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31 December 2004 @ 16:03
A parable from the past  

As some of the readers of A Roguish Chrestomathy have forgotten, and others never knew, I meant to dig this up months ago but couldn't. Now my holiday travels have made it possible, and so I bring you, fresh from the musty and mouldering pages of the March/April 1994 edition of the Innis Herald, the following koan:

Language: A Parable

The People wanted a language. Naturally, being a telepathic society, they had no real need for such a thing, but they had heard of other cultures who went in for languages, and it looked like it could be fun. Besides, someday they might want to communicate with other Peoples, and it would be unfair to expect another civilization to try to learn telepathic communication; it would probably take several generations before they were capable of anything more than small-thought about the weather and such.

But the People had also observed some of the negative side-effects of linguistic communication. Individuals in speaking societies used their words for all sorts of fabrications, prevarications, equivocations, and so forth. The sense of community was destroyed. So, in order to protect themselves from suffering the same fate, the People decided to create a language in which untruth would be a grammatical impossibility.

With an eye to this concern, and to what they expected they would want to say once they began to use their new language, the People came up with their first word: mlukwi, or 'I speak.'

This accomplishment was very satisfying, and for a few weeks they did nothing but wander through the streets, proudly proclaiming to one another, Mlukwi! Mlukwi!

After a while, the novelty wore off, and so they set themselves to the task of coming up with another word, preferably one that would constitute an appropriate reply.

The obvious suggestions were made. Someone thought of creating a past tense, to generate the form mlukwal, or 'I spoke.' Someone else came up with the future tense, emlukwo. But these were rejected on the grounds that the future was unknowable, and the past liable to be forgotten. The People were after absolute truth.

Someone suggested adding a second person; the word mlukwis might mean 'You speak.' But this, too, was rejected. For in order to make the statement true, the speaker would have to interrupt someone else, and that would be impolite. Besides, how could anyone be prevented from abusing the language and saying Mlukwis to a silent person? No, mlukwis was definitely too risky.

Then one particularly shrewd individual pointed out that, after all, the entire universe as perceived by the People could be an illusion, or, worse yet, a tremendous practical joke, and that it was therefore probably safer on the whole to say thekkyi mlukwi, or 'I think I speak.' One couldn't be too careful.

But someone else was quick to point out that even the act of thinking could be called into question, as had been demonstrated by many philosophers of that age, and so it would be safer still to amend the one statement in the People's vocabulary to thekkyi thekkyi mlukwi, or even just thekkyi thekkyi. Upon which it immediately became clear that this sort of thing could go on forever, and, as no one really wanted to spend a lifetime working on an endless stream of thekkyis, the People decided to express their general skepticism by using the subjunctive: thaakyi.

So for a while the People went around saying Thaakyi to one another, with the requisite accompanying facial expressions signifying extreme doubt. Eventually they tired of this, and they came to the consensus that after one has said Thaakyi four hundred thirty-five times, the four hundred thirty-sixth utterance is just redundant. So they stopped speaking.

Notes on the text:

  1. Well, yes, actually, I had been reading a fair bit of Stanlisław Lem when I wrote that. Why do you ask?
  2. The two words in the People's vocabulary seem to have been borrowed from an Indo-European language, but it's entirely unclear which one.
  3. When this appeared in the Herald, a line was included at the bottom saying "To be continued...." It never was, and I have long since forgotten whatever vague ideas I may have had at the time about how the story might go on from there.
Nuværende humør: nostalgicnostalgic
ateo on 31. December, 2004 21:57 (UTC)
Hey, this is good stuff. One of the Berkeley philosophers of language has some similar story on meaning, believing, knowing, etc. Must be Searle.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 3. Januar, 2005 10:48 (UTC)
Hey, this is good stuff.
One of the Berkeley philosophers of language has some similar story on meaning, believing, knowing, etc. Must be Searle.
Ooh.... I expect Searle, unlike me, actually had a point to make. (I hope I never meet Searle; I don't know if I would be able to refrain from blurting, "The book knows Chinese, dammit!")
ateo on 4. Januar, 2005 12:34 (UTC)
Serve him right, it would. Of course, Hofstadter has made that point rather nicely too.
parodieparodie on 3. Januar, 2005 10:36 (UTC)
Quite fun. Thanks for sharing. (And I think I'll look up that author you mention. Care to recommend anything?)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 3. Januar, 2005 10:56 (UTC)

For a first look into Lem, I'd recommend The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age.