Appendix B: Cantative Alien Speech

Appendix B. The Eye of the Beholder

See below for a video slide show explaining the invention of an alien that uses biological radio to talk. The talk shows a sentient alien that speaks with “meat-radio” using an invented radio language, as featured in the novel The Eye of the Beholder

In the video  I reclassify languages in terms of bandwidth and codec (coder-decoder) algorithms. This is an application of communications theory, that discipline that makes radio and the Internet viable, to linguistics. The foundation of human language is syntax and malleable vocabulary. All other grammatical details – phonemes, case, declinations, etc. – are ad hoc and arbitrary. 

Language as we know it is an evolutionary miracle – Universal Grammar only evolved once on Earth – and could explain the Fermi Paradox. 


B1. Radio vs Audio Speech 

Xenolinguistics – the study of non-human language – will likely require new techniques. Alien language may not be constrained by the sound vibrations or even use words. Communication Theory provides many models for alien languages. 

The Psyches can hear in the audio spectrum, including ultrasound. However, since they originally evolved in an aquatic environment, they do not have the capacity to speak using sound waves. Instead, they make simple squeaks and chirps, emotional expressions and alarm calls. 

Psyche speech takes place in the radio spectrum, an exaptation of their electric shock and sensing organs. The Psyches cannot understand human spoken audio language, just as humans cannot hear and understand in the radio spectrum. 

There are two language barriers between Psyches and humans: radio vs. audio and cantative (musical) vs. spoken words. Although the Psyches have sophisticated electronics technology, they do not render radio signals in the audio spectrum (as humans do). Humans build radio gear to listen to Psyche radio speech and translate it (poorly) into English words. In the novel, Cortez Cozby invents a way to do this. 


B2. Musical Syntax 

Human languages are built with phonemes (consonants, vowels and tones) and use word order (the syntax of a well-formed sentence) to aid understanding. Phonemes shape words and meaning (some click-using languages of S.W. Africa use more than 100 phonemes, whereas English has 45 and Hawaiian has only 13). English employs subject-verb-object (SVO) sentence structure; other languages use SOV (Japanese), or VSO (Hawaiian). 

Both speech and music are systems of organized sound. Phonemes in speech are analogous to notes in music. The alien Cantative language of the Psyches is tonal. Instead of word order syntax, pitch order is employed. 

In English there are eight parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections. In Cantative, each part of speech is arbitrarily assigned a specific tonal frequency, such as (for example) the eight notes of a major scale in Western music. 

Cantative speech is sung as a melody, with random word order that serves the music (instead of regular subject-verb-object syntax, as in English). As with human music, Psyche melodies are durable and maintain a recognizable identity in spite of transformations by different individuals. 

The Cantative language accommodates musical complexities such as notes, melodies, texture, dynamics, phrasing, rhythms, etc. Tempo and rhythm variations communicate nuances in the emotional spectrum (e.g. happy, sad, angry, scared, tender, excited); loudness conveys intensity or urgency. Higher or lower octaves indicate declarative, interrogative, imperative, or exclamatory utterances. Timbre (tonal quality or color) indicates singular vs. amount of plurality. Variations in note attack-duration-decay indicate gender (male, female, hermaphroditic, neuter). Tremolo (rapid volume variation) and vibrato (rapid pitch variation) indicate tense (past, present or future) and aspect (whether an action is considered, certain but impending, ongoing, or completed). Chords with multiple notes (consonance vs. dissonance) indicate complex moods (truthful vs. deceptive, desirable vs. objectionable vs. ambivalent vs. appropriate, certain vs. improbable, premeditated vs. accidental, in control vs. out of control, etc.). 

Psyche musical variations are analogous to free jazz played by several performers who are constrained by predetermined harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic structures. Like human music, Psyche speech is judged for appropriateness and beauty, similar to prosody (rhythm and intonation) in human speech and poetry. As with humans, Psyche eloquence is an important way to gain social status. 

Psyche musical speech, with random word order, is analogous to Finnish, where words have "tags" that carry most of the meaning; Finnish sentences use fairly free-form syntax. Instead of tags, Psyches use note variations and pitch to convey meaning. 


B3. Speech Bandwidth 

Bandwidth constrains the amount of data that can be transmitted using a particular communications channel. Raw data is distinct from the compressed information content of the communication. 

Human speech uses the audio spectrum, which has low bandwidth. To compensate for this, language vocabulary packs words with commonly understood meanings; in effect, all nouns and verbs are complex metaphors. The word "horse" connotes an animal species, very different from the similar word "house." Thus, spoken language is able to communicate large amounts of information using a few words (low bandwidth). This may have been the primary advantage of Homo sapiens over our other hominid cousins, including the Neanderthals. 

The Psyche aliens who speak Cantative communicate with biological radio (modulated to convey tonal information, as AM and FM radio is modulated to carry speech and music). High frequency radio has greater bandwidth than audio speech, allowing the aliens to send a picture of a specific horse rather than using a generic word for horse. The aliens use vocabulary (for concepts, verbs, etc.) and freely mix words with images, etc. However, Psyches cannot employ facial expressions and do not use body language to augment communications. 

High radio throughput allows multiple individuals in a group of Psyches to speak and listen at the same time ("full duplex" allows simultaneous communication in both directions). Thus, the aliens can form a cohesive group mind of high intelligence (similar to how the left brain talks to the right brain over the corpus callosum). However, Psyche reproductive ambitions are individualistic. Aliens often bend the truth, or lie when it suits them. 


B4. Codec Data Compression and Decompression 

In human speech, data compression is achieved by using a standardized syntax and vocabulary, specific to a known language. Speech uses a compression process that conveys large amounts of information in simple sentences. Understanding requires the listener to decode syntax and recall vocabulary definitions in real time. An extended conversation involves remembering the meaning of many connected sentences. This is an amazing achievement and has occurred only once in the history of life on Earth. The slightest speech impairment is obvious to a native speaker. 

With Psyche alien speech, data compression is achieved with codecs (coder-decoder algorithms). A codec encodes a data stream or signal for transmission or storage — or decodes it for playback or editing. Codecs may be lossless (no information thrown away) or lossy (reduce quality to achieve greater compression). Examples of common lossy codecs are MP3 (audio, music) and JPEG (images). In effect, human languages are understood by using lossy codecs for syntax and vocabulary. For a human adult, learning a new language is a code breaking exercise. 

The Psyche alien speech employs several types of lossy codecs, depending on the type of information conveyed. The Music Codec is fast and is used to convey words in Cantative speech (e.g. the word "mountain" means a massive uplift of land). The Image Codec is slower but can be used to send a unique image (e.g. a specific mountain with a snow-capped peak and forested slopes). Each codec is a commonly understood standard, analogous to using a different human language. For humans trying to understand alien speech, decrypting a codec is similar to breaking a cypher. 

However, knowing an alien codec is not equivalent to translating alien speech. In addition to musical syntax, learning alien vocabulary is essential. There are three ways to acquire unknown vocabulary: 1) by inference (e.g. observing mathematical definitions and operations); 2) Rosetta Stone text comparison; 3) a native speaker informant. 

For dramatic reasons, the latter is used in the novel. Besides, a living language is best learned from a native speaker. 


© G.B. Immega 2014