Oct 28, 2012

The Languages of Exode

In his novel The Languages of Pao, Jack Vance described the transformation of the people living on the planet Pao by a kind of social engineering project that involved introducing new languages.

When I was first discovering Isaac Asimov I read The Feeling of Power, a story that was written just when the existence of electronic computing devices were starting to have wide impacts of human society. Asimov had fun with the idea that people might stop doing calculations themselves and become totally dependent on calculating devices.

In the same Asimov short story collection where I read The Feeling of Power there was a story called Profession. In this story Asimov created a depiction of the future in which "learning machines" would transfer knowledge and skills directly into human brains. The main character in the story cannot be "programmed" in this way and he feels like a freak and a failure. However, at the end of the story he discovers that he is one of a special minority of humans who, rather than be programmed by machine, can exercise his capacity for original thought and become one of the precious few humans who will discover and create new things.

human genetic engineering
During the past century science fiction authors have had great fun speculating about how human existence might be altered by changes in how we use language. Many science fiction authors are not content to limit their efforts to stories about humans. In the novel Assignment Nor'Dyren, Sydney Van Scyoc imagined an alien species that wanted to change its culture and so modified its language in an attempt to change how people would behave.

I've previously mentioned that while the Buld (a people similar to we Earthlings, but slightly altered genetically) use spoken language like we do, in general they do not make use of a written language.

I enjoy science fiction stories that tackle the issue of how humanity might change following a self-imposed "design change". Sydney Van Scyoc and M. A. Foster are examples of authors who took on the challenge of trying to imagine how we might shape ourselves through genetic engineering.  In Exode, the Prelands are human, but they have been significantly modified through a long process of artificial selection and they no longer use spoken language in the way that we view as characteristic of humans.

The rest of this blog post elaborates on the languages in Exode, a story set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe. Exode is under construction and collaborating authors are welcome.

Like other stories set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe, Exode is a story in which we humans are relatively late arrivals upon the stage. About a billion years ago on a planet in a distant galaxy the Huaoshy developed a technologically advanced civilization. Unlike other technology-wielding species, the Huaoshy managed to survive and spread, first between the stars of their home galaxy then outward to thousands of other galaxies. Long ago the Huaoshy transformed themselves into a form of artificial life that is as different from our human form as we humans are from a bacterium.

language lateralization
The spreading Huaoshy influence reached our galaxy about seven million years ago. That influence arrived in the form of the pek; artificial lifeforms that are less radically transformed than the Huaoshy themselves; we might comfortably think of the pek as robots. In the way that we humans might send a robotic submarine to explore the floor of the ocean, the Huaoshy deploy the pek as the means by which the Huaoshy explore and consolidate control over distant galaxies. Soon after reaching Earth, the pek took some great apes off of Earth and "cultured" them on distant planets.

One of the long-debated issues in human evolution is how early the capacity for spoken language arose in the great ape lineage leading to humans. The first human-like apes that used a spoken language lived on a distant planet near the galactic core; such Earth-derived creatures are called Genesauts and in Exode, the most prevalent Genesaunts are known as Prelands. With the help of the pek, some of those language-using apes became the first Interventionists and Overseers. Gradually, almost imperceptively, gene flow began from the Genesaunts back to the planet Earth and in time our human ancestors on Earth attained the ability to use human language. In essence, the human species is an artificial construct arising from the process by which the pek "domesticated" primates on distant planets.

What I've said above about the origin of human language should not be taken to mean that we humans came to use language as the Huaoshy do. The Huaoshy long ago abandoned their biological form and they make use of much more advanced modes of information exchange than any human language. Human language, as we know it, is an extension of naturally-evolved primate abilities, but it is viewed as a hopelessly inefficient means of communication by the pek. The Huaoshy find it very difficult to even pay attention to primitive creatures like we humans and our quaint vocalizations. The Huaoshy rely on the pek to function as an essentially automated system by which primitive creatures like we humans can be transformed into more advance forms of life with communications abilities that are more like those used by the Huaoshy.

The Exode story is set in our time, but the Prelands, subjected to extensive genetic engineering by the pek, have almost completely abandoned the use of spoken language. However, some of the Prelands have been relatively slow in abandoning spoken language; the Preland population of the planet Hemmal provide a good example of this. The pek make use of worlds like Hemmal as training grounds for Interventionists: those Genesaunts who are sent to Earth with the intention that they can gradually shape Earthlings into a biological form that will eventually merge successfully into a galaxy-wide Genesaunt Culture.
Most Genesaunts live in cultures where the people lack the ability to pass their language along to their descendants. With rare exceptions, Genesaunts have been genetically altered so as to be hermaphroditic. There are no males or females in the conventional sense and all individuals produce two kinds of gametes and have a uterus. Genesaunts have been engineered so as to give birth when the embryo is very small, like marsupials do. In general, Genesaunts never become aware that they are pregnant. When a pregnant genesaunt comes to term, a pek will manage the birth while the mother sleeps and take the newborn Genesaunt to a pek-managed facility where the children are raised by pek. The pek who function as surrogate parents are in complete control over which languages are learned by young Genesaunts. Upon passing through adolescence the young Genesaunts gradually merge into mainstream adult Genesaunt Culture. Since the pek adopt the conventional Preland body form, most Prelands do not make a significant distinction between the period of their pre-adult years under the guidance of the pek and their adult years.

For Prelands, language learning is a very different matter than for we Earthlings. Juvenile Prelands have some capacity for speech, but most adults are nearly mute. There is no physical impediment to speech, but Preland culture usually imposes no opportunity or benefit for Prelands to speak. Prelands communicate efficiently by what they think of as telepathy. Large regions of a Preland's brain can "resonate" to match the activity of a fellow Preland's brain. In practice, this allows Preland members of a cultural group to essentially share conscious states. This neural resonance is made possible by the fact that Preland brains are host to swarms of nanoscopic devices (nanites) that can communicate using hierion technology. Prelands take for granted the existence of their pek servants and they never give a thought to the nanite technology that has been provided to them by the pek.

Prelands have some distinctive physical features. For example, in Prelands the typical human adult teeth never develop; Preland adults retain the "baby teeth" and have small mouths and a child-like jaw morphology.

Juvenile Prelands are spoken to by their pek caregivers, and Preland adults retain a fairly sophisticated ability to process and understand spoken language, however, they have essentially no capacity to read, write or communicate their own ideas using spoken words.

As mentioned above, the pek control which languages are heard by juvenile Prelands. In general, each planet with a Preland population uses one language that is spoken on Earth. For example, American English is spoken on the planet Hemmal. This choice of language is made systematically so as to assure that every human language spoken on Earth is used on at least one Preland world. Earthly languages that are spoken by large numbers of Earthlings are used on multiple Preland worlds, essentially assuring that every major dialect is familiar to a population of Prelands. What is of more importance to most Prelands is that these populations of Prelands are also made familiar with aspects of the Earthly cultures that share their language. This process of familiarization generally begins with pek caretakers of the juvenile Prelands telling their wards stories and heroic epics that reflect actual Earth history.

This extensive passing of Earthly culture to worlds of the galactic core is made possible by the fact that Earth is under constant Observation. The pek are automatically kept informed about events on Earth.

Buld Clan
While Preland brain structure has been significantly altered so as to facilitate nanite-mediated communication, the Bulds are only slightly modified from the form of contemporary humans on Earth. Bulds retain the normal human ability to read and write, although most Buld cultures do not make routine use of these skills. Bulds have a limited amount of capacity for nanite-mediated synchronization of brain activity, with most of the neural synchronization that does occur between the Buld taking place outside of their conscious awareness.

The image to the right shows the major regions of the Buld brain where there are high levels of nanites (yellow, Buld normal, top). The "patient" (bottom) is a "false" Buld who has reverted to the Earth human brain pattern. The Buld populations of worlds like Hemmal are like the Prelands: unaware of the existence of nanites. A subgroup of the Bulds are the "scholars" who are at least aware of the biological difference between typical "true" Buld and the "false" Buld. The major engineered genetic differences between the Buld and Earth humans are all determined by a synthetic chromosome that is unique to the Buld. In each generation, a few "false" Buld lose the extra chromosome and revert to the normal human chromosome set and brain structure.

The "true" Buld can only read with difficulty since they usually suffer from a form of nanite-induced dyslexia. The "false" Buld have no problem reading, but they are often culturally isolated from the small Buld subpopulation that makes use of written language. In general, the Buld "scholars" on worlds like Hemmal try to quickly identify newborn "false" Buld, make sure that they learn to read and write and recruit them into the ranks of the scholarly class.

The Buld Clan originated long ago as those human Genesaunts who were provided with spaceships (generation ships that can travel between stars at nearly the speed of light) by the pek. Many Buld now live on planets such as Hemmal. The on-planet Buld scholars originated many thousands of years ago as part of a Buld effort to understand the origins of humans.

For the story Exode, a particularly important cultural group of Genesaunts are the Interventionists. Interventionists are a Buld Clan subgroup that is not allowed to exist on planets with a Preland population. In general, Prelands reside on worlds that have been more-or-less successfully terraformed over the course of the past seven million years. Interventionists usually make do with less hospitable planets and planetoids. For example, Oib is a large asteroid orbiting about 100 million kilometers from the orbit of Hemmal. There is an Interventionist base inside Oib and this is where Parthney goes to be trained for his mission to Earth.

The interventionists have learned to isolate themselves from the pek. This allows some "true" Buld to live at places like Oib without having their brains colonized by swarms of nanites, thus preventing the nanite-induced dyslexia that inflicts the Buld who live among the pek. However, "true" Buld are dependent on pek for successful reproduction. This makes it a continual struggle for the Interventionists to maintain a stable population: they must continually recruit new members from the mainstream ranks of the Buld. Highly prized among the Interventionists are the "false" Buld who are essentially Earth-normal humans. The pek are careful to make sure that the "false" Buld never have a chance to become to numerous.

So, these are the conditions under which Parthney and Kach grow up on Hemmal as two false Buld. At an early age Kach is recruited by Buld "scholars" and she becomes committed to learning about the Prelands of Hemmal. Kach learns to read and write both English and the "old language" of the Buld Clan.

Growing up on Hemmal, Parthney resists being recruited by the Buld "scholars" and so he reaches adulthood without becoming a skilled user of written language. He can speak and understand English but he never becomes very good at using written English. When he decides to pass the story of his life on to his grandchildren, he leaves them a spoken account of his life. The recording device that Parthney uses is a hierion-based device that functions by means of the type of "telepathic" brain resonance that is used by Genesaunts. This communications method is not a very efficient way to share Parthney's story with the people of Earth. When Parthney's grandson Izhiun decides to leave a copy Parthney's story on Earth, he wants to find a way to make sure that the story can be easily accessed by Earthlings.

As mentioned previously, when Izhiun is on Earth he finds Hana's long-lost husband who is a writer. Izhiun leaves a version of Parthney's story with Hana's husband. Hana's husband translates Parthney's story into written form.

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