A new blog, apparently language-oriented, called Tenser, said the Tensor is beginning a series about linguistics in science fiction with a post on a good H. Beam Piper story:

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 Notebooks are computerized; sketchbooks have been replaced by tablets.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”.


  1. I suppose you’re right. I really ought to get around to reading some Bester one of these days. –And dammit, my linkroll is already over 170 entries long! Who, oh who will stand athwart the web, yelling, “Stop!”?)

  2. I remember reading a SF story (a long time ago, so I forget by whom) in which an Earth explorer stumbles upon a canyon on Mars where the sounds of a long extinct Martian language are caught in perpetual echos. Unfortunately, somebody makes a noise and the sounds of the perpetual echo are lost forever …
    I’d much appreciate it if anyone can help identify this story.

  3. Well, I’m planning to read “Omnilingual” if I ever come across a copy. But then I’ve read summaries before, which is why I want to read it (that, and it’s on this list from the sci.lang FAQ).
    I recognized the title, and would have remarked on it if you hadn’t alerted me to the first post. The Demolished Man may have been awarded the first Hugo, but I don’t recall liking it much. The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!) is a good deal more engaging.
    Note that the blog links in the (his? her?) sidebar provide a pretty strong hint of language-orientation, too.

  4. Algys Budrys!
    Cordwainer Smith!
    And lots of others!

  5. I didn’t mean to be quite so mysterious. I’ve just updated my About page with some info about me and my plans for the blog. You can read it here:
    As for reading Bester, allow me to quote Martin, the geek on “The Simpsons”:

    Martin: As your president, I would demand a science fiction library, featuring an ABC of the overlords of the genre. Asimov! Bester! Clarke!
    Student: What about Ray Bradbury?
    Martin: [dismissively] I’m aware of his work…

    Bester didn’t write much, but his two best-known novels (The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination were very influential.

  6. Sheila Finch wrote some interesting stories about a Xenolinguists’ Guild that appeared in the Magazive of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Haven’t read anything of hers recently, though.

  7. Of course, Piper didn’t know that you could parse text using statistics even if you know nothing about the underlying language, while it would never have occurred to him that alien science might be quite different from earth’s. With enough data, you might well be able to build up real statistical relationships between elements of text and the things or images associated with them.
    As for baibai – the modern Chinese words for buy and sell – mai3 and mai4 differ only in tone and look almost the same. So, it shouldn’t be too shocking if they are homophones in modern Japanese.

  8. it would never have occurred to him that alien science might be quite different from earth’s
    Of course it would — he was a science fiction writer! His point was that however different alien science was, it would have to reckon with the same universe, which means the same set of elements. If they hadn’t figured out the periodic table, they presumably wouldn’t have gotten much of a civilization going.

  9. John Cowan says:

    “Omnilingual” is now in the public domain, so back in 2009 I made an edited version of it that brings it up to date. Now with extra added Mayan!

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