Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Writing of a Different Mind

Wow it's November. I didn't post any entries for the entire month of October. Me bad. So I figure I return to this long-neglected blog and writing about something different for a change.

I am a huge science fiction fan. I especially like topics related to space and space exploration, and the news of more and more rocky exoplanets had me thinking about astrobiology or perhaps even xenolinguistics. If there are intelligent and sentient species out there, would they have writing systems, and if so, how would they look like?

For one I am a huge skeptic of UFO's as alien crafts so I am tossing out right away all the claims of "hieroglyphs" on supposed artifacts recovered in various Roswell-like incidents. Instead this is going to be a purely theoretical discussion and exploration.

Before we even start to think about alien languages and writing systems, we need to think about, well, how the aliens think and communicate. Here on Earth, humans communicate using sounds, primarily consonants and vowels but also pitch and clicks. Therefore all human writing systems always encode sound in various degrees. Even writing systems claimed as "ideographic" or "logographic" like Chinese do have roots in phonetic representation.

Now, imagine a species that communicates using non-sonic means. One possibility is communication via light. In that scenario, this species would have a light-emitting organ that generate light pulses in a certain range in the electromagnetic spectrum. Each recognizable frequency would represent a basic unit in their "language". Writing system is a way to record ephemeral communication into a more permanent form by a certain encoding scheme, so in the case of this species, their writing will encode light. Instead of "phonograms" (glyphs that represent sounds), maybe they'll employ "photoglyphs" (fyi the word "photograms" already mean something in photography) which would represent frequencies considered to have meaning in their language.

Polarization, the direction of the light wave oscillation, is also another property of light, and might also be encoded in this system. However, like tones among humans, perhaps some cultures of this species would use polarization to distinguish words while others might use it as a extra-linguistic information such as emphasis or subtext.

Another species might have echolocation capabilities and communicate via sonic means like songs or clicks like cetaceans (dolphins, whales, etc). This means that just be focusing their sound "beams" they can visualize three-dimension structures. So it is possible that signs in their writing is three-dimensional. To human eyes, their writing would appear to be abstract sculptures. Like our two-dimensional scripts, shape and position will carry certain meanings or sounds, but depth of indentation or protrusions can also carry linguistic values as well.

The material on which this species's writing system is inscribed might also affect how information is presented. For example, texture of the surface might encode information. Some beams can even penetrate certain materials so there might be nested levels or "shells" of writing inside one another. Echo might also come into play in this writing system, as certain materials might generate echoes that would represent yet another level of meaning, a phenomenon perhaps exploited by the poets of this species.

Another possibility could be a purely chemical-based language. Because chemicals are less transient than light or sound, it is possible that instead of encoding the language in a stable medium, the species could invent a technology to capture the communication chemicals that can be released later by replicating the compounds from the captured ones. Therefore in this scenario, the writing system is not an encoding mechanism, but a purely record/replay mechanism. It might not even be a writing system at all.

While it was a lot of fun coming up with this crazy stuff, whatever imagined species and their languages I can come up with will no doubt be nowhere near as amazing as real extraterrestrial species that we encounter in the future. However, I kind of doubt we'll have any alien contact in my life time. I'll just be happy with some bacteria on Mars or Europa. Just to know there's life out there.