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Eco: Images for Aliens

Physical_Data

Georgia Guidestone, closeup of the detail stone, with physical dimensions and weight of the guidestones. The Georgia Guidestones are a granite monument erected by anonymous philanthropists in 1980 in Elbert County, Georgia, USA. The Guidestones include 10 guidelines inscribed in eight modern languages and four ancient tongues, including Babylonian, Classical Greek, Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Photo taken by KiltedEditor71 in August 2011 and published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  

“Perhaps the most discomforting document for the future of the language of images is the report drawn up in 1984 by Thomas A. Sebeok (Sebeok 1984). He had been commissioned by the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation and by a group of other institutions to elaborate answers to a question posed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The American government had chosen several desert areas in the US for the burial (at the depth of hundreds of meters) of nuclear waste. The problem was not so much that of protecting the area from imprudent intrusions today, but rather that the waste would remain radioactive for another ten thousand years.

That is more than enough time for great empires and flourishing civilizations to perish. We have seen how, a few centuries after the last pharaoh had disappeared, knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs had disappeared as well.

It is easily conceivable that, ten thousand years hence, something similar will have happened to us. We may have reverted to barbarism. We may even be visited by inhabitants of other planets: how will we warn these alien visitors that they are in a danger zone?

Almost immediately, Sebeok discarded the possibility of any type of verbal communication, of electric signals as needing a constant power supply, of olfactory messages as being of brief duration, and of any sort of ideogram based on convention.

Even a pictographic language seemed problematic. Sebeok analyzed an image from an ancient primitive culture where one can certainly recognize human figures but it is hard to say what they are doing (dancing, fighting, hunting?).

Another solution would be to establish temporal segments of three generations each (calculating that, in any civilization, language will not alter beyond recognition between grandparents and grandchildren), giving instructions that, at the end of each segment, the message would be reformulated, adapting it to the semiotic conventions prevailing at the moment.

But even this solution presupposes precisely the sort of social continuity that the original question had put into doubt. Another solution was to fill up the entire zone with messages in all known languages and semiotic systems, reasoning that it was statistically probable that at least one of these messages would be comprehensible to the future visitors.

Even if only part of one of the messages was decipherable, it would still act as a sort of Rosetta stone, allowing the visitors to translate all the rest. Yet even this solution presupposed a form of cultural continuity (however weak it would be).

The only remaining solution was to institute a sort of “priesthood” of nuclear scientists, anthropologists, linguists and psychologists supposed to perpetuate itself by coopting new members. This caste would keep alive the knowledge of the danger, creating myths and legends about it.

Even though, in the passage of time, these “priests” would probably lose a precise notion of the peril that they were committed to protect humanity from, there would still survive, even in a future state of barbarism, obscure but efficacious taboos.

It is curious to see that, having been presented with a choice of various types of universal language, the choice finally fell on a “narrative” solution, thus reproposing what really did happen millennia ago.

Egyptian has disappeared, as well as as any other perfect and holy primordial language, and what remains of all this is only myths, tales without a code, or whose code has long been lost.

Yet they are still capable of keeping us in a state of vigil in our desperate effort at decipherment.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 17-7.

Eco: A Dream that Refused to Die, 2

 

kircher_132

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), the philosophical tree, from Ars Magna Sciendi, 1669, digitized in 2007 and published on the web by the Complutense University of Madrid. This illustration courtesy of Stanford University. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

 

“Again apropos of the crusty old myth of Hebrew as the original language, we can follow it in the entertaining compilation given in White (1917: II, 189-208).

Between the first and ninth editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1771 and 1885), a period of over one hundred years, the article dedicated to “Philology” passed from a partial acceptance of the monogenetic hypothesis to manifestations of an increasingly modern outlook in scientific linguistics.

Yet the shift took place only gradually–a series of timid steps. The notion that Hebrew was the sacred original language still needed to be treated with respect; throughout this period, theological fundamentalists continued to level fire at the theories of philologists and comparative linguists.

Still in 1804, the Manchester Philological Society pointedly excluded from membership anyone who denied divine revelations by speaking of Sanskrit or Indo-European.

The monogeneticist counterattacks were many and varied. At the end of the eighteenth century, the mystic and theosophist Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin dedicated much of the second volume of his De l’esprit des choses (1798-9) to primitive languages, mother tongues and hieroglyphics.

His conclusions were taken up by Catholic legitimists such as De Maistre (Soirées de Saint Petersburg, ii), De Bonald (Recherches philosophiques, iii, 2) and Lamennais (Essai sur l’indifférence en matière de religion).

These were authors less interested in asserting the linguistic primacy of Hebrew as such than in contesting the polygenetic and materialist or, worse, the Lockean conventionalist account of the origin of language.

Even today, the aim of “reactionary” thought is not to defend the contention that Adam spoke to God in Hebrew, but rather to defend the status of language itself as the vehicle of revelation.

This can only be maintained as long as it is also admitted that language can directly express, without the mediation of any sort of social contract or adaptations due to material necessity, the relation between human beings and the sacred.

Our own century has witnessed counterattacks from an apparently opposite quarter as well. In 1956, the Georgian linguist Nicolaij Marr elaborated a particular version of polygenesis.

Marr is usually remembered as the inventor of a theory that language depended upon class division, which was later confuted by Stalin in his Marxism and Linguistics (1953). Marr developed his later position out of an attack on comparative linguistics, described as an outgrowth of bourgeois ideology–and against which he supported a radical polygenetic view.

Ironically, however, Marr’s polygeneticism (based upon a rigid notion of class struggle) in the end inspired him–again–with the utopia of a perfect language, born of a hybrid of all tongues when humanity will no more be divided by class or nationality (cf. Yaguello 1984: 7, with a full anthology of extracts).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 113-5.

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