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Re: SETI public: An Alien language and Dolphins.

>('H' has already detected the alien signal !!)    'A' does not have a
>microphone, so 'H' cannot hear the actual voice of 'A'   It would be
>foolish of 'A' to start any transmission with technical details about his
>subject, so what does he do?

Albert, the signal would therefore be a question of on-off binary 
transmission, yes? What SETI assumes will happen is that the sender would 
use the characteristics of the message as part of the starting point. 
Frequency of transmission, say, might help define units of length. You 
can build up a basic technical vocabulary this way. Or you could start 
with maths - one pulse, then two, the three; and then interpolate other 
strings which code for 'plus', 'minus', etc.

Getting started is the easy bit, though. The tough bit is, what next? I 
have tried this bottom-up approach to creating a communication, and it is 
profoundly limited. The reason is that any 'language' created this way is 
essentially self-referential: each word or syntactical structure is 
defined purely by its relationship to other elements of the message sent 
so far. There are no external reference points, so the language is 
limited to symbolic/abstract communication. You can teach concepts like 
true, flase, infinity, negativity, you can provide labels such as 'word' 
or 'sentence' - but you can't get from there to a definition of an apple 
tree. A bottom-up language can only describe ideas, by relating them to 
observed features of the signal itself (such as frequency, or on-off 
patterns). Essentially anything that shows a pattern (say, the periodic 
table) can be described by creating a similar pattern within the signal 
or within the coding system you're using. The problem is that natural 
language, and most forms of human menaing and endeavour show no such 
regularity, and in any case are non-universal.

Receiver 'B' might recognise labels for the elements or mathematical 
notation or Planck's constant - but it would be impossible to discern a 
pattern which was based on moral values, social hierarchies, even 
biuological imperatives - because these are things which are specific to 
each culture, let alone to each species.

So to get further, you need a method of *showing* what a label/word is 
associated with. That's why Drake's message from Arecibo was a picture, 
as was Encounter 2000's message. Plus the Pioneer probes had etched 
plaques showing images, Voyager carried a CD full of photos. We use our 
eyes, so we 'point' or 'show' what a word a means by using pictures. But 
ETI may have radically different vision - or none at all.

Your idea of using two people is interesting, in this context, though. 
You could safely assume you're talking to another sighted person (well, 
*fairly* safely: one of the things we did in the "Talking With Aliens" 
film was give Kent Cullers from SETI Institute a replica of the Pioneer 
plaque - he's blind and he could extract almost no information from it at 
all - and he's HIUMAN!). So let's assume this is two sighted humans we're 
talking about. The challenge is to find a form of representation - 
pictures, whatever - that can convey concrete meanings to give the word 
for 'tree' or 'diode'.

And the trouble is, you can't. Because even two separate human cultures 
can have profoundly different representational styles. Doug Vakoch at the 
SETI Inst has examples of artwork from many cultures, all images of 
people. Most of them were unrecognisable even when you knew what they 
were. Pictures are a matter of convention, tailored to our cultural 
perceptions as much as to the particular structure of our eyes. And where 
there is nothing you can be sure will be constant across the two 
cultures, there is no base reference point, and communication fails.

Best example: there was one code the Germans never cracked in WW2 - one 
based on Navajo mythology and language. Effectively, it could only be 
understood by another Navajo. The meaning was in the culture, not in the 
words. But the point is, when you are trying to communicate between 
species, or between worlds, you cannot escape your own culture and your 
own biology.

Truly rich communication may only be possible face to face - because once 
you share a physical context, the referentiality problem is diminished or 

>Perhaps SETI should have some linguistic specialists in its ranks??......

Too right they should. The linguist couldn't begin to provide solutions, 
but she or he could at least begin to delineate some of the challenges of 
a post-contact world. Actually, Doug Vakoch, who's a recent addition, 
makes a pretty impressive job of covering this territory. He's a social 
psychologist, and has published a lot on the issue.

Sorry about the extended lecture!

Season's best to you all.