It had not previously occurred to Enoch, but he started to realize he was teaching Lazir baby talk. He felt kind of foolish for a minute, then understood why there is such a thing as baby talk.
The English language -- Enoch guessed it was true of every natural human language -- is very complex, with word endings and helper words and word order conveying subtle nuances of meaning. Recalling his Russian class in college, Enoch realized it's probably even more complicated in other languages.
Enoch once heard about an attempt by computer scientists to create a completely artificial language -- the name "Prolog" came to mind -- for communicating the ordinary things people talk about, but the effort foundered. There was just no logical way to handle all the subtleties that even the programmers wanted to communicate.
When a child is just getting started and eager to know (and say) everything, the subtleties of grammatical nuance are probably too complex. So we start out with a simplified grammar, nouns and verbs and little else. He supposed Pidgin trade languages are similar. Without even thinking about it, Enoch had done that with Lazir.
But if Enoch was going to teach Lazir to speak good English, he was going to have to deal with all these nuances and subtleties. English as a second language. Hey, that was what his Aunt Becky was doing in her trips to China, teaching ESL. Enoch wondered if she could give him some pointers. He wasn't sure he even remembered her address or phone number. He started to regret not paying more attention to family relationships. Aunt Becky went with some kind of organization; the skills they used had to be well-known enough so he could get some materials on the internet.
But this was not the time to spend hours surfing. He had a guest to entertain and teach and hopefully learn from. Where to begin?
While Enoch was pondering the situation, Lazir's voice box popped up, "Is there a problem? You seem quiet." Like that, complete with the rising tone on the question, and a falling tone at the end. Technically, English is not a tone language, but punctuation is typically conveyed tonally. That's what makes robots sound like robots, no tonal inflection. Lazir's voice box started out like that, but now suddenly he had full inflection. Plus some words Enoch didn't teach him.
"Where did you learn that?" Enoch demanded, a bit flustered.
"Learn what?" Perfect quizzical intonation.
"How to make your voice go up and down like that."
"We found some sound and video on the internet," he replied. We've been training our translation software. We couldn't have gotten started without your help. Thank you very much."
Enoch still couldn't see Lazir's face, but it almost sounded like a smile on that last thank-you.
"We could still use some help on spelling," Lazir added. "Like your name. Cee-aitch seems to have several different pronunciations, and it's hard to figure out which. How do you know?"
"You can't," Enoch replied. "You just gotta memorize 'em. In normal English it's always 'itch' as in 'which', but we have a lot of borrow words from other languages, which are typically imported with their original spelling. Like my name. I think it was originally Hebrew and pronounced something like 'khahn-OAKh', and then it was transliterated into Greek (with a different alphabet), where they dropped the initial gutteral and changed the front vowel to sound more like 'hay', then it was transliterated into Latin where the final consonant was spelled with two letters, and then borrowed into English. But we have no 'ahkh' sound, so it gets hardened into a kay, and the final vowel became unaccented, which in English are all pronounced "uh". My dad is a preacher, so he favored Bible names for us kids. My sister's name is Hannah. That's also Hebrew, but easier to pronounce.
"Wow!" Lazir said. "Do you know a lot of..." Another pause.
Enoch thought to himself that a human would use a vocalized pause or filler like "um" here, but Lazir was using a computer for all his speech, and there is no such word in the dictionary, and it doesn't mean anything anyway.
Lazir resumed, "...I think the word is linguistics?"
"Not really. I did a voice synthesizer program once -- something like your voice box, only much more primitive -- and I had to learn about formants. But the general theory of language and translation I know very little about."
"The frequency components in various vowels and consonants. It turns out that the shape of the voice passage -- how we hold our mouth when speaking -- filters out some of the sound components, causing it to have a different sound energy distribution. Linguists call those 'formants' I suppose because they form the sound. Other parts of linguistic theory deal with the history of languages and with translation issues, but I don't know any of that stuff."
"But for spelling..." Enoch got up and went to his desk on the other side of the room, "we all use a dictionary." He took his desk dictionary off the bookshelf and opened it in front of Lazir. "See, here is how each word is spelled, and there is its pronunciation, and there is what it means. You can find dictionaries like this online, but not always with all the same information."
"Can I borrow this?" Lazir asked. "Or if it's on-line, maybe you can scan a page or two and email it back to my colleagues?"
"No problem, take it with you. I hardly ever use it any more, what with a spell-checker in my word processor and a much bigger dictionary online."
"Is it OK if I send it back with Meekya? He'll come get it. That way we can continue learning here."
"Like now?" Enoch closed the book and started toward the door. By the time he heard Lazir's affirmative, he could already see Meekya coming around the corner of the house. Enoch went to the door and held out the book. Meekya took it and backed away a few steps, then turned and bounded out of sight, back toward the space ship.
It was obvious, thought Enoch, returning to the living room, that there is a lot of communication going on between Lazir and his comrades that Enoch was not privy to. Meekya had to have left the ship before Lazir asked to borrow it in order to be there so soon. He wondered who was in charge, Lazir, or one of the other guys. Now is as good a time as any to ask.
"So tell me," he said, "who is in charge of your team?"
"In charge?" Of course it was just an electronic voice coder, but Lazir (or whoever was driving it) already had very good control over the intonation. He -- or rather it -- sounded like he didn't really understand the question. "What does 'in charge' mean?"
"Who gives the orders? Who makes the decisions, you, or one of the other guys?"
"You ask that like you think it's just one of us telling the others to do what they do not want to do. We don't work that way. Everybody participates in the decisions. They are -- what's the word -- righteous decisions, so everybody agrees." Lazir paused a second. "Is 'righteous' the right word?"
"What if somebody disagrees?"
"Why would they disagree?" Lazir seemed unable to grasp that idea. "We are a team. Everybody is committed to the success of the..." Enoch detected a slight pause, like Lazir was searching for a word, then "mission. Everybody has access to the same information and the same decision criteria, so all the decisions are agreed by everybody. 'Disagree' means some people want one thing, others want something else mutually exclusive, right? That would be -- we don't have a word for it, but..." Lazir paused, probably consulting his team members. "Wait, the dictionary just arrived, they will look for a suitable word."
"Try 'selfish', said Enoch. "Selfish means wanting what's good for yourself at the expense of others."
"I suppose that might work." Lazir paused again. "But if it benefits one person only and not everybody equally, then all suffer."
"Huh?" Now Enoch was confused.
Obviously they did not understand the fundamental fact of human nature, that you look out for Number One. Let everybody tend to their own interests. Teamwork happens when you forge a win-win collaboration, where everybody benefits, but you still need a team leader to move things along when one person forgets the mission objective or gets too selfish. Was Lazir trying to tell him that nobody did that in their culture? That they didn't even have a word for it? That was awesome.
"So does everybody know everything, like telepathy?"
"No, but communication between us is much more rapid than your speech."
"Next question: Who is 'us'? Where did you come from? Do you have a name for your selves as a group?"
"The other..." slight pause, then "people call us 'Ghibber', something like that. It means 'people' in our language. We came from one of the stars..." -- another slight pause -- "do stars have names in English? Maybe I could show you on a star map." Longer pause. "Oh wait, you can't see it from here." Another pause. "Do you know that some of the stars are suns with their own planets, the way earth circles the sun?"
"Yes, we know that. Well, we haven't seen any planets yet, just observed a wobble in some of the stars that could be explained by a very large planet. Nothing small enough to be habitable." Enoch was proud of his knowledge of recent astronomical discoveries. He went on, "In fact we have astronomers searching the sky for radio waves coming from civilizations like yourselves. It's called 'Alien Intelligence Search' and thousands of people run the analysis programs on their computers."
"Do you run it on your computer too?"
Enoch decided it would be bad form to be caught in a lie to the aliens. "No, I didn't think they would succeed."
"Not yet. At least not that I know of."
"What are they looking for?"
"Repeating patterns in the radio spectrum. You can have your guys look it up and see for yourselves." Enoch gave him the link. It was an easy one to remember.
After a few seconds Lazir said, "My team tells me the internet connection has gotten very slow. Is this normal?"
"Da--" Enoch caught himself. "No, it's the service provider. They monitor bandwidth. I asked for the maximum bandwidth, and they deny throttling it down, but they've been caught doing it to high-usage customers. Wait a minute."
Enoch went over to his desk and dug out the contract, then called their service number. "This is Enoch Maxwell, account number 141592, I'm experiencing a slowdown on my internet connection. I read last month that you guys are throttling high-usage customers. Can you tell me if that's what you are doing to me?" Pause. "Can you connect me to somebody who knows? I see. Would you please connect me to the business office? Thank you." Enoch would just buy some more bandwidth. "Hello, I want to convert my account to ten thousand gigabits per month. What does that cost? You can't do it because of the other customers? There aren't any other customers out here. OK, I want to start up ten new maximum bandwidth accounts, all on the same downlink. You have my credit card number, start immediately. This is an international emergency. Yes, all using the same password. Oh, OK, I can go change it myself." Enoch wrote down the access information, then hung up and pointed his browser to their control panel to start up each account. Yes, the download speed was up to par on each new account.
Then he turned to Lazir. "Did your guys see the new account setups? That should last for a while." They must have an awesome computer to use up so much bandwidth in less than a single day. If necessary, he could sign up for some more accounts.
Lazir then asked, "Would it help to rotate the traffic between the new accounts, so no single account gets all of it?"
These guys are really sharp, Enoch thought. "Yes, that's a great idea."
They can run at full modem speed, but the host would see it as different
accounts, and hopefully not throttle any of them for hogging the system.
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