He's not in a coherent state, and not likely to be with a temperature at 104°."
     "Have you any idea what's wrong?"
     "I obviously can't be sure, because I've never encountered a case like this before. But if I didn't know what had happened, I'd have said Weichart was suffering from an inflammation of brain tissue."
     "That's very serious, isn't it?"
     "Extremely so. There's very little that any of us can do for him, but I thought you'd like to know."
     "Yes, of course. Have you any idea what may have caused it?"
     "Well, I'd say too high a rate of working, too great a demand of the neurological system on all the supporting tissues. But again it's only an opinion." Weichart's temperature continued to rise during the day and in the late afternoon he died...

     ..."He's gone" announced the Irishman.
     "My God, what a dreadful tragedy, an unnecessary tragedy."
     "Aye, man, a bigger tragedy than you realise."
     "What d'you mean?"
     "I mean it was touch and go whether he saved himself. In the afternoon he was sane for nearly an hour. He told me what the trouble was. He fought it down and as the minutes passed I thought he was going to win out. But it wasn't to be. He got into another attack and it killed him."
     "But what was it?"
     "Something obvious, that we ought to have foreseen. What we didn't allow for was the tremendous quantity of new material which the Cloud seems able to impress on the brain. This of course means that there must be widespread changes of the structure of a mass of electrical circuits in the brain, changes of synaptic resistances on a big scale, and so on."
     "You mean it was a sort of gigantic brain-washing?"
     "No, it wasn't. That's just the point. There was no washing. The old methods of operation of the brain were not washed out. They were left unimpaired. The new was established alongside the old, so that both were capable of working simultaneously."
     "You mean that it was as if my knowledge of science were suddenly added to the brain of an ancient Greek."
     "Yes, but perhaps in a more extreme form. Can you imagine the fierce contradictions that would arise in the brain of your poor Greek, accustomed to such notions as the Earth being the centre of the Universe and a hundred and one other such anachronisms, suddenly becoming exposed to the blast of your superior knowledge?"
     "I suppose it would be pretty bad. After all we get quite seriously upset if just one of our cherished scientific ideas turns out wrong."
     "Yes, think of a religious person who suddenly loses faith, which means of course that he becomes aware of a contradiction between his religious and his non-religious beliefs. Such a person often experiences a severe nervous crisis. And Kingsley's case was a thousand times worse. He was killed by the sheer violence of his nervous activity, in a popular phrase by a serious of unimaginably fierce brain-storms."
     "But you said he nearly got over it."
     "That's right, he did. He realised what the trouble was and evolved some sort of plan for dealing with it. Probably he decided to accept as rule that the new should always supersede the old whenever there was trouble between them. I watched him for a whole hour systematically going through his ideas along some such lines. As the minutes ticked on I thought the battle was won. Then it happened. Perhaps it was some unexpected conjunction of thought patterns that took him unaware. At first the disturbance seemed small, but then it began to grow. He tried desperately to fight it down. But evidently it gained the upper hand - and that was the end. He died under the sedative I was forced to give him. I think it was a kind of chain reaction in his thoughts that got out of control."...

From THE BLACK CLOUD by Fred Hoyle (1957)

General Semantics

General Semantics is a science created by polymath Alfred Korzybski. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is closely related. Several important science fiction novels were inspired by this field.


You've probably never heard of Alfred Korzybski, but he was famous in the mid-20th century. He didn't just invent a whole new science, he also had a huge influence on Robert A. Heinlein and a ton of other important science fiction authors. Author Lee Konstantinou brings us the strange tale of Count Korzybski.

L. Ron Hubbard once supposedly bet Robert A. Heinlein that he could make more money by founding a religion than Heinlein could by writing a work of science fiction. Heinlein responded by writing his classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Hubbard, meanwhile, created Dianetics and Scientology.

Though the story is probably false, Hubbard's religious doctrines do bear a remarkable resemblance to aspects of Heinlein's novel. Both Hubbard and Heinlein were fixated on the divergent relationship between words and things. Both assumed that language could, on the one hand, tyrannize us and, on the other, become the means of acquiring tremendous individual power.

This intellectual confluence was no coincidence. Both Golden Age science fiction writers derived some of their most strongly held views from the same source: the polymath Polish "Count," Alfred Korzybski.

Today, Korzybski is either forgotten or regarded as a crank, but at midcentury he was famous. Korzybski inspired a legion of students, and the meta-science of "General Semantics" that he created affected disciplines as diverse as literary criticism, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and cybernetics.

But his most powerful effect might have been on John W. Campbell's Golden Age. Indeed, Korzybski is probably the most important influence on science fiction you've never heard of.

Alfred Korzybski

Alfred Korzybski was a Polish aristocrat who came to North America near the end of World War I after being injured in the war. Trained as an engineer, he created a philosophy he called General Semantics (not to be confused with semantics as a linguistic discipline). General Semantics was part of a much larger philosophical effort, early in the twentieth century, to create a logically ideal language and a contribution to intellectual debates about the so-called "meaning of meaning."

Attempting to build on the work of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, Korzbyski tried to explain, among other things, why humans were uniquely prone to self-slaughter. He hoped, quixotically, that his meta-linguistic system might save us from our own worst tendencies.

He developed his ideas across two books, Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering (1921) and Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933), and through the Institute for General Semantics, which he founded in 1938. The core claim of General Semantics is that the world is not identical to our abstract descriptions of it. Korzybski coined the well-known slogan, "The map is not the territory," to sum up this idea. (witches using sympathetic magic by sticking pins into a voodoo doll would disagree: the map IS the territory. Which E. E. "Doc" Smith noted in passing within "Subspace Encounter")

Manhood of Humanity argued that humans are creatures that have the peculiar capacity to engage in a process called "time-binding," that is, the limitless ability to transmit and abstract knowledge across generations. Time-binding is what, Korzybski thought, distinguishes humans from other animals.

Science and Sanity incorporated the concept of time-binding into a broader theory of human cognition, which tried to explain how empirical phenomenon move through different layers of mental abstraction. Korzybski thought that language and neurology fundamentally limited human understanding, a claim that resembled the more famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Moreover, he argued, we often mistake linguistic abstractions of the world for the world itself. "The word is not the thing," he wrote.

We mistake words for things because Aristotelian concepts have conditioned our thinking. When we use the word "cat," for instance, most of us supposedly take for granted that the word "cat" wholly describes the creature under discussion. But language necessarily, Korzybski emphasized, abstracts from the empirical world. (He called this doctrine "non-allness.") The cat is never only a cat. At best, language can create an incomplete, albeit useful, map of our environment.

To defeat our Aristotelian habits of mind, to help humankind achieve what he called "sanity," Korzybski created a mental and spiritual training regime. He recommended that we achieve a "consciousness of abstracting," an awareness of our own process of abstracting the world, in order to gain a better understanding of what he called "silence on the objective level," the fundamentally non-linguistic nature of reality. Korzybski advised that we engage in a "semantic pause" when confronted with a novel stimulus, a sort of neurocognitive Time Out.

Robert A. Heinlein

In June 1939, Robert A. Heinlein, and his second wife Leslyn, attended a lecture by Korzybski at a local chapter of the Institute of General Semantics in Los Angeles. The young writer was already a fan of Korzybski's ideas — and had first encountered General Semantics in Stuart Chase's The Tyranny of Words (1938). In the system of General Semantics, Heinlein found not only a usable account of how language related to empirical reality, but also a personal methodology for self-improvement. He saw General Semantics as giving him, Heinlein's biographer writes, "the fundamentals of a technology of language, which means a technology of how human beings think."

In a 1941 Worldcon talk entitled "The Discovery of the Future," Heinlein discussed his admiration for Korzybski at some length. In this talk, Heinlein suggested that the "strongest factor" in science fiction — that is, the reason SF fans love the genre — is because it allows readers to engage in "time-binding." Heinlein subtly redefines Korzybski's concept of time-binding to mean the human capacity to reconstruct the past and imagine the future via reading and writing. The very act of writing science fiction, he thought, was an example of future-oriented time-binding.

As the world consumed itself in global war, science fiction might help fans cultivate an orientation toward life that can "be used to protect [their] sanity." Heinlein called this the "scientific method," which he defined as "the ability to look at what goes on around you … listen to what you hear … observe … note facts, suspend your judgment … and make your own predictions." The 1941 talk concludes by describing Korzybski as "at least as great a man as Einstein — at least — because his field is broader."

Korzbyski's ideas also appear throughout Heinlein's fiction. Dr. Lentz, a psychiatrist character in "Blowups Happen," a short story Heinlein first published in 1941 in Astounding Science Fiction, is described as a Korzybski student. An expert in the "theory of abstraction and calculus of statement," Lentz promotes the view that "the human mind can think only in terms of symbols." The psychiatrist is brought into a nuclear power plant to relieve the tension that afflicts its workers. The story was written before any actual nuclear plants were built, and Heinlein imagined that such facilities would necessarily be highly unstable, creating unbearable stress for those who manned them.

Beyond "Blowups Happen," Heinlein mentions Korzybski by name throughout his fiction, in "Gulf" (1949), "Coventry" (1940), The Number of the Beast (1980), To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987),and other stories. Associating Korzybski's idea with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Heinlein also arguably incorporated General Semantics into his most famous novel, Stranger in a Strange Land.

In a fantastic extension of the thesis of linguistic relativity, the novel suggests that language might be the ultimate limiting factor to realizing our human potential. The Martian language gives humans who learn it new psychic powers. Indeed, through his exposure to Martian culture, Valentine Michael Smith becomes more than human — or, more precisely, more human than most self-described humans.

A.E. Van Vogt

Perhaps the most devoted Golden Age adherent of General Semantics was the Canadian science fiction writer A. E. van Vogt. One of the most important writers of the Campbell era, van Vogt was intensely interested in meta-disciplines, that is, in universal systems that might help him make sense of reality-as-a-whole.

His desire for a total, interdisciplinary perspective on existence is already apparent in the stories that were eventually collected in The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950), in which van Vogt invented a meta-science called "Nexialism," "the science of joining in an orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields."

Van Vogt, not surprisingly, was attracted to General Semantics, which promised the universal meta-perspective that he sought. He based his Null-A trilogy directly on General Semantics. As it turned out, The World of Null-A (1948; originally The World of A) was the first modern science fiction novel published as a hardcover by a mainstream publisher. It was a bestseller and introduced Korzybski's ideas to a wide new audience.

The World of Null-A imagines a future where General Semantics has become the basis for human political and social organization. In the novel, the term "Null-A" refers to non-Aristotelian thought, that is, Korzybski's thesis that Aristotelian categories were poorly equipped for objectively capturing the complexity of non-linguistic reality. In 2560 A.D., a great computer called the Games Machine has come to rule the Earth. Created by the governing Institute for General Semantics, the Machine puts candidates through a rigorous assessment in order to select those who will be allowed to emigrate to Venus. Venus has become a semi-Utopian anarchist society, based of course on Korzybski's precepts.

The novel follows the semi-incoherent adventures of Gilbert Gosseyn (Go-Sane!). Early in the games, Gosseyn discovers that he has had a set of false memories implanted into him. Cartoonish villains eventually capture and kill him, and he reawakens in a cloned body on Venus. After returning to Earth, he discovers and must defeat a convoluted galactic conspiracy directed against the solar system and the Null-A philosophy. It's a hot mess of a novel. Korzybski read van Vogt's novel and, like lots of readers, found it compelling but also deeply confusing.

The World of Null-A's relationship to General Semantics was also not entirely clear. Like Heinlein and Hubbard, Van Vogt didn't merely reproduce Korzybski's ideas, but developed them in idiosyncratic ways. Van Vogt's novel suggests, like Stranger in a Strange Land, that one might be able to gain special mental powers — telepathy, telekinesis — through rigorous semantic training.

Damon Knight famously trashed The World of Null-A, calling van Vogt "a pygmy using a giant typewriter." Van Vogt took this criticism to heart and significantly revised the novel. Nonetheless, he wrote in the introduction to the 1970 edition of his book: "I'm making this defense of the book, and revising it, because General Semantics is a worthwhile subject, with meaningful implications, not only in 2560 A.D … but here and now." He republished the novel, in part, to further the mission of General Semantics, to which he remained devoted throughout the 1960s.


I've only been able to broadly sketched Korzybski's ideas and his considerable influence on science fiction. Many other Golden Age writers, such as H. Beam Piper and Reginald Bretnor (see Gilpin's Space), incorporated Korzybski into their fiction. And his influence stretches well beyond the conventional boundaries of the Golden Age.

Frank Herbert, for instance, ghostwrote a nationally syndicated column on General Semantics, under Hayakawa's byline, while writing Dune (1965). Korzybski's ideas are visible in Herbert's depiction of the Bene Gesserit's mental and physical training regime. As Roger Lockhurst argues in his book Science Fiction, Herbert's assimilation of Korzybski put him "in direct lineal descent from Campbellian SF," which Lockhurst takes as reason to challenge any simpleminded distinction between the Golden Age and the New Wave.

More broadly, the idea that the structure of language might have a profound effect on how we experience (or fail to experience) reality has a long pedigree in science fiction. Versions of this idea appear in a range of stories: in Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17 (1966); in the famous Star Trek: TNG episode "Darmok" (1991); in Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life" (1998); and in China Miéville's Embassytown (2011).

All told, Korzybski deserves a more prominent place in our histories of science fiction. Once you know to look for him, you'll find the Polish count — and those he influenced — everywhere. He was an inadvertent giant of the Golden Age.


General semantics is a self improvement and therapy program begun in the 1920s that seeks to regulate human mental habits and behaviors. After partial launches under the names human engineering and humanology, Polish-American originator Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) fully launched the program as general semantics in 1933 with the publication of Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

In Science and Sanity, general semantics is presented as both a theoretical and a practical system whose adoption can reliably alter human behavior in the direction of greater sanity. In the 1947 preface to the third edition of Science and Sanity, Korzybski wrote: "We need not blind ourselves with the old dogma that 'human nature cannot be changed', for we find that it can be changed." However, in the opinion of a majority of psychiatrists, the tenets and practices of general semantics are not an effective way of treating patients with psychological or mental illnesses. While Korzybski considered his program to be empirically based and to strictly follow the scientific method, general semantics has been described as veering into the domain of pseudoscience.

Starting around 1940, university English professor S. I. Hayakawa (1906–1992), speech professor Wendell Johnson, speech professor Irving J. Lee, and others assembled elements of general semantics into a package suitable for incorporation into mainstream communications curricula. The Institute of General Semantics, which Korzybski and co-workers founded in 1938, continues today. General semantics as a movement has waned considerably since the 1950s, although many of its ideas live on in other movements, such as neuro-linguistic programming and rational emotive behavior therapy.


In the 1946 "Silent and Verbal Levels" diagram, the arrows and boxes denote ordered stages in human neuro-evaluative processing that happens in an instant. Although newer knowledge in biology has more sharply defined what the text in these 1946 boxes labels "electro-colloidal", the diagram remains, as Korzybski wrote in his last published paper in 1950, "satisfactory for our purpose of explaining briefly the most general and important points". General semantics postulates that most people "identify," or fail to differentiate the serial stages or "levels" within their own neuro-evaluative processing. "Most people," Korzybski wrote, "identify in value levels I, II, III, and IV and react as if our verbalizations about the first three levels were 'it.' Whatever we may say something 'is' obviously is not the 'something' on the silent levels."

By making it a 'mental' habit to find and keep one's bearings among the ordered stages, general semantics training seeks to sharpen internal orientation much as a GPS device may sharpen external orientation. Once trained, general semanticists affirm, a person will act, respond, and make decisions more appropriate to any given set of happenings. Although producing saliva constitutes an appropriate response when lemon juice drips onto the tongue, a person has inappropriately identified when an imagined lemon or the word "l–e–m–o–n" triggers a salivation response.

"Once we differentiate, differentiation becomes the denial of identity," Korzybski wrote in Science and Sanity. "Once we discriminate among the objective and verbal levels, we learn 'silence' on the unspeakable objective levels, and so introduce a most beneficial neurological 'delay'—engage the cortex to perform its natural function." British-American philosopher Max Black, an influential critic of general semantics, called this neurological delay the "central aim" of general semantics training, "so that in responding to verbal or nonverbal stimuli, we are aware of what it is that we are doing".

In the 21st century, the physiology underlying identification and the neurological delay is thought to involve autoassociative memory, a neural mechanism crucial to intelligence. Briefly explained, autoassociative memory retrieves previously stored representations that most closely conform to any current incoming pattern (level II in the general semantics diagram) arriving from the senses. According to the memory-prediction model for intelligence, if the stored representations resolve the arriving patterns, this constitutes "understanding", and brain activity shifts from evaluation to triggering motor responses. When the retrieved representations do not sufficiently resolve newly arrived patterns, evaluating persists, engaging higher layers of the cortex in an ongoing pursuit of resolution. The additional time required for signals to travel up and down the cortical hierarchy constitutes what general semantics calls a "beneficial neurological delay".

Abstracting and consciousness of abstracting

Identification prevents what general semantics seeks to promote: the additional cortical processing experienced as a delay. Korzybski called his remedy for identification "consciousness of abstracting." The term "abstracting" occurs ubiquitously in Science and Sanity. Korzybski's use of the term is somewhat unusual and requires study to understand his meaning. He discussed the problem of identification in terms of "confusions of orders of abstractions" and "lack of consciousness of abstracting". To be conscious of abstracting is to differentiate among the "levels" described above; levels II-IV being abstractions of level I (whatever level I "is"—all we really get are abstractions). The techniques Korzybski prescribed to help a person develop consciousness of abstracting he called "extensional devices".

Extensional devices

Satisfactory accounts of general semantics extensional devices can be found easily. This article seeks to explain briefly only the "indexing" devices. Suppose you teach in a school or university. Students enter your classroom on the first day of a new term, and, if you identify these new students to a memory association retrieved by your brain, you under-engage your powers of observation and your cortex. Indexing makes explicit a differentiating of studentsthis term from studentsprior terms. You survey the new students, and indexing explicitly differentiates student1 from student2 from student3, etc. Suppose you recognize one student—call her Anna—from a prior course in which Anna either excelled or did poorly. Again, you escape identification by your indexed awareness that Annathis term, this course is different from Annathat term, that course. Not identifying, you both expand and sharpen your apprehension of "students" with an awareness rooted in fresh silent-level observations.

Language as a core concern

Autoassociative memory in the memory-prediction model describes neural operations in mammalian brains generally. A special circumstance for humans arises with the introduction of language components, both as fresh stimuli and as stored representations. Language considerations figure prominently in general semantics, and three language and communications specialists who embraced general semantics, university professors and authors Hayakawa, Wendell Johnson and Neil Postman, played major roles in framing general semantics, especially for non-readers of Science and Sanity.

The science

Many recognized specialists in the knowledge areas where Korzybski claimed to have anchored general semantics—biology, epistemology, mathematics, neurology, physics, psychiatry, etc.— supported his work in his lifetime, including Cassius J. Keyser, C. B. Bridges, W. E. Ritter, P. W. Bridgman, G. E. Coghill, William Alanson White, Clarence B. Farrar, David Fairchild, and Erich Kähler. Korzybski wrote in the preface to the third edition of Science and Sanity (1947) that general semantics "turned out to be an empirical natural science." But the type of existence, if any, of universals and abstract objects is an issue of serious debate within metaphysical philosophy. So Black summed up general semantics as "some hypothetical neurology fortified with dogmatic metaphysics." And in 1952, two years after Korzybski died, American skeptic Martin Gardner wrote, "[Korzybski's] work moves into the realm of cultism and pseudo-science."

Former Institute of General Semantics executive director Steve Stockdale has compared GS to yoga. "First, I'd say that there is little if any benefit to be gained by just knowing something about general semantics. The benefits come from maintaining an awareness of the principles and attitudes that are derived from GS and applying them as they are needed. You can sort of compare general semantics to yoga in that respect... knowing about yoga is okay, but to benefit from yoga you have to do yoga." Similarly, Kenneth Burke explains Korzybski's kind of semantics contrasting it, in A Grammar of Motives, with a kind of Burkean poetry by saying "Semantics is essentially scientist, an approach to language in terms of knowledge, whereas poetic forms are kinds of action".

The major premises

  • Non-Aristotelianism: While Aristotle wrote that a true definition gives the essence of the thing defined (in Greek to ti ên einai, literally "the what it was to be"), general semantics denies the existence of such an 'essence'. In this, general semantics purports to represent an evolution in human evaluative orientation. In general semantics, it is always possible to give a description of empirical facts, but such descriptions remain just that—descriptions—which necessarily leave out many aspects of the objective, microscopic, and submicroscopic events they describe. According to general semantics, language, natural or otherwise (including the language called 'mathematics') can be used to describe the taste of an orange, but one cannot give the taste of the orange using language alone. According to general semantics, the content of all knowledge is structure, so that language (in general) and science and mathematics (in particular) can provide people with a structural 'map' of empirical facts, but there can be no 'identity', only structural similarity, between the language (map) and the empirical facts as lived through and observed by people as humans-in-environments (including doctrinal and linguistic environments).
  • Time binding: The human ability to pass information and knowledge from one generation to the next. Korzybski claimed this to be a unique capacity, separating people from animals. This distinctly human ability for one generation to start where a previous generation left off, is a consequence of the uniquely human ability to move to higher and higher levels of abstraction without limit. Animals may have multiple levels of abstraction, but their abstractions must stop at some finite upper limit; this is not so for humans: humans can have 'knowledge about knowledge','knowledge about knowledge about knowledge', etc., without any upper limit. Animals possess knowledge, but each generation of animals does things pretty much in the same way as the previous generation, limited by their neurology and genetic makeup. For example, at one time most human societies were hunter-gatherers, but now more advanced means of food production (growing, raising, or buying) predominate. Except for some insects (for example, ants), all animals are still hunter-gatherer species, even though many have existed longer than the human species. For this reason, animals are regarded in general semantics as space-binders, and plants, which are usually stationary, as energy-binders.
  • Non-elementalism and non-additivity: The refusal to separate verbally what cannot be separated empirically, and the refusal to regard such verbal splits as evidence that the 'things' that are verbally split bear an additive relation to one another. For example, space-time cannot empirically be split into 'space' + 'time', a conscious organism (including humans) cannot be split into 'body' + 'mind', etc., therefore, people should never speak of 'space' and 'time' or 'mind' and 'body' in isolation, but always use the terms space-time or mind-body (or other organism-as-a-whole terms).
  • Infinite-valued determinism: General semantics regards the problem of 'indeterminism vs. determinism' as the failure of pre-modern epistemologies to formulate the issue properly as the failure to consider or include all factors relevant to a particular prediction, and failure to adjust our languages and linguistic structures to empirical facts. General semantics resolves the issue in favor of determinism of a special kind called 'infinite-valued' determinism which always allows for the possibility that relevant 'causal' factors may be 'left out' at any given date, resulting in, if the issue is not understood at that date, 'indeterminism', which simply indicates that our ability to predict events has broken down, not that the world is 'indeterministic'. General semantics considers all human behavior (including all human decisions) as, in principle, fully determined once all relevant doctrinal and linguistic factors are included in the analysis, regarding theories of 'free will' as failing to include the doctrinal and linguistic environments as environments in the analysis of human behavior.

Connections to other disciplines

The influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, and of early operationalists and pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce, is particularly clear in the foundational ideas of general semantics. Korzybski himself acknowledged many of these influences.

The concept of "silence on the objective level" — attributed to Korzybski and his insistence on consciousness of abstracting — are parallel to some of the central ideas in Zen Buddhism. Although Korzybski never acknowledged any influence from this quarter, he formulated general semantics during the same years that the first popularizations of Zen were becoming part of the intellectual currency of educated speakers of English. On the other hand, later Zen-popularizer Alan Watts was influenced by ideas from general semantics.

L. Ron Hubbard claimed to have used the theory in his creation of Dianetics and acknowledged this in the books Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, Science of Survival, and Scientology 8008.

General semantics has survived most profoundly in the cognitive therapies that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Albert Ellis (1913–2007), who developed Rational emotive behavior therapy, acknowledged influence from general semantics and delivered the Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture in 1991. The Bruges (Belgium) center for Solution Focused Therapy operates under the name Korzybski Institute Training and Research Center. George Kelly, creator of personal construct psychology, was influenced by general semantics. Fritz Perls and Paul Goodman, founders of Gestalt therapy are said to have been influenced by Korzybski Wendell Johnson wrote "People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment" in 1946, which stands as the first attempt to form a therapy from general semantics

Ray Solomonoff (July 25, 1926 – December 7, 2009) was influenced by Korzybski. Solomonoff was the inventor of algorithmic probability, and founder of algorithmic information theory (a.k.a. Kolmogorov complexity). Another scientist influenced by Korzybski (verbal testimony) is Paul Vitanyi (born July 21, 1944), a scientist in the theory of computation.

During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, general semantics entered the idiom of science fiction. Notable examples include the works of A. E. van Vogt, The World of Null-A and its sequels. General semantics appear also in Robert A. Heinlein's work, especially Gulf. Bernard Wolfe drew on general semantics in his 1952 science fiction novel Limbo. Frank Herbert's novels Dune and Whipping Star are also indebted to general semantics. The ideas of general semantics became a sufficiently important part of the shared intellectual toolkit of genre science fiction to merit parody by Damon Knight and others; they have since shown a tendency to reappear in the work of more recent writers such as Samuel R. Delany, Suzette Haden Elgin and Robert Anton Wilson. In 2008, John Wright extended van Vogt's Null-A series with Null-A Continuum. William Burroughs references Korzybski's time binding principle in his essay The Electronic Revolution, and elsewhere.

Neil Postman, founder of New York University's media ecology program in 1971, edited ETC.: A Review of General Semantics from 1976 to 1986. Postman's student Lance Strate, a co-founder of the Media Ecology Association, served as executive director of the Institute of General Semantics from 2007 to 2010.

From the Wikipedia entry for GENERAL SEMANTICS

(ed note: The protagonists are in charge of the first atomic power plant. If the operators make one little mistake the plant will go up in an explosion that will melt the North American continent down to bedrock. The operators are under lots of stress so they are constantly observed by psychologists. Which of course increases the stress. This is a problem.)

      King ceased pacing the floor and faced the doctor. "But there must be some solution — " he insisted.
     Silard shook his head. "It's beyond me, Superintendent. I see no solution from the standpoint of psychology."
     "No? Hmm—Doctor, who is the top man in your field?"
     "Who is the recognized number-one man in handling this sort of thing?"
     "Why, that's hard to say. Naturally, there isn't any one, leading psychiatrist in the world; we specialize too much. I know what you mean, though. You don't want the best industrial temperament psychometrician; you want the" best all-around man for psychoses non-lesional and situational. That would be Lentz."
     "Go on."
     "Well — he covers the whole field of environment adjustment. He's the man that correlated the theory of optimum tonicity with the relaxation technique that Korzybski had developed empirically. He actually worked under, Korzybski himself, when he was a young student—it's the only thing he's vain about."
     "He did? Then he must be pretty old; Korzybski died in — What year did he die?" (this story was written in 1940, story is set in the future year circa 1975, in reality Korzybski died in 1950)
     "I started to say that you must know his work in symbology—theory of abstraction and calculus of statement, all that sort of thing—because of its applications to engineering and mathematical physics."
     "That Lentz—yes, of course. But I had never thought of him as a psychiatrist."
     "No, you wouldn't, in your field. Nevertheless, we are inclined to credit him with having done as much to check and reduce the pandemic neuroses of the Crazy Years as any other man, and more than any man left alive."
     "Where is he?"
     "Why, Chicago, I suppose. At the Institute."
     "Get him here. Get him down here. Get on that visiphone and locate him. Then have Steinke call the Port of Chicago, and hire a stratocar to stand by for him. I want to see him as soon as possible—before the day is out." King sat up in his chair with the air of a man who is once more master of himself and the situation. His spirit knew that warming replenishment that comes only with reaching a decision. The harassed expression was gone.
     Silard looked dumbfounded. "But, superintendent," he expostulated, "you can't ring for Doctor Lentz as if he were a junior clerk. He's—he's Lentz."
     "Certainly—that's why I want him. But I'm not a neurotic clubwoman looking for sympathy, either. He'll come. If necessary, turn on the heat from Washington. Have the White House call him. But get him here at once. Move!" King strode out of the office.

(ed note: King talks with Doctor Lentz)

     King was reminded again of something that had bothered him from the time Silard had first suggested Lentz' name. "May I ask a personal question?"
     The merry eyes were undisturbed. "Go ahead."
     "I can't help but be surprised that one man should attain eminence in two such widely differing fields as psychology and mathematics. And right now I'm perfectly convinced of your ability to pass yourself off as a physicist. I don't understand it."
     The smile was more amused, without being in the least patronizing, nor offensive. "Same subject," he answered.
     "Eh? How's that — "
     "Or rather, both mathematical physics and psychology are branches of the same subject, symbology. You are a specialist; it' would not necessarily come to your attention."
     "I still don't follow you."
     "No? Man lives in a world of ideas. Any phenomenon is so complex that he cannot possibly grasp the whole of it. He abstracts certain characteristics of a given phenomenon as an idea, then represents that idea as a symbol, be it a word or a mathematical sign. Human reaction is almost entirely reaction to symbols, and only negligibly to phenomena. As a matter of fact," he continued, removing the cigarette holder from his mouth and settling into his subject, "it can be demonstrated that the human mind can think only in terms of symbols.
     "When we think, we let symbols operate on other symbols in certain set fashions—rules of logic, or rules of mathematics. If the symbols have been abstracted so that they are structurally similar to the phenomena they stand for, and if the symbol operations are similar in structure and order to the operations of phenomena in the 'real' world, we think sanely. If our logic-mathematics, or our word-symbols, have been poorly chosen, we think not sanely.
     "In mathematical physics you are concerned with making your symbology fit physical phenomena. In psychiatry I am concerned with precisely the same thing, except that I am more immediately concerned with the man who does the thinking than with the phenomena he is thinking about. But the same subject, always the same subject."

(ed note: Dr. Lentz concludes there is no solution to the problem of atomic plant operators cracking up mentally, short of shutting down the reactor. Because the operators are responding rationally to being responsible for an atomic reactor that could wipe out the human race in an eyeblink. But then nuclear physicist Dr. Harper announces that he has discovered how to use the plant to create atomic rocket fuel.)

     "Wait a minute." Lentz had the floor. "Doctor Harper…have you already achieved a practical rocket fuel?"
     "I said so. We've got it on hand now."
     "An escape-speed fuel?" They understood his verbal shorthand a fuel that would lift a rocket free of the earth's gravitational pull.
     "Sure. Why, you could take any of the Clipper (suborbital) rockets, refit them a trifle, and have breakfast on the moon."
     "Very well. Bear with me…" He obtained a sheet of paper from King, and commenced to write. They watched in mystified impatience. He continued briskly for some minutes, hesitating only momentarily. Presently he stopped, and spun the paper over to King. "Solve it!" he demanded.
     King studied the paper. Lentz had assigned symbols to a great number of factors, some social, some psychological, some physical, some economic. He had thrown them together into a structural relationship, using the symbols of calculus of statement. King understood the paramathematical operations indicated by the symbols, but he was not as used to them as he was to the symbols and operations of mathematical physics. He plowed through the equations, moving his lips slightly in subconscious vocalization.
     He accepted a pencil from Lentz, and completed the solution. It required several more lines, a few more equations, before they cancelled out, or rearranged themselves, into a definite answer.
     He stared at this answer while puzzlement gave way to dawning comprehension and delight.
     He looked up. "Erickson! Harper!" he rapped out. "We will take your new fuel, refit a large rocket, install the breeder pile (atomic reactor) in it, and throw it into an orbit around the earth, far out in. space. There we will use it to make more fuel, safe fuel, for use on earth, with the danger from the Big Bomb itself limited to the operators actually on watch!" (which will remove the danger of the atomic reactor exploding and making the human race extinct, and incidentally lower the stress on the operators to the point where they will stop suffering psychological breakdowns)
     There was no applause. It was not that sort of an idea; their minds were still struggling with the complex implications.
     "But Chief," Harper finally managed, "how about your retirement? We're still not going to stand for it."
     "Don't worry," King assured him. "It's all in there, implicit in those equations, you two, me, Lentz, the Board of Directors and just what we all have to do about it to accomplish it."
     "All except the matter of time," Lentz cautioned. "You'll note that elapsed time appears in your answer as an undetermined unknown."
     "Yes…yes, of course. That's the chance we have to take. Let's get busy!"

(ed note: in other words the complicated equation is an example of Psychohistory, much like as in Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy)

From BLOWUPS HAPPEN by Robert Heinlein (1940)

      Had the science of semantics developed as rapidly as psychodynamics, and its implementing arts of propaganda and mob psychology, the United States might never have fallen into dictatorship, then been forced to undergo the Second Revolution (Nehemiah Scudder is elected president in 2012, and turns the US into a religious dictatorship. It is overthrown by the second revolution in early 2100). All of the scientific principles embodied in the Covenant which marked the end of the revolution were formulated as far back as the first quarter of the twentieth century.

     But the work of the pioneer semanticists, C. K. Ogden in England and Alfred Korzybski in the United States, were known to but a handful of students, whereas psychodynamics, under the impetus of repeated wars and the frenzy of high-pressure merchandising, progressed by leaps and bounds. It is true that the mathematical aspects of semantics, as developed by Albert Einstein, Eric T. Bell, and others, were well known, even popular, but the charlatans who practiced the pseudoscience of sociology resisted every effort to apply the methods of science to their monopoly.

     Semantics, “the meaning of meaning,” as Ogden expressed it, or “theory of evaluations,” as Korzybski preferred to call it, gave a method for the first time of applying the scientific viewpoint and procedure to every act of everyday life. Because semantics dealt with spoken and written words as a determining aspect of human behavior, it was at first mistakenly thought by many to be concerned only with words and of interest only to professional word manipulators, such as advertising copy writers and professors of etymology. A handful of unorthodox psychiatrists alone attempted to apply it to personal human problems, but their work was swept away by the epidemic mass psychoses that destroyed Europe and returned the United States to the Dark Ages.

     The Covenant was the first scientific social document eyer drawn up by a man, and due credit must be given to its principal author. Colonel Micah Novak, the same Novak who served as staff psychologist in the revolution. The revolutionists wished to establish in the United States the maximum personal liberty possible for every one. Given the data—the entire social matrix— how could they accomplish that, to a degree of high mathematical probability?

     First they junked all previous concepts of justice. Examined semantically, justice lias no referent— there is no observable phenomenon in the space-time-matter continuum to which one can point and say, “This is justice.” Science can deal only with that which can be observed and measured. Justice is not such a matter; it can never have the same meaning to one as to another; any “noises” said about it will only add to confusion.

     But damage, physical or economic, could be pointed to and measured. Citizens were forbidden by the Covenant to damage another, and laws were passed to anticipate such damage. Any act not leading to damage, physical or economic, to some person, they declared to be legal.

     As they had abandoned the concept of justice, there could be no rational standards of punishment. Penology took its place with lycanthropy and other forgotten witchcrafts. Yet, since it was not practical to permit a probable source of danger to remain in the community, social offenders were examined and potential repeaters were given their choice of psychological readjustment, or of having society withdraw itself from them—Coventry (a large region of the United States surrounded by a force-field. Offenders who refuse psychological readjustment are put inside, to live in the dog-eat-dog environment. At any time they can request to leave Coventry and undergo psychological readjustment).

     During the formulation of the Covenant, some assumed that the socially unsane would naturally be forced to undergo hospitalization for readjustment, particularly since current psychiatry was quite competent to cure all nonlesioned psychoses and cure or alleviate lesional psychoses, but Novak set his face against this and opposed it with all the power of his strong and, subtle intellect. “Not so!” he argued. “The government must never again be permitted to tamper with the mind of any citizen without his consent, or else we set up a means of greater tyranny than we have ever experienced. Every man must be free to accept, or reject, the Covenant, even though we think him insane!”

From COVENTRY by Robert Heinlein (1940)

(ed note: the Cundaloans and the Skontaran had an interstellar war, and both civilizations industries were badly damaged. The Terran empire graciously offers aid. Sadly, the Cundaloans were not smart enough to beware of Earthmen bearing gifts.

On Cundaloa, the Terrans start suppressing Cundaloan culture and remaking them into the Terran model. They sneer at reports of Skontarans making do without Terran help, but keeping Skontaran culture)

      (Terran advisor lectures the Cundaloan governor Vahino) “Well, without indulging in chauvinism, I think all Cundaloans should be taught Solarian. They’ll use it at some time or other in their lives. Certainly all your scientists and technicians will have to use it professionally. The languages of Laui and Muara and the rest are beautiful, but they just aren’t suitable for scientific concepts. Why, the agglutination alone—Frankly, your philosophical books read to me like so much gibberish. Beautiful, but almost devoid of meaning. Your language lacks—precision.”
     “Aracles and Vranamaui were always regarded as models of crystal thought,” said Vahino wearily. “And I confess to not quite grasping your Kant and Russell and even Korzybski—but then, I lack training in such lines of thought. No doubt you are right. The younger generation will certainly agree with you.

     “And it’s not that they (the Skontarans) lack resources, natural or otherwise. It’s that, having virtually flung our offer of help back in our faces, they’ve taken themselves out of the main stream of Galactic civilization. Why, they’re even trying to develop scientific concepts and devices we knew a hundred years ago, and are getting so far off the track that I’d laugh if it weren’t so pathetic. Their language, like yours, just isn’t adapted to scientific thought, and they’re carrying chains of rusty tradition around. I’ve seen some of the spaceships they’ve designed themselves, for instance, instead of copying Solarian models, and they’re ridiculous. Half a hundred different lines of approach, trying desperately to find the main line we took long ago. Spheres, ovoids, cubes—I hear someone even thinks he can build a tetrahedral spaceship!”
     “It might just barely be possible,” mused Vahino. “The Riemannian geometry on which the interstellar drive itself is based would permit—”
     “No, no! Earth tried that sort of thing and found it didn’t work. Only a crank—and, isolated, the scientists of Skontar are becoming a race of cranks—would think so.
     “We humans were just fortunate, that’s all. Even we had a long history before a culture arose with the mentality appropriate to a scientific civilization. Before that, technological progress was almost at a standstill. Afterward, we reached the stars. Other races can do it, but first they’ll have to adopt the proper civilization, the proper mentality—and without our guidance, Skontar or any other planet isn’t likely to evolve that mentality for many centuries to come.
     “Which reminds me—” Lombard fumbled in a pocket. “I have a journal here, from one of the Skontaran philosophical societies. A certain amount of communication still does take place, you know; there’s no official embargo on either side. It’s just that Sol has given Skang up as a bad job. Anyway”—he fished out a magazine—“there’s one of their philosophers, Dyrin, who’s doing some new work on general semantics which seems to be arousing quite a furor. You read Skontaran, don’t you?”
     “Yes,” said Vahino. “I was in military intelligence during the war. Let me see—” He leafed through the journal to the article and began translating aloud:
     “The writer’s previous papers show that the principle of nonelementalism is not itself altogether a universal, but must be subject to certain psychomathematical reservations arising from consideration of the broganar—that’s a word I don’t understand—field, which couples to electronic wave-nuclei and—”
     “What is that jabberwocky?” exploded Lombard.
     “I don’t know,” said Vahino helplessly. “The Skontaran mind is as alien to me as to you.”
     “Gibberish,” said Lombard. “With the good old Skontaran to-hell-with-you dogmatism thrown in.” He threw the magazine on the little bronze brazier, and fire licked at its thin pages. “Utter nonsense, as anyone with any knowledge of general semantics, or even an atom of common sense, can see.” He smiled crookedly, a little sorrowfully and shook his head. “A race of cranks!”

(ed note: Skorrogan of Skontar had sabotaged efforts of Terra to aid the planet. Fifty years later, Skorrogan rubs governor Thordin nose in how this saved Skontar. )

     Other things had changed, of course. Thordin smiled wryly as he reflected just how much the Valtamate had changed in the last fifty years. It had been Dyrin’s work in general semantics, so fundamental to all the sciences, which had led to the new psychosymbological techniques of government. Skontar was an empire in name only now. It had resolved the paradox of a libertarian state with a nonelective and efficient government. All to the good, of course, and really it was what past Skontaran history had been slowly and painfully evolving toward. But the new science had speeded up the process, compressed centuries of evolution into two brief generations. As physical and biological science had accelerated beyond belief—But it was odd that the arts, music, literature had hardly changed, that handicraft survived, that the old High Naarhaym was still spoken.
     He picked up the microreader and glanced over the pages. His mind training came back to him and he arrished the material. He couldn’t handle the new techniques as easily as those of the younger generation, trained in them from birth, but it was a wonderful help to arrish, complete the integration in his subconscious, and indolate the probabilities. He wondered how he had ever survived the old days of reasoning on a purely conscious level.

     “You won’t find significant art, literature, music here any more—just cheap imitations of Solarian products, or else an archaistic clinging to outmoded native traditions, romantic counterfeiting of the past. You won’t find science that isn’t essentially Solarian, you won’t find machines basically different from Solarian, you’ll find fewer homes every year which can be told from human houses. The old society is dead; only a few fragments remain now. The familial bond, the very basis of native culture, is gone, and marriage relations are as casual as on Earth itself. The old feeling for the land is gone. There are hardly any tribal farms left; the young men are all coming to the cities to earn a million credits. They eat the products of Solarian-type food factories, and you can only get native cuisine in a few expensive restaurants.
     “There are no more handmade pots, no more handwoven cloths. They wear what the factories put out. There are no more bards chanting the old lays and making new ones. They look at the telescreen now. There are no more philosophers of the Araclean or Vranamauian schools, there are just second-rate commentaries on Aristotle versus Korzybski or the Russell theory of knowledge—”
     Skorrogan’s voice trailed off. Thordin said softly, after a moment, “I see what you’re getting at. Cundaloa has made itself over into the Solarian pattern.”
     “You see no nonhuman race will ever make a really successful human. The basic psychologies—metabolic rates, instincts, logical patterns, everything—are too different. One race can think in terms of another’s mentality, but never too well. You know how much trouble there’s been in translating from one language to another. And all thought is in language, and language reflects the basic patterns of thought. The most precise, rigorous, highly thought out philosophy and science of one species will never quite make sense to another race. Because they are making somewhat different abstractions from the same great basic reality.
     “I wanted to save us from becoming Sol’s spiritual dependents. Skang was backward. It had to change its ways. But—why change them into a wholly alien pattern? Why not, instead, force them rapidly along the natural path of evolution—our own path?”
     Skorrogan shrugged. “I did,” he finished quietly. “It was a tremendous gamble, but it worked. We saved our own culture. It’s ours. Forced by necessity to become scientific on our own, we developed our own approach.
     “You know the result. Dyrin’s semantics was developed—Solarian scientists would have laughed it to abortion. We developed the tetrahedral ship, which human engineers said was impossible, and now we can cross the Galaxy while an old-style craft goes from Sol to Alpha Centauri. We perfected the spacewarp, the psychosymbology of our own race—not valid for any other—the new agronomic system which preserved the freeholder who is basic to our culture—everything! In fifty years Cundaloa has been revolutionized, Skontar has revolutionized itself. There’s a universe of difference.

From THE HELPING HAND by Poul Anderson (1950)

The structural differential is a physical chart or three-dimensional model illustrating the abstracting processes of the human nervous system. In one form, it appears as a pegboard with tags. Created by Alfred Korzybski, and awarded a U.S. patent on May 26, 1925, it is used as a training device in general semantics. The device is intended to show that human "knowledge" of, or acquaintance with, anything is partial—not total.

The model

The structural differential consists of three basic objects. The parabola represents a domain beyond our direct observation, the sub-microscopic, dynamic world of molecules, atoms, electrons, protons, quarks, and so on; a world known to us only inferentially from science. Korzybski described it as an 'event' in the sense of "an instantaneous cross-section of a process." Thus the 'event' or parabola represents the sub-microscopic 'stuff' that, at any given moment, constitutes an apple. In other words, the parabola represents the "external" cause of what we experience.

The disc represents the non-verbal result of our nervous systems reacting to submicroscopic "stuff", e.g., the apple that we see, hold, bite into, all on the non-verbal levels of experience. The disc represents what we experience of our surroundings versus what our surroundings actually are.

The labels [usually seven or eight are linked together in a chain, with the last one attached back to the parabola, but here we see just one] are shaped like suitcase labels, and represent the static world of words, e.g., "apple", giving imperfect accounts of dynamic reality. An object called an "apple" left in a jar for months becomes a putrid liquid (because of its underlying, dynamic, sub-microscopic structure), but the label "apple" does not change. The word "steak", at a lower verbal order, may imply "something to eat" at a higher verbal order, but in the sub-microscopic domain, a particular steak may be contaminated with poisons created by harmful bacteria that we could see only on microscopic levels. Thus the differential sets up a hierarchy of order, with the submicroscopic domain of dynamic change coming first, the relatively stable universe conveyed non-verbally by our senses coming next, and then the verbal levels. A label is what we attach to a non-verbal experience in order to identify this experience in verbal terms; when we identify an "apple", we attribute to this identification various non-verbal experiences.

The holes in the figures represent the characteristics that exist at each level. The characteristics that are abstracted to the next level are indicated by the attached strings. The strings that don't make it to the next level represent characteristics left out of our abstractions, as do the holes without strings at all. More is left out of our abstractions at each level than was there at the previous level.

The structural differential was used by Korzybski to demonstrate that human beings abstract from their environments, that these abstractions leave out many characteristics, and that verbal abstractions build on themselves indefinitely, through many orders or levels, represented by seven or eight labels (or less, or more, it is totally arbitrary how many we want to symbolize the higher levels), chained in order. The highest, most reliable abstractions at a date are made by science, he claimed (e.g., science has conveyed the nature and danger of bacteria to us), and that is why he attached the last label back to the parabola. It is science that has told us that the sub-microscopic domain exists, and in general semantics the parabola represents that domain. In general semantics, the natural order of evaluation proceeds from lower orders of abstraction to higher orders of abstraction, and back again in an endless cycle. In these cycles, we return periodically or eventually to "silence on the objective levels" (our ground) before moving on to the higher orders, i.e., before bursting into speech or theory.

General semantics

The general semantics discipline was founded by Korzybski, who gained recognition first with the publication of Manhood of Humanity (1921) and then Science and Sanity (1933). Some of his ideas were popularized by Stuart Chase in The Tyranny of Words in 1938, and by Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa, in Language in Action in 1941 (which later became Language in Thought and Action). Also influential was the magazine ETC: A Review of General Semantics, founded in 1943. The name of the magazine, ETC, was a play on a fundamental notion of Korzybski's that names or descriptions do not exhaustively convey all of an object’s properties (the word "steak" does not convey the possibility of harmful bacteria, for instance). We can hardly refrain from describing things altogether, but we can bear in mind that we could append to any name or description the word "etc.", to indicate that the label is only a subset of the total set of possibilities. There is always more that can be said about anything. ETC magazine was founded by Hayakawa, who was a professor at San Francisco State College and member of the U.S. Senate during the Carter administration. His Language in Thought and Action, went through several editions and is concerned in part with the confusion of words with reality. Hayakawa’s work coincided with the advent of television broadcasting and contained early warnings against the dangers of mediated reality that television embodied.

From the Wikipedia entry for STRUCTURAL DIFFERENTIAL

A Brief Explanation of Korzybski's Structural Differential

Alfred Korzybski developed this model in the 1920's as a means to visualize the process he termed abstracting. Now Korzybski used this term to convey something quite different from the "commonly accepted" definitions for "abstract". Rather than try to give an over-simplified and misleading definition here, I encourage you to read over the following and develop your own sense of "abstracting".

  • The "differential" in Structural Differential refers to an operational difference between what humans do and what animals do.
  • The difference between what humans do and what animals do is that, as the diagram reflects, an animal's ability to abstract is limited; a human's ability to abstract is virtually limitless.
  • Abstracting, in the context of Korzybski's model, refers to physiological-neurological activities, or processes, that occur on non-verbal levels. Put another way, abstracting is something that your body-brain-nervous-system is continually doing, without respect to whether or not you're aware of it.
  • The different levels that Korzybski defines in the diagram refer to aspects of the overall process which seem to consist of clearly-differentiated orders, or types, of activity.

Structural Differental

FIDO - "FIDO", or an animal, interacts similarly with WIGO at the Object level. However, FIDO's capacity to make inferences or related associations is finite, unlike a human's.

E - The raggedly-cut parabola represents "what is going on" (WIGO), or more correctly, "what we infer is going on", in the world around us, whether we are consciously aware or not. Each dot, or hole, stands for an aspect or characteristic of the sub-microscopic process level, or event level which comprises WIGO.

O - The circle labeled "O" (for Object) represents some human's (for example, mine) interaction with WIGO. Through my sensing organs and nervous system, I 'create' sights, sounds, smells, etc., from my interacting with WIGO. The lines, or strings, which connect the Object level to the Event level represent a specific aspect or characteristic of WIGO that I can sense and experience in some non-verbal way. Those strings coming from the parabola that I can not sense (representing, for example, radio waves), hang free and do not connect at the Object level.

D - The tag "D" signifies the first verbal level in the abstracting process. We can label this the "Descriptive" level, and try to remember that what I say, think, hear, etc., at this level about my WIGO-Object level experience 'should' be similar to what a good reporter would report - as close to "just the facts" as possible.

I - The tags labeled "I1", etc., represent the multiple levels of Inferences I might construct from my WIGO-Object-Description level experience. These inferences will determine what meaning or significance I draw from this experience. As the diagram implies, I can generate as many inferences, beliefs, theories, judgments, conclusions, etc., as I might care to.

A - The arrow ("A") from the Inference level back to the Event level suggests feedback, or circularity, and 'time'. In other words, my most meaningful inferences from prior experiences can become Event-level aspects or characteristics of what I might experience in the future.

I think it's important to remember how 'time', or order, sequence, etc., plays into this model. Each level of the abstracting occurs in a given order, i.e.:

  1. Something happens (Event);
  2. I sense what happens (Object);
  3. I recognize what happens (Description);
  4. I generate meanings for what happens; etc. (Inferences)
In addition to considering the 'time', or order, aspect of abstracting in the vertical plane of the model, we can also envision a horizontal succession of these abstracting processes, one after the other, for every moment of our lives. In this case, with successive abstracting processes, we can picture the feedback, or circularity, arrow projecting from our prior inference to our next experience:

In terms of differentiation, we 'should' note that

  1. What happens (Event) is NOT ...
  2. What I sense non-verbally within my nervous system (Object), which is NOT ...
  3. What I can describe verbally about my sensing (Description), which is NOT ...
  4. The meaning(s) I generate based on what happened; etc. (Inferences)
Similarly, our experience/inference/meaning at Time4 is NOT the 'same' experience/inference/meaning at Time1.

Okay. "So what? How can I use this?"

Let's take a situation in which a friend - let's say, Emily - relates with some anger an experience she just had while driving to the store ... "somebody cut me off!" Here's an example of deconstructing her experience to emphasize the different 'levels' between what she experienced and what she evaluated.

E - What is going on? Cars, engines, tires, radios, trees, pedestrians, clouds, sun, rain, wipers ... all composed of sub-microscopic particles at a quantum level which we infer based on our latest knowledge of science ...

O - Emily's eyes capture (some of the) reflected light from (some of the) images in her (limited) field of view; the light is transformed (abstracted) by her visual system into nervous system signals that travel to her brain; neurons in her brain process the electrical/chemical signals and cause her to see ...

D - ... "I was driving about 25 miles per hour, maintaining perhaps 50 feet distance from the car in front of me. A dark-colored sedan driven by a middle-aged man emerged from my far right field of view. His car's speed was greater than mine. As his car came abeam mine, and then forward of it, his car appeared to accelerate and veer into the lane directly in front of my car. The following distance of my car to his was no more than 10 feet, which meant ..."

I1 - ... "This rude jerk was in a hurry and cut me off when he could've just waited and merged behind me!" ... (blood pressure rising, anger mounting, fists clench the steering wheel, eyes staring at the other driver, foot pressing on the accelerator, trying to catch up, swerving over to the next lane to pass, not checking the traffic ...) "Damn it! That &%$)=!@ made me almost have a wreck!"

I2 - ... "Men are such terrible and rude drivers!"

Can you see that "somebody cut me off" is NOT what happened? Can you see that Emily's hypothetical reaction to what happened is not the same as a description of what happened?

One of the powerful lessons of general semantics - illustrated by the Structural Differential and evidenced by a consciousness of this abstracting process - is that we can better train ourselves to respond conditionally to what happens to us. We humans don't have to react with a conditioned respond like Pavlov's dog, reacting to a substitute stimulus as if it were 'real' - but we often do. Our language helps confuse us, because we tend to say things like, "Ooh, it made me so mad!" We allow the 'it' - the event, the what happens, the stimulus - to determine our response. We need to remember that between the stimulus and your response, there's a YOU:

Time(1) -------> Time(2)-------> Time(3)

Again, 'time' is an important aspect of our conditional responses. Remember the old adage encouraging you to "count to 10" before getting mad? There's a lot of merit to be gained by practicing your ability to consciously - conditionally - delay your responses.

A Summary of "So What?" About the Structural Differential

  • Abstracting refers to ongoing physiological-neurological processes that occur on non-verbal levels
  • We can verbally differentiate certain phases, or levels or orders, of the abstracting process to analyze our behaviors and reactions:
    EVENT is not  OBJECT is not  DESCRIPTION is not  INFERENCE, etc.
  • We can acknowledge that our abstracting occurs at different 'times' ... we should expect different results, reactions, responses, etc., from different experiences at different 'times'
  • We have human limitations that constrain our experiences - we never experience 'all' of What Is Going On
  • Similarly, we can never 'say all' or describe 'all' about our experiences - more could always be said: Etc.
  • What we experience is, to some degree, a function of our past experiences (feedback, projection, etc.)
  • What we experience is, to some degree, a function of the unique capabilities of our individual nervous systems
  • We should therefore expect not only to 'see' things differently, we should expect to evaluate and react to 'things' differently
  • When we delay our responses and react conditionally, we tend to behave more sanely, more rationally, more appropriate-to-the-'facts' of the situation
  • When we react immediately, when our responses are conditioned and controlled by the stimulus (the 'thing'), we behave like Pavlov's dog and subject ourselves to control by others

You can use the Structural Differential when you want to analyze the behavior, responses, reactions, etc., of a particular individual in a specific situation. (Personally, I find this type of analysis works best when the "particular individual" happens to be my ownself.) Remember that the Structual Differential represents the process of abstracting:

1st ...
then 2nd ...
then 3rd ...
then ... etc.

Something happens ...

I sense (some of) what happens ...

I describe what my senses sense

I make meanings, inferences, beliefs, theories, judgments, etc.

The more you 'use' it to analyze your own abstracting, evaluating, inference-making, belief-generating, etc.:

  • you will become more aware and conscious of your own abstracting,
  • you will better differentiate between: 1) what happens; 2) what you sense of what happens; 3) what you describe of what your senses sense; and 4) what you infer from what you've described
  • you will respond more conditionally to what happens in your life,
  • you will experience less conditioned responses (less like Pavlov's dog),
  • you will delay more of your responses, leap to fewer conclusions, snap to fewer judgments, make fewer inappropriate assumptions, etc.,
  • you will (fill in your own benefit),
  • etc.

(ed note: the protagonists have been given a Gilpin faster-than-light propulsion system, made by the eccentric but brilliant scientist Saul Gilpin. Mount it inside a submarine and you have instant starship. The protagonists use it to make a starship they use for them and their families to escape the global police state Terra has turned into.

But a problem arises when they venture beyond fifty light-years from Terra. Everybody starts getting utterly terrifying nightmares, to the point where some are about to go insane. They figure it is because they are telepathically overhearing the cosmic thoughts of alien weakly godlike entities. They come to the conclusion that the solution is to train their minds to separate the alien thoughts from their own thoughts, at least when they are sleeping. How? Korzybski to the rescue!)

I objected “But we’re dealing with something entirely different—nightmares from outside.”

“That’s true, Janet. But we don’t know that all Senoi nightmares are born in their subconscious minds—that’s simply what they think (some of the families are of Senoi heritage, they are relatively immune to the nightmares). Isn’t it possible that some of them, at least, are telepathically inflicted, perhaps not even by their fellow Senoi? After all, the world is full of people thinking nasty thoughts. And maybe the same principle would apply, that business of confronting the content of the nightmare. Why not?”

“It makes good sense,” said Laure slowly. “From what we know so far, part of the problem is absolute identification. Janet didn’t tell us of her experience as if she’d been getting someone else’s message. It was she who didn’t know who or what she was, she who was stretched unendurably through space-time. If these Senoi actually have a technique that trains kids to recognize that they and their nightmares are separate, that the content of each nightmare is something they can face and fight, surely we can put it to good use.”

“It’d at least be worth a try,” put in Jamie; and Dan echoed him a little dubiously.

“We can get together every morning,” said Geoff, “probably with separate sessions for the kids. I know that people can be trained to remember dreams, and this implies that no matter how deeply we may sleep, there must be a residual consciousness no dream can quite submerge—we hope.”

“And maybe we can teach that consciousness to remain alert against intrusions,” Bess added, “to wake us at the first hint of anything. I’ll dig into my references and see what more I can find on the Senoi, and also other ways of handling dreams. There’s no point in messing about with conventional psychotherapy. No predictability, and about a zero batting average.”

Franz laughed. “But you talked about absolute identification, so how about Korzybski?”

Bess feigned astonishment. “Imagine this ski-bum/physicist knowing about Korzybski! Next he’ll be telling us he’s read Science and Sanity—I mean, really—and that he knows all about the Structural Differential.”

“That is correct.” He looked at her condescendingly. “I, unlike you, my love, haven’t just acquired a superficial knowledge of General Semantics from Hayakawa’s greatly simplified primer: I have read the good Count’s magnum opus twice, as he recommended, and the Structural Differential is just what we need. It looks like several pieces of pegboard hung together with strings, and with other strings dangling from it; and it teaches Korzybski’s three basics: consciousness of abstracting; awareness of structure and process on all levels; and the tremendous influence of such compulsive concepts as allness and identification, which our languages force on us. It teaches us that A is not B, that A1 is not A2, that A-now is not A-then.”

“I haven’t gone beyond Hayakawa either,” said Laure. “But give him credit—he does mention the gadget. And I can see that it may be of help to us—depending, of course, on how much time we can devote to it, and how we react to it as individuals.”

“Mightn’t it be especially useful with the kids?” Geoff suggested. “They’ve not had time to get as language-conditioned as the rest of us. Laure, why don’t we ask Franz to go ahead and make up a few of the things. You could, couldn’t you, Franz?”

“Sure, especially if Jamie and Tammy and a couple of the boys help me in the shop.”

“Fine,” Laure said. “Then we can start sessions almost right away.”

(ed note: As it turns out, the diverse cultural make-up of the families in the starship allow them to overcome the telepathic nightmares. It is so difficult to assemble a crew of the right mixture that for decades to come the far reaches of space beyond 50 light-years are forbidden. Crews that adapt are viewed with fear and paranoia by ordinary Terrans.)

From GILPIN'S SPACE by Reginald Bretnor (1986)

H. Beam Piper was also influenced by Alfred Korzybski, the Polish-born father of semantics, and his Science and Sanity. In Murder in the Gunroom Piper's protagonist says, “Yes. I first read it [Science and Sanity] in the 1933 edition, back about 1936; I've been rereading it every couple of years since... [the man he is talking to, SF writer Pierre Jarrett, answers] ...I find General Semantics helpful in my work, too... I can use it in plotting a story...” Later in that novel, Piper mentions S. I. Hayakawa and shows a dedication to the principles of semantics throughout the book. Piper's concern with the clarity and objectivity of language was reflected in his straightforward prose style, which could best be described as clean and lean.


Propaganda is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. Basically it is a memetic weapon.

There are several techniques.

Mail was arriving. William (the newspaper publisher) was used to a certain amount, usually from clients of his news letter complaining that he hadn't told them about the double-headed giants, plagues and rains of domestic animals that they had heard had been happening in Ankh-Morpork; his father had been right about one thing, at least, when he'd asserted that lies could run round the world before the truth could get its boots on. And it was amazing how people wanted to believe them.

From THE TRUTH by Terry Pratchett (2000)

(ed note: in the year 2100, the protagonists are in the underground resistance, fighting to overthrow the religious dictatorship of Nehemiah Scudder which has enslaved the United States for about a hundred years.)

      'I'm in the Psych & Propaganda Bureau,' he told me, 'under Colonel Novak. Just now I'm writing a series of oh-so-respectful articles about the private life of the Prophet and his acolytes and attending priests, how many servants they have, how much it costs to run the Palace, all about the fancy ceremonies and rituals, and such junk. All of it perfectly true, of course, and told with unctuous approval. But I lay it on a shade too thick. The emphasis is on the jewels and the solid gold trappings and how much it all costs, and keep telling the yokels what a privilege it is for them to be permitted to pay for such frippery and how flattered they should feel that God's representative on earth lets them take care of him.'
     'I guess I don't get it,' I said, frowning. 'People like that circusy stuff. Look at the way the tourists to New Jerusalem scramble for tickets to a Temple ceremony.'
     'Sure, sure—but we don't peddle this stuff to people on a holiday to New Jerusalem; we syndicate it to little local papers in poor farming communities in the Mississippi Valley, and in the Deep South, and in the back country of New England. That is to say, we spread it among some of the poorest and most puritanical elements of the population, people who are emotionally convinced that poverty and virtue are the same thing. It grates on their nerves; in time it should soften them up and make doubters of them.'
     'Do you seriously expect to start a rebellion with picayune stuff like that?'

     'It's not picayune stuff, because it acts directly on their emotions, below the logical level. You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic. It doesn't have to be a prejudice about an important matter either. Johnnie, you savvy how to use connotation indices, don't you?'
     'Well, yes and no. I know what they are; they are supposed to measure the emotional effects of words.'
     'That's true, as far as it goes. But the index of a word isn't fixed like the twelve inches in a foot; it is a complex variable function depending on context, age and sex and occupation of the listener, the locale and a dozen other things. An index is a particular solution of the variable that tells you whether a particular word is used in a particular fashion to a particular reader or type of reader will affect that person favorably, unfavorably, or simply leave him cold. Given proper measurements of the group addressed it can be as mathematically exact as any branch of engineering. We never have all the data we need so it remains an art—but a very precise art, especially as we employ "feedback" through field sampling. Each article I do is a little more annoying than the last—and the reader never knows why.'

     'It sounds good, but I don't see quite how it's done.'
     'I'll give you a gross case. Which would you rather have? A nice, thick, juicy, tender steak—or a segment of muscle tissue from the corpse of an immature castrated bull?'
     I grinned at him. 'You can't upset me. I'll take it by either name … not too well done. I wished they would announce chow around here; I'm starved.'
     'You think you aren't affected because you were braced for it. But how long would a restaurant stay in business if it used that sort of terminology? Take another gross case, the Anglo-Saxon monosyllables that naughty little boys write on fences. You can't use them in polite company without offending, yet there are circumlocutions or synonyms for every one of them which may be used in any company.'
     I nodded agreement. 'I suppose so. I certainly see how it could work on other people. But personally, I guess I'm immune to it. Those taboo words don't mean a thing to me—except that I'm reasonably careful not to offend other people. I'm an educated man, Zeb—"Sticks and stones may break my bones, et cetera." But I see how you could work on the ignorant.'

     Now I should know better than to drop my guard with Zeb. The good Lord knows he's tripped me up enough times. He smiled at me quietly and made a short statement involving some of those taboo words.
     'You leave my mother out of this!'
     I was the one doing the shouting and I came up out of my chair like a dog charging into battle. Zeb must have anticipated me exactly and shifted his weight before he spoke, for, instead of hanging one on his chin, I found my wrist seized in his fist and his other arm around me, holding me in a clinch that stopped the fight before it started. 'Easy, Johnnie,' he breathed in my ear. 'I apologize. I most humbly apologize and ask your forgiveness. Believe me, I wasn't insulting you.'
     'So you say!'
     'So I say, most humbly. Forgive me?'

     As I simmered down I realized that my outbreak had been very conspicuous. Although we had picked a quiet corner to talk, there were already a dozen or more others in the lounge, waiting for dinner to be announced. I could feel the dead silence and sense the question in the minds of others as to whether or not it was going to be necessary to intervene. I started to turn red with embarrassment rather than anger. 'Okay. Let me go.'
     He did so and we sat down again. I was still sore and not at all inclined to forget Zeb's unpardonable breach of good manners, but the crisis was past. But he spoke quietly, 'Johnnie, believe me, I was not insulting you nor any member of your family. That was a scientific demonstration of the dynamics of connotational indices, and that is all it was.'

     'Well—you didn't have to make it so personal.'
     'Ah, but I did have to. We were speaking of the psychodynamics of emotion, and emotions are personal, subjective things which must be experienced to be understood. You were of the belief that you, as an educated man, were immune to this form of attack—so I ran a lab test to show you that no one is immune. Now just what did I say to you?'
     'You said—Never mind. Okay, so it was a test. But I don't care to repeat it. You've made your point: I don't like it.'
     'But what did I say? All I said, in fact, was that you were the legitimate offspring of a legal marriage. Right? What is insulting about that?'
     'But'—I stopped and ran over in my mind the infuriating, insulting, and degrading things he had said—and, do you know, that is absolutely all they added up to. I grinned sheepishly. 'It was the way you said it.'
     'Exactly, exactly! To put it technically, I selected terms with high negative indices, for this situation and for this listener. Which is precisely what we do with this propaganda, except that the emotional indices are lesser quantitatively to avoid arousing suspicion and to evade the censors—slow poison, rather than a kick in the belly. The stuff we write is all about the Prophet, lauding him to the skies… so the irritation produced in the reader is transferred to him. The method cuts below the reader's conscious thought and acts on the taboos and fetishes that infest his subconscious.'
     I remembered sourly my own unreasoned anger. 'I'm convinced. It sounds like heap big medicine.'
     'It is, chum, it is. There is magic in words, black magic—if you know how to invoke it.'

From IF THIS GOES ON — by Robert Heinlein (1940)

Roll Your Own Language

Instead of using an existing language, obsessive-compulsive SF authors might create their own languages. Or hire somebody else to do it for you.

The most famous example in science fiction is, of course, when Paramount Pictures hired linguist Marc Okrand to invent the Klingon language. Later he created the Atlantean language for the movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

In the realm of fantasy, there is linguist J. R. R. Tolkien and the various languages he created for the various races in Lord of the Rings. He invented several styles of writing as well.

Linguist M. A. R. Barker (the Forgotten Tolkien) created the Tsolyáni language for his role playing game Empire of the Petal Throne (which came out about the same time as Dungeons & Dragons. I actually started playing EPT in 1975, about a year before I discovered D&D).

James Cameron did a search and finally hired liguist Paul Frommer to create the Na'vi language for the movie Avatar. Frommer has continued to work on the language even after the movie was finished. He hopes it will develop a community of speakers.

Paul Frommer also expanded the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs to flesh out the Barsoominan language, for the movie John Carter (based on Burroughs 1912 novel A Princess of Mars).

David J. Peterson is a linguist and a giant in the Conlang community. He won a contest to be hired by HBO to create the languages for the Game of Thrones TV series. He has since created languages for Defiance, Thor: The Dark World, Star-Crossed, Dominion, The 100, Penny Dreadful, The Shannara Chronicles, Warcraft: The Beginning, Doctor Strange, Emerald City, Bright, Into the Badlands, The Chrismas Chronicles, Another Life, and Dune (2020).

The most recent is when the production of The Expanse hired linguist Nick Farmer to create the Belter Language lang Belta (though technically that is a creole, not a language).

If you want your own Conlang, are not a linguist, and do not want to hire one, check out these tutorials to get you started:

The last link is more for constructing a language used by an alien species, rather than constructing a futuristic human language.

Roll Your Own Words

If creating an entire language is too daunting a task, one could just invent a few slang words to scatter around for verisimilitude. An extreme case of this was in linguist Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, which required the reader to refer to the glossary every sentence or so to translate the Russian-influenced argot called "Nadsat". More smooth was John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar, where the invented words are more sparse, and can generally be inferred from the context (e.g., "WhatintheHole did you think I meant?").

The comedy movie Caveman has almost all the dialog in a simple caveman language. It is is actually easy to figure out the meaning of the words from the context, and soon you don't notice that you understand the dialog spoken in a language you didn't know when the movie started.

The fantasy novel Watership Down had protagonist who were rabbits, and who spoke a Lapine language. After reading a few chapters (while referring to the glossary) you will learn enough Lapine so that you laugh when you read “Hoi, hoi u embleer hrair! M'saion ule' hraka vair!”. And you gasp when Bigwig tells the general “Silflay hraka, u embleer rah!”.

Van Ling created a few words for the Tenctonese language in the movie Alien Nation, Kenneth Johnson and his daughter Juliet expanded on this for the TV series.

Instead of the writer creating lots of words, just make up a single word or curse. Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land introduced the world to "Grok", and Battlestar Galactica has such expletives as "oh Frak!" and "you actually understand all this felgercarb?"

Future Slang is common enough that it has its own TV Trope page.

A vaguely related concept is a language based on Memes.


As a general rule, curses and expletives make references to subjects that are controversial in a culture. The Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England led to the latter being looked down upon. This is the reason that to this day so many vulgarities in the English language are four letter Anglo-Saxon words (e.g., the Norman word "excrement" is acceptable, but the Anglo-Saxon "sh*t" is vulgar). Sex is controversial in the United States, so many curse words refer to sexual topics. However, in the US there seems to be a move towards making curses out of words that are no longer "politically correct," especially racial slurs. Many profanities in Canadian French are a corruption of religious terminology. Many European cultures have expletives based on terms for urine and feces. German and Polish cultures include equating people with animals. In Larry Niven's Known Space series, presumably censorship is an issue, in view of such curses as "censored dammit" and "what the bleep!"

With a bit of imagination, an SF author can create a similar lost history to justify the futuristic profanity for his stories.


English is the result of Norman soldiers attempting to pick up Anglo-Saxon barmaids, and is no more legitimate than any of the other results.

From FUZZY SAPIENS by H. Beam Piper (1964)

Some words have implications that have been lost. An example is "bastard", as in "you bastard!" In the days of yore in England, a youth got his start in life from his father: an inheritance and either an arranged apprenticeship or taking over the father's profession. A youth who was a bastard had no acknowledged father, and thus no inheritance nor a job. It was very difficult to obtain a job any other way. So a bastard, in order to survive, could not afford the luxury of things like morals or scruples. They had to be ruthless and always looking out for number One or they starved to death. So the insult "bastard" was originally: "you are acting as if you were a bastard", that is, in a ruthless and unscrupulous manner.

Then one can elaborate on a curse, making it metaphorical. Instead of calling someone a "bastard", you could say "you son of a sailor!" Sailors were noted for having a girl in every port. If one of the girls became pregnant, well, the sailor could easily vanish. In Isaac Asimov's novel FOUNDATION, he updates this curse: Jaim Twer calls Jorane Sutt a "son of a Spacer."

Science fiction author can "futurize" current curses and aphorisms. In No World of Their Own, Poul Anderson futurized "give them enough rope to hang themselves" into "give them enough voltage to electrocute themselves." In The End of Eternity, Isaac Asimov futureized the vulgar "built like a brick sh*thouse" into "built like a force-field latrine."

When getting down to basics, remember that the word Lord comes from the Old English word hlaford, which was derived from the Old English hlafweard. The word hlaf means "bread" or "loaf" and weard means "keeper" or "guardian", so Lord means "One who guards the loaves" or "Keeper of the food".

Meanwhile Lady comes from the Old English word hlæfdige. -Dige means "maid", and is derived from dæge. So Lady means "bread-kneader" or "maker of dough."

And Household Servant comes from the Old English word hlafæta, which literally means "loaf-eater." The servants give their allegiance to their lord because he's the one who gives them food.

In other words, the Lord brings home the bacon, and the Lady cooks it. And the Lord's servants are loyal because he feeds them.

Other words get eroded from use. Henry Ford's horseless carriage was called an "auto-mobile" or "automobile." Four syllables are too many, so it quickly eroded down to "auto." Finally it made the jump to "car." "Cellular Telephone" is already down to "cell phone", and will probably be "cell" before too long. In the Brian Aldiss collection Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, over the centuries the city of New Union had its name change to Newunion, Nunion, and finally Nion. In Frank Herbert's Dune, "laser handgun" has shrunk down to "lasgun." And in Robert Gilman's The Warlock of Rhada apparently the capital of the former galactic empire is New York, during the dark ages the interstellar peasants mutter about the lost city of Nyor on the island of Manhat.


(ed note: The novel was written in 1956. The protagonist went into suspended animation cold-sleep in 1970, and wakes up in the far futuristic year of 2000. Unsurprisingly, he finds that things have changed. Including the meaning of certain words.)

Take one word I used all in innocence. A lady present was offended and only the fact that I was a Sleeper—which I hastily explained—kept her husband from giving me a mouthful of knuckles. I won’t use the word here—oh yes, I will; why shouldn’t I? I’m using it to explain something. Don’t take my word for it that the word was in good usage when I was a kid; look it up in an old dictionary. Nobody scrawled it in chalk on sidewalks when I was a kid.

The word was “kink.”

There were other words which I still do not use properly without stopping to think. Not taboo words necessarily, just ones with changed meanings. “Host” for example—“host” used to mean the man who took your coat and put it in the bedroom; it had nothing to do with the birth rate.

(ed note: In the future of the novel, "host" means "host-mother." Which nowadays we call surrogate mother. This was first performed in the real world in 1985, about thirty years after the novel was written)

From THE DOOR INTO SUMMER by Robert Heinlein (1956)

'I'll tell you,' said Vimes. A monarch's an absolute ruler, right? The head honcho—'

'Unless he's a queen,' said Carrot.

Vimes glared at him, and then nodded. 'OK, or the head honchette—'

'No, that'd only apply if she was a young woman. Queens tend to be older. She'd have to be a ... a honcharina? No, that's for very young princesses. No. Um. A honchesa, I think.'

From MEN AT ARMS by Terry Pratchett (1993)

Spelling and Grammar

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

Another fun avenue is taking English and postulating some form of futuristic grammar or spelling reform. Here is an interesting attempt to predict how the English language will look like in the year 3000. Example:

1000 CE Old English: Wé cildra biddaþ þé, éalá láréow, þæt þú tæ'ce ús sprecan rihte, forþám ungelæ'rede wé sindon, and gewæmmodlíce we sprecaþ...

2000 CE Modern English: We children beg you, teacher, that you should teach us to speak correctly, because we are ignorant and we speak corruptly...

3000 CE Futuristic English: ZA kiad w'-exùn ya tijuh, da ya-gAr'-eduketan zA da wa-tAgan lidla, kaz 'ban iagnaran an wa-tAg kurrap...

But don't forget this warning:

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and Iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

From "MEIHEM IN CE KLASRUM", Dolton Edwards (pseudonym of K.W. Lessing)
(Astounding Science Fiction, September 1946)
No, this was not written by Mark Twain

The locals spoke Lingua Terra of a sort, like every descendant of the race that had gone out from the Sol system in the Third Century, but it was a barely comprehensible sort. On civilized planets, the language had been frozen unalterably in microbooks and voice tapes. But microbooks can only be read and sound tapes heard with the aid of electricity, and Tanith had lost that long ago.

From SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper (1962)

She draws a breath. The wind ruffles her hair and brings me an odor of her: not female sweetness, but fear. She clenches her fists and says, “You’re crazy.”

“Wherever did you find a meaningful word like that?” I gibe; for my own pain and—to be truthful—my own fear must strike out at something, and here she stands. “Aren’t you content any longer with ‘untranquil’ or ‘disequilibrated’?”

“I got it from you,” she says defiantly, “you and your damned archaic songs. There’s another word, ‘damned.’ And how it suits you! When are you going to stop this morbidity?”

“And commit myself to a clinic and have my brain laundered nice and sanitary? Not soon, darling.” I use that last word aforethought, but she cannot know what scorn and sadness are in it for me, who know that once it could also have been a name for my girl. The official grammar and pronunciation of language is as frozen as every other aspect of our civilization, thanks to electronic recording and neuronic teaching; but meanings shift and glide about like subtle serpents.

From GOAT SONG by Poul Anderson (1972)

Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun.

So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you'll sound like a maniac. It's an odd thing that ever English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.

And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can't exist.


      When Luke Skywalker first encounters Yoda, it’s on a swampy planet in The Empire Strikes Back. At first, Luke doesn’t realize the long-eared, wrinkly green creature is, in fact, the one he’s seeking.
     “I’m looking for someone,” Luke says.
     “Looking?” Yoda replies. “Found someone, you have, I would say, hmmm?”
     There’s a narrative effect to the way Yoda speaks. To an English speaker, anyway, the way he orders his sentences sounds vaguely riddle-like, which adds to his mystique.
     But what’s actually going on with Yoda, linguistically?

     First, let’s examine how Yoda doesn’t speak. Many of the world’s most-spoken languages—English, Mandarin—are built around constructions that go subject-verb-object. An example would be: Yoda grasped the lightsaber.
     Another common construction, and one you’d find more commonly among speakers of Japanese, Albanian, and many other languages, goes subject-object-verb: Yoda the lightsaber grasped. More rare is a verb-subject-object construction, but that’s how people who speak Hawaiian and some Celtic languages do it: Grasped Yoda the lightsaber.
     Even more unusual is the way Yoda famously speaks, ordering his sentences object-subject-verb, or OSV: The lightsaber Yoda grasped. Or, to use an example from an actual Yoda utterance: “Much to learn, you still have.”

     “This is a clever device for making him seem very alien,” said Geoff Pullum, a professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. “You have to do some work to realize that his, ‘Much to learn, you still have,’ means ‘You still have much to learn.’”
     There are other fictional examples of characters who speak like Yoda. Bowyer, from the 1996 Super Nintendo game, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, says things like, “Fun this is, yes?” and “Disturb me, you must not! Practicing I am.” But what about in the real world?
     “Surprisingly, there are a very few languages—it seems to be in single digits—that use OSV as their basic or normal order,” Pullum told me. “As far as I know, they occur only in the area of Amazonia in Brazil: they are South American Indian languages. One well-described case is a language called Nadëb.”

     Looking more closely at how Yoda speaks, it’s not always object-subject-verb, but sometimes a construction Pullum once referred to as XSV, the “X” being a stand-in for whatever chunk of the sentence goes with the verb, even if it’s not an object. So, for example: “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is,” as Yoda says in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Truly wonderful, in that case, is the “X.” Pullum, in a blog post in 2005, called this construction “fantastically rare” in the real world.
     “The curious feature of Yoda’s syntax that some linguists have commented on is that, although it is by no means consistent, he seems to speak as if he thinks OSV [or XSV] is normal,” Pullum told me. “In fact, he generalizes it, favoring the beginning of the sentence for various modifiers and complements that English syntax would normally leave till the end of the clause.”
     Consider for example: “When 900 years old you reach, look as good, you will not.” But then there are other facets of Yoda-speak, times when he leaves auxiliary verbs—various forms of be, do, and have—dangling, as he does in a phrase like, “Lost a planet, Master Obi-Wan has.”

     And then there are the times when Yoda speaks in regular old subject-verb-object constructions. (“A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind.”) Pullum says these inconsistencies make for an “odd mix,” though others have been less forgiving. Writing for The New Yorker in 2005, Anthony Lane had this to say of Yoda’s “screwy” syntax: “Break me a f**king give.”
     A funny line, timing-wise, but, as the linguist Mark Liberman pointed out at the time, not actually all that Yoda-esque. (“A f**king break, give me,” was one more Yoda-ish alternative offered in a blog post Liberman wrote on the subject at the time.)

     Looking more closely at Yoda, and particularly at his dialogue in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, further confused Liberman, who analyzed dozens of Yoda’s lines in the film. “A bit of empirical investigation has left me more puzzled about Yoda’s syntax than I was before,” he wrote. (Most perplexing, he said, was an example of a fronted element—the sort of clause that you might bring to the start of a sentence for emphasis—found between the subject and predicate: “That group back there, soon discovered will be.”) Liberman has said it would take a larger dataset to fully analyze Yoda-speak, but he won’t get it from the latest film (spoiler alert): Yoda’s a no-show.
     Yoda-speak gets even more confusing, to me anyway, when you try to translate it from English. In Estonian versions of the films, according to one fascinating Reddit thread about linguistics, Yoda retains the word order used in English versions. “This is grammatical in Estonian, but does make it seem as though Yoda is constantly stressing the object phrase as the main point of his statements,” according to one commenter. “This gives his speech an unusual quality.” But in Czech translations, rather than speaking in his general object-subject-verb manner, Yoda apparently speaks in subject-object-verb (like in Japanese).

     Really, though, Yoda was written for an English-speaking audience. And, as James Harbeck pointed out in an article for The Week last year, there are plenty of examples from popular literature that sound just as offbeat syntactically as Yoda, even if they're not identical in construction. There’s Walt Whitman (“Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring”), and Shakespeare (“For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered”), and whoever wrote the lyrics to “The Little Drummer Boy” (“Come, they told me, the newborn king to see”). “These sentences remind us of Yoda-style things we can do in poetry and other stylized forms,” Harbeck wrote. “And that's the thing about Yoda-speak: We understand it. It is comprehensible English because it is written by English speakers, for English speakers, using things you can do in English.”
     To appreciate Yoda, maybe it’s best to abandon one’s grammatical senses altogether—or, you know, “unlearn what you have learned.” Like the little guy says, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”


The field of nuclear semiotics arose in 1981 when a team of engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists, behavioral scientists and others was convened on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel Corp. The goal of this "Human Interference Task Force" was to find a way to reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation systems.

Specifically, the task force was to research ways to prevent future access to the planned, but stalled deep geological nuclear repository project of Yucca Mountain.


When atomic or fusion bombs are detonated in a war, or nuclear power plants are used in times of peace, an unnaturally high amount of radioactive waste is produced. This material will threaten human life and health for thousands of years. Consequently, nuclear technology necessitates the creation of a secure means of terminal storage for such materials for an unusually long time period.

Unfortunately, there is no method available to continuously provide the necessary knowledge about the location of nuclear waste over thousands of years. The culture of earlier centuries becomes incomprehensible when it is not translated into new languages every few generations. National institutions do not exist longer than a few hundred years. Even religions are not older than a few millennia and do not typically hand down scientific knowledge.

Furthermore, the necessary length of storage is disputed among specialists. One work group in Germany concluded that nuclear waste must be separated from the biosphere up to one million years – about 30,000 human generations. Earlier assumptions were based on a period of 10,000 years, which seems to be too short given the half-life of certain radioactive isotopes (e.g. Plutonium-239 at 24,000 years).

The written historical tradition of humanity, in contrast, is only about 5000 years. Warnings in cuneiform script could be interpreted by some specialists, but others, such as the writing of the Indus Valley civilization, are already illegible after a few thousand years.


Three parts of any communication about nuclear waste must be conveyed to posterity:

  1. that it is a message at all
  2. that dangerous material is stored in a given location
  3. information about the type of dangerous substances


To determine how to convey these three things, the "Zeitschrift für Semiotik" (Tübingen, Germany) issued a poll in 1982 and 1983 asking how a message might be communicated for a duration of 10,000 years. The poll asked the following question: "How would it be possible to inform our descendants for the next 10,000 years about the storage locations and dangers of radioactive waste?" leading to the following answers.

Thomas Sebeok

The linguist Thomas Sebeok was a member of the Bechtel working group. Building on earlier suggestions made by Alvin Weinberg and Arsen Darnay he proposed the creation of an atomic priesthood, a panel of experts where members would be replaced through nominations by a council. Similar to the Catholic church - which has preserved and authorized its message for over 2000 years — the atomic priesthood would have to preserve the knowledge about locations and dangers of radioactive waste by creating rituals and myths. The priesthood would indicate off-limits areas and the consequences of disobedience.

This approach has a number of critical problems:

  1. An atomic priesthood would gain political influence based on the contingencies that it would oversee.
  2. This system of information favors the creation of hierarchies.
  3. The message could be split into independent parts.
  4. Information about waste sites would grant power to a privileged class. People from outside this group might attempt to seize this information by force.

Stanisław Lem

Polish science-fiction author Stanisław Lem proposed the creation of artificial satellites that would transmit information from their orbit to Earth for millennia. He also described a biological coding of DNA in a mathematical sense, which would reproduce itself automatically. Information Plants would only grow near a terminal storage site and would inform humans about the dangers. The DNA of the so-called atomic flowers would contain the necessary data about both the location and its contents.

Lem acknowledged the problem with his idea that humans would be unlikely to know the meaning of atomic flowers 10,000 years later, and thus unlikely to decode their DNA in a search for information.

Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri

French author Françoise Bastide and the Italian semiotician Paolo Fabbri proposed the breeding of so called "radiation cats" or "ray cats". Cats have a long history of cohabitation with humans, and this approach assumes that their domestication will continue indefinitely. These radiation cats would change significantly in color when they came near radioactive emissions and serve as living indicators of danger. In order to transport the message, the importance of the cats would need to be set in the collective awareness through fairy tales and myths. Those fairy tales and myths in turn could be transmitted through poetry, music and painting. The story of this original project was depicted in the 2016 short documentary "The Ray Cat Solution".

Vilmos Voigt

Vilmos Voigt from Loránd-Eötvös university (Budapest) proposed the installation of warning signs in the most important global languages in a concentric pattern around the terminal storage location. After a certain time span new signs with translations would be installed, but the old signs would not be removed. Newer signs would be posted farther away from the location, thus the warning would be understandable as languages change and it would be possible to understand the older languages through the translation.

Emil Kowalski

Physicist Emil Kowalski from Baden, Switzerland proposed that terminal storage locations be constructed in such a way that future generations could reach them only with a high technical ability. The probability of an unwanted breach would then become extremely small. Furthermore, cultures able to perform such excavations and drillings would most certainly be able to detect radioactive material and be aware of its dangers.

From the Wikipedia entry for HUMAN INTERFERENCE TASK FORCE

Future Alphabet

An Alphabet is a form of phonetic writing where each symbol ("letter") represents a phoneme. This allows English teachers to urge their students to "sound it out" when they encounter a new word. That would work better if English had only one sound per letter, instead of the deplorable mish-mash of exceptions which is the reality.

A Syllabary is like an alphabet except each symbol represents a syllable. So an alphabet might have the symbol for "B" and one for each vowel, while a syllabary would have separate symbols for "BA", "BE", "BI", "BO", and "BU" (and sometimes "BY"). Obviously a syllabary will have approximately five times the number of symbols compared to the corresponding alphabet. More if they do more than just encode consonant-vowel patterns (CV), some also do CVC and CV-tone.

Ideograms are where symbols represent ideas or concepts, not words in any specific language. If the ideogram image resembles the concept it is a pictogram, if the ideogram image is abstract it is a logogram.

Note that logograms are sort of like propaganda, encoding the proper societal-approved thinking patterns. See Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis.

Chinese characters are ideograms. This is why people who speak Chinese, Japanese, and Korean can all read Chinese ideograms. The ideograms represent concepts, not words. Of course if you showed a Chinese speaker, a Japanese speaker, and a Korean speaker a given ideogram and asked what it was, each speaker would tell you a totally different phonetic word (a Chinese, Japanese, or Korean word).

Logosyllabic Scripts are in that gray area between ideograms and syllabaries. Each symbol represents a morpheme, which is similar to a word but not quite.


A new logical language just begs for a new logical alphabet. Many are attracted to the Tengwar alphabet invented by (linguist) J. R. R. Tolkien for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Especially since the movies have made it trendy.

The design of each letter encodes the phoneme of that letter in a logical and systematic way. A stroke with a right hook on the top is "T" = . Closing the hook make the sound explosive: "T" becomes "P" = . A double right hook dulls it: "T" becomes "D" = . And so on.

Raphaël Poss (AKA "Kena") took the obvious step and adapted the Tengwar alphabet to the Lojban set of phonemes. As Mr. Poss puts it:

...it is far more natural to write Lojban with a logical writing system. ... the tengwar system inherently contains some main Lojban morphology rules, making Lojban easier to learn when it is written with tengwar.

Raphaël Poss

If you want to learn more about Tengwar, there are many places you can go. Jon Brase has a quick run-down:

The basics of the 24 main Tengwar are as follows:

A stem extending downwards from the hook (or as you put it, a hook on top of the stem, though it's the hooks that are the main "body" of the letter and stay at the same level) is a sound that completely cuts off the airflow, such as p, b, t, d, k, and g. In Tengwar for English, ch (as in church) and j are written like this too, even though they don't exactly fit into this category.

A stem extending upwards above the line is a sound that interrupts the airflow, but doesn't cut it off, thus creating a hissing or buzzing sound, such as f, v, th (as in thin), dh (dh as in the), sh, zh (the sound in "fusion"), or the ch in German "Bach." H, s, and z also fall into this category, but don't fit into the chart, so special characters are used.

No stem indicates sounds where the flow through the mouth is stopped, but air is allowed to escape through the nose, creating a sound like m, n, Spanish ñ, or ng (as in sing). There is a major exception to this though (see below)...

There are certain characters with a stem extending both above and below the line that I won't cover here.

A single hook indicates a sound produced with the voicebox shut off, like p, t, k, or f. But single hooks with no stem are often used to write sounds like r, w, and y, since voiceless nasal sounds are uncommon in most languages, and the lack of voiceless nasals leaves a free row.

A double hook represents sounds produced with the voicebox humming away, like b, d, g, or v.

An open hook pointing down and stem on the left represents sounds produced with the tip of the tongue between the teeth, such as t, d, n, r, and th. However, in English all of these sounds except the th and dh are pronounced with the tongue behind the teeth. If the Tengwar had been designed for English s and z (which are pronounced behind the teeth) probably would have replaced th and dh here, and special characters would have been used for th and dh. But since Tolkien's Elvish languages pronounce t, d, and n between the teeth, th and dh are the "main" characters and s and z are the special ones. These sounds are called "dentals" or "alveolars".

A closed hook pointing down and stem on the left represents a sound produced with the lips. (These are called "labials".)

An open hook pointing up and stem on the right represents (depending on the language it is being used for) either a sound produced with the tongue at the place where the gums behind the teeth meet the hard palate, such as sh, ch, or j (in this context, these sounds are called "palatals"), or else a sound produced with the back of the tongue contacting or coming close to the soft palate (such as k, g, ng, or German "ch," these sounds are called "velars").

An closed hook pointing up with the stem on the right represents either a velar (in the languages where the open, up-pointing hook represents a palatal), or else a velar followed by w (in the languages where the open, up-pointing hook represents a velar).

Jon Brase

Skyrim Dragon Alphabet

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a computer role-playing game by Bethesda Game Studios. They worked hard to make the game plausible, even going to the effort of creating a language for the Dragons to speak.

But what was an incredibly nice attention to detail is the dragon alphabet (Dovahzul). You see, unlike us humans, a dragon's hands has only three talons and a dewclaw. Their writing originated as scratches on stone. If you examine the alphabet carefully, you will see that every letter can be created with three talons and a dewclaw (which makes the dot symbol). Now that's quality workmanship!

The Hani alphabet of the lion-like aliens looks similar for the same reason.

Sample text:


GeiN ZII DO ZeyMahMaaR


All men are born free and
like in honor and truth.
They have (the) blessings of wisdom
and mind and shall be as
one spirit of brotherhood.

Hani Alphabet

The lion-like Hani aliens from C. J. Cherryh's Chanur saga have claws much like the Skyrim Dragons and as consequence has a similar looking alphabet. Form follows function, and an alphabet based on claw-marks looks very much like another alphabet based on claw-marks.

Kzinti Alphabet

In Larry Niven's KNOWN SPACE series, the tiger-like alien Kzinti writing is described as looking like "commas and periods." Which is pretty much like the Hani alphabet. And no doubt for the same reason: Kzinti have claws and their writing started out as claw marks on wood (or flesh).

Kzinti have three fingers and a thumb on each hand. So their number system is Base 8. That's why their alphabet only has symbols for zero, and numerals 1 to 7.

There is no canon Kzinti writing, but several fans have made their own.

Daniel U. Thibault not only made a Kzini Alphabet, he also made a True Type font.

Arthur T. Saxtorph has made the original commas-and-periods writing as the "Circular Script", originally used to carve into the dead bodies of their prey. The utilitarian "Linear Script" is used to label starship controls and such.

Kefo Rn

Kefo-Rn is the language used by The Academy in the RPG Shock:Human Contact by Joshua A.C. Newman

Kefo-Rn is written vertically so it can occupy a horizontal field of vision without taking an inordinate amount of space. Its characters have two sets of five positions, one to two of which are occupied on each side. In its most legible form top and bottom positions connect to give an overall shape to the character.

Punctuation and numbers are written in a similar gird, only three positions tall.

Because all syllables are constructed of two sets of five positions, a signer can spell word syllable by syllable with their fingers.

Read vertically and left-to-right, Kefo-Rn uses the uniqueness of the left and right edges — each one byte tall — of each character exclusively. This design feature allows a reader to share space in their horizontal field of vision with textual information.

In formal script digits, diacritics, and punctuation use 3/5 the height of letters and lie between the characters as shown here.

Calligraphers and poets freely modify the center of the characters for artistic purposes while only minimally reducing the legibility of the words. Calligraphy takes many forms and has many traditions, but this is one caligraphic form of the same previous word.

When writing with maximum density, a writer can rely on only the dots to convey the meaning, though it takes time to read. Note that, if the writer requires no numbers, the column can be one block narrower. This word is identical to the previous.

The Culture

In The Culture series by Iain M. Banks, the Artificial Intelligences that rule The Culture invented an alphabet based on nine-digit binary codes.


Marain is a synthetic language created towards the very beginning of the Culture with the specific intention of providing a means of expression which would be a culturally inclusive and as encompassingly comprehensive in its technical and representational possibilities as practically achievable — a language, in short, that would appeal to poets, pedants, engineers and programmers alike. The intention was to start with a linguistic blank sheet, yet with the accumulated knowledge of the hundreds of thousands known to those people and machines charged with the language's devising. It had, therefore, no specific links to any of the main languages spoken by the people who came together to make up the Culture as a civilisation, save those statistically likely.

Marain's principle symbols are based around a three-by-three grid, which is itself a diagrammatic representation of a nine-digit binary number, or byte, it being intended from the start that the language could be rendered into binary code as informationally economically as possible. The number 1 would be shown as in figure 1, while the letter equivalent to our phoneme "w", the first letter in the Marain alphabet shown in the list accompanying this text, would be the binary number 100111100, or 121 in base 10. This means that there are a total of 512 possible values, or symbols, from 0 to 511 (shown in figures 2 and 3 respectively).

The choice of the principle symbols listed here was dictated by the requirements that each symbol can be rotated and mirrored, without being mistaken for any other of the primary alphabetical symbols. The rotated versions of these are generally used to represent phonemes close to the original, unrotated sound, though others have little in common with the sound of the original, being used to stand for different vocalisations. The original idea behind this flexibility was to allow Marain accurately, and relatively simply, to reproduce any language capable of being spoken by a humanoid.

All other values of the grid are associated with symbols for numbers (in base 8), punctuation, and the more common units of measurement, physical and mathematical symbols and constants, chemical elements and so on.

While the 3×3 grid is the basis of the language's symbols and is the standard of default mode of Marain, it is only that, and there are various commonly used complications which increase the length of the byte. For the normal data transmission purposes, for example, the principle part of the byte is followed by an additional buffer bit.

Where further complexity is required the binary byte used (ignoring the buffer bit) can be expanded beyond nine; a ten-bit byte provides a further 512 symbols, and a twelve bit byte — the most commonly used value after the standard notary byte due to the relative ease of representing it as a grid and therefore a written symbol — offers a total of 4,096 symbols. The next square grid after the 3×3 gird, of course, is 4×4, offering 65,536 symbols. Larger bytes — and therefore grids — are generally used to transmit pictograms, culturally alien symbols and simple diagrams. There is no restriction in principle the length of the byte and therefore the dimensions of the grid implied; by specifying a grid of, say, a million bits to a side, a fairly detailed black and white photograph could in theory be transmitted within a Marain data stream without recourse to specialised symbols or codes, though in practise, due to the economies offered by data compression, this happens only rarely.

It should be noted that while Marain was designed to be as quintessentially clear, concise and unambiguous a language as it is within the wit of human and machine to devise — and is, like the best games, essentially very simple but offering almost infinite possibilities — experience has proved that the judicious dropping of buffer bits and the use of varying byte-lengths, usually without the relevant notification of those mathematical or other pattern, though just as often not, plus the equally unflagged, abrupt and sporadic switching to entirely alien binary codes (Morse code being a perfect example) thankfully enables the Culture Minds fully to indulge their seemingly congenital predilection of unnecessary obfuscation, wilful contrariness and the fluent generation of utter and profound confusion in others.

It should be notes that the "written" symbols in the list are only those which have become the most used. Obviously in many of the symbols there are lots of other equally plausible ways to join up the dots. So humans can use Marain to confuse their fellows, too.

Palm OS Graffiti

Gather around and listen, children. Way back at the dawn of history in days of yore when dinosaurs roamed the earth (about 1996) there was a type of gadget called a "Personal digital assistant" (PDA). These were sort of like a smart phone with no phone in it, no internet connection, and a low-res monochrome screen. Apps typically included an appointment calendar, a to-do list, an address book for contacts, a calculator, and some sort of memo (or "note") program.

After smart phones came out PDAs died off, since there really wasn't anything they could do that a smart phone couldn't do better. Plus smart phones could be used as phones.

Manually entering data into a PDA tended to be clumsy. Most of them had touch screens, but they were so tiny that one would commonly tap on the screen with a stylus instead of one's fingers. Text entry was by:

  • An array of buttons forming a tiny computer alphanumeric keyboard
  • A separate physical keyboard connected to the PDA by a cable, infrared signal, or Blue Tooth. Most had physical keys, one drew a virtual keyboard on the tabletop using laser beams.
  • A virtual alphanumeric keyboard appearing on the touch screen, that you'd tap with the stylus
  • A stroke recognition system, with a stroke area on the touch screeen that you'd draw in with the stylus

A button array keyboard tended to have tiny buttons, which wasn't easily used by fat-fingered people. A separate keybord was easy to use, but inconvenient to carry along (even if some did fold up, the laser keyboard wasn't bad but it still was an extra bit to carry). The virtual keyboard with stylus was a bit fiddly to use and it made it difficult to rapidly enter text data.

The stroke system is not fiddly, does not require extra equipment, is easily used by the fat-fingered, and allows quite rapid text input.

The main drawback is that a user has to learn the stroke alphabet.

When engineers are involved, sometimes the problem is over-engineering.

In 1993, Apple computers released the Apple Newton PDA. This miracle of modern technology had the miracle of Handwriting Recognition. Keeping with their philosophy of "It Just Works", Apple trumpeted the fact that their handwriting recognition needed no special training. Anybody could pick up the Newton and scrawl with the stylus in their personal idiosyncratic handwriting and the Newton would instantly interprete it and turn it into perfect text.

Well, that turned out not to be the case. The Newton's unreliable handwriting recognition became the laughing-stock of Silicon Valley. It was even satirized by The Simpsons and Doonsbury. When Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997, he killed the Newton.

The Newton fiasco was due to an attempt at over-engineering.

Arthur C. Clarke had an example of the over-engineering trap. Solve this problem: allow a farmer to direct a draft-horse to turn left or right on command.

Solution 1: genetically engineer the horse to enhance its intelligence. Teach the horse a college level of English language comprehension, so that the horse can understand commands like "It is time to vector your course in the widdershins direction", "go thataway, stupid!", or whatever phrasing suits the passing fancy of the farmer at that moment. Problem will be solved after a few decades of over engineering, and each draft-horse will cost a quarter of a billon dollars.

Solution 2: take an off-the-shelf draft-horse. Teach it that "Haw" means turn left and "Gee" means turn right. Teach the farmer to employ this user interface when directing the horse. Problem solved.

The point is that trying to accomodate any whim of the farmer is an NP-hard problem. A little training of the lazy farmer vastly simplifies the problem.

When the Palm PDA came out, they avoided the trap. Instead of trying to create some over-engineered handwriting recognition that would work with anybody's weir handwriting, they took the more prudent route of forcing the user to learn how to use the newly-invented Graffiti stroke system. The Palm PDA had no trouble at all recognizing the equivalent of "Haw" and "Gee", and worked perfectly.

Back around 1998 I had one of the first Handspring Visors which utilized Graffiti. Personally I managed to learn Graffiti in about two days, and found I could enter text pretty darn quickly. Most of the strokes are fairly close in shape to the character they encode, making them easy to memorize.

When I am struggling with text entry on my current smartphone, I often find that I miss Graffiti (Since I wrote that, I have discovered that my Galaxy tablet with the Android OS does have a "handwriting keyboard." It is currently my text input of choice. And it only took two decades of development effort to bring handwriting recognition from the unreliable Apple Newton implementation to the often-reliable Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1).

Stroke recognition is done on an area on the touch screen about the size of a postage stamp. Since each letter had to be drawn one on top of the other, there has to be a way for the PDA to know when one letter ends and another starts. In Graffiti each letter is one single stroke, lifting the stylus off the touchscreen is the signal that the current letter has ended. This means no dotting the "i" or crossing the "t".

Well, they did make an exception. A "prefix" stroke of going from upper left to lower right means you are writing one of the "extended mode" or "two-stroke" characters. What this means is they ran out of easy-to-write-strokes before they ran out of characters. So the extended mode is a way to re-use some of the strokes on some of the more lesser-used characters (such as ©, €, and ¢).


     “It could have been a portrait,” Blaine suggested. He took out his pocket computer and scrawled “Church of Him” across its face, then punched for information. The box linked with the ship’s library, and information began to roll across its face.

     Renner skipped it. “I remembered something. Have you got your pocket computer?”
     “Certainly.” She took it out to show him.
     “Please test it for me.”
     Her face a puzzled mask, Sally drew letters on the face of the flat box, wiped them, scrawled a simple problem, then a complex one that would require the ship’s computer to help. Then she called up an arbitrary personal data file from ship’s memory. “It works all right.”
     Renner’s voice was thick with sleep. “Am I crazy, or did we watch the Mode take that thing apart and put it back together again?”
     “Certainly. She did the same with your gun.”
     “But a pocket computer?” Renner stared. “You know that’s impossible, don’t you?”
     She thought it was a joke. “No, I didn’t.”
     “Well, it is. Ask Dr. Horvath.” Renner hung up and went back to sleep.
     Sally caught up with Dr. Horvath as he was turning into his cabin. She told him about the computer.
     “But those things are one big integrated circuit. We don’t even try to repair them.” Horvath muttered other things to himself.
     While Renner slept, Horvath and Sally woke the physical sciences staff. None of them got much sleep that night.

     “I don’t remember exactly.” Sally took out her pocket computer and scrawled the symbols for information recall. The gadget hummed, then changed tone to indicate it was using the car’s radio system to communicate with the Palace data banks.

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1975)


The Micronauts was a comic book that came out in 1979, as a thinly disguised attempt to promote a line of toy action figures. However, the plot line was actually surprisingly deep. It did have your standard "Star Wars-esque rebels fighting the Evil Empire" background, but unlike Star Wars it had some motivation.

But anyway, author Bill Mantlo thought it would be cool to create an alien alphabet for the Micronaut universe, so they could sprinkle it through the issues for the edification of the fans. This is called a Cypher Language, because if you use the alien alphabet to transcribe the comic book inscriptions into the English alphabet, the result is readable English works, not alien gobbledygook (Be sure to drink your Ovaltine). About 20 years later the producers of the TV show Futurama did the same trick.

The Micronauts alphabet appears to be Sanscrit (specifically Devanāgarī). But even so the fans found it very entertaining to translate all the signs written on the walls of the buildings of Homeworld. They thought the alphabet letters were very stylish as well. In the comic book it is implied that the reason for the alphabet's similarity is because the ancestors of Homeworld actually came from ancient India. Which was a hasty retcon needed when the comic book's letters section made it obvious that the obscure Sanscrit alphabet was not quite as obscure as the authors had hoped.

Trying to translate the comic book inscriptions, some of the inscription letters are apparently missing from the official alphabet. In some cases I've managed to locate them in the Devanāgarī alphabet. Details here and here.

I have tentatively identified the missing Micronauts letters as Devanāgarī kha, śa, and what appears to be the dental tha with the ū diacritic mark. If anybody has any better ideas, drop me a line.

Devanāgarī Alphabet

Basic Alphabet

Variant Letters

The Micronaut alphabet uses the classical form of "a" and "o", but the modern form of "L"


Each basic consonant is assumed to be followed by the vowel "a". To alter the vowel that follows the consonant, a diacricial mark is added to the consonant. See "Vowels" below


In the examples above, the consonant "p" is used for illustration. With no diacritical mark, it is assumed to be followed by the vowel "a", giving "pa". The red symbols are the diacritical marks added to the consonant to alter the following vowel from "a" to another (see the columns labeled "Diacritic"). Note that for the combinations "ai" and "au", the diacritical marks are added to an initial vowel letter, not to a consonant.

In the example above, the consonant "t" is used. With no diacritical mark, the assumed vowel is "a", giving the sound "ta". For other "t+vowel" combinations, the appropriate diacritical mark is added.

If a word begins with a vowel, there is of course no consonant to add a diacritical mark to. In these cases, the initial vowel letter is used instead (shown in the columns labled "Initial"). Remember that the Micronaut alphabet uses the classical initial forms of "a" and "o", but the modern initial form of "L". The classical initial forms are not shown in the diagram above, don't be confused.


These are not used in the Micronaut alphabet. Instead, they seem to be using various consonants with the "e" diacritical mark.

Pirates of Venus

Pirates of Venus was written in 1934 by the legendary Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of John Carter of Barsoom and Tarzan of the Apes.

The alphabet of Venus or "Amtor" is written as a continuous line, forming jagged letters like an EKG trace. I got pretty good at writing this when I was about twelve years old.

The same idea was used decades later in the Tenctonese alphabet of the TV show Alien Nation.

The map scan has crude resolution. As near as I can see the text along the edge says:

Top Edge
[R] trambol ? vodaro [P] zando vaxlap nor [M] havatoo morov andoo ator [F] jonjong kantum mol [K] ioroen pand oerlxt [V]
Right Edge
[V] mistel korde koszaj [B] korvu tan strel tan [A] klukoan kum kalto [V] notar anodoroon lat [L]
Bottom Edge
[D] amttak ledo jebo joram ? [G] kor neolap vepaja ? [H] traxol straxl karbol [Z] sombaj kormor [J] movis ator rovlap [L]
Left Edge
[D] sentar sera tajtum [X] gonfal muja gerl?? [?] ?a?ja jododes kozer [?] ukja tortum lotes [R]

Some words are written on the map in English but the Amtor letters spell the Venusian words:

  • ocean = joram
  • small circle = neo var
  • great circle = ong var
  • island = small land = neo lap
  • bird land = anlap

Outsider Loroi

Outsider is a hard science webcomic created and drawn by Jim Francis. The Loroi language has sixteen letters. Letters and numbers are written right to left.

Loroi numerals are base 8 (octal). However, they are written bijectively. This means there is no symbol for zero, but there is a symbol for 8 (which is the opposite of standard octal, it has a zero but no 8). The first 8 Loroi letters double as numerals. Since there is no symbol for zero, it is written out as "bishires" (Loroi word for "nothing").

Doctor Who

This is a non-canon writing invented by the fan Loren Sherman for the Gallifreyan writing seen on the TV show Doctor Who. It doesn't make a lot of sense but it sure is pretty.

Other Alphabets

Here are a few bizarre invented alphabets for your inspiration:

  • Omniglot: the Online Encyclopedia of Writing Systems and Language. The motherlode. Zillions of invented writing systems for all your language researching needs.
  • Idrani: various invented writing systems for use with the invented Idrani language.
  • Tommy of Escondido's Alien Fonts Page: Fonts from media science fiction aliens, such as from Star Trek, Babylon Five, and Star Wars

Roll Your Own Alphabet

As every teenager knows, if you invent your own alphabet, you have to ensure that your name looks really cool when written with it.

Before you start, read this article Writing Systems And Calligraphy Of The World right now. I'm not kidding. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Dave Bleja has a nice article about the design process he used to create the alphabet for his game Spryke.

Zach Barth has a nice article about the design process he used to create the alphabet for his game Infinifactory.

The first thing you have to do is choose the spoken sounds (phoneme) your alphabet contains. And their alphabetic order. If you just use the English alphabet phonemes and alphabetic order, you are actually creating a cypher, not an alphabet.

At the very least, in the English Alphabet, the letters C, Q, and X are redundant. The sound of Q can be written as KW, X as KS, C can be written as either K or S depending upon which phoneme it is coding for. So if your alphabet is not for English, leave those letters out.

There are also phonemes that are not in the English Alphabet. A common example is the "ch" sound in the Scottish word "loch". It is not pronounced like the ch in the English word church, it is a more raspy guttural sound which most US citizens will need to hear from a Scottish speaker or a YouTube video.

A simple but good source of phonemes can be found in the pronunciation guide for Lojban. It uses English alphabetic symbols, but each has only one sound associated with it (as it should be). A few symbols are used in an unexpected manner to English speakers. The letter "C" is for the sh sound in shape. The letter "J" is for the s sound in measure, which is also the same as the z sound in azure and the j sound in déjà vu. The diphthong "DJ" is for the j sound in joke (the equivalent to the English "DZ").

A complete source of phonemes can be found by reading about the International Phonetic Alphabet. Using IPA symbols, an US citizen would pronounce l-o-c-h as "lɒt͡ʃ" while a Scotsman would pronounce it as "lɒx". But a science fiction author might find that dealing with non-English phonemes might be a bit of over-kill, also could be a waste of precious writing time since most readers could care less.

As far as "alphabetical" order goes, anything non-English alphabetical will do. Tolkien's Tengwar has a logical sound-relationship arrangement worthy of a linguist. Real-world Viking Runes (Elder Futhark) have a more or less random arrangement.

Note that the English Alphabet starts with the letters A and B (Alpha and Beta) so it is called the AlphaBet. The Elder Futhark starts with the letters FUÞARK, where Þ is "thorn", the "th" sound. Further note that Þ is often misspelled as "Y", which explains all those old-timey signs that say "Ye olde tavern".

Don't bother creating upper and lower case, most languages do not use it. Otherwise you are making your job twice as hard. This also avoid problems like your fictional characters computer password input failing because they accidentally had the caps lock key on.

And don't forget to create numerals. English uses base-10 numbers with positional notation, so it has the numbers 1 through 9 plus 0 as a placeholder. Base-8 would have number symbols for 1 through 7 plus a 0 symbol.

Roman numerals do not have a positional notation (i.e., no zero symbol), which makes them clunky and difficult to use. Attempting to do long division with Roman numerals is a nightmare.

In his well worth reading RPG Shock:Human Contact, Joshua A.C. Newman has advice about creating new forms of alphabets and writing. You have to get back to basics. When the alphabets were invented, what sort of writing instruments were used? Was it chalk on rock, stylus pressed in mud or wax, ink from a brush or pen on paper? This will influence the appearance and the style of the letters, which will persist even as the instruments change.

Chinese logograms were drawn with ink from a brush on paper, but they still have the same look even though now they mostly appear on computer monitor screens. The same goes for Klingon cuneiforms.

So if you really want to design your alphabet properly, you would do well to actually draw the prototypes with the original tools.

You may even invent new tools. The Skyrim Dragon Alphabet was designed to be scratched into stone by dragons who had three claws and a dewclaw on each hand. The same goes for the catlike Hani and Kzinti, both of which are feline aliens whose alphabets were descended from claw marks made in wood or flesh.

Mr. Newman goes on to look at the practical matters. For instance, if the people using the alphabet are generally right-handed, sentences will probably be written top-to-bottom or left-to-right to avoid smudging what was already written. Or maybe not, Hebrew and Arabic are written right-to-left. And alphabets that are carved in stone might be done right-to-left so the carver can have the hammer in their right hand and the chisel in the left. When you carve in stone, you do not have to worry about smudging the letters.

There are even some ancient scripts that are written boustrophedonically, alternating left-to-right and right-to-left sentences as if they were oxen ploughing a field.

If you write with a brush, it puts down more ink than a pen so it takes longer to dry. This might encourage sentences to have lots of space in between to help the writer keep their fingers out of still wet prior sentences.


Quipus, sometimes known as khipus or talking knots, were recording devices historically used in the region of Andean South America. A quipu usually consisted of colored, spun, and plied thread or strings made from cotton or camelid fiber. For the Inca, the system aided in collecting data and keeping records, ranging from monitoring tax obligations, properly collecting census records, calendrical information, and military organization. The cords contained numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system. A quipu could have only a few or up to 2,000 cords. The configuration of the quipus have also been "compared to string mops." Archaeological evidence has also shown a use of finely carved wood as a supplemental, and perhaps more sturdy, base on which the color-coordinated cords would be attached. A relatively small number have survived.

Objects that can be identified unambiguously as quipus first appear in the archaeological record in the first millennium AD. They subsequently played a key part in the administration of the Kingdom of Cusco and later Tahuantinsuyu, the empire controlled by the Incan ethnic group, flourishing across the Andes from c. 1100 to 1532 AD. As the region was subsumed under the invading Spanish Empire, the use of the quipu faded from use, to be replaced by European writing systems. However, in several villages, quipu continued to be important items for the local community, albeit for ritual rather than recording use. It is unclear as to where and how many intact quipus still exist, as many have been stored away in mausoleums, 'along with the dead.'

From Wikipedia article QUIPU

Glyphs And Ideograms

Glyphs and ideograms are fun as well. This is where one symbol represents an entire word, instead of a phonetic letter (although in Chinese it is more like one symbol per syllable).

They are pretty, but unwieldy to use. In Unicode, they reserve only 128 code points for English letters but they need 80,000 for Chinese-Japanese ideogams. Even before the computer revolution a Chinese mechanical typewriter needed 4,000 keys.

Here is a link to an on-line SF story by Justin Bacon about translating an alien inscription.


At the ship’s axis they found pay dirt. Half a dozen radial corridors converged, and a tube with a ladder led up and down. There were diagrams covering four sections of wall, with labels that were tiny, detailed pictograms.

“How convenient,” said Louis. “It’s almost as if they had us in mind.”

Languages change,” said the kzin. “These people rode the winds of relativity; their crews might be born a century apart. They would have needed such aids. We held our empire together with similar aids, before the Wars With Men. Louis, I find no weaponry section.”

“There was nothing guarding the spaceport either. Nothing obvious, anyway.” Louis’s finger traced the diagrams. “Galley, hospital, living area — we’re here in the living area. Three control centers; seems excessive.”

The control room was small: a padded bench facing three walls of dials and switches. A touchpoint in the doorjamb caused the walls to glow yellow-white, and set the dials glowing too. They were unreadable, of course. Pictograms segregated the controls into clusters governing entertainment, spin, water, sewage, food, air.

From RINGWORLD ENGINEERS by Larry Niven (1979 )

Blissymbolics is intended for use as a universal written language which would enable speakers of different languages to communicate with one another. It consists of several hundred basic symbols, each representing a concept, which can be composed together to generate new symbols that represent new concepts. They represent concepts, not the sounds of any spoken language.

Since 1971 Blissymbolics have been used mainly as a communication aid for people with communication, language and learning difficulties, where they work amazingly well.

One could keep the Blissymbolics "words" but replace the simplified symbols with fancy ones that looked more futuristic or alien.

  • The pronoun "I" is formed of the Bliss-character for "person" and the number 1 (the first person). Using the number 2 would give the symbol for singular "You"; adding the plural indicator (a small cross at the top) would produce the pronouns "We" and plural "You".
  • The Bliss-word for "to want" contains the heart which symbolizes "feeling" (the classifier), plus the serpentine line which symbolizes "fire" (the modifier), and the verb (called "action") indicator at the top.
  • The Bliss-word for "to go" is composed of the Bliss-character for "leg" and the verb indicator.
  • The Bliss-word for "movie theater" is composed of the Bliss-character for "house" (the classifier), and "film" (the modifier); "film" is a composite character composed of "camera" and the arrow indicating movement.

White-o-glyphics by Matthew White is an attempt to utilize commonly used graphic symbols to create a pseudo-hieroglyphic language. It is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it does have some interesting aspects. Click on the images for a break-down of the phrase.

Pentateuch Symbols

The Pentateuch symbols were created by artist Patrick Woodroffe, and appear both in his illustrations for the Dave Greenslade's 1979 record album THE PENTATEUCH OF THE COSMOGONY (BGO Records, UK) and his novel THE SECOND EARTH (out of print but can be found at Bookfinder.com).

In the novel, scientists are trying to translate alien books that have been found in an ancient starship orbiting Saturn. The more modern alien texts are proving difficult to decode. However, the more ancient religious books of the aliens are based on ideograms. These are much easier to translate.

The symbols are agglomerated. The symbol for "Stone" is a rectangle. The symbol for "Hard" is a bent arrow, meaning it cannot be penetrated (the symbol for "soft" is an arrow piercing a rectangle). The symbol for "Metal" is a combination of both: literally "Hard Stone." In the same way the symbol for "Glass" is a combination of the symbols for "Hard" and "Water", meaning hard stuff that is transparent.

The symbol for "Red" is a combination of "One" and "Light" (symbolized by an oil lamp), meaning "First Color of the Spectrum". As previously mentioned "Stone" plus "Hard" means "Metal". "Red" plus "Metal" means "Red Metal" or "Copper".

There are a few odd symbols due to the mythology in the novel. In the myth, there initially was no dry land, which explains the similarity between the symbols for "house" and "boat". The symbol for "man" appears to mean something like "the little god who's power rises and falls." The symbol for "bride" appears to be a combination of the symbols for "make" and "love." Perhaps a closer translation would be "mate." The symbol for "woman" means "bride of man," a more gender-neutral interpretation would be "spouse."

Using this system one can make a fairly large vocabulary from relatively few symbols, if you are good at making metaphors. The fact that a combination glyph could have several interpretation is due to the fact this was meant for philosophical and mystical documents, not scientific texts.

With these symbols in particular, Patrick Woodroffe's incredible graphic skill makes ideograms that are both all in the same recognizable "style", and utterly beautiful.


Pentateuch Solar System

Five Books composing the Pentateuch of the Cosmogony

This is the sacred text of the aliens, found on the starship. The "books" are actually a series of engraved tablets. Each book is divided into several chapters, with the symbols of the chapter enclosed in a series of rectangles called cartouches.

There is a sixth book added at a much later date, the "Coda". Unlike the other books, it was engraved on a gold tablet.

If you actually want the English translation of the entire thing, see The Second Earth. But it is mostly tedious mystical stuff. The book is way out of print but can be found via Bookfinder.com

The book titles are:

  • BOOK ONE: The First Fruits of the Void (One Book Comma One Fruit Plural Of Void Period)
  • BOOK TWO: The First Living Things That Were Not God (Two Book Comma First Binded-Wanderer Plural But Not God Period)
  • BOOK THREE: How Living Things Were Made That Were Not Made by God (Three Book Comma Make Binded-Wanderer Plural But Not God Make Period)
  • BOOK FOUR: God Makes the First Men (Four Book Comma God Make One Man Plural Period)
  • BOOK FIVE: The Last Things God Made (Five Book Comma End God Make Period)
  • Coda (End Period)

The title in bold is the poetic interpretation of the book title. The part in (italic parenthesis) is a list of the literal symbols in each title.

Even here you can see some of the odd philosophy of the aliens. From the context the scifi scientists conclude that the alien glyph for "Living Thing" is "Binded-Wanderers". Presumably the aliens consider living creatures to be free moving ghosts bound into material bodies.

The chapters of each book are uniquely labeled with a type of song. Their labels and names are:

The Pentateuch of the Cosmology
The First Fruits of the Void
1PRELUDEThe First Eye
2OVERTUREThe Child Of The Void
3SOLOThe First Heaven
4REPRISEThe Second Heaven
5RONDOThe First Earth
The First Living Things
That Were Not God
8BALLADThe Nymph-Dream
9TRIOThree Brides
How Living Things Were Made
That Were Not Made by God
10CHORALEThe Peopling Of The Air
11SEA-SONGThe Peopling Of The Water
12BARCAROLEThe Floating Cities
God Makes the First Men
13AUBADEThe Mothers Of Men
The Last Things God Made
15 TOCCATAThe Dry Land
16 DIRGEFirst Death
17 LAMENTThe Age Of Ice
18 HALLELUJAHThe Dry Land Re-Made
19 PASTORALEThe Beasts Of The Dry Land
21 DISSONANCEThe Forgotten Bride
24 DE PROFUNDISThe Death Of The Sea
25 ELEGYThe Death Of The Air
26 CURFEWThe Last City
27 FUGUEExile
28 MISEREREA New Order
29 ANTHEMOne Dream For Two
30 PROCESSIONALFalse Arrivals
31 DA CAPOThe New Earth
  • Book One: The First Fruits of the Void
    • Chapter 1: Prelude (Song of Before). The First Eye (One Eye)
    • Chapter 2: Overture (Song of Raising-Curtain?). The Child of the Void (Void Child)
    • Chapter 3: Solo (Song of One). The First Heaven (One Void of Stars)
    • Chapter 4: Reprise (Song of Two). The Second Heaven (Two Void of Stars)
    • Chapter 5: Rondo (Song Clock). The First Earth) (One Star-Small)
  • Book Two: The First Living ThingsThat Were Not God
    • Chapter 6: Carillon (Song of Bells). Beltempest (Bell Storm)
    • Chapter 7: Fanfare (Song of Horns). Glass (Water Hard)
    • Chapter 8: Ballad (Song of Love). The Nymph-Dream (Dream of Youth/Maiden Mates)
    • Chapter 9: Trio (Song of Three). Three Brides (Three Mates)
  • Book Three: How Living Things Were Made That Were Not Made by God
    • Chapter 10: Song of Youths (Chorale). Children of Air (The Peopling of the Air)
    • Chapter 11: Song of Sea (Sea-song). Children of Water (The Peopling of the Water)
    • Chapter 12: Song of Boats (Barcarole). Children of Place-of-Meeting of Air-and-Water (The Floating Cities)
  • Book Four: God Makes the First Men
    • Chapter 13: Song of Sunrise (Aubade). Divine Pregnant of Men (The Mothers of Men)
    • Chapter 14: Origin (Introit). Little God that Rises and Falls (Man)
  • Book Five: The Last Things God Made
    • Chapter 15: Keyboard (Toccata). Place of No-Water (The Dry Land)
    • Chapter 16: Song of Grave (Dirge). First Fall-into Grave (First Death)
    • Chapter 17: Song of Eye Rain (Lament). Clock-Measure of Water Stone (The Age of Ice)
    • Chapter 18: God Great (Hallelujah). Second Make Place No Water (The Dry Land Re-made)
    • Chapter 19: Song of Dream Shepherd-crook (Pastorale). Animals Place of No-Water (The Beasts of the Dry Land)
    • Chapter 20: Song of Love (Love-Song). Bride of Man (Woman)
    • Chapter 21: Song of Not (Dissonance). Forgotten Bride of Man (The Forgotten Bride)
    • Chapter 22: One Drum (Precussion Solo). Voice of Evil (Malice)
    • Chapter 23: Song of Pain (March). War (War)
    • Chapter 24: Song of Make-Empty-Cup? (De Profundis). Fall-Into-Grave Water (The Death of the Sea)
    • Chapter 25: Song of Grave (Elegy). Fall-Into-Grave Air (The Death of the Air)
    • Chapter 26: Bell Mantle-Hearth (Curfew). First End of Meeting-Place-of-Houses-{city} (The Last City)
    • Chapter 27: Following-Following (Fugue). Person-outside-protection (Exile)
    • Chapter 28: Song of Eye Rain (Miserere). First Chapter Child (A New Order)
    • Chapter 29: Awaken Songs (Anthem). One Dream Not Two (One Dream For Two)
    • Chapter 30: Move Move? (Processional). Evil Destinies (False Arrivals)
    • Chapter 31: Second Beginning (Da Capo). Second Small-Star-{Earth} (The New Earth)
  • Coda
    • Coda: Writing-And (Coda). Writing-And (Afterword or Postscript)

Sample Translation

Literal Symbol-by-Symbol Translation

Poetic Metaphorical Translation

Cartouche 1
In the beginning there was less than void, and not before there was void did all things begin; for things do require a void just as fish require water in which to swim.
Cartouche 2
The first thing that began was god, the lord of all things that are and ever shall be; save of the void whence he sprang — for all things both large and small must one day return to naught.
Cartouche 3
God was a babe that slept in his own burial vault, and his youth stretched from the beginning of time to the middle of time.
Cartouche 4
The babe awoke and made stars for his playthings, and likewise for playthings did he make the suns, the moons, and the rainbows.
Cartouche 5
And god slept for a time, and in his great sleep he forgot all the things that he had made; and the stars did wander off like spiderlings into the depths of the void.
Cartouche 6
And as god slept his great sleep he dreamed a dream, and the dream was with god from the middle of his youth to its end.
Cartouche 7
God awoke for the second time, the stars that were his playthings had all been devoured by the dark void, and though he searched the void from its beginning to end, he could not discover the fate of the wanderers.
Cartouche 8
And so god made young small stars, and made them like lanterns to be placed in the void, and he tethered the stars so they could not wander away to fall into the void.
The Coda

(ed note: Hermes (symbols translate as "Messenger of God") is a huge alien colony starship found abandoned orbiting Saturn. Apparently it colonized Terra a long time ago. The humans of Terra are the descendants of the aliens. They call their homeworld the First Earth and Terra the Second Earth or the New Earth.)

(side note: cartouche 3 shows the number system does actually have a symbol for "zero". However, the numbers do not have positional notation.)

The Coda, we now know, was engraved at a much later date, when Hermes was placed in orbit around Saturn, in our terms many thousands of years ago.

In this section we have decided to sacrifice style for literal accuracy, so that the interpretation may be observed with direct reference to the symbols. The words bracketed and in the italics are “understood” — that is, added by us for better understanding.

The numbers denote the separate verses or “cartouches”.

     1. And the children of the Earth came from Darkness and from the void to the blue world, (which was) the New Earth and the new home.

     2. HERMES (was only) one of many ships, but HERMES (was) an exile of the New Earth because of the message and the book.

     3. Because the children of the Earth must forget (their) origin, and not before the middle of youth rise up out of the New Earth, remembering nothing before the New Earth.

     4. (Then they) fly to the great world of many rings of light (planet Saturn), (which shall be) a beacon (to them) and a place to recall the history of (their fore-) fathers.

     5. Because of the story of HERMES (is) a lantern of the past.

     6. The five books (tell) the story of (their fore-) fathers and the story of the death of the First Earth.

     7. The Second Earth (is) a child (and) must not die.

     8. The oak and the fish, the snail and the spider, (these are) no lesser things than man.

     9. The broken rainbow must (be) the (whole) rainbow.

     10. The second arrow must strike (its) target.

     11. But the Second Earth (is) like a man of metal (and) does not make (its own) destiny.

     12. Man is not a man of metal.

     13. Man makes the future of the Second Earth.

     14. (When) man is the shepherd of the Second Earth, (it will be) the end of the childhood of man.

     15. Man must not make war, but love and come together, just as the child of the void and the forgotten bride of man must love.

Cartouches 16 and 17 are reproduced again at the end of this edition. The interpretation of this final message is left to the reader.

(ed note: as near as I can decipher, it says:

Cartouche 16: Tablet engraved in gold, created (year) 1981 (six years before The Second Earth was published)

Cartouche 17: the Pentateuch of the Cosmogony is dream, but the destiny of Man is reality )

Unfortunately this book is fiction; would that parts of it at least were not. -- Patrick Woddroffe 1986 (dedication)

From THE SECOND EARTH by Patrick Woodroffe (1987)


     lf we should wish to communicate with a stranger who understands our language neither written nor spoken, and whose own language is equally incomprehensible to us, then we may expect to convey our meaning by hand signs or perhaps by pictures drawn in the sand.

     Projects which have in the past attempted to reach the attention of alien races far away in space have always recognised the need for a system of signs or ideograms which would reduce simple thoughts to logical formulae transcending language.

     An alien race, were it one day to arrive on our planet long after we are gone and delve into all the records that remained, may indeed find the ancient hieroglyphs and ideograms of primitive civilisations more accessible than the codes and phonetic script of our advanced technological culture.

     And so it was with Project Hermes; only the ‘Pentateuch’ has thus far been deciphered. We must content ourselves for the time with mythology and mysticism, though we stand on the threshold of enormous scientific advancement. We must try to keep a sense of proportion, for if the situation were reversed then all that we should be able to bequeath to those alien archaeologists of the future would be perhaps our own Book of Genesis.

     lt must be emphasised here that the text of the 'Pentateuch’— being ideographic—bears no relation to the spoken word. The tablets are not strictly speaking capable of being ‘read’, being a series of mystical symbols expounding metaphysical and mythological ideas. Each symbol may represent a quantum of philosophical concepts already familiar to the individuals for whom the inscriptions were made; there may have been many interpretations of each statement——perhaps even deliberate ambiguities.

     So our text must be regarded merely as a suggested interpretation: it must not be regarded as a translation, for ideographic texts such as this are incapable of definitive transcription.

     There is then no distinction between the parts of speech to which we are accustomed—no verbs, nouns, adjectives. All symbols may be used in any mode, and a statement is made up simply by stringing together separate characters. For example:

     The ‘vocabulary’ of symbols does however reveal certain recurrent philosophical attitudes. For example, the reverence of the spectrum, and hence the attribution to different divinities of the primary colours and the relevant metals: the use of the three small circles to end statements and parts of statements may be a reference to the three stages in the hierarchy:

     There is scope for endless speculation, and no doubt this first interpretation of the books will be followed by many more.

     The statements may be ambiguous, yet the numbering system seems quite unequivocal, being based on six (—another reference to the spectrum?), twelve and the gross. Yet if our interpretation is correct, then Hermes‘ number:

     Can we assume that the fleet comprised (a minimum of),one hundred and ninety-one vessels? lf they were all as large as Hermes— which alone has accommodation for 35,000 individuals —then the exiled race must have numbered over six million.

     What became of the other 190 ships? What became of their six million occupants? Did they find their ‘place to lie down’? Can we ignore the enthusiastic assertions of those who claim that our own Earth was that place—that we ourselves are the descendants of those people—that Hermes was deliberately ‘planted' in the neighbourhood of Saturn so that only an advanced and appreciative posterity should discover it?

     Until further research can provide some answers, let us keep our minds open.

Celia Hiroshige
New Tokyo 2380

From THE SECOND EARTH by Patrick Woodroffe (1987)

Here are a few Pentateuch glyphs I've assembled.

Sartan Runes

These are from a fantasy novel where the runes are used to work magic. But it still has some interesting ideas about writing.

Sartan Runes are ideograms: each rune represents a word or concept. In the novels, an inscription used for information instead of casting a magic spell would appear as a "sentence" which was a row of runes. However, if there was a comment or footnote about a word or phrase in the sentence, a sub-sentence would branch off at a 60 degree angle at that point (runes are hexagonal). Of course sub-sentences can also have sub-sub-sentences.

So the inscription could wind up looking like a tree graph.

Runic inscriptions for magic spells just look like a clot of runes, which is uninteresting.


     The key to rune (or runic) magic is that the harmonic wave that weaves a possibility into existence must be created with as much simultaneity as possible. This means that the various motions, signs, words, thoughts and elements that go into making up the harmonic wave must be completed as close together as possible. The more simultaneous the harmonic wave structure, the more balance and harmony will be maintained in the wave and the more powerful the magic itself. This is rather like the difference between throwing a warball (similar to a gridiron football) end over end and spiraling it. A wheel which is rolled straight will roll farther than one which is sent wobbling.

     To attain this simultaneity, both the Sartan and the Patryns have developed magical languages and structures to convey their magic. Used only for magic, this language is unlike any other used in any of the realms. A second, more traditional language is used for standard communication by both of these races. The rune language is not so much spoken (although that is one element) as it is performed.

     The common element in both languages is their simultaneity. Traditional languages are sequential in their structure along single-channel, linear lines. When one reads words on a page, he reads letter after letter, word after word, sentence after sentence to build up a complete thought or meaning of the text. This means he is taking in the message through only one channel or source of experience at a time. When people watch a play, however, they are taking in several channels at one time (the words spoken, the gestures and poise of the actor, the lighting of the scene). One might also get multiple messages over a single channel at one time (seeing the actor, the actor’s chair and the backdrop of the stage all at the same time). The play’s messages are all hitting the audience simultaneously. For this reason the play is said to have simultaneity in its communication of ideas.

     The complexity, balance and harmony of magic requires perfection in simultaneous communication of the magician’s harmonic waves. This is generally conveyed through performance of the magic by the magician through words, tones, gestures and motion. In rune magic, the simultaneity is bound up in the concept of a non-linear written language.


     The Sartan use a hexagonal structure which is generally conveyed through six channels of communication at the same time. This involves the use of runes which are either drawn into or on an object or created in the air through performance art. In performance, the casting wizard is limited to three channels which include sound (auditory with complex harmonics), shape (gestures and dance positioning), mind (telepathic projections). The use of structured runes at the same time (sigla inscribed on objects such as staves, wands, rings, clothing, or any properly positioned object) can communicate the remaining three elements of the pattern.

     All Sartan rune structures are built in a hexagonal pattern emanating from the Fountain or Root Rune. This rune is the source of the magic being cast and the point from which all the magical structure springs. The Fountain Rune determines the thrust of the spell structure. In rune magic, this Fountain Rune may be of any type from any of the Houses of magic. In complex spells, then, it is essential in the reading of the spell that one understands which rune is the Fountain Rune. Two separate spells which have identical runes in identical positions may have vastly different effects if they have different Fountain Runes.


     Root structures bring the power of magic into the complex of the rune spell. These structures begin with Root itself: a rune which designates the source of magic coming from either Power, Mind, Life, or Death.

     This Root Rune or, as it is more often called, the Fountain Rune, is flanked on its lower left side by its Patriarch (the rune preceding it as seen in the illustration). It is flanked on its lower right side by its Matriarch (the rune following the Patriarch for that Root). These support the Root and give direction to the power of magic welling up from the runes below it. Directly below the Root is the Dom or Master. The top of the Dom borders the bottom of the Root and touches on both the Patriarch and the Matriarch. This rune determines whether the nature of the power called forth will be Spiritual or Physical in nature and completes the Root Structure. Nearly always, other runes connect to the Dom from below to further define and amplify the power of the magic being cast.

     The Fountain Rune is flanked on its upper left side by Dawn and on its upper right side by Dusk. These runes determine the amplitude (how much power) and vector (direction) to which the harmonic wave will be applied into the complex where the Root Structure is found.

     Between the Dawn and Dusk runes is the Head which completes the Root structure. The head is part of a further complex of runes which transfers the elements of the Root structure into the general harmonic of the magic being called into existence.


     The Fountain Rune is both the center of the magical concept which is created when the spell is cast as well as the essential point of perspective from which rune magic is read and understood.

     It is crucial to the proper reading of runes that the Fountain Rune be known and located in the structure. Similar rune structures take on completely different meanings when different Fountain Runes are chosen.

     Here, by way of example, is a very simple rune structure.

     There is no indication of the Fountain Rune. Which rune does one pick? Where does one begin? Here are two possible interpretations of this rune structure. This is the great secret in rune magic. The location of the Fountain Rune is known only to those who learn its location from the rune’s creator. Much of a wizard’s training involves learning how to determine the Fountain Rune as well as simple rote memory of the locations of such runes. Without a Sartan to teach the location of these Fountain Runes, the chances of understanding our magical writings is negligible.

From DRAGON WING by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis (1990)
RocketCat Runes

The other day RocketCat was perusing this webpage, and had a brainstorm.

He started off with the Pentateuch Symbols, because he thinks they are stylish, symbolic, and beautiful. I think so too.

"What if," he thought, "some of the Pentateuch Symbols were like Lojban Selbri words?" ("predicate" words). Meaning the word implied having function arguments associated with it. So the RocketCat Rune for "make" needs argument runes for "maker", "item made", and "material item is made from." This means the complete glyph would be something like [Mannings] made [slide-rule] out of [bamboo] to turn the predicate word into a complete sentence. The argument runes could be placed in a row after the predicate rune, placed to the left-right-above-below of the predicate, artistically interlaced with the predicate, or something like that; he had not thought that far yet. Probably below since the Pentateuch symbols are generally arranged in a tall column.

Take for instance the Lojban word "Klama". It means:

     (x1) comes/goes (to destination x2) (from origin x3) (via route x4) (using means/vehicle x5)

where the xs are spaces to insert detail words (the "arguments") or insert a placeholder word if you don't specify.

     Example: Floyd klama commissary home Route-66 jeep

     means: Floyd goes to the commissary from home via Route-66 using the jeep.

So if you arranged these in a vertical column like a Pentateuch sentence, the second symbol would be the RocketCat rune for "come/goes", and the first, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth would hold the symbols for their respective arguments, or the little star symbol which means "unspecified thing."

Using this, the column of symbols to the left say:

RocketCat goes to Deimos from somewhere via a Hohmann transfer using the spaceship Polaris

Note: preliminary symbol for "cat" is a combination of "fur" and "will", since anybody who has lived with a cat knows they are basically furry balls full of ego.

To complicate matters, RocketCat thought it would be a good idea to add the branching tree structure of the Sartan Runes. That will really make this look byzantine.

I told RocketCat this was an interesting idea, but I was dubious about its practicality. Pentateuch symbols take up unreasonable amounts of room (I was actually thinking along the lines that this was a hideous chimera resulting from laminating random ill-fitting language concepts together. But I was too cowardly to say this to a heavily-armed combat cat with a short temper)

He left in a huff, muttering something about not casting pearls before swine. Which I found preferable compared to him burning a hole in my liver with a one-kilojoule laser bolt.

Captain Blood Icons

Captain Blood is a video game that was released in 1988. In it, the protagonist has to travel to various planets and attempt to communicate with various alien species. This is done via an icon-based interface called UPCOM, using a set of 150-odd icon "words."

The point is that since this is a game, the word-list of icons has to be actually functional, or the game cannot be played. Science fiction authors trying to make a minimalist alien communication system might find Captain Blood's list of words to be useful.

Please note that the words in the list which appear to be nonsense are actually the names of different alien species. The game is currently being modernized under the name Captain Blood Legacy.

Spacers Runic

Spacer's Runic is from Jovian Chronicles Spacer's Guide (which has other hard-science space travel details that are relevant to our interests).

In the world of Jovian Chronicles, Spacer's Runic is an ideogram based written language used as an emergency form of communication when speaking is not possible. The straight lined symbols can be drawn with all sorts of improvised tools and surfaces, and space suits carry vacuum rated marking pens specifically to write them. Morse code is considered to also be a part of Spacer's Runic.

Spacer's Runic is considered to be universal among spacers, understandable regardless of what language the spacers speak. This is much like the real-world International Code of Signals, which can be understood even if the sender only speaks Mandarin Chinese and the receiver only speaks Czechoslovakian.

A single straight line (the "orientation mark") is used to indicate the left side of the sentences, since otherwise the orientation of the message is ambiguous in the microgravity environment. The line should include at least two sentence rows, but most spacers draw the line to include all of them. If there is only one sentence, the orientation mark should extend above and below the sentence.

The runes are read left to right,top to bottom.

Each rune is drawn within an imaginary 3 × 3 grid of evenly sized squares. They are drawn with dots and straight lines. Dots are drawn in the center of a grid square or at an intersection. Lines are drawn from the side of one grid square to another, either from the intersection or the midpoint.

The reader should cut some slack to the writer, since the writer is probably trying to draw the runes under extreme stress during an emergency.

Sentences start at the orientation mark, with each rune added at the right edge of the sentence. A sentence should be on one row, or the "continue on next line" rune allows a sentence to be on several rows. It is not allowed to have more than one sentence on a row.

Runes should be spaced so there is from 3 to 6 grid square between them, it is allowed to space the digits in a number closer than 3.

There are thousands of runes, only a representative sample is shown here.

No Written Language


from Jacques Mattheij:

Question for you: One HN thread caused me to wonder about this: What would a technological society look like that somehow managed to side-step the written word? Would such a thing even be possible? If not why not?

Just to keep you awake at night :)

This question caught my attention like a snagged fingernail, and it's still pulling at me: here's my first cut at an answer. I'm taking the no-writing parameter seriously as a limiting condition: what level of technological society can emerge in conditions which preclude writing—for example, if it's forbidden for religious reasons? I'm going to treat this as holy writ for purposes of this thought-experiment: rules-lawyering around the no-writing rule in the comments will be treated as Derailing and deleted, with one special sort-of-exception which I'll explain near the end because it opens up a bunch of interesting consequences.

My general rule answer is: it wouldn't be possible for human beings to develop a technological civilization—at least anything beyond roughly 17th century levels of energy utilization and mid-19th century levels of agriculture—without some form of record-keeping technology. And without writing they might never get that.

The reason is memory capacity. Yes, we can memorize lengthy texts when assisted by verse metrics as a form of mnemonic—the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Koran—but the format is error-prone, transcription is at least as time consuming as copying a mediaeval illuminated manuscript, and the "books" are high maintenance (they need food, clothing, and shelter). I don't know how many books one human being can memorize, but even if the number runs as high as two digits (which I think would require a very rare level of memory) you're then faced with the problem of what to do if one of your books gets cancer or dies of old age. So not only is copying more expensive than in a mediaeval monastery's scriptorum, but the substrate onto which "books" can be copied is extremely expensive (because we're coming at this from a pre-industrial situation where agriculture is labour-intensive because there's no copious supply of cheap energy). To put it in perspective, if one "book" can memorize five texts, then those five texts represent an entire productive human lifespan's worth of opportunity costs.

We know you can get to high-level neolithic culture (including agriculture and settlements) without writing, because our ancestors did so. I'm guessing that by using a monastery system for libraries, you could maintain stores of expertise equal to a couple of hundred (maybe as many as a thousand) "books". But studying them would require a scholar to travel to wherever the nearest current copy of a "text" lives and listen to (and memorize bits of) their recitation. Carrying on an actual academic dialog between two or more texts would be ... interesting, but likely slow, and the cost of creating a new text would be enormous (human lifespan-equivalents).

And then we run into mathematics. Assuming they figure out binary, integer arithmetic on fingers and toes gets you a long way for basic counting, multiplication, and optionally subtraction and division. But I'm not sure how they'd explore reals, let alone algebra or calculus, in a notation-free environment. I imagine tally sticks might work if our sophonts have opposable thumbs, but then we're cheating and getting into writing systems by the back door.

We might have specialist memory folks whose job is to act as temporary stores for working human calculators, but again, that's going to be a rare skill ("Quick! Memorize these six thirty digit binary numbers! Now repeat the fourth and sixth back to me!").

So I see the natural sciences stalling out around the point where they'd be getting to Newton/Liebnitz, and as for literature, oh dear. (Hey, I'd be out of one job but into another as an itinerant storyteller, with just one story to call my own, endlessly elaborating on it. I'd go nuts!)

Law and arbitration is going to be problematic. The Mediaeval Icelandic parliament is said to have started each session with a recitation of the legal code; any law that no sitting legislator could remember was deemed to have passed beyond the sunset. This is thus shown to work, after a fashion, for non-literate societies up to a mediaeval level. However, reliance on memory means that a case-law system simply can't develop, except in the sketchiest of ways. (On the third hand, though, one might expect the accounts of witnesses in such a memory-based society to be more detailed, if not more accurate, than what we've become used to.)

Economics is going to be even worse. Pace Graeber, money may have originated as a tally mechanism inside temple grain stores: you can't eat gold, so it serves as a persistent token representing so many sheaves of wheat or ewes or whatever that the temple has received on your behalf. Money represents a debt. But without hard records outside of someone's head, how do we agree on exchanges of fair value? There are possible work-arounds, such as using an impartial third party as an arbiter, or using gift-giving rather than purchase-buying, but they probably don't scale well.

As for engineering, I think they'd have to rely on models and finger-in-the-sand sketches. You can get quite a long way with that; I live on the top floor of an apartment building where about 80% of the builders would have been illiterate when they constructed it. (Admittedly without electricity, plumbing, or central heating at the time of construction, circa 1829.) You might get low-pressure walking beam steam engines, but I don't think you'd be able to build high pressure steam engines (and thereby prime movers) without being able to mess around with the ideal gas law and do heat transfer calculations—it's too dangerous (the failure mode is an explosion and your research notes are mortal), and if you build in conservative margins of error on stuff like the boiler wall thickness you'll end up with it weighing too much to be useful.

The lack of steam traction means agricultural productivity will remain geared against human and animal labour: by our standards, it's very labour-intensive indeed. I don't see the lack of writing as precluding the development of things like threshing machines—and in related industries, the Spinning Jenny and the weaving loom—but lack of motive power and recording technology may prevent more complex derivatives (such as the Jacquard card-controlled loom). Clothing is going to stay expensive for a long time here. In general devices which have hidden dependencies on high pressure engineering aren't going to be readily available: I'm guessing the sewing machine, developed in the mid-19th century, would in principle be possible but mass production of standardized steel needles and precision components would make them inaccessible.

... This is as far as the discussion got in email, before my wife came in and made a key observation: sound recording tech is something you can do entirely mechanically. Think in terms of hand-cranked wax cylinder recorder or dictaphone: such a device is functionally equivalent to writing, albeit bulky, slow to absorb (spoken narrative is about a third to half the speed of reading), and still requiring transcription costs. Wax cylinders won't last forever, but they're easy enough to re-record by someone memorizing the "text" in five minute segments and reciting from memory. And if wax isn't good enough, there were early forms of plastic (casein polymerized with formaldehyde?) that date to the early-19th century and don't require advanced chemistry which might do as a shellac alternative in mass use, if indeed shellac itself isn't available.

So, if we permit audio recording as a possibility (but not writing as such) we then have the derivative question: can a civilization develop to wax cylinder reorders in the absence of writing? (Note that this technology is not trivial: it depends on reduction gearing, probably an escapement mechanism, and some degree of precision engineering. It also almost certainly depends on your being able to deliver division of labour which is itself a question of economics and resource allocation which, under conditions of expensive information storage, is problematic.) And, if that isn't a leap too far, how much further can you bootstrap your technological civilization if you can do some audio reording? And what will such an a-literate climax society look like?

From A WORLD-BUILDING PUZZLER by Charles Stross (2016)

Cinematic Futuristic Fonts

Science-fictional TV and movies often try to show that they are in the future by their selection of character fonts. By far the most common font used for this purpose is Eurostile and its close relative Microgramma.

Since I was imprinted like a baby duckling with Microgramma from watching Space 1999, for this website I use Michroma, which is a Microgramma look-alike font available under the Open Font License 1.1.

A more interesting choice than Eurostyle/Microgramma is a font that implies an evolution of the alphabet.

The classic Battlestar Galactica uses a font called Stop or a close variant. The letters of this font have portions missing, yet it is still quite legible. It gives that evolved futuristic alphabet look, but the audience can still read it.

In the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century they use a font where the components of the letters are present, but in odd proportions. Still legible, still evolved looking. Offhand I'd say the designer was inspired by Magnetic ink character recognition letters sometimes found on cheques. Personally I find the results to be clunky and ugly, but at least they were trying.


In addition to the film-specific typographic deconstructions on this site, I’m keeping track of all the times I spot classic sci-fi fonts in movies. What better way to start than with perennial sci-fi favorite, Eurostile?

Eurostile, and in particular its Bold Extended variant, has appeared in countless sci-fi settings over the years. It’s got to the point where the very presence of Eurostile Bold Extended in an opening title card says FUTURE far more effectively than an expensive effects shot:

Indeed, Eurostile is such a quick way to establish a timeframe that whenever I see it in real life – which happens quite a lot in my adopted home of California – I assume I’ve been transported to some futuristic dystopia, where a local care center feels more like a sinister government facility for scientific experimentation:

Eurostile is most commonly seen in its Bold Extended form, but Regular, Bold, and Regular Extended sometimes crop up as well. I’ve captured (and tried to clarify) as many as possible below.

Date / Location Positioning

When and where are we? If it’s set in Eurostile, we are in the FUTURE, and we are in the FUTURE.

Computers and Screens

If your computer system or TV show needs some futuristic-looking text that’s easy to read in a long-shot, there’s no better choice than Eurostile Bold Extended.

Walls and Signage

Need to write a message on your rocket, lunar base, or rover? You know the font to use.

Movie Posters

Titles and Credit Sequences


Any More?

FUN FACT: An expanded version of this article will appear in the Typeset in the Future book, available in fall 2018. Sign up for the book’s mailing list to receive occasional updates about its design, pre-order date, and release.

From FONTSPOTS: EUROSTILE by Dave Addey (2014)

Future Reading

This section has been moved here.


Back in 1986 there was an animated feature film called The Transformers: The Movie. This was based on the TV cartoon created by Hasbro to be hour-long advertisements for their toy line, since in 1984 U.S. regulators had removed many of the restrictions regarding the placement of promotional content within children's television programming. But I digress.

Anyway in the movie, living on the Planet of Junk are the Junkions with their leader Wreck-Gar. The planet is unfortunately within range of Terran television broadcasts. So the ramshackle inhabitants are products of their environments: their mismatched body parts are collected from the mountains of junk, and their language is based on Terran pop culture, cheesy slogans, sales pitches, and advertising taglines.

  • When Wreck-Gar wants to tell his gang to get into position to observe and/or ambush the protagonists, he says "Stop, thief! No welcome-wagon "Hello Stranger" with that new coffee flavor for YOU!". In the 1980's there was an ad for a brand of coffee where it was offered as part of a "welcome wagon", a quaint US custom that had mostly died out in the 1960s. Translation: You are not welcome here!

  • "Offer Expires While You Wait". A common feature of sleazy late-night US TV ads. The lie implies that the great price for the advertised product will go up in price in a few minutes so you should PICK UP THE PHONE AND ORDER IT RIGHT THIS MINUTE! Translation: You'd better get out of here right now!

  • "Operators Are Standing By...". The second part of "expires while you wait." It means telephone operators are ready and waiting to take your order. Translation: Wreck-Gar and his gang are waiting to see if you get the hint and leave, otherwise they are ready to ambush you.

  • "You Check In But You Don't Check Out". This is from an ad for a roach motel. Translation: You cockroaches! If you enter our territory, you will never leave it alive.

  • Wreck-Gar's battle cry is "Don't Look Behind Door Number 2, Monty! It's Time To Play "End Of The Line, My Valentine!". Door #2 and Monty are references to an old TV game show called Let's Make A Deal. Contestants are given the choice to keep a cash prize, or trade it for a mystery prize behind door #1, door #2, or door #3. Usually the mystery prize is an unpleasant surprise. Translation: Let the constest begin!

  • During the battle Wreck-Gar boasts of his fighting prowess by saying "Eliminate Even The Toughest Stains". The reference is to an ad for dishwashing detergent, the protagonists are being compared to stains on dishes. Translation: Prepare to die! I am tougher than you!

Later when they become friends with the protagonists, one of our heroes ask them where they learned how to talk in such a confusing manner. Wreck-Gar whips out a tiny screen and tells them they learned it from TV. One of the heroes says "I can talk some TV. And now the news. Don't touch that dial"

My point is that the Junkions can pack lots of meaning into a short phrase, as long as they all share the same cultural heritage (meaning they've all watched the same TV ads and shows over and over).

In 1991 (i.e., two years before Eternal September and the advent of the modern internet) there was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Darmok". In it, the Federation is having a difficult time trying to communicate with a new alien civilization called the Tamarians. The universal translator gizmo has no problem translating the words, but the sentences make no sense.

The problem is that the Tamarians do not speak in terms of concepts, instead they speak in metaphors.


The Tamarian language was the spoken language of the Tamarians. The Tamarians spoke entirely by allegory, referencing mythological and historical people and events from their culture. As a result, Federation universal translators – although they could successfully translate the individual words and sentence structure – were unable to convey the symbolic meaning they represented. Without prior knowledge of the Tamarians' history and legends, a word-by-word translation was of no use to someone attempting to communicate with them. This language barrier led to isolation of the Tamarian people after all attempts at communication had failed.

For example, instead of asking for cooperation, they would use a phrase such as "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra", because their culture's stories include a tale of two Tamarians, Darmok and Jalad, who were brought together while fighting a common foe on an island called Tanagra. The problem with communicating in this fashion is that without understanding the meaning of the reference, the metaphor becomes meaningless. While explaining the structure of the language, Counselor Deanna Troi gave the example that "Juliet on her balcony" could be used to describe a romantic situation, but it is impossible to understand if the listener does not know who Juliet is, or why she was on the balcony.

Some examples of the Tamarian language:

  • "The beast at Tanagra" – a problem to be overcome
  • "Children of Tama" – Tamarian
  • "Chenza at court, the court of silence" – not listening
  • "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" – cooperation
  • "Darmok and Jalad on the ocean" – new friendship and understanding gained through a shared challenge
  • "Darmok on the ocean" – loneliness, isolation
  • "Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel" – successful first contact between two alien cultures, or to work toward a common goal
  • "Kadir beneath Mo Moteh" – failure to communicate/understand
  • "Kailash, when it rises" – a necessary loss or sacrifice
  • "Kiazi's children, their faces wet" – do not cry
  • "Kira at Bashi" – to tell a story
  • "Kiteo, his eyes closed" – refusal to understand
  • "Mirab, with sails unfurled" – signifying departure/engines to full/fleeing
  • "Rai and Jiri at Lungha. Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons. Jiri of Ubaya. Ubaya of crossroads, at Lungha. Lungha, her sky gray" – greeting between two different cultures/races
  • "The river Temarc in winter" – be quiet/silence
  • "Shaka, when the walls fell" – failure
  • "Sokath, his eyes uncovered/opened" – understanding/realization
  • "Temba, at rest" – when a gift being offered is declined
  • "Temba, his arms wide/open" – signifying a gift
  • "Uzani, his army with fists closed" – to close rank and attack after luring the enemy
  • "Uzani, his army with fists open" – to lure the enemy towards you by spreading your forces
  • "Zima at Anzo" "Zima and Bakor" – danger/hostility arising from miscommunication/misunderstanding.
  • "Zinda, his face black, his eyes red" – anger or conflict, also can indicate pain or discomfort, possible indication of inability to survive (either self, or other party)

So in the episode, the Tamarians try the Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra protocol, Captain Picard eventually realizes how the language works, and the Federation successfully opens diplomatic relations. Great Star Trek episode, one of my top two favorites along with The Inner Light.

Just like the Junkions, the Tamarians can pack a lot of content into a short phrase, as long as all the Tamarians share the same cultural heritage (meaning they all know the same myths, legends, and famous historial figures). And by the same token the language is total gobbledygook if you don't know any of the cultural references, which was the point of the entire episode.

My wife and I use a version of Tamarian language as well, as do many people who are well acquainted with each other.

My wife was appalled when she saw the movie Gattaca. She was unaware at what a dystopian hell-scape would be a world with such universal surveillance. The movie had so many examples of the nasty consequences of such technology that it would take a few paragraphs to explain all the nuances.

So when something comes up in the news about a surveillance over-reach (like Stingray), my wife does not say "Oh, that will bring a dystopian hell-scape with its universal surveillance." What she does say is "It's Gattaca, man!" It is a nice piece of verbal short-hand that encapsulates many related concepts.

My wife and I adored the TV show Firefly, and were bitterly disappointed when it was cancelled after a single season. Especially since dozens of insipid mindless sitcoms have been around for decades. The high quality stuff is given the ax while the low grade stuff for the great unwashed is immortal. So in our personal version of Tamarian, when something we enjoy is yanked for similar reasons, we say "Blast, it's gone Firefly!"

And when we see evidence of corporations merging into near monopolies, she says "It's just like Rollerball!" (in the movie, mergers have snowballed to the point where there are only six corporation, with the names: Transport, Food, Communications, Housing, Luxury, and Energy).

There was an ancient TV advertisement for Pepto-Bismol. It showed various situations where people could acquire an upset stomach, along with a bottle of Pepto inside a box saying IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS. One situation showed a run-down Mexican restaurant out in the desert. A couple of Ugly American tourists pull up in their car, and the lady reads the sign on the restaurant and says "Look, Harry! Mexican Tamales" (where she mispronounces the last word as "Tah-Males"). The implication being that they are clueless newbies who have no idea how much grief they are getting into. So my wife and I use the "Look Harry" phrase when we see somebody with a bad case of the Dunning-Kruger effect about to suffer the consequences of their ignorance.

Since my wife and I watch the same TV shows and movies, we share that cultural heritage and can use them as abbreviations. But to outsiders these phrases are opaque and can be used as a private secret code.

When I see something like blackmail or an extortion racket, instead of wasting my breath on an extended speech with the topic of the long-term inadvisability of paying off bullies, I just quote Kipling "Once you have paid him the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane". Alas this is not as successful an abbreviation because nobody reads Kipling these days.

Since my mental processes are about as fast as molasses in mid-winter, it took me until now to realize that large parts of the internet are now using the Tamarian language. Only instead of using verbal metaphors, they use visual internet memes.

Internet memes sum up long and nuanced statements and opinions into one compact symbolic image. Sort of like pictograms, but with much more content crammed in. The background image can be simply amusing, but the better memes use frames from TV or Movies taken from scenes that illustrate the content. Sometimes the meme image is simplified, as in the Nick Cage "You Don't Say" below. They started out as lolcats and evolved into more generalized image macros. They are quite common in certain online forums, such as 4chan, Fark, and SomethingAwful.

And much like the Tamarian languages in the Trek episode, internet memes are more or less incomprehensible if you have not seen the TV episode or movie that the image came from.

Some memes have a fixed text, they always have the same meaning. Some are customizable. For instance, the "Special Kind of Stupid" meme with Sam Elliot commonly has additional text at the top to make it more specific. Example: "If you think that rockets are boats, you're a special kind of stupid aren't ya???" The text is generally in the font called "Impact," white with a black border.

What is even more interesting is that some fixed text memes become so well known that they sometimes appear without their fixed text. They have graduated to become captionless memes, and are even closer to being true pictograms. The first six memes shown below have also appeared as captionless memes.

One can speculate that hundreds of years in the future, these internet memes will further simplify to the point where they actually will be pictograms. Much like modern-day emoji.

And somewhere Darmok is laughing. Actually it is Wreck-Gar who is laughing first, in 1986. As the Transformer Wiki puts it: "A species that does nothing but spout pop-culture references. That proves it: this cartoon predicted the shape of internet culture."

Alien Language

All SF authors who feature aliens in their stories have faced the same problem. How do you have your heroes talk with the bug-eyed-monsters?

Traditionally, the problem is so difficult and the needs of writing a fast-paced story are so urgent that SF authors tend to resort to various handwaving and cop-outs. In many SF TV shows, one gets the impression that all aliens miraculously happen to speak English. This was magnificently satirized in Harry Harrison's hysterical spoof of space opera: Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers.

"You speak pretty good English for a thing that's hot as a brick kiln and looks like a twenty-foot-long black scorpion," John spoke up bravely.

"How nice of you to say that," Lord Prrsi said. "If truth be known, I rather pride myself on my linguistic ability; in fact, I led the movement to adopt this new language in place of our old one which was just too clumsy for civilized use. You see we have powerful radio receivers, and we picked up broadcasts from an insignificant little yellow star out in that direction." He waved a great clattering claw. "Oh, I say, I am sorry. Should have realized. It is rather a nice star, for a yellow one, I mean. Since you speak the language, I may assume you come from there? Yes, thought so. Dreadfully rude of me. But I wander. In any case we heard this language emanating from a country named BBC Third Program, and it seemed to fit our needs so we adopted it."


(ed note: Bob travels to the moon Ganymede in the good ship Procyon. )

Red came in later. “I heard,” he said. “I’m sorry for you, but I’m glad you’re staying, Bob. We’ll make a real colonist of you. What was that funny subject you were studying?”

Applied linguistics,” Bob told him. He tried to explain it and make the fascination of it obvious. So far, he’d only found a few others who could see it, however, and they had all been in his classes.

In centuries past, men had taken language for granted, though speech was the most remarkable tool ever devised by man. There had been a study called comparative philology, but all that did was to examine the little differences between the human languages—and all of them were much more alike than their differences suggested. It wasn’t until the development of machines that could think that a real study could be undertaken of how language worked. Men had to develop a new speech, based on mathematics, to feed information to the computers. And that language had grown by necessity. It was a different type of language. But it suggested that there might be even better methods of speech possible, and they had been groping toward such methods. Loglan III was an artificial speech that showed some promise, but even it was not what they wanted. Men were limited by their speech habits. So were machines limited by the information medium. Somehow, there should be a possible language that would be so logical that it was almost self-evident and perfect for computers, but still so rich that it could express all the wonder and poetry men alone could feel.

“Our trouble is that we have only human languages—even mathematics has a human basis,” Bob finished. “We really need a non-human speech for comparison, to find what language really is. But since we don’t have that, we have to keep trying to build one. I’ve got some theories, but I don’t know enough yet to test them.”

(ed note: Approaching Ganymede, the travelers on the Procyon are surprised when a glowing UFO-like alien spacecraft from Jupiter easily passes through the Procyon's force fields and steals a cargo pod. Heavy metals like uranium are hard to come by on gaseous Jupiter.

Later on Ganymede, Bob is nonplussed when he finds that the glowy alien-ship has been visiting a remote area, and a little girl named Penny has been talking to them. Well, actually drawing symbols on a touch-screen on the side of the alien-ship.)

     “You promised you’d never run away again,” Red began.
     She shook her head. “I didn’t. Going to see friends isn’t running away.”
     Bob was remembering some of the theories of speech he’d learned. Children could learn new languages because they hadn’t learned to think in fixed patterns. After they had used any one language long enough, they began to think within the limits of that language and couldn’t move beyond those limits.
     “How do you talk with them?” he asked.
     Penny frowned. “We don’t talk. We—we…There’s no word. It’s growing in. They don’t use words. Just the way the words make you see how things go.”
     Red started to laugh, but Bob cut it off. “I think I know what she means, Red. They don’t have symbols for things and grammar to show how the things operate on each other. They use some kind of symbol for the relationship. It’s like calculus instead of arithmetic. We use a language that piles ones on top of ones in tight bits of information, while they use a speech that shows the pattern all the bits add up to. There have been proposals for such languages, but nobody could ever design one that would work.”
     Penny thought it over. “I guess maybe you understand,” she decided. “And maybe I like you again. But you shouldn’t have scared them.”
     “They didn’t get scared so easily when they attacked the Procyon,” Red told her. “They were brave enough then—and they didn’t care what happened to us.”
     She sighed. “I told them they were bad, and they said they were sorry. But they didn’t know it was a—a people ship. It was going the wrong way, and it didn’t look like any people ship they ever saw. It had something on it people don’t use, too. They had to crack that off to get what they needed inside. But they won’t do it again. They promised.”

(ed note: Suddenly a plague strikes the human colony. Terra sends a robot rocket with a supply pod full of medicine but the remote pilot on Ganymede is stricken with the plague in mid-landing. The robot ship misses Ganymede and sails off into deep space.

Penny visits the aliens again and asks them to fetch the robot rocket. They do, but they are acting erratic. Penny doesn't know it but she gave the aliens the plague as well. It seem that the Jupiter aliens developed from Terran spores panspermia-style so they are also vulnerable. They want something in exchange for the rocket, which any idiot with two brain cells to rub together would realize is a cure for the plague. Penny cannot figure out what the alien symbols mean so she fetches Bob.)

     She hadn’t been able to get away the night they usually came, though she’d tried. And tonight, “she’d been caught again. The ship must have grown tired of waiting for her. At least, it had done something it hadn’t tried before. It had swung over Outpost and signaled her. Apparently the plastic sheet Red had found in her room lighted up whenever the ship was near. But this time, as it passed over the colony, the sheet had sent her a message. According to her, it was a funny message but awfully important looking.
     When she’d finally reached the Bowl, carrying her presents for them, they hadn’t bothered to open the door. They didn’t want the metal this time. They wanted something else, and she couldn’t understand what. Then she’d told them about the supply capsule and asked them to get it. She’d been planning on that ever since the capsule was lost, knowing they could find it.
     “They got awful excited, and went so fast I couldn’t keep up,” she said, pointing to the panel where the stick signals had appeared. “Then they slowed down, but it was all funny. I couldn’t make any sense of it. So I just kept telling them about the capsule over and over. Then they went out and got it.”
     “Well, it’s quite a ways to the colony,” Kirby said. “But I reckon people will be pretty glad to come out and drag it back somehow. You did a fine thing, Penny. Now tell them to release it.”
     She started to cry again, quietly. “I tried and tried and tried. But they won’t. They just sit there, and they don’t even make the pictures or anything. See!”
     She went back and began drawing against the side of the ship. Nothing happened.
     Bob moved beside her. “Tell them it’s important to us, Penny. Tell them we are dying—
     “I can’t—can’t make that!”
     “All right. Tell them we are going like this, then.” He reached up to the place where her hands had been and made a sine wave that gradually faded out—a series of waves that got smaller and smaller and stopped.
     Immediately the big panel began to glow. The figure Bob had drawn was reproduced, while something that might have been a picture of Penny appeared beside it.
     Penny squealed in delight. “You’re smart, Bob. Now I can tell them.” She began drawing her lines as fast as she could move her hands. Other sticks seemed to move on the great panel. The damped wave train that Bob had drawn was also mixed into it.
     Bob realized it was the first practical use he had ever made of all the analytic linguistics he had studied. But what could be a more universal symbol of death than that? In a way, though, it confirmed his guess that the creatures on board the globe thought in processes and relationships, rather than in separate things.
     Penny turned back. She was frowning again.
     “They know now. But they are—unhappy. They want something, but not metal. I don’t know what they say now. And I think they can’t get back home.”
     “If their ship is in trouble, I don’t know what we can do. But we could try to help, I guess,” Bob told her.
     “The ship can go back. They can’t,” she said.

(ed note: the word you are searching for is "quarantine")

(ed note: Back at the colony, the doctor manages to sequence the antibody that will cure the plague. Sadly he cannot synthesize it, one section requires incredibly high pressure for synthesis.

Meanwhile Bob talks with the aliens again, and realizes they are dying of the plague. They decide to give the aliens a sample of the plague germs and a sample of the antibody they cannot synthesize. Meanwhile humans are dying of the plague.

Now Bob has to figure out a series of diagrams that the aliens will understand. He knows they like curved lines from the images on the touch screen.)

     HOW DOES A MAN communicate with an alien? It was one of the oldest questions of the space age, but no man had ever been forced to decide on the answer before. There were theories. Elaborate systems had been worked out. There was even a handbook that had been prepared fifty years before Bob was born. In it, a series of mathematical symbols and pictures were evolved step by step to make certain that there could be no error in the interpretation.
     The only trouble was that it hadn’t worked. Bob remembered that someone had finally decided to try it out on a normal human who spoke a different language. An anthropologist had taken it to one of the few isolated areas where the technical revolution had not made a common culture necessary. And there a man who was well educated in his own language, and who had a high intelligence, had spent nearly a month poring over the book. In the end, it had not been possible to carry on an intelligent conversation beyond what simple signs would have provided.
     And nearly all of those ideas were based on the assumption that one stone was one stone in every culture. But suppose there was a race that did not have a word for one or for stone? Suppose the unit one was only a spot on a line connecting something less than one with something more? On Earth, calculus already treated one in such a manner. And suppose a stone could be considered a relation between a hungry man and a rabbit, or a part of a long process that connected silt with pressure with cliffs with erosion? Either was valid. And neither was exclusive.
     But to describe a stone was certainly simpler than to try to compress all that science had learned about disease and immunology into a few simple notes for a race that might have an entirely different way of looking at even the basic parts of science.
     Bob had no time for long theorizing. And his mind had already skimmed over almost everything in his studies of analytic linguistics. He had only the very basic approach to thought that such a study could produce—the only vital part of science.

     The problem of numbers came first. He chose a line to represent one, a square for two. Those could be drawn. But beyond that, he could not be sure. In the end, he rejected the whole scheme. He had to get along even without numbers, except as relationships.
     A curve was his final solution. He went back to a curve for a simple tone—a sine wave—for one. Then one with a single overtone could stand for two. A third harmonic changed that and gave him three. He needed only five numbers to show the order of his slides, and a curve with even the fifth harmonic could be drawn. He used the symbol they had already agreed meant death for the dangerous organism. For the antibody, a series of waves died away toward the center but then grew larger again, to indicate recovery.
     It took longer than he liked, but in the end, he had everything he needed based on curves. There were basic laws of physics involved in those—the whole mathematics of curves had been an almost necessary development to express such laws, and any race should be able to decode them, particularly one where curves were a normal code.
     He encoded the slides carefully in their proper order, trying to simplify even the basic procedure that his father suggested. In the end, he was far from satisfied, but Dr. Wilson was impressed.
     “I never thought much of this idea of science in language,” he admitted. “But now I don’t know. Maybe you’re right, Bob. Maybe we don’t have any idea yet of how to develop and handle our symbols. You’ve compressed your information a lot more than I thought possible. Certainly I can follow your instructions.”
     Bob hoped another form of life could do as well.

(ed note: The antibody cures the aliens. As it turns out, aliens who live in a high pressure environment find it absurdly simple to synthesize the antibody. They fly back to the colony and deliver enough to cure all the sick humans tens times over. The failing human colony will now become prosperous as the center of human-alien trade and information exchange. And the protagonist has a head-start on creating a common language to use)

From OUTPOST OF JUPITER by Lester del Rey (1963)

(ed note: Klaus Muller is a deep-sea engineer. His most recent contract was to install a Russian temperature differential power generator, with the cold end about 500 fathoms (900 meters) deep off the coast of Sri Lanka. He is called back when part of the cold end is damaged by unknown causes. During the dive to fix the damage, he encounters two mysterious squids.)

      The terror came first, when I saw that the approaching beasts were squids, and all Joe’s tales reverberated in my brain. Then, with a considerable sense of letdown, I realized that they were only about twenty feet long—little larger than the lobster, and a mere fraction of its weight. They could do me no harm. And quite apart from that, their indescribable beauty robbed them of all menace.
     This sounds ridiculous, but it is true. In my travels I have seen most of the animals of this world, but none to match the luminous apparitions floating before me now. The colored lights that pulsed and danced along their bodies made them seem clothed with jewels, never the same for two seconds at a time. There were patches that glowed a brilliant blue, like flickering mercury arcs, then changed almost instantly to burning neon red. The tentacles seemed strings of luminous beads, trailing through the water—or the lamps along a superhighway, when you look down upon it from the air at night. Barely visible against this background glow were the enormous eyes, uncannily human and intelligent, each surrounded by a diadem of shining pearls.
     I am sorry, but that is the best I can do. Only the movie camera could do justice to these living kaleidoscopes. I do not know how long I watched them, so entranced by their luminous beauty that I had almost forgotten my mission. That those delicate, whiplash tentacles could not possibly have broken the grid was already obvious. Yet the presence of these creatures here was, to say the least, very curious. Karpukhin would have called it suspicious.
     I was about to call the surface when I saw something incredible. It had been before my eyes all the time, but I had not realized it until now.

     The squids were talking to each other.

     Those glowing, evanescent patterns were not coming and going at random. They were as meaningful, I was suddenly sure, as the illuminated signs of Broadway or Piccadilly. Every few seconds there was an image that almost made sense, but it vanished before I could interpret it. I knew, of course, that even the common octopus shows its emotions with lightning-fast color changes—but this was something of a much higher order. It was real communication: here were two living electric signs, flashing messages to one another.
     When I saw an unmistakable picture of the lobster (the deep-sea submarine the protagonist is currently inside), my last doubts vanished. Though I am no scientist, at that moment I shared the feelings of a Newton or an Einstein at some moment of revelation. This would make me famous…

     Then the picture changed—in a most curious manner. There was the lobster again, but rather smaller. And there beside it, much smaller still, were two peculiar objects. Each consisted of a pair of black dots surrounded by a pattern of ten radiating lines. Just now I said that we Swiss are good at languages. However, it required little intelligence to deduce that this was a formalized squid’s-eye-view of itself, and that what I was seeing was a crude sketch of the situation. But why the absurdly small size of the squids?
     I had no time to puzzle that out before there was another change. A third squid symbol appeared on the living screen—and this one was enormous, completely dwarfing the others. The message shone there in the eternal night for a few seconds.
     Then the creature bearing it shot off at incredible speed, and left me alone with its companion.

     Now the meaning was all too obvious. “My God!” I said to myself. “They feel they can’t handle me. They’ve gone to fetch Big Brother.
     And of Big Brother’s capabilities, I already had better evidence than Joe Watkins, for all his research and newspaper clippings.
     That was the point—you won’t be surprised to hear—when I decided not to linger. But before I went, I thought I would try some talking myself.
      After hanging here in darkness for so long, I had forgotten the power of my lights. They hurt my eyes, and must have been agonizing to the unfortunate squid. Transfixed by that intolerable glare, its own illumination utterly quenched, it lost all its beauty, becoming no more than a pallid bag of jelly with two black buttons for eyes. For a moment it seemed paralyzed by the shock; then it darted after its companion, while I soared upward to a world that could never be the same again.

From THE SHINING ONES by Arthur C. Clarke (1964)

...the vast majority of sentients (alien races) cannot directly communicate with each other.

Some species operate on different time lines, or are out of phase with the four dimensions we can perceive, are too small or too large, or perhaps, if they had to acknowledge us, they would have to kill us.

So even when an atomic matrix life form that feeds off the microwave hum left over from the Big Bang and excretes time lives in the same solar system with your typical silicon-based life form that eats rocks and excretes hydrogen, communication between them may be close to impossible.

Luckily it's not really a big deal, because they usually don't have anything to talk about. Or so it appears, right up until said atomic matrix life form begins a simple operation to make the local sun go nova in order to harvest neutrinos, and to their surprise, are vigorously opposed by those gritty little creatures clinging to their large orbiting rocks, who have had to start throwing anti-matter around to get their attention, and things usually deteriorate from there.


Instead, computers had cracked the Amarantin language. It had taken thirty years—correlating millions of artefacts—but finally a consistent model had been evolved which could determine the broad meaning of most inscriptions. It helped that. at least towards the end of their reign, there had only been one Amarantin tongue, and that it had changed very slowly, so that the same model could interpret inscriptions which had been made tens of thousands of years apart. Of course, nuances of meaning were another thing entirely. That was where human intuition—and theory—came in.

Amarantin writing was not, however, like anything in human experience. All Amarantin texts were stereoscopic—consisting of interlaced lines which had to be merged in the reader's visual cortex. Their ancestors had once been something like birds—flying dinosaurs, but with the intelligence of lemurs. At some point in their past their eyes had been situated on opposite sides of their skulls, leading to a highly bicameral mind, each hemisphere synthesising its own mental model of the world. Later they had became hunters and evolved binocular vision, but their mental wiring still owed something to that earlier phase of development. Most Amarantin artefacts mirrored their mental duality, with a pronounced symmetry about the vertical axis.

The obelisk was no exception.

Sylveste had no need for the special goggles his coworkers needed to read Amarantin graphicforms: the stereoscopic merging was easily accommodated within his own eyes, employing one of Calvin's more useful algorithms. But the act of reading was still tortuous, requiring strenuous concentration.

From REVELATION SPACE by Alastair Reynolds (2000)

Rosetta Stone

Humans trying to translate an alien language used by real aliens face a daunting task. It is incredibly hard even if representative aliens are in the lab trying to help you (see the movie Arrival). It is even harder if the aliens are not physically present and all the humans have are radio messages. Even if you can ask question (and get answers back in a few decades) or if the messages are in an alien code specifically designed to be easy to break.

But if all you have are some thousand-year-old samples of non-anticryptographic alien language carved on a statue of Ozymandias by some extinct species, you are pretty much sewage-outta-luck.

Unless you can find the equivalent of a Rosetta Stone.

Rosetta Stone

Even before the Egyptian civilization vanished into the sands of history everybody thought that Egyptian Hieroglyphs were too cool for school. They had a stylish occult vibe which never got old. It had a nice almost four-thousand year run (ca. 3200 BCE – 400 CE) but died out in the space of a generation due to being outlawed in order to eradicate any link with Egypt's quote "pagan past" unquote. The Egyptians used the related Coptic alphabet until it was displaced by spread of Arabic in the 11th century. At this point nobody could read hieroglyphs any more.

Since hieroglyphs were still ultra-cool, lots of fans spent lots of effort trying to translate them. The first successful attempt was by Arabic scholars in the 800s. The Euro-centric view of course ignored this and attributes the decyperment to Jean-François Champollion in the 1820s, a bit more than a thousand years later.

European efforts were hampered because the European researchers made the incorrect assumption that since hieroglyphs looked like little pictures, they actually were pictograms. This was utterly wrong. If they had bothered to ask the Arabic scholars they would have been informed the little pictures were a fancy kind of phonetic writing. Even the legendary Athanasius Kircher (the last Renaissance man, the 1600's answer to Leonardo da Vinci) got this wrong.

There were lots of fanciful self-consistent pictogram "translations" invented through the centuries, all total nonsense. With no contact point with reality, the hieroglyphs were more a translator's Rorschach test than they were a writing system.

The contact point with reality was of course the Rosetta Stone.

The stone was rediscovered by the French expeditionary army on Napoleon's 1798 campaign in Egypt, and recognized as an incredibly important find by the Commission des Sciences et des Arts who just so happened to be accompanying the army. Arguably Commission member Michel Ange Lancret was the first to realize the stone might be the key to cracking the mystery of hieroglyphs. This juicy scoop was reported in Courrier de l'Égypte, the official newspaper of the French expedition.

1800, three of the Commission's technical experts devised ways to make copies of the texts on the stone. Which was a good thing since in the same year the British captured the town the stone was being held in, demanded all the French scientific data and artifacts be handed over, and was told by the French scientists that they would rather destroy all the artifacts instead of turning them over to filthy Englishmen. A deal was negotiated that all the scientific data belonged to the French scholars. But the Rosetta Stone was spirited away to England anyway under murky circumstances including a back street ride hidden in a gun-carriage.

The key to hieroglyphs was the fact that the Stone had the same text written in three different alphabets, one of which was already known (Greek) and one of which was hieroglyphs. This is the contact point with reality that will prevent bogus "translations" invented out of a whole cloth. If the three sections of text were in the same language then the hieroglyphic code could be broken in about five minutes.

Alas the section written in the Greek alphabet was also in the Greek language, while the Demotic and hieroglyphic sections were in Ancient Egyptian. Which hasn't been spoken in the last eight centuries or so. So the stone revealed what the hieroglyphic section meant, but not the phonetics of the spoken Egyptian words. Knowing that word number such-and-such in the Greek section is the Greek word for "King": Basileus (βασιλεύς) does not help much with translating the corresponding word in the hieroglyphic sections: Pharoah. Particularly when nobody knew the Egyptian word Pharoah, much less how it was pronounced.

The breakthrough was made by English polymath Thomas Young in 1814. He noticed occasional words in the hieroglyphic section were surrounded by an oval thingy (called a Cartouche). It occurred to Young that these were the names of royalty. And the important thing about a name is it is pronounced the same no matter what language you use.

The Greek section mentioned Ptolemy. Young looked for a cartouche in the corresponding part of the hieroglyphic section, matched up the hieroglyphs with Greek letters, and suddenly had the phonetic values for seven hieroglyphs.

And there he stalled out, because Young couldn't break his brain-washing that hieroglyphs were not pictograms. He thought the symbols inside the cartouche were phonetic, but the rest of them were pictograms. In other words cartouche meant "this is a foreign non-Egyptian word."

Later Jean-François Champollion took Young's work and proved that all the hieroglyphs were phonetic. He was helped by the fact that ancient Egyptian evolved into ancient Coptic, and while Coptic was a dead language Champollion just happened to know it via the liturgy of the Christian Coptic Church. No fool he, Champollion quickly sent the Lettre à M. Dacier to ensure he got full credit for breaking the hieroglyphic code. He was rather vague about Young's initial work, Young was somewhat bitter about that.

But What About Aliens?

By now you are telling me that this is all very interesting, but the Greeks and Egyptians were both humans. How can you have a Rosetta Stone for Aliens? What common ground could there be?

The answer from science fiction is the universal laws of mathematics and science. There is plenty of common ground there.


     "The supply port was long deserted," Travis pointed out. "There may be nothing left of their empire anywhere."
     "Well, we've not found the home port yet." Renfry got to his feet. "Once we set down there—I hadn't intended to say this, but if we ever get to the end of this trip, there's a chance we may get back, providing—" He drummed his fingers against the door casing. "Providing we have more than our share of luck."
     "How?" demanded Ashe.
     "The controls must now be set with some sort of a guide—perhaps a tape. Once we are grounded and I can get to work, that might just be reversed. But there are a hundred `ifs' between us and earth, and we can't count on anything."
     "There's this, too," Ashe added thoughtfully to that faintest of hopes. "I've been studying the material we have found. If we can crack their language tapes—some of the records we have discovered here must deal with the maintenance and operation of the ship."
     "And where in space are you going to find a Rosetta Stone?" returned Travis. He did not dare to believe that either of the two discoveries might be possible. "No common word heritage."
     "Aren't mathematics supposed to be the same, no matter what language? Two and two always add to four, and principles such as that?" puzzled Ross.
     "Please find me some symbols on any of those tapes you've been running through the reader that have the smallest resemblance to any numbers seen on earth." Renfry had swung back to the pessimistic side of the balance. "Anyway—I'm not meddling with the machines in that control cabin while we're still in space."

From GALACTIC DERELICT by Andre Norton (1959)

They found that the alien base lay in a circle of about two hundred yards diameter surrounding a conical rock formation which resembled a scaled-down volcano. The pressure domes—there were eleven altogether—were merely the surface entry points for an installation which stretched for an unknown, but probably considerable, distance underground. Despite this, Davies was able to glimpse things through their observation windows that made him even more anxious than Mercer to get inside one of them.

In one he saw a desk and a few surprisingly ordinary chairs—though he knew that their ordinariness should not have surprised him, because one of these long-departed aliens had spent nearly two years, living, breathing and passing himself as a human being on Earth. But everything he saw was an indication that the aliens had made an orderly and unhurried withdrawal from their base on Titan, and the things which they had left behind were little more than junk. Here and there were discarded items of furniture or fittings, odd pictures left hanging on walls, and even neat piles of rubbish swept into corners. It was these floor sweepings that had Davies burning with impatience to get inside.

There was no Rosetta Stone to help him here, Davies knew. It would be a far cry indeed from his deciphering of sand-eroded ideographs—or the even more difficult parchments unearthed sometimes by his university’s archaeological team, but the challenge excited him. And there was, too, a certain amount of amusement to be found in the thought that he had come nine hundred million miles just to rummage in an alien wastepaper basket.

“Well, there is plenty of printed material lying about, Davies replied carefully. “Once I’m able to translate it—"

“But how can you?” Silverman broke in suddenly. As I see it, in order to translate a hitherto unknown language you must first have a…a sort of bridge—passages written both in the unknown language and in one already known so that you can compare them, and transpose words or phrases. A sort of Rosetta Stone, in fact. But this is a completely alien language…”

Davies found himself warming to the captain. It was nice to find someone intelligent enough to appreciate another specialist’s difficulties. He smiled and said, “But I have a Rosetta Stone, of sorts.” He pointed suddenly. “Him!”

Mercer choked, spluttered, then got his breath back enough to exclaim, “Me? But my specialities are electronics and the A-Drive generators—”

“A product, as we now know, of alien science.”

“But I don’t know anything about languages!”

“That doesn’t matter," said Davies, waving the engineer to silence. He spent a moment ordering his thoughts, then went on. “We are trying here to translate a language without a single clue as to its structure, the number of letters in its alphabet, or anything else at all beyond the fact that it belongs to a highly advanced, scientific civilization.

“But the work of the alien expedition seems to have been pretty comprehensive,” Davies continued, his eyes still on Mercer’s puzzled face, “and there are all sorts of charts and technical literature lying around. Well, I want you to go over those papers with me.

“You can see my idea now, I expect a natural law or a chemical element is the same no matter what the language used to express or describe it. So if we find, say, a radio circuit diagram with the usual list of component values appended, you may be able to tell me that such-and-such a squiggle is the alien equivalent of a resistor or condenser—I wouldn’t expect you to read the whole diagram, naturally—and we would have approximate meanings for a couple of alien words.

“The same applies to the Periodic Table of Elements, which would furnish a clue to their system of numbering…”

Suddenly excited, Mercer said, “It might work at that. But—"

“But it will be a long, tedious job,” Davies said. “The things I’ve mentioned will only give us a toehold on their language, nothing more. But a beginning is all I ask.”

From FALSE ALARM by James White (1957)

(ed note: our heroes are exploring the extinct Martian civilization. There are lots of libraries and books, but sadly nothing resembling a Rosetta stone.)

     The two side walls bore inscriptions: on the right, a pattern of concentric circles which she recognized as a diagram of atomic structure, and on the left a complicated table of numbers and words, in two columns. Tranter was pointing at the diagram on the right.
     "They got as far as the Bohr atom, anyhow," he said. "Well, not quite. They knew about electron shells, but they have the nucleus pictured as a solid mass. No indication of proton-and-neutron structure. I'll bet, when you come to translate their scientific books, you'll find that they taught that the atom was the ultimate and indivisible particle. That explains why you people never found any evidence that the Martians used nuclear energy."

     There was something familiar about the table on the left wall. She tried to remember what she had been taught in school about physics, and what she had picked up by accident afterward. The second column was a continuation of the first: there were forty-six items in each, each item numbered consecutively—
     "Probably used uranium because it's the largest of the natural atoms," Penrose was saying. "The fact that there's nothing beyond it there shows that they hadn't created any of the transuranics. A student could go to that thing and point out the outer electron of any of the ninety-two elements."
     Ninety-two! That was it; there were ninety-two items in the table on the left wall! Hydrogen was Number One, she knew; One, Sarfaldsorn. Helium was Two; that was Tirfaldsorn. She couldn't remember which element came next, but in Martian it was Sarfalddavas. Sorn must mean matter, or substance, then. And davas; she was trying to think of what it could be. She turned quickly to the others, catching hold of Hubert Penrose's arm with one hand and waving her clipboard with the other.
     "Look at this thing, over here," she was clamoring excitedly. "Tell me what you think it is. Could it be a table of the elements?"

     "Sure. If that's a table of elements, all I'd need would be the numbers. Thanks," he added as she tore off the sheet and gave it to him.
     Penrose knew the numbers, and was ahead of him. "Ninety-two items, numbered consecutively. The first number would be the atomic number. Then a single word, the name of the element. Then the atomic weight—"
     She began reading off the names of the elements. "I know hydrogen and helium; what's tirfalddavas, the third one?"
     "Lithium," Tranter said. "The atomic weights aren't run out past the decimal point. Hydrogen's one plus, if that double-hook dingus is a plus sign; Helium's four-plus, that's right. And lithium's given as seven, that isn't right. It's six-point nine-four-oh. Or is that thing a Martian minus sign?"

(ed note: atomic weights: hydrogen=1.008, helium=4.002602, lithium=6.94)

     "Of course! Look! A plus sign is a hook, to hang things together; a minus sign is a knife, to cut something off from something—see, the little loop is the handle and the long pointed loop is the blade. Stylized, of course, but that's what it is. And the fourth element, kiradavas; what's that?"
     "Beryllium. Atomic weight given as nine-and-a-hook; actually it's nine-point-oh-two."

     "Hey! You're reading that!" he cried. "You're reading Martian!"
     "That's right," Penrose told him. "Just reading it right off. I don't get the two items after the atomic weight, though. They look like months of the Martian calendar. What ought they to be, Mort?"
     Tranter hesitated. "Well, the next information after the atomic weight ought to be the period and group numbers. But those are words."
     "What would the numbers be for the first one, hydrogen?"
     "Period One, Group One. One electron shell, one electron in the outer shell," Tranter told her. "Helium's period one, too, but it has the outer—only—electron shell full, so it's in the group of inert elements."
     "Trav, Trav. Trav's the first month of the year. And helium's Trav, Yenth; Yenth is the eighth month."
     "The inert elements could be called Group Eight, yes. And the third element, lithium, is Period Two, Group One. That check?"
     "It certainly does. Sanv, Trav; Sanv's the second month. What's the first element in Period Three?"
     "Sodium. Number Eleven."
     That's right; it's Krav, Trav. Why, the names of the months are simply numbers, one to ten, spelled out.
     "Doma's the fifth month. That was your first Martian word, Martha," Penrose told her. "The word for five. And if davas is the word for metal, and sornhulva is chemistry and / or physics, I'll bet Tadavas Sornhulva is literally translated as: Of-Metal Matter-Knowledge. Metallurgy, in other words. I wonder what Mastharnorvod means." It surprised her that, after so long and with so much happening in the meantime, he could remember that. "Something like 'Journal,' or 'Review,' or maybe 'Quarterly.'"
     "We'll work that out, too," she said confidently. After this, nothing seemed impossible. "Maybe we can find—" Then she stopped short. "You said 'Quarterly.' I think it was 'Monthly,' instead. It was dated for a specific month, the fifth one. And if nor is ten, Mastharnorvod could be 'Year-Tenth.' And I'll bet we'll find that masthar is the word for year." She looked at the table on the wall again. "Well, let's get all these words down, with translations for as many as we can."

     "This is really it! The it, not just it-of-the-week, like finding the reservoirs or those statues or this building, or even the animals and the dead Martians! Wait till Selim and Tony see this! Wait till Tony sees it; I want to see his face! And when I get this on telecast, all Terra's going to go nuts about it!" He turned to Captain Miles. "Jeff, suppose you take a look at that other door, while I find somebody to send to tell Selim and Tony. And Gloria; wait till she sees this—"
     "Take it easy, Sid," Martha cautioned. "You'd better let me have a look at your script, before you go too far overboard on the telecast. This is just a beginning; it'll take years and years before we're able to read any of those books downstairs."
     "It'll go faster than you think, Martha," Hubert Penrose told her. "We'll all work on it, and we'll teleprint material to Terra, and people there will work on it. We'll send them everything we can ... everything we work out, and copies of books, and copies of your word-lists—"
     And there would be other tables—astronomical tables, tables in physics and mechanics, for instance—in which words and numbers were equivalent. The library stacks, below, would be full of them. Transliterate them into Roman alphabet spellings and Arabic numerals, and somewhere, somebody would spot each numerical significance, as Hubert Penrose and Mort Tranter and she had done with the table of elements. And pick out all the chemistry textbooks in the Library; new words would take on meaning from contexts in which the names of elements appeared. She'd have to start studying chemistry and physics, herself—

     "But, Martha, can you be really sure? You know, by now, that learning to read this language is as important to me as it is to you, but how can you be so sure that those words really mean things like hydrogen and helium and boron and oxygen? How do you know that their table of elements was anything like ours?"
     Tranter and Penrose and Sachiko all looked at him in amazement.
     "That isn't just the Martian table of elements; that's the table of elements. It's the only one there is." Mort Tranter almost exploded. "Look, hydrogen has one proton and one electron. If it had more of either, it wouldn't be hydrogen, it'd be something else. And the same with all the rest of the elements. And hydrogen on Mars is the same as hydrogen on Terra, or on Alpha Centauri, or in the next galaxy—"
     "You just set up those numbers, in that order, and any first-year chemistry student could tell you what elements they represented." Penrose said. "Could if he expected to make a passing grade, that is."
     The old man shook his head slowly, smiling. "I'm afraid I wouldn't make a passing grade. I didn't know, or at least didn't realize, that. One of the things I'm going to place an order for, to be brought on the Schiaparelli, will be a set of primers in chemistry and physics, of the sort intended for a bright child of ten or twelve. It seems that a Martiologist has to learn a lot of things the Hittites and the Assyrians never heard about."
     Tony Lattimer, coming in, caught the last part of the explanation. He looked quickly at the walls and, having found out just what had happened, advanced and caught Martha by the hand.
     "You really did it, Martha! You found your bilingual! I never believed that it would be possible; let me congratulate you!"

From OMNILINGUAL by H. Beam Piper (1957)

Alien Numbers

Most people today use numbers that are Base 10 or Radix 10. This is where there are symbols for the numerals one through nine, plus the zero (i.e., base 10 has ten symbols). They are generally written with positional notation, so it has the numbers 1 through 9 plus 0 as a placeholder. Base-8 would have number symbols for 1 through 7 plus a 0 symbol.

Roman numerals do not have a positional notation (i.e., no zero symbol), which makes them clunky and difficult to use. Attempting to do long division with Roman numerals is a nightmare. The invention of the zero as a placeholder is a major advance in the history of mathematical calculation.

The standard assumption explaining why base 10 is used, is because humans has 10 fingers (except for those idiot men who keep their fly unzipped in case they have to count up to 11). Early man would exploit a one-to-one correspondance between objects to be counted and available digits, i.e., they would count up apples on their fingers. Reasoning by analogy, traditional science fiction always has aliens use a radix equal to how many "fingers" they have on all their "arms". Assuming they have arms. Or fingers. The idea is radix equals the number of convenient body parts to count with.

The conceptual leap to the concept of a one-to-one correspondance is another major advance in practical mathematics.


LITTLE BILLY: Dad, can you help me with my arithmetic homework?

DAD: Of course, son. Let's see. Three plus Two equals what? OK Billy, if you had three apples and added two apples, how many apples would you have?

LITTLE BILLY (horribly confused): I don't know Dad! At school we do math with oranges!

(ed note: Little Billy is unclear on the concept of one-to-one correspondance: it doesn't matter a rat's heinie whether you use apples or oranges.)

Of course on Terra base 10 is not universal: computer programmers often use base 16 (hexadecimal), ancient Sumerians used base 60, and Robert Heinlein's science fictional New Men used base 1,260.

Finger Binary can count from 0 to 31 in binary (base 2) using only the five fingers of one hand. Senary counting can count from 0 to 35 in senary (base 6) using the 10 fingers in two hands. Chinese number gestures can count from 1 to 10 in base 10 using only the five fingers of one hand.

In Korea they developed an abacus-like calculation method using fingers called Chisanbop. It can rapidly do addition and subtraction with numbers from 0 to 99.

Do read the section below If the Stars Are Gods for an unusual mathematical system that goes beyond mere number bases.


      “Perhaps I’d better go too,” said Rashaverak (the Overlord), putting his book back on the shelf. He did that quite easily, without moving from the floor, and George noticed for the first time that he had two opposed thumbs, with five fingers between them. I’d hate to do arithmetic, George thought to himself, in a system based on fourteen.

From CHILDHOOD'S END by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

      + I have uncovered strange curious quaint and mystifying facts along this endless trail of progress + Linkica said. + Have you ever considered why we count from a twelve-digit base? +
     + Mathematically it is the best. There are but eleven digits and the zero to remember. Yet still capable of infinite amplitude. Divisible as well by one, two, three, four, and six. A fine base +
     + That is all? +
     + That is enough +
     + Have you never considered that at some time, in the dawn of our race, we must have first started to count and in our simplicity used our fingers as a basic system + He spread his hands on the table and looked at his dozen fingers. + Could that not be possible? +
     + Possible. But just a theory. You might just as well say that if we had had five fingers on each hand we would have used ten as a base +

     Linkica’s face went white in an instant and he lifted his glass and drained it quickly. Control returned. + An interesting number. Did you pick it by chance? Or has there been a system of mathematics using base ten in the same manner that computers use base two? +
     + I do not remember. But we can find out easily enough+

     Dehan strolled across the room to the computer outlet that graced all public places. He was experienced, greatly experienced, at ruthlessly tracking down the most stubbornly hidden facts, and this was simplicity itself in comparison. At all times he knew the right questions to ask. His fingers moved on the control squares constantly, changing the displays at almost the very instant they appeared. Through the local computer to the infinite computer, linked through transmatter connections to all the memory units in the galaxy, to mathematics and history and ever deeper. He returned quickly to the table and sipped his drink.

     + An interesting fact discovered. At one time, oh dear, dear, how long ago, the base of ten was universally used. It was replaced by twelve, undoubtedly because of its superiority. So it appears that the finger theory must be dismissed +
     + Not at once. My researches have disclosed that at one time a large proportion of mankind had but ten fingers +
     + A coincidence + Dehan did not believe the words even as he spoke them. + Possibly. But if there is an explanation—what is it? If the two facts are interconnected the resulting logical equation can be read in one of two ways. When the shift from base ten to base twelve occurred there was a resulting change in the number of fingers +
     + Highly improbable +
     + I agree. Therefore we must consider the alternative that some great mutation, change, or conflict swept the human race. Perhaps there were opposing groups and the twelves won over the tens in a great war … +

(ed note: as it turns out the answer is a bit more sinister)

From A TALE OF THE ENDING by Harry Harrison (1970)

(ed note: on the neutron star Dragon's Egg life has developed, the Cheela. They experiences time a few thousand times faster than humans since their biochemistry is based on nuclear reactions instead of chemical ones. Anyway a primitive Cheela tribe of the neutron star equivalent of cavemen is contemplating a long journey to Bright's Heaven, the promised land. But will they have enough food for the long journey? Cavewoman mathematician Great-Crack had been on the original exploration journey to Bright's Heaven, and from each of the food pods she ate on the journey home she had saved the seed from the pod. )

      (tribal chief Blue-Flow says:) "I have good news. I have found a new land for us. A clean land with no smoke. A good land with no enemies, with much game and with many, many petal plants that have never been picked. It is a long distance away in the hard direction and the trail will be harsh and difficult. But we will go, for a new God Star and His Heaven—Bright's Heaven—waits for us!"
     For the next few turns, Blue-Flow had everyone who was not out hunting meat busy in the fields picking the edible pods and storing them in the pod bin. He was outside the bin with Great-Crack, looking with satisfaction at the pods spilling out of the opening.
     "It is enough," he said. "We will leave when the hunters return."
     "But is it enough?" Great-Crack wondered. "We needed to eat many, many pods to get from Bright's Heaven back to the clan. There are many in the clan and they will travel much more slowly than a hunting party."
     "There are many, many pods, Great-Crack. There must be enough there to feed all the clan, for I have never seen so many pods before." (I don't like thinking because it hurts too much. So I'm going to go with my gut feelings instead) Blue-Flow went off to greet a returning hunting party.

     Great-Crack stared at the flowing pile of pods. "There are many pods," she thought. "But are there enough?"
     She played internally with her pouch full of cluster-shaped seeds, which she had retrieved after the battle, and thought back over the many pods she herself had eaten while crossing the barren land between here and Bright's Heaven. Many pods would be needed, for she had taken the cluster-shaped seed from each one as she had eaten it, and there were many, many of those seeds in her storage pouch.

     Then, in a flash of inspiration, one of the greatest mathematical minds ever hatched in the past or future history of the cheela made a great leap of abstract thought.

     "I took one seed from each pod that I ate," Great-Crack said to herself. "So I have as many seeds as pods."
     Her mind faltered for a moment. "But seeds are not pods!"
     It recovered, "But there are as many seeds as there were pods, so the number is the same." (one-to-one correspondence)

     She laid the seeds out in a row that stretched all along the wall of the pod bin. There were many of them. She then took out pods and put one next to each seed until she had a row of pods.
     "There," she said. "I will need that many pods to get to Bright's Heaven." She put the pods to one side in a pile. She took out more pods and laid them next to the seeds until she had another row of pods.
     "Blue-Flow will need these pods to travel to Bright's Heaven," she said as she gathered the pods up again and put them in another pile.
     Great-Crack soon had pile after pile of pods stacked inside and outside the pod bin as she set aside rations for each of the clan members. She was only halfway through the names of the clan members when she ran out of pods. There was not enough food!

     Great-Crack hurried off and brought Blue-Flow back to the pod bin to explain what she had done. She got nowhere.
     "Yes, I see the piles of pods, but how do you know that each person will need that many?"
     "Yes, I see that when you line up the pods next to the seeds that the line of pods is as long as the line of seeds, but what do seeds have to do with pods?"
     "Yes, I understand that you saved one seed from each pod as you ate it on the way back from Bright's Heaven, but what does that have to do with feeding the clan? You ate all those pods and there is nothing left but those deformed seeds."
     "No, I don't understand what you mean when you say that the seeds tell you how many pods each one of us will need. Seeds are not pods."

     Great-Crack tried in many ways to get Blue-Flow to make the jump in abstract thought that now came so naturally to her, but he could not do it. Finally, in frustration, he lost his temper and stamped, "There are plenty of pods. Look at them all. We will go now, for Bright's Heaven is waiting."

     Great-Crack flowed to block his way. "We cannot go!" she said, "We will starve before we get there! The seeds tell the truth!"
     "Seeds are not pods," he retorted, "and I have been meaning to tromp you for keeping those seeds after I told you to leave them on the trail."
     Her reply brought him up short. "Who is Leader of the Clan, Old One?"

(ed note: Mathematician Great-Crack in desperation fights Blue-Flow for clan leadership. Lucky for the clan she wins, since she was right and Blue-Flow was wrong.)

From DRAGON'S EGG by Robert L. Forward (1980)

      In parts of Russia, peasants still use their fingers as “digital computers” (an appropriate name!) for multiplying numbers from 6 through 10. The method is interesting. Want to try it?

     Mentally number your fingers from 6 to 10, as shown in Fig. 1. Suppose you wish to multiply 7 by 8. The tip of a 7-finger (on either hand) is placed against the tip of the 8-finger on the other hand (Fig. 2). The touching fingers, together with all fingers below them on both hands, represent 10’s. In this case there are 5 such fingers. Five 10’s are 50.

     The next step is to multiply the number of remaining fingers on the left hand by the number of remaining fingers on the right. Three times 2 is 6. Then add 6 to 50 to obtain the final answer: 56. The method never fails.

(ed note: I dunno, seems like more trouble than it is worth.)

From SCIENCE PUZZLERS by Martin Gardner (1960)

In digital numeral systems, the radix or base is the number of unique digits, including the digit zero, used to represent numbers in a positional numeral system. For example, for the decimal/denary system (the most common system in use today) the radix (base number) is ten, because it uses the ten digits from 0 through 9.

In any standard positional numeral system, a number is conventionally written as (x)y with x as the string of digits and y as its base, although for base ten the subscript is usually assumed (and omitted, together with the pair of parentheses), as it is the most common way to express value. For example, (100)10 is equivalent to 100 (the decimal system is implied in the latter) and represents the number one hundred, while (100)2 (in the binary system with base 2) represents the number four.


Radix is a Latin word for "root". Root can be considered a synonym for base, in the arithmetical sense.

In numeral systems

In the system with radix 13, for example, a string of digits such as 398 denotes the (decimal) number 3 × 132 + 9 × 131 + 8 × 130 = 632.

More generally, in a system with radix b (b > 1), a string of digits d1dn denotes the number d1bn−1 + d2bn−2 + … + dnb0, where 0 ≤ di < b. In contrast to decimal, or radix 10, which has a ones' place, tens' place, hundreds' place, and so on, radix b would have a ones' place, then a b1s' place, a b2s' place, etc.

Commonly used numeral systems include:

2Binary numeral systemUsed internally by nearly all computers, is base 2. The two digits are "0" and "1", expressed from switches displaying OFF and ON respectively. Used in most electric counters.
8Octal systemUsed occasionally in computing. The eight digits are "0–7" and represent 3 bits (23).
10Decimal systemThe most used system of numbers in the world, is used in arithmetic. Its ten digits are "0–9". Used in most mechanical counters.
12Duodecimal (dozenal) systemSometimes advocated due to divisibility by 2, 3, 4, and 6. It was traditionally used as part of quantities expressed in dozens and grosses.
16Hexadecimal systemOften used in computing as a more compact representation of binary (1 hex digit per 4 bits). The sixteen digits are "0–9" followed by "A–F" or "a–f".
20VigesimalTraditional numeral system in several cultures, still used by some for counting.
60Sexagesimal systemOriginated in ancient Sumer and passed to the Babylonians. Used today as the basis of modern circular coordinate system (degrees, minutes, and seconds) and time measuring (minutes, and seconds) by analogy to the rotation of the Earth.

For a larger list, see list of numeral systems.

The octal and hexadecimal systems are often used in computing because of their ease as shorthand for binary. Every hexadecimal digit corresponds to a sequence of four binary digits, since sixteen is the fourth power of two; for example, hexadecimal 7816 is binary 11110002. Similarly, every octal digit corresponds to a unique sequence of three binary digits, since eight is the cube of two.

This representation is unique. Let b be a positive integer greater than 1. Then every positive integer a can be expressed uniquely in the form

where m is a nonnegative integer and the r's are integers such that

0 < rm < b and 0 ≤ ri < b for i = 0, 1, . . . , m − 1.

Radices are usually natural numbers. However, other positional systems are possible, for example, golden ratio base (whose radix is a non-integer algebraic number), and negative base (whose radix is negative). A negative base allows the representation of negative numbers without the use of a minus sign. For example, let b = −10. Then a string of digits such as 19 denotes the (decimal) number 1 × (−10)1 + 9 × (−10)0 = −1.

From the Wikipedia entry for RADIX

(ed note: at the beginning of the novel, several human starships go out exploring. But to their horror when they return home they discover that Terra has been bombed into a radioactive cinder. And the solar system is swarming with alien homing missiles. One of the missiles is disabled and inside a clue to the assassins of Terra is discovered. There are some alien numerals scrawled inside.)

      At the end of the passage they found the controls, what the thermite shells had left of them. Sigrid swung her light around, searching for any trace of—of what? A scrawl on the bulkhead caught her eye.
     She leaned closer. “What’s this?” she asked. “See here. Something scribbled in some kind of grease pencil.”
     “Notes to refer to, as the writer worked at programming the brain,” Alexandra guessed. “Ummm... sacre bleu, I swear there are two distinct symbologies. Perhaps one is a non Kandemirian alphabet? I’ll photograph them for Madame.” She busied herself. Sigrid gazed into blackness.

     “Has the captain examined the pictures we took?” Alexandra began.
     Edith Poussin nodded. Her mouth grew tight. “Unquestionably that was a Kandemirian missile,” she stated. “But one thing puzzles me. Those symbols written on the bulkhead near the pilot computer.” As if to keep from looking at the pictures above her, she grabbed a sheet of paper. “Here, let me reproduce the lines. I won’t copy them exactly. You’d have too much trouble distinguishing signs all of which are new to you. I’ll substitute letters of our own alphabet. For this wiggly thing in the middle of most of the lines, I'll use a colon. Now see—". She wrote rapidly.

     A B C D E F
     M N O P Q MR

     BA : PM

     She continued similarly until everything had been transferred, then threw her penstyl down. “There! Can you make anything of that?”
     “No,” said Alexandra. “But weren’t some of those symbols actually Kandemirian numbers?”
     “Yes. I've represented those by the letters A through L. The others I’ve rendered as M through R. I don’t know what signs they are, what language or—Anyhow, you’ll notice that they are always separated from the Kandemiriari numerals.”
     “I think,” Sigrid ventured, “this must be a conversion table.”
“That’s obvious, I would say,” the captain agreed. “But conversion into what? And why?” She paused. “And who?”      Alexandra struck a fist on her knee. “Let us not play games, Madame. The Kandemirian imperialists have subjugated many different language groups on a dozen or more planets. This must have been a notation made by some workman belonging to an enslaved race.”
     “May have been,” Edith Poussin corrected. “We don’t know. We dare not leap to conclusions. Especially when we have been out of touch with local events for more than two years.”

The end of his nightmare had not eased the wire tautness in him. He bent over the sheet of paper on his desk as if it were an oracular wall. The un-human symbols seemed to intertwine like snakes before his eyes. He focused, instead, on the Roman analogues which had been written in parallel columns.
     A B C D E F
     M N O P Q MR

     BA : PM

     Transliteration of some Delphic language—No, no, don’t be silly. A through L simply stands for the first twelve numbers of the duodecimal Kandemirian system, with L the sign for zero. So—
     It was like a knife-stab. For an instant his heart-beat ceased. He felt a sense of falling. The pulse resumed, crazily, with a roaring in his ears.
     Donnan forced himself to take the paper in his hand and punch some keys on his desk calculator He had never done harder work in his life.
     The calculator chattered. Donnan’s brain felt like a lump of ice.
     Numbers appeared on the calculator dial. The equation balanced.

     Donnan turned around. His voice was flat and empty. “I know who.”
     “What? Hvad?” They stepped closer, saw his expression, and grew still.
     An immense, emotionless, steadiness descended on the man. He pointed. “These notes scribbled inside that one missile,” he said. “What they were should have been obvious all along. The women failed to see it because they had too much else to think about. They dismissed the whole question as unimportant. But I should have realized the moment I looked. You too, Ramri. I suppose we didn’t want to realize.”
     The golden eyes were level upon him. “Yes? What are those symbols, then, Carl?”
     “A conversion table. Jotted down by some technician used to thinking in terms of one number system, who had to adjust instruments and controls calibrated in another system.
     “The Kandemirians use a twelve-based arithmetic. These other numerals are based on six.
     The girl bit her lip and frowned, puzzled why Donnan was so white.
     “It checks,” Donnan said. “The initial notation alone, giving the numbers from one to six in parallel rows, is a giveaway. But here are the conversions of some other figures, to which I reckon this or that dial had to be set. The squiggle in between, that Sigrid represented by a colon, has to be an equality sign. BA is 25 in Kandemirian; so is PM in the other system. ABIJ and MOQMP both represent 2134. And so on. No doubt about it.”

(ed note: our heroes suddenly know which alien race destroyed Terra, and the answer horrfies them)

     A B C D E F
     M N O P Q MR

BASE 10123456
A through L
M through R

     BA : PM

Base 10Kand=Other
From AFTER DOOMSDAY by Poul Anderson (1961)

Telepathic Translation

Back in the golden age of space opera, a popular handwave for talking with aliens was Telepathy. No muss, no fuss, and you can get on with the action. Of course you have to

  1. postulate that the ESP ability of telepathic receiving exists (aka "mind reading") so our heroes can hear the thoughts of the aliens
  2. postulate that telepathy is somehow some kind of universal translator
  3. postulate that the ESP ability of telepathic sending exists (aka "thought broadcasting") so that our heroes can implant what they want to say directly into the brain of the aliens.

Note that telepathic receiving and telepathic sending are two separate abilities, one does not necessarily possess both.

Hal Clement poured cold water on postulate {b}. In his short story "Impediment", he pointed out that in a telepathic society (in the same way as in a talking society) children grow up learning the common language of that society. Unfortunately, children growing up in a non-telepathic society are the telepathic equivalent of feral children, that is, they have no alternative but to invent their own private idiosyncratic mental language. Wolves don't talk so they cannot teach the technique to human feral children, and humans generally do not use telepathy so again they cannot teach the technique to human children.

This isn't a problem until a telepath tries to talk to a human being mentally. The telepath has to deduce the syntax and vocabulary of the feral language in order to talk to that person. This could take months.

The bad part is that the telepath has to deduce the language for every single individual person they want to talk to, since they are all going to be different! (In Psychohistorical Crisis, author Donald Kingsbury uses this to explain why brain-computer interfacing does not lead to a sort of telepathic internet.)

But that didn't stop E.E."Doc" Smith from using telepathy in his Lensman series, nor John W. Campbell in his Arcot-Morley-Wade series (though Campbell later used a more realistic simplified alien pidgin language in The Space Beyond and The Mightiest Machine, yelled at Doc Smith for using telepathy, and pretended that he had never used telepathy himself.)

"No. We stay right here till we can talk with them somehow. I wish to heck we knew some one of these wonderful systems of telepathy they talk about in stories. I can understand why the author uses them all right. Here we are in a situation that evidently requires immediate action. We don't know how to act, nor what to act against until we can communicate with these people. And in the meantime the enemy continues to operate unhindered. Till I know what this is all about, I'm not moving. They may have richly deserved to have that city wiped out, though somehow, looking at Thaen, I don't believe it. Nevertheless, I'm staying till we can communicate. That's the trouble with languages. They have to be learned, and before a complex situation can be understood, they must be learned rather completely. Months, perhaps, wasted. Nothing else to do.

"We'll have to investigate the language here, and find out how it works. If they go in for innumerable irregularities, passive, vocative and indicative voices, singular, dual and plural forms, nouns declined in singular dual and plural through eight or nine cases, we'll learn something else -- or they can learn English. If theirs is easier than ours, all well and good."...

...The sounds of this language seemed entirely different from those Thaen had first employed, and did not at all fit in with the names of the men. Their teacher, Haelieu; kept saying the word that meant full or complete in the dictionary, and after an hour Putney grasped the idea.

"Ran - no wonder this is so easy - it's a specially constructed language. It's simplified to the uttermost. Take their verb 'ascend.' It isn't that. It's made like the German verb 'abgehen.' Gehen, to (sic). Ab, up. They have taken a few dozen root verb ideas like to, be, see, talk, and made compounds with prefixes and such. They don't say descend, ascend, accelerate or decelerate. They simply say go down, go up, go faster, go slower and so forth.

"Further, the sounds are simplified for others to learn. They aren't like their own sounds. This was meant to be taught to other races."

"They've completely left out all sign of declension, thing, things. Big, bigger, biggest. That's about the only sign of change in nouns and adjectives. Not quite like some of Earth's languages, German for instance, with its der - des - den - dem, die - der - der - die for 'the' and so on for every single adjective in the language. No gender here, either. And their verbs! Two modals, two principal parts. Then you know the whole story, absolutely no irregularities. We can learn it in a day."

From THE SPACE BEYOND by John W. Campbell, jr. (1976)

While John W. Campbell is to be applauded for avoiding telepathy in his novel The Space Beyond, he inadvertently revealed that his knowledge of linguistics is imperfect. Since his readers were equally unaware, this probably didn't matter much. But just to set the records straight, Jon Brase had this to say:

The excerpt from John Campbell's "A Space Beyond" is a really good example of how not to introduce linguistic realism into a story:

"If they go in for innumerable irregularities, passive, vocative and indicative voices, singular, dual and plural forms, nouns declined in singular dual and plural through eight or nine cases, we'll learn something else -- or they can learn English. If theirs is easier than ours, all well and good."

There's so much wrong with this sentence that I don't know where to begin. First the technical flaws, I guess: Passive is in fact a voice, but vocative is a case, and indicative is a mood. Indicative is in fact generally the default mood in a language. It tells us that something is happening, as opposed to that something might be happening, or wondering if something is happening.

Then there is the fact that this quote here is horribly Anglocentric, and ignores the fact that English has many of these features, but indicates them with special word orders or helping words rather than by tacking an inflection onto a word like the supposedly "complicated" languages like Latin and German that "have" these features. And whether or not a language is inflecting (uses word endings, or beginnings, or whatever) or isolating (words remain the same, but modifier words and special word orders are used to produce shades of meaning) does not really affect its "easiness". You're just exchanging word-level complexity for sentence level complexity. (That said, pidgins often do go for more of an isolating structure, for various reasons).

"Take their verb 'ascend.' It isn't that. It's made like the German verb 'abgehen.' Gehen, to (sic). Ab, up. They have taken a few dozen root verb ideas like to, be, see, talk, and made compounds with prefixes and such. They don't say descend, ascend, accelerate or decelerate. They simply say go down, go up, go faster, go slower and so forth."

This demonstrates a very poor understanding of both German and English. The error in the German is fairly simple: "Ab" does not mean "up". It means "from, away from, off". Abgehen thus means "to go off", or "to exit" (in the theatrical sense of "exit"), as well as having several other meanings. (Also, I think you have a transcription error in there: "Gehen" is "to go", not "to". (ed. note: Actually, the error is Campbell's, that is the way it is in the original text).

The error in the English has to do with not understanding the origins of English words. Words like "ascend" were borrowed from Latin. And in Latin, they were formed by the exact same process as he describes for German: "ascend" -> Lat. ascendere (sp?) -> ad (to) scendere (climb). -> meaning: "to climb to". (I'm not sure if I've got the exact form of "scendere" right, but it should be close to that). "descend" -> de (from) scendere -> meaning "to climb from". Accelerate -> ad + celer (quick) + -are (infinitive ending for a verb) -> meaning, very roughly, "to 'go to being quick' ", "to quicken". Decelerate -> de + celer + are -> meaning, "to 'come from being quick' ", "to unquicken".

"Further, the sounds are simplified for others to learn. They aren't like their own sounds. This was meant to be taught to other races."

This assumes that A): Enough races in the galaxy communicate (or can communicate) primarily via sound (as opposed to, say, sign language), for the endeavor of creating an interspecies pidgin to be worth it. B): Enough races can hear sounds in a similar enough frequency range for the endeavor to be worth it. C): Enough races have a mechanism somewhat similar to the human vocal mechanism for this endeavor to make sense (ie, one or more gas bladders or lungs hooked up to a tube that has a "mouth" with something resembling a tongue and something resembling lips, and has a nose that can be sealed off from the rest of the mechanism at will. All the musculature for this has to be under conscious control, with the size of the whole mechanism being appropriate to resonate at frequencies in the common hearing range. (This minimal mechanism should give access to at least (very roughly) p, t, f, s, voiceless m and n, voiceless ah, and voiceless nasalized ah). I find the likelyhood of all these conditions being met somewhat dubious, with condition C being the least dubious (considering that parrots can, in fact, imitate human speech to the point where humans can understand it).

Jon Brase

Translator Gizmo

The other popular handwave is some sort of high-tech alien-language-to-English gadget. Star Trek has the baton-shaped "universal translator." The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy has the paradoxical Babel Fish. In Farscape, John Chrichton is implanted with translator microbes. In The Last Starfighter, Alex Rogan is given a chip that was attached to the collar of his shirt. In James White's Sector General series, the personnel in the huge Sector General hospital wear "translator packs" hot-linked to the giant translation computer in the hospital's core. And the companions of Doctor Who have an instant translation service by a telepathic field generated by the TARDIS.


(ed note: Protagonist Carpenter has been sent back in time to the upper Cretaceous period to investigate an anomalous fossil. That of a human skeleton dating to the age of the dinosaurs. Exploring the prehistoric swamp inside a tank disguised as a triceratops, he rescues two children treed by a stegosaurus. His initial attempts to communicate fail.)

      Gazing earnestly up into Carpenter's gray eyes, the girl gave voice a series of sing-song phrases, each of them, judging from the nuances of pronunciation, representative of a different language.

     When she finished, Carpenter shook his head. "I just don't dig you, pumpkin," he said. Then, just to make sure, he repeated the remark in Anglo-Saxon, Aeolic Greek, lower Cro-magnonese, upper-Acheulian, middle English, Iroquoian and Hyannis-Portese smatterings of which tongues and dialects he had picked up during his various sojourns in the past. No dice. Every word he spoke was just plain Greek to the girl and the boy.

     Suddenly the girl's eyes sparkled with excitement, and, plunging her hand into a plastic reticule that hung from the belt that supported her slacks, she withdrew what appeared to be three pairs of earrings. She handed one pair to Carpenter, one to the boy, and kept one for herself; then she and the boy proceeded to affix the objects to their ear lobes, motioning to Carpenter to do the same. Complying, he discovered that the tiny disks which he had taken for pendants were in reality tiny diaphragms of some kind. Once the minute clamps were tightened into place, they fitted just within the ear openings. The girl regarded his handiwork critically for a moment, then, standing on tiptoe, reached up and adjusted each disk with deft fingers. Satisfied. she stepped back. "Now," she said, in perfect idiomatic English. "we can get through to each other and find out what's what."

     Carpenter stared at her. "Well I must say, you caught on to my language awful fast!"

     "Oh. we didn't learn it," the boy said. "Those are micro-translator— hearrings. With them on, whatever we' say sounds to you the way you would say it, and whatever you say sounds to us the way we would say it."

     "I forgot I had them with me," said the girl. "They're standard travelers' equipment, but, not being a traveler in the strict sense of the word, I wouldn't have happened to have them. Only I'd just got back from foreign-activities class when the kidnapers grabbed me. Now," she went on, again gazing earnestly up into Carpenter's eyes, "I think it will be best if we take care of the amenities first, don't you? My name is Marcy, this is my brother Skip, and we are from Greater Mars. What is your name, and where are you from. kind sir?"

From WHEN TIME WAS NEW by Robert F. Young (1964)

(ed note: On the newly discovered planet Warlock, the survey team has been killed by a covert invasion force of the dreaded insectoid Throgs. Our hero Shann Lantee has been captured. The Throgs need Shann to give the "all clear" radio message to the arriving Terran colony ship, so that it too can be captured. The Throgs speak with insect-like clicking, so they need a translator gizmo in order to talk to Terrans.)

      The Terran lay face up now, and as his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw a ring of Throg heads blotting out the sky as they inspected their catch impassively. The mouth mandibles of one moved with a faint clicking. Again claws fastened in his armpits, brought Shann to his feet, holding him erect.
     Then the Throg who had given that order moved closer. His hand-claws clasped a small metal plate surmounted by a hoop of thin wire over which was stretched a web of threads glistening in the sun. Holding that hoop on a level with his mouth, the alien clicked his mandibles, and those sounds became barely distinguishable basic galactic words.
     "You Throg meat!"
     For a moment Shann wondered if the alien meant that statement literally. Or was it a conventional expression for a prisoner among their kind.
     "Do as told!"
     That was clear enough, and for the moment the Terran did not see that he had any choice in the matter.

     The Throg leader clicked into his translator: "You call ship!"
     Shann was thrust down into the operator's chair, his bound arms still twisted behind him so that he had to lean forward to keep on the seat at all. Then the Throg who had pushed him there, roughly forced a set of com earphones and speech mike onto his head.
     "Call ship!" clicked the alien officer.
     So time must be running out. Now was the moment to bluff. Shann shook his head, hoping that the gesture of negation was common to both their species.
     "I don't know the code," he said aloud.
     The Throg's bulbous eyes gazed at his moving lips. Then the translator was held before the Terran's mouth. Shann repeated his words, heard them reissue as a series of clicks, and waited. So much depended now on the reaction of the beetle-head officer. Would he summarily apply pressure to enforce his order, or would he realize that it was possible that all Terrans did not know that code, and so he could not produce in a captive's head any knowledge that had never been there—with or without physical coercion?
     Apparently the latter logic prevailed for the present. The Throg drew the translator back to his mandibles.
     "When ship call—you answer—make lip talk your words! Say had sickness here—need help. Code man dead—you talk in his place. I listen. You say wrong, you die—you die a long time. Hurt bad all that time—"

From STORM OVER WARLOCK by Andre Norton (1960)

"The Babel fish," said The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy quietly, "is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy not from its carrier but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

"Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

"The argument goes something like this: `I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'

"`But,' says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'

"`Oh dear,' says God, `I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.

"`Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

"Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo's kidneys, but that didn't stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best- selling book Well That About Wraps It Up For God.

"Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

From THE HITCH HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams (1979)

Alien Pidgin

In the real world, communication with hypothetical extraterrestrials is such a huge problem that it may never be properly solved. Researchers are having enough problems trying to talk to porpoises, and they are from our own planet. Alien thought processes might be forever inscrutable.

In C. J. Cherryh's Chanur novels, the methane-breathing Tc'a species are almost impossible to be communicated with, since their brains are multi-part and their speech decodes as complex matrices of intertwined meanings. And just imagine the headaches of trying to communicate with a species that uses various scents and smells instead of sound. Or radio waves. Or modulated laser beams. Or rapid changes in skin color. Or all four combined.


"This man Boyce," said Karellen. "Tell me all about him." The Supervisor did not use those actual words, of course, and the thoughts he really expressed were far more subtle. A human listener would have heard a short burst of rapidly modulated sound, not unlike a high-speed Morse sender in action. Though many samples of Overlord language had been recorded, they all defied analysis because of their extreme complexity. The speed of transmission made it certain that no Interpreter, even if he had mastered the elements of the language, could ever keep up with the Overlords in their normal conversation.

From CHILDHOOD'S END by Arthur C. Clarke (1954)

Came today [it read] a blob from Thuban VI. There is no other way in which one might describe it. It is simply a mass of matter, presumably of flesh, and this mass seems to go through some sort of rhythmic change in shape, for periodically it is globular, then begins to flatten out until it lies in the bottom of the tank, somewhat like a pancake. Then it begins to contract and to pull in upon itself, until finally it is a ball again. This change is rather slow and definitely rhythmic, but only in the sense that it follows the same pattern. It seems to have no relation to time. I tried timing it and could detect no time pattern. The shortest period needed to complete the cycle was seven minutes and the longest was eighteen. Perhaps over a longer period one might be able to detect a time rhythm, but I didn't have the time. The semantic translator did not work with it, but it did emit for me a series of sharp clicks, as if it might be clicking claws together, although it had no claws that I could see. When I looked this up in the pasimology manual I learned that what it was trying to say was that it was all right, that it needed no attention, and please leave it alone. Which I did thereafter.

If, Enoch thought, I could only teach her the pasimology of my galactic people—then we could talk, the two of us, almost as well as with the flow of words on the human tongue. Given the time, he thought, it might not be too hard, for there was a natural and a logical process to the galactic sign language that made it almost instinctive once one had caught the underlying principle.

Throughout the Earth as well, in the early days; there had been sign languages, and none so well developed as that one which obtained among the aborigines of North America, so that an Amerindian, no matter what his tongue, could express himself among many other tribes.

But even so the sign language of the Indian was, at best, a crutch that allowed a man to hobble when he couldn't run. Whereas that of the galaxy was in itself a language, adaptable to many different means and methods of expression. It had been developed through millennia, with many different peoples making contributions, and through the centuries it had been refined and shaken down and polished until today it was a communications tool that stood on its own merits.

There was need for such a tool, for the galaxy was Babel. Even the galactic science of pasimology, polished as it might be, could not surmount all the obstacles, could not guarantee, in certain cases, the basic minimum of communication. For not only were there millions of tongues, but those other languages as well which could not operate on the principle of sound because the races were incapable of sound. And even sound itself failed of efficiency when the race talked in ultrasonics others could not hear. There was telepathy, of course, but for every telepath there were a thousand races that had telepathic blocks. There were many who got along on sign languages alone and others who could communicate only by a written or pictographic system, including some who carried chemical blackboards built into their bodies. And there was that sightless, deaf, and speechless race from the mystery stars of the far side of the galaxy who used what was perhaps the most complicated of all the galactic languages—a code of signals routed along their nervous systems.

Enoch had been at the job almost a century, and even so, he thought, with the aid of the universal sign language and the semantic translator, which was little more than a pitiful (although complicated) mechanical contrivance, he still was hard put at times to know what many of them said.

From WAY STATION by Clifford Simak (1963)


Communication with aliens becomes even more difficult if it is done over a channel that is not shared. For instance if the alien vocal cords only make ultrasonic tones. Or if it can make no sounds, but instead uses scent, radio waves, rapid changes in skin color, or something like that.

Robert Heinlein must have either seen or heard about the new gadget from Bell Labs unveiled at the 1939 New York World’s Fair: the Voder. There had been other attempts at speech synthesis, but this was the first one where the operator played something resembling a piano keyboard in order to create human speech. In Heinlein's novel Between Planets, the dragon-like aliens who live on the planet Venus can create human speech by bolting a voder to their chest and playing the keyboard with their tentacles.

In Donald Moffitt's The Jupiter Theft, protagonist Jameson can interpret the alien's speech because he is gifted with perfect pitch. He cannot produce alien speech unaided because they speak in chords, that is, several different tones simultaneously. Humans can only produce one tone at a time. Luckily he happens to own a Moog synthesizer.

This is also a popular item with dogs, Sam the Neo-Dog with a robot voder in Magnus Robot Fighter, Dug the golden retriever with the thought-to-speech collar, and arguably the pill developed by Dexter to give the stray dog the power of speech.


(ed note: Don meets a Venusian dragon with the name of convenience of "Sir Isaac Newton". Dragons speak by whistling, to speak English they use a voder)

      Beside the queue was sprawled the big, ungainly saurian form of a Venerian "dragon." When Don progressed in line until he was beside it, he politely whistled a greeting.
     The dragon swiveled one fluttering eyestalk in his direction. Strapped to the "chest" of the creature, between its forelegs and immediately below and in reach of its handling tendrils, was a small box, a voder. The tendrils writhed over the keys and the Venerian answered him, via mechanical voder speech, rather than by whistling in his own language. "Greetings to you also, young sir. It is pleasant indeed, among strangers, to hear the sounds one heard in the egg." Don noted with delight that the outlander had a distinctly Cockney accent in the use of his machine.

     "You savvy that stuff?"
     "Well, tell him to use his squawk box. I don't!"
     Don said, "Sir Isaac — use your voder."
     The Venerian tried to comply. His tentacles hunted around, found the keys of the artificial voice box, and touched them.
     No sounds came out. The dragon turned an eye at Don and whistled a series of phrases.
     "He regrets to say that its spirit has departed," Don interpreted.
     The ship's officer sighed. "I wonder why I ever left the grocery business? Well, if we can get it unlatched from him, I'll see if 'Sparks' can fix it."
     "Let me," said Don and squirmed into the space between the dragon's head and the deckplates. The voder case, he found, was secured to four rings riveted to the Venerian's skin plates. He could not seem to find the combination; the dragon's tendrils fluttered over his hands, moved them gently out of the way, unfastened the box, and handed it to him. He wiggled out and gave it to the man. "Looks like he kind of slept on it," he commented.

     He was startled to hear his name called. He turned and the ship's officer he had met before floated up to him. He had with him Sir Isaac's voder. "You seem to be chummy with that over-educated crocodile you're bunking with; how about taking this to him?"
     "Why, certainly."
     "The radio officer says it needs an overhaul but at least it's working again." Don accepted it and went aft. The dragon seemed to be sleeping, then one eye waved at him and Sir Isaac whistled a salutation.
     "I've got your voice box," Don told him. "Want me to fasten it on for you?"
     Sir Isaac politely refused. Don handed the instrument to the fidgeting tendrils and the dragon arranged it to suit him. He then ran over the keys as a check, producing sounds like frightened ducks. Satisfied, he began to speak in English: "I am enriched by the debt you have placed upon me."
     "Shucks," Don answered, feeling somewhat pink, "it was a pleasure." He noticed that the dragon's speech was slow and somewhat slurred, as if his tentacles lacked their customary dexterity. Besides that, Sir Isaac's talk was more pedantic than ever and much more Cockney-flavored — the voder was mixing aspirates with abandon and turning the theta sound into "f"; Don felt sure that the Earthman who had taught him to speak must have been born in earshot of Bow Bells.

     Don hesitated before answering, "I don't wish to be rude — but you ought to give some proof of that."
     Sir Isaac produced with his voder a sound exactly like a man clearing his throat. "Ahem!" They both turned their heads toward him.

(ed note: the idiot bureaucrat Phipps makes the mistake of treating Don like a child and trying to take the coded message that Don is holding as a sacred trust. Don takes his sacred trust seriously, and is also a one-year veteran of the Venus army)

     Don shook him off and backed away half a step, all in one smooth motion — and Phipps looked down to see the point of a blade almost touching his waistband. Don held the knife with the relaxed thumb-and-two-finger grip of those who understand steel.
     Phipps seemed to have trouble believing what he saw. Don said to him softly, "Get away from me."
     Phipps backed away. "Sir Isaac!"
     "Yes," agreed Don. "Sir Isaac — do I have to put up with this in your house?"
     The dragon's tentacles struck the keys, but only confused squawking came out. He stopped and started again and said very slowly, "Donald — this is your house. You are always safe in it. Please — by the service you did me — put away your weapon."

(ed note: Then Sir Isaac vents his rage on Phipps and orders Phipps to get out of his sight. And apologises to Don)

From BETWEEN PLANETS by Robert Heinlein (1951)

      The other Cygnan uttered a clear, chime-like sound composed of two tones. Jameson recognized it as a tetrachord: a perfect fourth.
     The Cygnans didn’t like his stopping. One of them sounded the pure tetrachord he’d heard before. The other raised its electric prod.
     Jameson never had to stop to think about a musical tone. They were as palpable to him as material objects, each with its own identity. These had been an F and a B flat in the piccolo range. No, not quite a B flat. It was almost an augmented fourth, about a quarter-tone off.
     He whistled it back to them. He couldn’t manage both tones simultaneously the way the Cygnans did, of course, but he did the best he could, first arpeggiating it, then alternating it in a rapid tremolo.
     The large Cygnan lowered its prod. It fluted a rapid scale at him.
     Jameson did an imitation. There weren’t too many notes for him to remember. It fell into a whole-tone pattern, like impressionistic music, with a cluster of those peculiar quarter-tones at the center.
     The Cygnan corrected him. He’d been off a fraction of a tone at the end. It didn’t finish at the octave. It was a fraction sharp there, like a bagpipe scale. He repeated the sequence fairly creditably.
     The two Cygnans held a brief, reedy conference. Jameson couldn’t follow. It was too rapid and complicated, with all sorts of embellishments. He stood tensely waiting.
     The large Cygnan turned to him again and made a sharp attention-getting sound. Then it touched itself on the mouth and the tip of its petaled tail and sounded the tetrachord again. It waited.
     Jameson gave the chord back immediately, turning it into a tremolo. The Cygnans chirped at each other for awhile. Then the smaller of the two came forward. It made the gestures which to a Cygnan indicated self, and trilled at him.
     Jameson hesitated. The tetrachord had been easy. It was a handy, one-phoneme identification. Like, Jameson thought, a human saying “I.” But this was more complicated.
     The second Cygnan repeated it for him until he got it straight. It started with an A-major triad, only a vibrations off conceit pitch. Harmonics, Jameson thought, must be universal wherever there were vibrating strings—or vibrating membranes. The third was slightly flatted, like a blues note. The two top notes then exploded into a parallel glissando, up a fifth, while the A held. Then back to the original bluesy chord.
     He gave it a try. He had to substitute an arpeggiated chord for the triad, then make do with just the top note of the double glissando. It sounded like a crazy bird imitation, but the Cygnan seemed to accept it. Like, Jameson thought wryly, tolerating someone with a speech defect.
     But when he tried transposing the little sequence to a different key, he met the Cygnan equivalent of a blank stare—a splaying out of the three eyestalks. Evidently the sounds had no meaning when the pitch was altered.
     It reminded Jameson of his early mistakes in learning Chinese—the syllables whose meaning changed drastically when you used the wrong one of the four tones. “Chair” became “soap.” “Sell” became “buy.” Except in Chinese the tones were relative, and if you got a few of them wrong your intent could usually be deduced from the syllables themselves and the context. In Cygnanese, apparently, tones were specific phonemes. Only those rare freaks like Jameson, who happened to be blessed with absolute pitch, could ever hope to communicate with Cygnans, even in the most rudimentary fashion. To Cygnans, most humans would be dumb as animals.
     It was Jameson's turn.
     He touched himself on the lips and—feeling a bit silly—on the rump, and said, slowly and distinctly: “Ja-me-son.”

     He gathered he was in some kind of work area. There were things he recognized as sinks and counter tops, and haphazard stacks of storage containers in nonhuman shapes. Against one sloping wall was an electronic console studded with little pearly knobs and a keyboardlike arrangement. On closer inspection the keyboard turned out to be a row of little fretted necks, each strung with three parallel wires. Jameson tried to imagine four Cygnan forelimbs, each with three fingers, strumming it all at once. The instrument would convey information, not music. Like a computer teletype keyboard?
     But Jameson had no eyes for any of it after he saw what was stacked against the far wall: a careless plunder of human artifacts from the Jupiter ship. He saw clothing, cooking utensils, upended chairs, a broken mirror, books and music cards, even an uprooted vacuum toilet. The Cygnans must have been all through the individual cabins and the recreation lounge. The lectern that doubled as a pulpit was lying on its side, and next to it was the portable Moog, its twin keyboards grinning with ivory teeth at the mess around it.
     “Ja-me-son,” the larger Cygnan said.
     It wasn’t exactly “Ja-me-son.” The Cygnans couldn’t manage consonants—unless one wanted to call those assorted hisses and pops consonants. Furthermore, they seemed unable to grasp the idea that an arrangement of phonemes could always have the same meaning regardless of pitch. Their first attempt to repeat Jameson’s name had simply mimicked his timbre and tone —a falling fourth—and they seemed puzzled when he repeated it with a different inflection. In the end they had given up and assigned him a name—the original falling fourth, with the added fillip of a rising fifth preceded by a grace note.
     Jameson didn’t mind. He thought of them privately as “Tetrachord” and “Triad.” He had a speech defect too. He couldn’t form chords.
     Finally they all got down to work. At the end of an hour, he’d figured out how the Cygnan language was formed and could manage a few words of it in a sort of babytalk.
     By then, the Cygnans had accepted the convention that a hummed or whistled arpeggio was equivalent to sounding all the notes of a chord simultaneously. But Jameson could see that the concept was difficult for them. They would have to stop and think about the separate notes of the arpeggio and put them together in their heads. Then they’d try them out on each other until triumphantly, they had it—like a pair of illiterates spelling out words letter by letter—except that one letter might consist of half a dozen chords and connecting single notes, laboriously worked out one tone at a time.
     It was just as difficult for Jameson. He needed constant repetition to pin down the more complex sequences, and he knew that there were subtleties— beyond the troublesome quarter-tones—that he was missing. It made for slow going.

     The number of possible phonemes in the Cygnan language was staggering. They were based on the absolute pitch of a tone—not relative pitch, like the rising and falling tones of Chinese. The Cygnans had a useful range of two and a half octaves, and they could divide each twelve-tone octave into quarter-tones.
     That made 120 phonemes to start with.
     Just the single notes!
     But a phoneme might be a single note, any combination of two notes, or any combination of three notes.
     How many different two-note combinations were there? Jameson worked it out in his head. More than seven thousand of them.
     Jameson became discouraged at that point. He didn’t bother to figure out how many different three-note combinations there were. Or what happened when you figured in all the extra little slides and turns that Cygnans seemed to use the way humans used double consonants. It was depressingly clear that the number was astronomical. Compared with the paltry few dozen phonemes available in human languages, the richness of the Cygnan language must be beyond belief!
     Perhaps, Jameson speculated with a sudden rush of awe, the Cygnans could even convey visual information with their language directly, in the same way dolphins could show one another the shape and depth of a bay by sonar imitation.
     Actual pictures, built up of digital bits formed of sound, transmitted, as naturally as breathing from Cygnan to Cygnan! Not descriptions, such as: “I see a creature with only four limbs and no tail, about so big.” But: “I see a creature that looks like this.”
     In human terms, Jameson thought, how many thousands of words would it take to teach someone, say, a tune by Beethoven? How much simpler just to hum it. And a tune, compared with visual material, was a straightforward linear piece of information containing relatively few bits.
     He tried not to worry about it. The most rudimentary sort. of pidgin Cygnan would have to do. After all, he consoled? himself, South Sea islanders had managed to trade with the first British mariners using a few dozen basic nouns and modifiers. It hadn’t been necessary for them to learn the language of Shakespeare.

     Slowly, painfully, tone by tone, hoping the two Cygnans’ patience would last, Jameson acquired the first dozen words of a vocabulary that consisted mostly of parts of the body and a few objects in the room. Next he tried an abstraction. What did the Cygnans call their race? What class of creatures, he asked them, included both Tetrachord and Triad?
     He made the sounds of their names, followed by the Cygnan-style inclusive gesture, and ending with the little trill he had come to recognize as a Cygnan interrogative. He was rewarded with a burst of harmony. In five minutes he learned to repeat this as arpeggios, and the Cygnans warbled their approval.
     An aproned assistant arrived at that point to put another of the pyramidal cages on the desk. The Cygnan apron, worn lengthwise, was anchored by a loop over head and tail, with a scalloped leathery flap hung down either side.
     Jameson thought he’d clinch it. Before the assistant could leave, he made the inclusive gesture for all three of the Cygnans and repeated his question. There was a lot of agitated chirping. Then Tetrachord and Triad both turned to him and gave him an entirely different word.
     Jameson wiped the sweat off his forehead with a forearm. What was going wrong? He decided to attack it from a different angle. What did the Cygnans call humans?
     “Ja-me-son,” he said in the three-note figure that signified his name. Then he made the inclusive gesture and whistled, “Ja-me-son, Ja-me-son,” followed by the interrogative trill.
     What are many Jamesons called? He waited.
     He got his own name back firmly, once. There is no such thing as a class of Jamesons. He tried again, and got his name back with the cascade of dropping thirds that they always used to correct him with. A mistake. Evidently such a thing as many Jamesons was a conceptual impossibility.
     Doggedly he tried again. Numbers, then. Numbers were basic. He held up a finger. “One.” He extended another. “Two.” He added a third. “Three.” Then he trilled the Cygnan interrogative.
     He waited. Nothing.
     He tried again. “One …”
     The smaller Cygnan, Triad, was showing signs of becoming restless. She—Why did he think of this one as she?—turned to Tetrachord and tootled at him. Tetrachord tootled back; Then he slithered off his perch and picked up the electric prod. He gestured toward the door with it.
     It was time for Jameson to go back to his cage.
     He rose to his feet reluctantly. He hadn’t made much progress. Would he get another chance? Cygnans didn’t seem to be long on patience. Or curiosity.
     If only he could speed up the process of communication.
     He allowed them to herd him halfway to the door before he stopped. Then he became stubborn, earning himself a mild tingle from the prod.
     Moving slowly so as not to alarm them, he started toward the untidy stack of human goods over at the far wall. They did nothing to stop him. He was able to reach the Moog.
     He turned it on. The little red light glowed. There were still a couple of dozen hours left in the batteries. Quickly he pulled out stops, trying for an approximation of the Cygnan voice. A touch of oboe. A flute. A bassoon with its wave frequency moved up to the treble range. A synthetic soprano voice saying “ah.”
     The preparation took him a few seconds. He glanced over his shoulder. How much time would they allow him? Not enough time to reprogram the little computer that was the heart of the Moog; that would take hours. But he didn’t have to do anything very complicated to start with. He altered the tuning of the A to shift it slightly from concert pitch, and the Moog obligingly shifted the rest of the scale to go with it. Then he lowered all the C sharps a trifle and retuned a couple of the notes he wouldn’t be using for the demonstration, to provide the quarter-tone notes he would need.
     He turned. Triad was coming toward him, hissing. Her rasplike tongue flickered in and out. His time was up.
     Jameson put his hands on the keyboard and said her name in perfect Cygnanese. With, he hoped, hardly a trace of an accent.

     The Moog had two five-octave keyboards. He compressed them into a single compass of two and one half octaves composed of quarter-tones. It fit the Cygnan vocal range perfectly.
     He fiddled individually with what seemed to be some of the more important tones in the Cygnan vocabulary— the off-key B flat in Tetrachord’s name and the wrong-note bagpipe tone that finished off the octave, among others. But for most of it he simply had the computer chop up the normal equal-temperament octave into forty-eight pieces instead of twelve. He could retune other crucial notes one at a time as they came up while he was learning to talk Cygnan.
     It took him another hour to alter the Moog’s memory so that it would replay some of the standard Cygnan sequences at the touch of a button—the interrogative trill and the cascade of minor thirds, and some of the turns and arabesques he’d been able to pin down so far. He had only to play them once through and tell the Moog to remember them. They were plugged into the bank of cheater buttons that were meant for slip-beat rhythms and computer-generated contrapuntal voices.
     When he’d finished, not even Johann Sebastian Bach could have played recognizable human music on the Moog. It was a Cygnan speech synthesizer now, with lots of unused learning capacity.
     His accomplishment earned him a reprieve. It made conversing a lot easier for the Cygnans, for one thing, and that rekindled their interest. They didn’t have to stop to figure out what Jameson meant when he interpolated a broken chord, and they didn’t have to repeat things for him endlessly; the Moog’s play-along attachment taped them the first time, and the Cygnans could go about their business while Jameson devoted himself to memorizing word lists.
     They didn’t even make him return to his cage. Instead, they let him sleep in a small storage room adjacent to their office or workshop, or whatever it was, and work on his vocabulary while they were busy. During their frequent absences, he was allowed to wander through the workshop, as if he were a trusted pet. Among the looted human artifacts he found clothing and toilet articles, and soon he was able to get warm again and clean himself up. The aproned assistant brought him his meals at regular intervals: more frozen food from the freezer and, as time went on, unfamiliar stuff that the Cygnans evidently had learned to synthesize. Most of it was an unappetizing mush, but it didn’t make him sick. At least he wouldn’t starve when human supplies ran out.
     To Jameson’s immense relief, learning the Cygnan language turned out to be easy. The structure, such as it was, was positional. He was able to get along fairly well simply by piling words on top of one another, as you could do in Chinese.
     He remembered something one of his language teachers on Earth had told him: Sophisticated languages tend to dispense with grammar. Languages of primitive cultures, like Eskimo or Hottentot, have far more complex a structure than highly evolved languages like English or Chinese. The Cygnans, who had been wandering through space for untold millennia, must have a far older civilization than man.
     Their language had been simplified. Given time, Jameson could have taught Mike Berry or any other competent amateur musician to play back Cygnan “words” by rote on the Moog’s modified keyboard, or punch in his programmed phrases. But Mike didn’t have absolute pitch, so he could never have understood the Cygnan’s replies.
     The Cygnan language was simple, all right. But nobody in the crew except Jameson could possibly have understood it.

From THE JUPITER THEFT by Donald Moffitt (1977)


This section has been moved here.


In the real world, since starships have not been invented yet, the SETI researchers are focusing on communication without contact, which more or less boils down to interstellar radio transmission.

They had to deal with an even more difficult problem. It is hard enough to communicate with a specific known alien species, even if they are present to assist with the effort. It is much harder to make a communication that is sufficiently universal enough to be decoded by any species, specifically ones that are unknown and and are not physically present. They have to create some kind of universal "pidgin." They are using anticryptography instead of cryptography: attempting to create a code that is easy to break.

Universal Language of Mathematics

The SETI researchers tried to get down to basics. They were forced to make the assumption that the listening aliens understood mathematics. You have to have something to use as common ground. Without mathematics, there was not really anything else to use. The SETI researchers tried to console themselves with the rationalization that a non-mathematical species was unlikely to have radio technology in the first place. Maybe.

An interesting exception was in H. Beam Piper's classic short story "Omnilingual." Human archaeologists in the ancient ruins of the extinct Martian civilization are attempting to translate the documents. The work goes nowhere since there is nothing resembling a Rosetta stone. Until one of the archaeologist stumbles over a Martian periodic table of the elements. The elements are also a universal common ground.

Cool Math

Given mathematics, there are a few approaches that suggest themselves. One can transmit the equivalent of 1+1 = 2, the value of Pi (π) to a few decimal points, things like that. A popular choice for inclusion is the most famous equation in all of mathematics, Euler's identity: e + 1 = 0. As a side note, science fiction authors are fond of using Euler's identity as the basis of alien's mathematical systems, since it is so wierd yet scientific. This includes Star Strike by Ian Douglas and If The Stars Are Gods by Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund.

Prime Numbers and Radioglyphs

One of the best ways to communicate is by drawing pictures. I'm sure you've seen scenes in movies where people who do not share a common language attempt to talk by drawing pictures in the dirt using a stick. A picture is worth a thousand words, which is a vast increase in transmission bandwidth.

Pictures can be transmitted as bi-level binary images. This is a picture composed of black and white pixels, turned into a string of ones and zeroes. These are sent as a string of pulses and absence of pulses.

The problem is, while binary images are two dimensional (width and height) radio transmissions are one dimensional (linear). Given a string of pulses (and absence of pulses) of length N, there are lots of ways one can divide them into an image. If there are 400 pulses, the picture might be 20 x 20, 40 x 10, 10 x 40, 25 x 16, and so on. The aliens will give long before they run out of combinations.

But it doesn't take much knowledge of mathematics to see the importance of Prime Numbers.

What if the total number of pulses is a semi-prime, that is, a number which is the product of two prime numbers. This would catch the attention of any mathematics using species. More to the point, there are only two possible numbers for the row and column.

An interstellar message of this type send by radio is called a "radioglyph".

The Arecibo Radioglyph was sent as the semi-prime 1679. This means the only possible way to break down the message was as a binary image of 23 rows and 73 columns, or 73 rows and 23 columns (or as the degenerate cases of 1 row and 1679 columns and 1679 rows and 1 column. Any aliens too stupid to figure this out are probably not worth talking to anyway).


For nearly a billion miles the great ship was hurled through space at a tremendous normal-space velocity. Then abruptly it was halted, without a sign of strain or hurt. The great twenty-foot UV beam on the nose of the "S Doradus" broke into glowing gentle red light. It flashed twice. There was a pause. Then it flashed four times. A long wait. Then three times, a pause and nine times. A wait. Four times, a pause, sixteen times. Then it stopped.

A slow smile of ineffable joy spread over Gresth Gkae's face. "Jarth, Be Praised. He can destroy, but does not wish to. Ah, Thart Kralt, turn your spotlight toward him, and flash it twenty-five times, for he is trying to start communications with us.

(ed note: 22=4, 32=9, 42=16, 52=25 )

From THE ULTIMATE WEAPON by John W. Campbell, Jr. (1936)

Hannah didn’t offer a chance for more questions, but stepped through into the great cube of the signal reception room. At first, Milly did not follow her. She had been here before, but again she wanted to feel the thrill, the prickle of awe creeping along her spinal column and up into her hind brain.

This was it. Here, in this room, thirty-four billion separate signals, culled from narrow parts of the neutrino and electromagnetic energy spectrum, and from all parts of the heavens, came into convergence. Here, the myriad signals were sifted and sorted and searched, in the quest for anomalies that stood out from the rest, the deviation from random noise that cried out, “Look, look at me. I am a message!”

Six years ago, when she was seventeen, Milly had encountered another message, one passed down from the very dawn of SETI. A century and a half ago, Frank Drake had sent a string of 1's and 0’s to his colleagues, inviting them to decipher its meaning. Not one of them had succeeded.

But Milly had, proceeding from prime factors of an array of numbers, then to a picture, then to an interpretation. She could trace her presence here directly to the emotional rush of that day. It had been a fork in her personal road, the moment when the pleasures of mastering the Puzzle Network faded before the challenge of messages from the stars.

Now there was no guaranteed signal, but in its place a near-infinity of possible ones. The distributed observing system around the L-4 Argus Station still explored the ancient water-hole of the early investigators, between the spectral lines of neutral hydrogen and the hydroxyl radical, and to that they had added the preferred zone of neutrino resonance capture, a region undreamed of in early SETI work.

The work took on new complexity when you could not be sure that a possible signal was a signal, and all the time the detection equipment became more sensitive and sophisticated. Is something there? That question was harder to answer than ever. Milly wondered about the comparison. Which was more difficult to decipher: A signal sent by humans to humans, deliberately obscure and challenging their ingenuity, but with a promise that it was a signal? Or a message from aliens, designed to be clear, struggling to be heard, wanting to be transparent in meaning, and sent to any life form who might be listening?

What would Frank Drake say now, if he could be here to regard his legacy? The original listening had been done for just two stars, Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, on a minimum of radio frequencies, for a period that was no more than one tick on the great celestial clock. Drake would probably just shake his head and smile a secret little smile. He was a scientist and a realist, but he had an element of fey, deep inside, that led him to label his project Ozma, a name with more than a touch of magic and a hint of exotic mystery. Maybe more than surprised he would be disappointed, that they had looked so long and so hard and found nothing.

Nothing yet. Where are they? Be patient, Frank, and old Enrico Fermi. They are there. We are going to find them.

The smaller room beyond, in contrast to the one where Milly stood, was completely shielded from external signals. Within it the anomalies, the potential messages, the scores or hundreds daily culled from raw inputs, were sent to be analyzed. It is one of the curious results of information theory that the possible information carried within a signal is proportional to its randomness, to its unpredictability. If something is totally predictable, then by definition you know its content exactly and it can tell you nothing new. If the incoming signal is totally unpredictable, on the other hand, then in principle every single bit of data is a potential message. There had to be a fine line: enough regularities to announce intelligent design (a sequence of prime numbers, the Pythagorean theorem, a sequence of squares, the digits of pi), yet enough variation to offer information. How would an alien intelligence draw the line?

From DARK AS DAY by Charles Sheffield (2002)

Drake's Radioglyph

In the early 1960's, Frank Drake (creator of the Drake Equation) made a hypothetical alien message and sent it unexpectedly to the participants of a conference on intelligent extraterrestrial life. He wanted to see how many of them could decode and interpret it. The message was a string of 551 ones and zeros.

A mathematician would instantly notice that 551 is a semi-prime, the product of two primes 19 and 29. If you make the ones into black squares and the zeroes into white squares you can make an image 19x29 or 29x19. If you try 19x29 you got a mess.

However, if you try 29x19 you get an interesting image.

There is a stick figure of some kind of biped creature, with a larger abdomen and a wider spread to its legs. Perhaps the gravity on its planet is more intense than on Terra.

Down the left edge is a representation of the alien's solar system, with the primary star at the top. Five small planets, two medium planets, and two large planets. Very much like our solar system.

The two groups in the upper right corner are a diagram of a carbon atom and an oxygen atom. It would seem reasonable to infer that the alien's biochemistry is based on carbon, and it breaths oxygen, just like us.

Next to planets one through five are binary numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, with the addition of a parity bit. Presumably in future transmissions one will be able to tell letters from numbers by the presence of a parity bit.

In between the biped and the atoms are three numbers aligned with the planets. There is a diagonal line connecting the numbers with the biped. The implication is that these are the number of aliens on each of the planets: 11 on planet two, 3000 on planet three, and about 7e9 on planet four. The inference is that the aliens have space travel, their home world is planet four, there is a colony on planet three, and an exploration or research base on planet two.

Finally to the right of the biped appears a "height" marker with the number 31. The only unit we have in common with the alien is the radio wavelength that the message was delivered on. So we can conclude that the aliens are 31 wavelengths tall.

Not a bad amount of information for 551 ones and zeroes.

Drake tried to set the difficulty so that a group of scientist could decode and interpret it in about a day. Any shorter a time and the message would have to be so simple it was not efficiently using all the bits. Any longer and there would be a risk that the message might not be decoded at all. As it turns out, only one scientist managed to decrypt the message: Bernard Oliver.

Radioglyph Schemes

Lincos TextMeaning
Ha Inq Hb ?x 4x=10Ha says to Hb: What is the x such that 4x=10?
Hb Inq Hc ?y y Inq Hb ?x 4x=10Hb says to Hc: Who asked me for the x such that 4x=10?
Hc Inq Hb HaHc says to Hb: Ha.

In 1952, British mathematician Lancelot Hogben proposed a simplistic radioglyph scheme called Astraglossa. It expresses numbers and operators in a series of short and long pulses. Short pulses represent numbers, while trains of long pulses represent symbols for addition, subtraction, etc. Philip Morrison built on Hogben's work.

In the 1960's, Dr. Hans Freudenthal constructed a mathematical pidgin language called Lincos (short for lingua cosmica). It is a language designed to be understandable by any possible intelligent extraterrestrial life form, for use in interstellar radio transmissions. Freudenthal considered that such a language should be easily understood by beings not acquainted with any Earthling syntax or language. Lincos was designed to be capable of encapsulating "the whole bulk of our knowledge."

Bruno Bassi has an analysis of Lincos here. There is some work on a Lincos based variant here.

You can find more samples of Lincos here.

Arecibo Radioglyph

In 1974 the Arecibo radio telescope was refurbished. As a publicity stunt, they sent a coded message to the Hercules Globular Cluster. The cluster was chosen because it is a flashy object visible from Arecibo, not because anybody thinks it has habitable planets populated with aliens. Globular clusters are composed of ancient metal-poor first generation stars, such stars are highly unlikely to possess any planets at all. But "Hercules Globular Cluster" looks really impressive on a press release. And since it is about 25,100 light-years away, the promoters will not have to worry about any response until about the year 52,174.

The message was 1679 bits, which is of course a semi-prime. It breaks down into a 23x73 image. The message contains the numbers 1 through 10, the elements that compose DNA, the formula for the nucleotides of DNA, a picture the DNA double helix, the number of nucleotides in a human genome, a stick figure of a human, the height of a man, the population of Terra, a diagram of the solar system, a picture of the Arecibo dish, and the size of the dish. You can read all the details of the message here.

Martin's Radioglyph

In 1991, Martin C. Martin created a hypothetical alien message and posted it on Internet newsgroups sci.crypt, sci.astro, sci.space, rec.arts.sf-lovers and rec.puzzles. You can see the puzzle here and the solution here.

Encounter 2001 Message

In 1999 Dr. Yvan Dutil and Stephane Dumas created a far more sophisticated message that was over 400,000 bits long. It was beamed at four relatively close-by stars (between 50 and 70 light-years) thought likely to host intelligent life (HD190360, HD190406, HD186408, HD178428).

You can see the message pages here and the translation here.



The Wow! signal was a strong narrowband radio signal received on August 15, 1977, by Ohio State University's Big Ear radio telescope in the United States, then used to support the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The signal appeared to come from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius and bore the expected hallmarks of extraterrestrial origin.

Astronomer Jerry R. Ehman discovered the anomaly a few days later while reviewing the recorded data. He was so impressed by the result that he circled the reading on the computer printout, "6EQUJ5", and wrote the comment "Wow!" on its side, leading to the event's widely used name.

The entire signal sequence lasted for the full 72-second window during which Big Ear was able to observe it, but has not been detected since, despite several subsequent attempts by Ehman and others. Many hypotheses have been advanced on the origin of the emission, including natural and human-made sources, but none of them adequately explain the signal.

Although the Wow! signal had no detectable modulation—a technique used to transmit information over radio waves—it remains the strongest candidate for an alien radio transmission ever detected.


In a 1959 paper, Cornell University physicists Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi had speculated that any extraterrestrial civilization attempting to communicate via radio signals might do so using a frequency of 1420 megahertz (21 centimeters), which is naturally emitted by hydrogen, the most common element in the universe and therefore likely familiar to all technologically advanced civilizations.

In 1973, after completing an extensive survey of extragalactic radio sources, Ohio State University assigned the now-defunct Ohio State University Radio Observatory (nicknamed "Big Ear") to the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), in the longest-running program of its kind in history. The radio telescope was located near the Perkins Observatory on the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.

By 1977, Ehman was working at the SETI project as a volunteer; his job involved analyzing by hand large amounts of data processed by an IBM 1130 computer and recorded on line printer paper. While perusing data collected on August 15 at 22:16 EDT (02:16 UTC), he spotted a series of values of signal intensity and frequency that left him and his colleagues astonished. The event was later documented in technical detail by the observatory's director.

Signal measurement

The string 6EQUJ5, commonly misinterpreted as a message encoded in the radio signal, represents in fact the signal's intensity variation over time, expressed in the particular measuring system adopted for the experiment. The signal itself appeared to be an unmodulated continuous wave, although any modulation with a period of less than 10 seconds or longer than 72 seconds would not have been detectable.


The signal intensity was measured as signal-to-noise ratio, with the noise (or baseline) averaged over the previous few minutes. The signal was sampled for 10 seconds and then processed by the computer, which took 2 seconds. Therefore, every 12 seconds the result for each frequency channel was output on the printout as a single character, representing the 10-second average intensity, minus the baseline, expressed as a dimensionless multiple of the signal's standard deviation.

In the chosen alphanumeric measuring system, a space character denotes an intensity between 0 and 1, that is between baseline and one standard deviation above it. The numbers 1 to 9 denote the correspondingly numbered intensities (from 1 to 9); intensities of 10 and above are indicated by a letter: "A" corresponds to intensities between 10 and 11, "B" to 11 to 12, and so on. The Wow! signal's highest measured value was "U" (an intensity between 30 and 31), that is thirty standard deviations above background noise.


John Kraus, the director of the observatory, gave a value of 1420.3556 MHz in a 1994 summary written for Carl Sagan. But Ehman in 1998 gives a value of 1420.4556±0.005 MHz, with detailed explanation. This is (50±5 kHz) above the hydrogen line value (with no red- or blue-shift) of 1420.4058 MHz. If due to blue-shift, it would correspond to the source moving about 10 km/s (6.2 mi/s) towards us.

An explanation of the difference between Ehman's value and Kraus's can be found in Ehman's paper. An oscillator, which became the first local oscillator, was ordered for the frequency of 1450.4056 MHz. However, the university's purchasing department made a typographical error in the order and wrote 1450.5056 MHz (i.e., 0.1 MHz higher than desired). The software used in the experiment was then written to adjust for this error. When Ehman computed the frequency of the Wow! signal, he took this error into account.


The Wow! signal was a narrowband emission: its bandwidth was less than 10 kHz. The Big Ear telescope was equipped with a receiver capable of measuring fifty 10 kHz-wide channels. The output from each channel was represented in the computer printout as a column of alphanumeric intensity values. The Wow! signal is essentially confined to one column.

Time variation

At the time of the observation, the Big Ear radio telescope was only adjustable for altitude (or height above the horizon), and relied instead on the rotation of the Earth to scan across the sky. Given the speed of Earth's rotation and the spatial width of the telescope's observation window, the Big Ear could observe any given point for just 72 seconds. A continuous extraterrestrial signal, therefore, would be expected to register for exactly 72 seconds, and the recorded intensity of such signal would display a gradual increase for the first 36 seconds—peaking at the center of the observation window—and then a gradual decrease as the telescope moved away from it. All these characteristics are present in the Wow! signal.

Celestial location

The precise location in the sky where the signal apparently originated is uncertain due to the design of the Big Ear telescope, which featured two feed horns, each receiving a beam from slightly different directions, while following Earth's rotation. The Wow! signal was detected in one beam but not in the other, and the data was processed in such a way that it is impossible to determine which of the two horns received the signal. There are, therefore, two possible right ascension (RA) values for the location of the signal (expressed below in terms of the two main reference systems):

B1950 equinoxJ2000 equinox
RA (positive horn)19h22m24.64s ± 5s19h25m31s ± 10s
RA (negative horn)19h25m17.01s ± 5s19h28m22s ± 10s

In contrast, the declination was unambiguously determined to be as follows:

B1950 equinoxJ2000 equinox
Declination−27°03′ ± 20′−26°57′ ± 20′

The galactic coordinates for the positive horn are l=11.7°, b=−18.9°, and for the negative horn l=11.9°, b=−19.5°, both being therefore about 19° toward the southeast of the galactic plane, and about 24° or 25° east of the galactic centre. The region of the sky in question lies northwest of the globular cluster M55, in the constellation Sagittarius, roughly 2.5 degrees south of the fifth-magnitude star group Chi Sagittarii, and about 3.5 degrees south of the plane of the ecliptic. The closest easily visible star is Tau Sagittarii.

No nearby sun-like stars were within the antenna coordinates, although in any direction the antenna pattern would encompass about six distant stars.

Hypotheses on the signal's origin

A number of hypotheses have been advanced as to the source and nature of the Wow! signal. None of them have achieved widespread acceptance. Interstellar scintillation of a weaker continuous signal—similar in effect to atmospheric twinkling—could be an explanation, but that would not exclude the possibility of the signal being artificial in origin. The significantly more sensitive Very Large Array did not detect the signal, and the probability that a signal below the detection threshold of the Very Large Array could be detected by the Big Ear due to interstellar scintillation is low. Other hypotheses include a rotating lighthouse-like source, a signal sweeping in frequency, or a one-time burst.

Ehman has said: "We should have seen it again when we looked for it 50 times. Something suggests it was an Earth-sourced signal that simply got reflected off a piece of space debris." He later recanted his skepticism somewhat, after further research showed an Earth-borne signal to be very unlikely, given the requirements of a space-borne reflector being bound to certain unrealistic requirements to sufficiently explain the signal. Also, it is problematic to propose that the 1420 MHz signal originated from Earth since this is within a protected spectrum: a bandwidth reserved for astronomical purposes in which terrestrial transmitters are forbidden to transmit. In a 1997 paper, Ehman resists "drawing vast conclusions from half-vast data"—acknowledging the possibility that the source may have been military or otherwise a product of Earth-bound humans.

METI president Douglas Vakoch told Die Welt that any putative SETI signal detections must be replicated for confirmation, and the lack of such replication for the Wow! signal means it has little credibility.

In a 2012 podcast, scientific skeptic author Brian Dunning concluded that a radio transmission from deep space in the direction of Sagittarius, as opposed to a near-Earth origin, remains the best technical explanation for the emission, although there is no evidence to conclude that an alien intelligence was the source.

Discredited hypotheses

In 2017, Antonio Paris, a teacher from Florida, proposed that the hydrogen cloud surrounding two comets, 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, now known to have been in the same region of the sky, could have been the source of the Wow! signal. This hypothesis was dismissed by astronomers, including members of the original Big Ear research team, as the cited comets were not in the beam at the correct time. Furthermore, comets do not emit strongly at the frequencies involved, and there is no explanation for why a comet would be observed in one beam but not in the other.

Searches for recurrence of the signal

Several attempts were made by Ehman and other astronomers to recover and identify the signal. The signal was expected to occur three minutes apart in each of the telescope's feed horns, but that did not happen. Ehman unsuccessfully searched for recurrences using Big Ear in the months after the detection.

In 1987 and 1989, Robert H. Gray searched for the event using the META array at Oak Ridge Observatory, but did not detect it. In a July 1995 test of signal detection software to be used in its upcoming Project Argus, SETI League executive director H. Paul Shuch made several drift-scan observations of the Wow! signal's coordinates with a 12-meter radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia, also achieving a null result.

In 1995 and 1996, Gray again searched for the signal using the Very Large Array, which is significantly more sensitive than Big Ear. Gray and Simon Ellingsen later searched for recurrences of the event in 1999 using the 26-meter radio telescope at the University of Tasmania's Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory. Six 14-hour observations were made at positions in the vicinity, but nothing like the Wow! signal was detected.

From the Wikipedia entry for WOW! SIGNAL

Amateur astronomer and YouTuber Alberto Caballero, one of the founders of The Exoplanets Channel, has found a small amount of evidence for a source of the notorious Wow! signal. In his paper uploaded to the arXiv preprint server, Caballero describes searching the Gaia database for possible sun-like stars that might host an exoplanet capable of supporting intelligent life.

Back in 1977, astronomers working with the Big Ear Radio Telescope—at the time, situated in Delaware, Ohio—recorded a unique signal from somewhere in space. It was so strong and unusual that one of the workers on the team, Jerry Ehman, famously scrawled the word Wow! on the printout. Despite years of work and many man hours, no one has ever been able to trace the source of the signal or explain the strong, unique signal, which lasted for all of 72 seconds. Since that time, many people have suggested the only explanation for such a strong and unique signal is extraterrestrial .

In this new effort, Caballero reasoned that if the source was some other , it would likely be living on an exoplanet—and if that were the case, it would stand to reason that such a life form might be living on a planet similar to Earth—one circling its own sun-like star. Pursuing this logic, Caballero began searching the publicly available Gaia database for just such a star. The Gaia database has been assembled by a team working at the Gaia observatory run by the European Space Agency. Launched back in 2013, the project has worked steadily on assembling the best map of the night sky ever created. To date, the team has mapped approximately 1.3 billion stars.

In studying his search results, Caballero found what appears to fit the bill—a star (2MASS 19281982-2640123, 1,800 light-years away) that is very nearly a mirror image of the sun—and is located in the part of the sky where the Wow! signal originated. He notes that there are other possible candidates in the area but suggests his candidate might provide the best launching point for a new research effort by astronomers who have the tools to look for exoplanets.


The Wow! signal has a storied history in the SETI community, a one-off detection at the Ohio State ‘Big Ear’ observatory in 1977 that Jim Benford, among others, considers the most interesting candidate signal ever received. A plasma physicist and CEO of Microwave Sciences, Benford returns to Centauri Dreams today with a closer look at the signal and its striking characteristics, which admit to a variety of explanations, though only one that the author believes fits all the parameters. A second reception of the Wow! might tell us a great deal, but is such an event likely? So far all repeat observations have failed and, as Benford points out, there may be reason to assume they must. The essay below is a shorter version of the paper Jim has submitted to Astrobiology.


In 1977 the Big Ear radio telescope (Ohio State University Radio Telescope) recorded the famous Wow! Signal, which is the most serious contender for artificial interstellar radiation. It is called the ‘Wow!’ Signal. It has never been seen again. Its origin and nature remain a total mystery.

I offer an alternative explanation for it: The Wow! could have been leakage from an interstellar power beam. I propose that this class of radiation, which is not widely understood, can explain the observed features of the Wow! signal.

The Three Wow! Parameters

The Wow! signal has 3 prominent parameters: the power density received, the signal’s duration and its frequency [1].

Power Density: The Wow! signal was very strong, the strongest they ever recorded in the seven-year Ohio State SETI Survey. The shape is shown in the Figure.

Duration: The Big Ear was fixed in orientation, so rotated with the Earth. From Gray [1]: “The amount of time it took the Wow! to pass through the antenna’s beam closely matches the expected transit time for celestial sources. Sources fixed amid the stars should take about 36 seconds to transit the sensitive middle half of the beam, the full-width-half-max. The Wow! signal took about 38 seconds”.

So we don’t know how long the signal lasted, just that it was on as the antenna rotated past.

Frequency: The Wow! Signal was at 1.42 GHz. The 1.4-1.427 GHz band is protected internationally, meaning, as John Kraus, designer and director at the Big Ear, says in a letter to Carl Sagan , “all emissions are prohibited” [2]. The band was set aside to allow radio astronomy of the H 1 line, the hyperfine transition of neutral hydrogen (1.420 GHz), which is of great astronomical interest for imaging atomic hydrogen in interstellar space. Consequently, this part of the L-band is a protected radio astronomy allocation all over the world. Therefore the Wow! couldn’t be a transmission from Earth satellites or aircraft.

The Fourth Wow! Parameter

There is a fourth parameter, although it has not received attention: the Revisit Time. This is the interval until the signal is seen again. If ET were rastering their beam across the sky, the beam would be seen to repeat later. Searches have been conducted from the META array at Oak Ridge, the Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia and the Tasmanian Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory in Australia [3, 4].

Recent extensive observations on the Allen Array by Gerry Harp, Robert Gray and colleagues, which used the 42 dishes of the ATA as an interferometer, monitored the entire 1.5 degree field of view for 100 hours. They did not see the Wow! and summarized [5]: “As for the possibility that the Wow! signal is a repetitive transient, our observations rule out almost all periods under 40 hours, which covers many repetitive scenarios such as rotating planets or blinking beacons with periods comparable to a terrestrial day and several times longer. Our extended observations cannot rule out scenarios such as occasional targeted transmissions with repetition rates of many days or varying repetition rates.”

The Wow! observation has never recurred. I take this absence as a clue to its origin.

Power Beaming and the Wow! Signal

The most observable leakage radiation from an advanced civilization may well be from the use of power beaming to accelerate spacecraft and transfer energy. Power beams are now more credible because we’re building our own: The Starshot project plans launching probes to nearby stars in this century, making power beaming a credible source concept [6]. And power beaming is being developed for military applications, where it is termed ‘directed energy’ [7]. See reference 8 for a review of power beaming concept studies.

Applications suggested for power beaming are:

  • launching spacecraft to orbit,
  • raising satellites to a higher orbit,
  • interplanetary space–to–space transfers of cargo or passengers,
  • beam-driven launch of interstellar probes,
  • beam-driven starships.

Leakage of the beam around the sides of the vehicle being accelerated would be observable at great range because of the highly directed high power. The spilled energy can be reduced to less than half, but that is not the cost optimum. Spillage losses of more than half are typical of Starshot calculations, for reasons of economics and performance that will apply to other civilizations [6].

For power beam missions involving changing orbits of spacecraft, the first three applications on the above list, an important quantity is the slew rate, the rate at which the beam propelling the spacecraft sweeps to direct it toward its orbit [8]. A review of representative parameters for applications of power beaming shows that, for orbit–related missions, the slew rates are high, so the observation time of the beam leakage is too short, ≲ 1 second. So the orbit–related applications cannot explain the Wow! But interstellar probes and starships have small slew rate, so are the best candidates.

Power Beaming Examples

In beaming of power, the power density S at range R is determined by W, the effective isotropic radiated power (EIRP), which is the product of radiated peak power P and aperture gain G [8]. Since we know the power density of the Wow! received and its frequency, we can calculate both the range to the source of Wow! and the power needed at a given range.

For example, if the Wow! source had the EIRP of Arecibo, it would have to be at range < 2 light-years, so it must be far more powerful.

Bob Forward’s ultralight microwave-propelled Starwisp, a 1-kg sail reaching 0.1 c, would be at a range of ~ a million light-years, so from extra-galactic distances [9].

An interstellar precursor probe described by Benford and Matloff for 100 km/sec = 0.03% c would be at range 116 light-years, a nearby star [10].

We can also assume a distance, then calculate the EIRP that would be required. First, choose 2000 light-years for the distance to the Wow! source. (Maccone estimates that the mean distance to a communicative civilization is ~2,000 light-years away [11]). Then choose an aperture diameter of 3 km. (Starshot envisions a ~3-km diameter laser array to drive its interstellar probe.) The required beam power is 11 GW. This is similar to Starshot, with ~ 11 GW.

From these examples, it is credible that the Wow! signal was leakage from launch of an interstellar probe.

Will we see it again? Probably not

Probably not if it was due to power beaming. With a launch driven by an intense beam, to arrive years later at a neighboring stellar system, the starship would be launched toward where the stellar system will be when the starship arrives. The ratio of the distance the star would move to the beam spot size is given by vs/(vss Δθ), where vs is the average velocity of the star relative to stars on our stellar neighborhood, typically 20 km/sec, and vss is the starship velocity, Δθ the angular beamwidth. For the starship concepts proposed, that ratio varies from 104 to 107 [8].

The angle of the radiated beam with respect to the light path between the two stars is larger than the width of the beam. Thus, the beam is generally not observable from the target planetary system. If the Wow! was driving a probe to a star, that star was at that time far from the direction of the beam. Earth could accidentally receive the leakage from the beam, since stars move relative to each other. So leakage radiation from star probe launches using the Wow! beam will not be seen again from Earth. This fits the non-observations to date.

Comparison of Explanations for the Wow! Signal

There are three suggested explanations for the Wow!: either spurious emissions from Earth, an interstellar communication or leakage from a power beam. Here is a brief summary of the evidence for and against each explanation:

Arguments for power beaming leakage as a cause:

  • The power beaming explanation for the Wow! accounts for all four of the Wow! parameters: the power density received, the duration of the signal, its frequency, and the reason why the Wow! has not occurred again. The Wow! power beam leakage hypothesis gets stronger the longer that listening for the Wow! to recur doesn’t observe it repeat.
  • Power beams are now more credible because we’re building our own: the Starshot project plans launching probes to nearby stars in this century. The technology required for the Beamers for such interstellar probe launches are within our grasp.

Arguments against ET communication as a cause:

  • The theory that the Wow! Signal was an interstellar communication predicts that it will recur. It fits within the overall SETI strategy, which looks for deliberate beaming of messages to us from ETI. But the long series of the subsequent non-observations of the Wow! shows that the SETI messaging hypothesis is gradually being falsified by being tested.

Arguments against radio frequency interference (RFI) as a cause:

  • The Wow! Signal was at 1.42 GHz. The band from 1.4 to 1.427 GHz is protected internationally, meaning, all emissions are prohibited [2]. Therefore it is very doubtful that the Wow! Was a transmission from Earth satellites or aircraft because they are forbidden to transmit in this band. Secret satellites would avoid it because they would be detected by radio astronomers. (Emissions in this band are sometimes detected, but at very low levels. These are likely due to intermodulation products, which are nonlinear effects in electronics.)
  • Aircraft would be unlikely to remain static in the sky. Spacecraft would pass through the beam much faster. To match that lack of angular motion, an Earth satellite would have to be millions of kilometers distant, out far beyond the Moon.
  • Ohio had good RFI rejection because what was recorded was the difference between two offset beams, so a local signal appearing in both horns simultaneously would cancel. This was frequently verified.
  • The possibility that the signal was a harmonic or sub-harmonic of a local signal is countered by Ohio State having monitored the 21 cm band for many years, would have noticed a local interfering signal.
  • A deliberate hoax? This lacks credibility, as hoaxes are a practical joke, which succeed if they are later revealed. Then why keep it secret for decades?

Conclusion and Implications

I’ve looked at the various power beaming applications and found that credible ones are low mass interstellar probes such as Starwisp and Starshot. This does not mean that the orbit–changing power-beaming applications cannot be seen.

The power beaming explanation for the Wow! accounts for all four of the Wow! parameters. This includes the absence of any later observation, for it has not been seen since, despite the several attempts to repeat observing it. This allows a prediction: the Wow! signal will not be seen again.

If one accepts the possibility that Wow! was power beam leakage, several lines of action should be followed for the future of SETI:

  • Such interstellar power beams would be visible over large interstellar distances. All-sky surveys in both the microwave and laser could detect more power beam leakages. Instruments with large instantaneous field of view could detect infrequent transitory leakage signals. Ultimately, we should have a full-sky capability for both hemispheres.
  • Because ET would understand that its beam leakage could be observed, there may well be modulations on the beam to communicate to any inadvertent listener. This would add little additional energy or cost for ET. Therefore all-sky surveys should have sufficient electronics to capture messaging embedded on the beam. Extraterrestrial intelligences would know their power beams could be observed. That message may use optimized power-efficient designs such as spread spectrum and energy minimization [12, 13].

On the other hand, if one thinks that the Wow! signal was an attempt to communicate, one should follow up on a possibility that is not been explored: If with Wow! we inadvertently intercepted a radio link between one star and another, we should look in the opposite direction to see if signals are transmitting toward the Wow! direction. To my knowledge this has not been explored.


1. R. H. Gray, The Elusive Wow!, Palmer Square Press, 2012.

2. J. D. Kraus, “The Tantalizing “Wow!” Signal”, letter to Carl Sagan, NRAO Archives, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.nrao.edu/archives/items/show/3684, 1994.

3. R. H. Gray, “Intermittent Signals and Planetary Days in SETI”, Int. J. Astrobiology, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1473550420000038

4. R. H. Gray, A Search For Periodic Emissions At The Wow! Locale”, Astrophysical Journal, 578:967–971, 2002.

5. G. Harp et al., “An ATA Search for a Repetition of the Wow! Signal”, Astrophysical Journal 160:162, 2020.

6. K. Parkin, “The Breakthrough Starshot System Model”, Acta Astronautica 152, 370, 2018.

7. J. Benford, J. Swegle and E. Schamiloglu, High Power Microwaves, 3rd Ed., Taylor & Francis, Boca Raton, FL 2016.

8. J. Benford and D. Benford, “Power Beaming Leakage Radiation as a SETI Observable”, Astrophysical Journal 101 825, 2016.

9. R. L. Forward, “Starwisp: An Ultralight Interstellar Probe,” J. Spacecraft and Rockets, 22 345-350 1985.

10. J. Benford and G. Matloff, Intermediate Beamers for Starshot”, JBIS 72, 51, 2019.

11. C. Maccone, “The Statistical Drake Equation”, Acta Astronautica 67, 1366, 2010.

12. D. Messerschmitt, “The case for spread spectrum”, Acta Astronautica, 81, 227, 2012.

13. D. Messerschmitt, 2015, ‘Design for minimum energy in interstellar communication”, Acta Astronautica, 107, 20-39, 2015.

Fictional Radioglyphs

Radioglyphs have appeared in a few SF novels, such as James Gunn's The Listeners (1968), Gregory Benford & Gordon Eklund's If The Stars Are Gods (1977), and Carl Sagan's Contact (1985).

The Listeners

In The Listeners by James Gunn, scientists receive a transmission from the star Capella. It is composed of snippets from old radio programs (like Burns & Gracie, and The Shadow) along with blanks. Eventually somebody notices that the total number of snippets and blanks is equal to 589, which is the product of the two primes 19 and 31. Arrange it like a radioglyph and you obtain the glyph at left.

The scientists interpretation is to the right. A figure with a helmet and wings stands in the center with an egg at its feet. Capella is a double star, the two are in opposite corners. The hotter sun has more rays. Apparently the dimmer one is host to the Capellan's home planet, which is a moon of a gas giant. The Capellan stick figure is pointing at the home planet.

The (binary) numbers are horizontal, the words have a vertical component. The word for "Capellan" is pointed to by the stick figure, and also occurs by the wing and by the egg (which is why they figure it is an egg and not a toilet accident).

Some politically influential religious fundamentalists want to shut down the project, but change their mind when they see the message. To them it is obviously an angel with wings and a halo.

The scientists send their reply and eventually get a full data-dump from the Capellans. Posthumously. The dump is prefaced with the original radioglyph, with the stick figure omitted, the home star grown huge, and the gas giant vastly reduced in size. All the Capellans have been killed by their home star turning into a red giant, the transmission is from an automated station.


These are technically not radioglyphs, but are close. It is just that the cryptic alien symbols are found carved on slabs of metal instead of in a radio signal. But same anticryptography principles apply.

      "Dr. Buffington says that you have done research involving the deciphering of ancient writings." He stopped and waited for a reply.
     Surprised, I answered: "Why yes, I did some digging in a pre-Etruscan site in Italy about fifteen years ago: doctoral research." I shuddered at the memory of that enforced stay in that ridiculously deep gravity well. "But surely you're not interested in obscure pottery glyphs. …"
     "No, not exactly." Ogumi smiled. "We're more interested in your talent in interpreting, uh, obscure glyphs, as you call them." He motioned to the desk over which the other two were standing. "Come around here and tell me what you think of this." He pointed to a large sheet of paper on the table.

     I walked around, inserted myself between the other two, and looked. The paper displayed a drawing of what appeared to be a perfect hexagon about a third of a meter across. In the center were several concentric circles; further out were arcs, each arc ending on individual circles of various sizes. The innermost circle was about five centimeters in diameter; it contained five spokes radiating from the center, each with a symbol at its tip. There were also groups of symbols nestled in five of the six apices of the hexagon.
     "Well," I said, "it looks like a hexagon with circles and other markings inside."
     Ogumi frowned. "Please, Dr. Whitedimple, don't be flippant. This is a serious matter."

     Belatedly I remembered that Ogumi held the SHU purse strings. Bridge mending was not my forte, but I tried: "I was not attempting to be humorous, Mr. Ogumi. That artistic style is totally unknown to me; and without understanding the context in which it came to be here, I couldn't even begin to make intelligent speculations."
     Ogumi looked hard for a moment at Buffington, who nodded imperceptibly. Then it was my turn for the horn-rimmed stare.
     "Very well Dr. Whitedimple." The little man spoke without once taking his eyes from mine. "This is a picture of an artifact recently found on the surface of Iapetus. It was discovered by two repairmen out on a job to replace a malfunctioning navigation transponder about four hundred kilometers from I-Base."

     My eyes almost crossed, "Do you mean that this image was not designed by a human culture?"
     Ogumi nodded. "Yes. It is absolutely certain that this is a non-human product."
     "Do you have an extra chair I could use for a moment?" My legs weren't exactly shaky, you understand; but they did feel funny, and in such circumstances prudence was dictated. I sat for a second and breathed deeply twice before speaking again:

     "Pardon me, please." I needed a little time to get used to the idea. "Now, could someone please describe the exact appearance of the artifact, and tell me the exact circumstances under which it was found?"
     The other two looked to Ogumi, who answered again: "It was found in a box, just sitting on the surface. The container looked like a hexagon-shaped hatbox. It was very light in mass and appeared to be a nearly perfect insulator.
     "The artifact itself is made of some kind of metal or alloy; it's about one centimeter thick and very heavy, according to the message sent by the I-Base manager. It's blank on one side; the other contains very fine lines forming a picture. This," he tapped the drawing in front of me, "is a true-sized replica of the picture, taken at high resolution, scanned and transmitted by encrypted digital imagery."
     He smiled thinly, which seemed to be the only way he could. "The I-Base manager also encrypted his explanatory message. Thank goodness. He also mentioned that the actual image was formed by hair-fine, etched grooves, and that he had to side-light the image and boost contrast drastically to form a transmittable picture. Now, if I may repeat myself, what do you make of it?"

     The president's matter-of-fact monologue had helped steady me, so that I had some thoughts collected.
     "Well, I'm a bit uncomfortable about seeing just a picture … but it's obviously a message, and meant to be found by strangers. And as such, it shouldn't be too difficult to interpret. We should begin by assuming that it was produced by a highly sophisticated civilization which would understand in advance that there might be no common cultural referents upon which to draw for deciphering."
     I put my elbows on the table and pressed my spread fingertips together; it was one of my best affectations. "In which case, the referents should be scientific or analytic only, all of which I'm sure you've deduced already."
     "Precisely, Whitey," Tim Buffington said, bustling into the conversation, "and we'd like your insights to help us to continue our interpretation of the message."
     We got down to serious work, and before long the import of the thing became a background issue to the puzzle it presented.

     As I began to examine the drawing carefully for the first time, the cryptologist Grism came to life. "It's obviously a picture of the Saturn system," he said. "You see, the central circle is the planet itself, and the tight concentric circles are plainly meant to be the ring system." He pointed to a pair of them. "See this gap here? That's certainly a representation of Cassini's Division.”
     Planetography had not been my strongest subject in college; nevertheless it was obvious even to me once he'd pointed it out. I felt bold enough to chip in: "In which case, the outer circles represent Saturn's moons?"
     "Precisely, Whitey," said Buffington. He pointed to a small circle way out near one of the angles of the hexagon. "This would be Iapetus. Then thirty degrees clockwise and further in toward the center is Hyperion—see how small and irregular it is." His hand continued to move as he catalogued the moons. "Then another thirty degrees around the edge, and even further in, is the largest one—Titan. You see, it's opposite another apex of the hexagon.
     "Then Rhea, and Dione opposite a third apex here; next comes Tethys, then Enceladus opposite a fourth apex. And this is Mimas; it's the closest major satellite to Saturn—see, it's only about a centimeter from the outer edge of the ring system."
     "What are these arcs extending from the moons?" I asked, "Are they supposed to represent orbital paths?"
     "Precisely," said Buffington for the third time in as many minutes. One thing about Tim: once he found a phrase he liked, he stayed with it through thick or thin. This habit forever barred him from the ranks of brilliant—or even interesting—conversationalists.
     By then I'd noticed something else: "There's an arc here in the middle of Saturn's rings; looks like it corresponds to the fifth apex of the hexagon. What do you make of that?"
     "Obviously there is something within the B-Ring that holds a major significance," Grism said, then frowned. "But we don't know exactly what it could be. I know of no major bodies embedded in the ring system of Saturn. …"
     By then I had another question. I started to ask it, then changed my mind and said: "Why don't you just tell me everything you've observed and deduced. That'll save us some time,"

     "Not much more than you already know, I'm afraid," he said. "Those spokes in the center of Saturn's image each point to an apex of the hexagon. The symbol at the tip of each spoke is repeated here," his finger swept outward, "at the corresponding apex, along with two other symbols."
     He pointed to one of the groups of symbols at an apex. "You can also see that two of the three symbols here—this one in the middle, and the small hexagon—are identical for all five groups at the apices. The only symbol which changes from apex to apex is the third symbol, the one repeated at the tip of the corresponding spoke in the center of Saturn."
     "What about this little hexagon?" I asked, pointing to the group of symbols in the apex opposite the unknown point in the B-Ring. "It has a symbol inside; but the rest of them are blank."
     "I'll get to that in just a second," said Grism. "But first, notice that the symbols which at each apex are very regular; only these two vertical lines change position." He pointed to each symbol in turn. "This system makes an ideal counting method. We could assign the values one, two, three, four and five to these because of the changing positions of the lines. If so," he continued with animation, "then the number of the symbol inside the little hexagon—the one you asked about—would be the number six.
     "Outside of that," he finished dolefully, "we're stuck. We don't know why that symbol is inside the little hexagon at one apex and not the others—though obviously it calls attention to some special importance—and we don't know why the sixth spoke is missing from the center circle, or why the sixth apex of the hexagon has no symbols."
     "That's why I asked Ogumi to call you in, Whitey," said Buffington. "We're hoping you might come up with something which will get us unstuck."

     I looked hard at the drawing for two minutes, then began mumbling under my breath. I didn't even realize what I was doing until Buffington broke into my thoughts: "What are you talking about, Whitey?"
     "Huh? Oh, excuse me Timothy. I was saying 'relationship and correspondence.' " I turned to the cryptologist. "Brent, have you noticed that every straight line on this picture appears to be the same length?"
     "Why, no, I haven't given much thought to it." He rummaged through a pile of instruments on the table, found a pair of dividers, and proceeded to compare lengths.
     "You're right, Whitey. But what does it prove?"
     "Well, unless the culture responsible for those markings evolved in some weird, orderly manner, those symbols are no part of  its natural language. Which makes sense; they wouldn't try to communicate to aliens with their native markings. Exactly what is the length, Brent?"
     He got out a reticle and placed it over one of the symbols. "Just shy of one centimeter; call it nine point two four millimeters." He looked up. "But what good will that do us? Surely our units have no meaning with respect to theirs."
     "Relationships within the drawing,” I said. “Now let's check the diameter of Saturn's image in the center."
     Grism performed the labor. "Fifty-five point four four millimeters," he said, then bent to his calculator for a minute. He looked up with a light in his eyes and said: "Bingo. Exactly six times the line length."
     They were looking at me expectantly, with a markedly elevated degree of respect. Noblesse oblige required a word or two: "An educated guess, gentlemen. Now, does anyone know the true diameter of the planet Saturn?"

     Several hours later, with coffee stains covering various pages of Atlas of the Outer Solar System, Revised Edition, SpaceHome Comprehensive General Survey: 2132,  and with hand calculators hot from overwork (theirs, not mine—I'm more the cerebral type), we had come up with the following additional data:

     (A)  As near as we could make it, the image of Saturn on the artifact was exactly the equatorial diameter of the planet divided by 612.

     (B)  The images of Saturn's moons were enlarged with respect to Saturn's image, presumably for pictorial balance. The expansion factor was exactly twelve—two times six.

     (C)  If one were to inscribe a circle in the overall hexagonal figure, its diameter would be exactly six times that of the central image of Saturn.

     (D)  All orbits shown on the image, including those of the ring boundaries, were compressed logarithmically, base six, keyed on Saturn's image diameter.

     There was more, but the gist of it was that the number six was overwhelmingly important to the message. And by then, none of us were in any doubt that the picture was a message.

     "That sixth apex is just begging to be filled," said Buffington plaintively. "Why isn't it?" It was not the cleverest observation in the world; both Grism and I had been saying that under our breath for over two hours.
     The cryptologist was nicer than I; he answered civilly: "I think that when we get the answer to that one, Tim, we'll be all finished with our work." He turned to me. "The paucity of information in the drawing leads me to believe that the message must be a very simple one. Do you concur, Whitey?"
     I looked up from the Atlas. "Yes."
     He said: "I'll then assume that everything is as we believe presently, and that the message says look for the artifact in the B-Ring; the ones on Titan, Dione and Enceladus are all identical to the one we're holding." He tapped the set of circles in the center of the drawing. "But the fifth one, the one somewhere in the B-Ring, will show us how to find the sixth one—the real message." He looked wistfully at the diagram. "But where in the B-Ring? Why 48,000 kilometers from the surface, if we're to believe the scale? And where are the other artifacts, for that matter?"
     "Where indeed, gentlemen?" said Ogumi, bustling in as if he'd had a full night's sleep, which he hadn't.

     I was looking at a photo-image map of Iapetus. I glanced up at Ogumi. "Where did the I-Base manager say those men found the artifact?"
     The small man elbowed Buffington aside and opened a desk drawer; he pulled out the message and scanned it. "About four hundred kilometers from the Base, east by northeast. Do you have an idea, Whitey?"
     "Maybe," I said. "Could you show me where I-Base is on this photo?"
     The SpaceHome president pointed to a spot almost exactly on the equator, and right at the boundary between the light and dark halves of the moon. I took the dividers and set them for four hundred kilometers on the scale at the bottom, then put one point at I-Base and swung an arc northward from due east. In a second, I stopped the other point in an hourglass-shaped patch of black. It was surrounded by a large expanse of pure white; this in turn was bordered by a distinct band of black. It was a striking feature. I looked at Ogumi with raised eyebrows.
     "I believe they call that 'The Bullseye,' Whitey."
     I nodded. "Apropos. And I suggest that we’ll find the other artifacts centered in similarly distinctive features on Titan, Dione and Enceladus. The artifact that really counts—a different one—will be found at a striking feature in or near the B-Ring, approximately 48,000 kilometers from the planetary surface."

(ed note: after a one-month trip in a freaking fusion torchship using a 0.1g brachistochrone trajectory, our hero arrives at Iapetus and gets to look at the artifact first hand)

     An hour later, considerably refreshed and with my scanty gear stowed in the room assigned to me, I walked into Reynolds' office again. He had his big safe open and a pair of heavy gloves on. "Here, Whitey, grab that other pair of gloves and give me a hand with this; the damn thing masses about twenty or thirty kilos, and it's tricky to move around. Must be gold or platinum alloy of some kind."
     Two minutes later the slab was sitting flat on the desk and I was staring avidly at it. My old mentor Professor Jensen would have been palpitating with ecstasy, but I was considerably more phlegmatic. I merely kept whispering "Damn, damn," under my breath as I drank it in.
     "You're only the fifth person to see it," Reynolds said quietly. "Of course, word is out all over base. …"
     I barely heard him. I had pored for hours over the transmitted pictures of the artifact, but the cold perfection before me was unnerving in its impact. It was a regular hexagon, just as pictured by Reynolds' transmission. The lines and circles were so hair-fine I had to move my head to catch the light right to see them. The surface gleamed with a beauty indescribable. I sat there with horripilations growing on the back of my neck, until Reynolds' voice brought me back to reality. He'd been leaning over my shoulder, and finally queried:

     "I recognize all the moons, but why did they leave out Phoebe?"
     I replied condescendingly: "Well, I can think of two good reasons, offhand. Either they didn't consider Phoebe part of the system, or else they didn't find it during their visit—or maybe they didn't include it because it would be a waste of platinum; Phoebe is a lot further out than Iapetus, isn't it?"
     Reynolds frowned. "That's three reasons,"
     A nitpicker. "Choose two good ones and go with them."

     I tried to sink back into rapt contemplation of the artifact; it felt so good just to sit there and gaze at it and reflect on the beings who might have made it. But alas, the manager was under full steam. "What do you SpaceHome experts make of this thing?"
     I let out a deep breath. "Okay, just a second while I take one measurement." I reached into my kit and pulled out a set of micrometer calipers with a thirty-centimeter extension bar.
     "Watch out you don't cut yourself,'" he said. "Those edges may only be ninety degrees, but they're sharp."
     I carefully measured the distance between opposite sides of the hexagon. The reading was one I'd memorized some time ago. Just to be sure, I measured another pair of sides. I pulled the calipers off and showed the cursor to Reynolds. "The magic number: 33.258 centimeters."
     His frown came back. "Why is that a magic number?"
     "Well," I used my pontifical voice, toned down in recognition of his amateur status, "those digital scans you sent us had good resolution, and we were reasonably confident about the relative dimensions; but we couldn't be sure of the absolute scale, So we made one assumption and some smart guesses," I put the calipers away. “And that one measurement was all I needed to verify our assumption."

     I gestured at the gleaming artifact. "The creators of that thing were adamant about the number six; much more so than meets the eye just looking at it. For instance, if you were to inscribe a circle in the hexagon, its diameter would be exactly six times that of Saturn's image in the center. And the image itself is exactly 5.543 centimeters across, which is exactly the equatorial diameter of Saturn divided by 612."
     I smiled at him. "There's a lot more." I reached into my kit to fish out a reticle magnifier. "All the orbits shown in the etching are spaced logarithmically—base six—keyed on the image diameter of Saturn."
     Placing the reticle on a portion of Iapetus' orbital arc, I bent down and squinted at the image. "This is just for my own curiosity." I moved the reticle to one of the symbols in the nearby apex. "The width of these lines, as far as I can judge, doesn't vary one iota." I looked up at him. "Guess what it is."
     He looked a bit irritated. "I wouldn't have the slightest idea."
     I ignored his frown, "As near as I can measure, it's about .0257 centimeters; but I'm willing to bet it's almost exactly .02565, because that happens to be Saturn's diameter divided by 615."
     He pursed his lips. "What does that mean?"
     "That they were consistent devils." I put the reticle away. "And it's one more indicator that the number six is of overriding importance in the message."

     "So what do you think the message is?"
     "We think it's two things. First, and most obvious, it says: 'Hey, there's someone else in the universe!' Second, we believe it's a road map, a set of directions showing how to find more artifacts, and especially how to find the real cache that could tell us who they are and where they come from—maybe even how to contact them."
     His frown must have been glued on. "So you think there are also artifacts on Titan, Dione, Enceladus, and somewhere in the B-Ring?" His finger pointed in turn to the images images opposite the apices.
     "Yes, we do," I nodded. "And by the way, that "somewhere" in the B-Ring is about 48,000 kilometers from the planetary surface; and it's probably the important location."
     "Why? Because of those marks in the middle of the little hexagon there?" He pointed to one of the three symbols at the apex opposite the B-ring site.
     "Exactly," I said.

     "So that's where the big cache is," he said, brightening.
     "Well, no, we don't think so," I said.
     His frown was back quickly. "Now you've lost me again."
     The man had no future in cryptology. I was patient. "Well, if their preoccupation with sixes means anything at all, it's that there must be a sixth location, a sixth cache." I gestured at the metal slab. "That missing spoke in Saturn's image and that unfilled apex shout the message loud and clear. And as surely as they were here, it's that sixth location which will contain the real find."
     Dawn finally broke on his face. "Then the B-Ring site …"
     "… will contain the roadmap to that cache," I finished. "Our final analysis of this artifact's message goes something like this: 'You are looking at one of four identical plates we've placed on Enceladus, Dione, Titan and Iapetus. At a certain location in the B-Ring is a fifth artifact; it will contain directions telling you how to find the sixth site, where the ultimate treasure will be located."

From SATURNALIA by Grant Callin (1984)

If The Stars Are Gods

In If The Stars Are Gods by Gregory Benford & Gordon Eklund, scientists receive a radioglyph (called The Puzzle) from Alpha Librae, a star about 77 light-years away from Sol. The diagram of a solar system on the right edge is clear enough, even though it indicates that the aliens are living on a gas giant. But the rest of the message does not make sense to the scientists.

Clutching at straws, the scientists send expedition to study life forms living in Jupiter's atmosphere. They turn out to be huge spherical beasts, which provide the key to the riddle. We humans use one system for numbers and an auxiliary system to measure angles. But spherical creatures might find it more natural to use an angular measure as their primary mathematical system. The easiest method is to set the value of Pi (π) to equal "one," though in the novel a more complicated system actually proved to be the solution.

The transition from ordinary numbers into angular numbers is indicated by the large arc in the radioglyph.


     “Vance here.”
     “I’ve got an idea we might work on. I think the Puzzle might be based on a different topological referent.” Mara’s voice lacked the usual cutting, illusive edge she took with Vance. Bradley leaned forward eagerly.
     “Well, I’ve tried some—”
     “I know, I did too. The point is there are too many choices to make, no way to single out anything. But those spheres—they have to be creatures, don’t you agree?—made me think. They’re probably bladder fish or something like that.”
     “Where’s the bladder? I’m not even sure they’re alive.”
     “Under high pressures a spherical shape is a good idea. Least surface, most volume. Best internal support against pressure differentials on the surface.”
     “I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before. It’s an obvious solution. Mother Nature didn’t have to go that far on Earth, that’s all. It was more profitable to make fins and teeth at the ocean bottom, and anyhow life on Earth never got away from bilateral symmetry, left and right.”
     “Okay, maybe. We’ll check with the biologists. But— so what?”
     “Imagine living down there. You’re perfectly round. Your surroundings are just clouds and variable flows of gas and water vapor. If you float, there’s no real sense of up and down—not a sensitive one, anyway. Now, suppose you’re Euclid. What kind of geometry do you make up?”
     Vance smiled. “Well, I suppose—Lobachevsky. Riemann. Geometry on a curved surface.”
     “So how would you count things?”
     “Well, in angular units, I guess.”
     “What we call angular units—that’s the point. To them, angles would be the natural set of numbers. A simple choice would be to set pi equal to one.”
     “Never mind trying it. I did. It doesn’t work. So our friends must be a little more sophisticated. After all, the first chunk of the Puzzle is in ordinary ratioiial numbers. That's how we could decipher it. But look at the picture—that circle arcing toward the left. Couldn’t that mean that the code was shifting from ordinary linear number systems to a different topological notation?”
     Vance frowned. “I suppose so. But which one?”
     “I don’t know. There are a lot of places we could start.”
     “We can try algorithms. There may be some fundamental identity our notation system has in common with theirs.”
     Vance sat frozen, rapt. Bradley leaned over and watched the young man write quick clear notes on a pad.

     “I don’t follow this,” Bradley said.
     “We’ll go through it in detail later, Bradley,” Mara said hurriedly. “Look at it this way. We measure the angles in a triangle one way, and we count apples another. Using one and two and three and so on seems natural to us, and angular coordinates—degrees, radians—aren’t. But the Alpha Libra signals may have it the other way around though. They live in a universe of clouds, with no straight lines anywhere. So they send the first part of their message in simple-minded notations, but then switched to ‘natural’ ways of talking when they got down to serious business. The metric curvature is arbitrary—”
     “Skip it,” Bradley said. “Vance, patch her into the computer if she needs it. You two work together. I’m going to talk to Corey.”

     “I’ve got it,” Vance said. He slapped a photo output in front of Bradley. “That transformation worked. I’ve got a decipherable message out of the next six thousand units in the Puzzle.”
     “What does it say?”
     “Mathematical theorems, mostly. Seems to be building up basic concepts of length and angle. There’s some sort of talking about motion and the idea of differential processes.”

From IF THE STARS ARE GODS by Gregory Benford & Gordon Eklund (1977)

Danny Dunn and the Voice from Space

Roland Volz pointed out to me a fictional radioglyph that I had overlooked. In Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams' Danny Dunn and the Voice from Space (1967) our hero and his family tags along with Professor Bullfinch to England. There Bullfinch's new invention the cryostat is used in Project GNOME, a SETI experiment.

The experiment exceeds their wildest dream, as they pick up a signal from a planet in the 61 Cygni system.

The signal is a series of 559 ones and zeros. The scientists pull their hair out trying to derive a message mathematically. Danny Dunn (and you the reader) have already figured out this is a graphic message, not a mathematical one. The fact that 559 is the product of the prime numbers 13 and 43 is a dead giveaway. Aha, a Radioglyph!

Arranging it as 13 rows of 43 digits gives a random pattern of dots, seen above. Later they try 43 rows of 13 digits and get the far more interesting messages shown on the right.

They figure at the top is our solar system, a star surrounded by nine planets (back in 1967 Pluto was still considered to be a planet). In the middle is two stars and one planet, obviously the 61 Cygni binary star system and the alien homeworld. In between is something that looks suspiciously like a rocket ship traveling from 61 Cygni to Sol.

And at the bottom is what looks like a hammer-head alien clacking its pinchers at you in a menacing manner. Oh noes! An alien invasion!

However Danny Dunn calms everybody down by pointing out a good way of saying "We Come In Peace" is by showing there ain't no weapons in our hands/pinchers/tentacles/whatever.

Physical Media


Of course if email fails you, there is always physical mail. Eric Burgess and Richard Hoagland approached Carl Sagan with the idea of attaching a physical plaque to the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes. These probes were going to achieve solar escape velocity and were on a one-way trip out of the solar system.

The plaque is engraved with many interesting pieces of information, including the position of Terra relative to several pulsars. You can read about the details here.

Of course, since Pioneer 10 is only poking along at a paltry 12 km/s, it will take a bit more than 30,000 years before it passes closer than three light years to any star (Ross 248 actually). But it is the principle of the thing.

In any event, Pioneer 10 is shown being vaporized by a disruptor beam from a Klingon Bird of Prey in the movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.


When the next to space probes achieved solar escape velocity, they too had messages attached. Voyager 1 and 2 had golden records containing sounds and images. You can read about the details here.

Voyager 1 was intercepted by the alien in the movie Starman.

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