How would you decipher texts in an unknown language, written in an unknown writing system? H. Beam Piper’s short story “Omnilingual”, originally published in 1957, is about an archaeological expedition on Mars, exploring the remains of a dead civilization. The expedition’s linguist is confronted with a seemingly insurmountable problem: texts in an ancient language with no remaining speakers, and for which no bilingual text exists. What’s an Earth linguist on Mars to do?
The Tensor says “Fair warning: I plan to spoil the ending,” so You Have Been Warned should you decide to follow the link. (But let’s face it, how likely are you to read the story if you didn’t read it as an sf-obsessed kid, like, er, some people I know?)
I say “apparently language-oriented” because the second post is about loan words in Chinese (and contains the endearing parenthetical remark “note to self: compose rant about the Japanese writing system”). The first post explains the blog title, which needs no explanation to any true sf fan (for who can be a true sf fan without knowing the novels of Alfred Bester?). At any rate, welcome to Blogovia, Tensor! I look forward to the rest of the series (and to the Japanese-writing rant).
Update (2009). John Cowan has updated “Omnilingual”:
My edits, then, are intended to modernize the work, to help the 2009 reader not stumble over the details. Notebooks are computerized; sketchbooks have been replaced by tablets. Gender equality and the metric system are taken for granted. Smoking isn’t even mentioned. I wedged in a mention of the Classic Maya decipherment of the 1980s (a counterexample to the story’s thesis!), but let one of the characters dismiss it as irrelevant. I set the story, as Piper did, forty years in the future, but that is now 2049 rather than 1996. There are fewer This Is Science Fiction flags, so “Earth” instead of “Terra”, “U.N.” instead of “Federation Government”.