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Art
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Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« on: August 12, 2004, 02:18:15 pm »

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Most races, before achieving hyperwave broadcast, sent out many many radio signals, These radio signals were collected and stored by the Mhnnrhmn, the only ones i think could have.
After exploring all of known space, the Mhnnrhrhrm built translator devices, and with the cross referancing of the multitude of words, and a lengthy study of this, they were able to produce a workable UTD. The Orz are garbled because they're new, and from a different dimension.
The Slylandro use a Precursor satellite, which i assume translates extremely well.
The Ur-Quan both use Talking pets, which translate thought to speech in any language. ( If your gonna slam Talking pets communicating, then just think how ridiculous an idea Telepathy really is.)
No matter their differences, all races immediately realised the enormous importance of communication, regardless of their opinion of the Mhrhrnm.


Well, first of all, this might be an interesting fanfic idea but the role goes much more easily to the Chenjesu than the Mmrrnrrhrrm -- the Chenjesu are the ones who are the de facto leaders of this part of the galaxy, the ones with a sublimely powerful intelligence, the ones who are an ancient race who've been around long enough to do this, the ones with a compassionate interest for everyone's welfare, and the ones with bodies that act as natural receivers of various kinds of radiation. The Mmmrrnrrhrrm have no natural advantages toward this sort of endeavor; they're just sentient robots, big deal. (Moreover they're sentient robots without a particularly high level of knowledge or purpose. The Mother-Ark supposedly just broke down and left them without memory of their mission, remember? My impression was that the Chenjesu took them in because the Chenjesu are good neighbors, not because the Mmrrnrrhrrm were their equals. Also, notice that they arrived in this sector fairly *recently*, and probably haven't been around long enough to do an in-depth study of every neighboring race.)

But anyway, this is needlessly complicated. This isn't a system for building a true UT, one that can translate a truly unknown language on the fly; it's an explanation of the building of a "universal" translator for this part of the galaxy, that can only translate the list of languages that are in its preprogrammed dictionaries. It'd be powerless to translate a truly new language -- if Orzese is truly an entirely new language it couldn't translate *any* of it, much less put out "linguistic best-fits". Unless you're saying there's some "universal structure" that underlies all languages and can be analyzed, which is a poetic idea (dating back to the Biblical Tower of Babel) but one that has little basis behind it. (It's the same kind of Star Trek logic that says there's something universally useful about the human shape, so that all intelligent aliens have to be humanoid. Unimaginative nonsense.)

Anyway, there's no particular reason that such a centralized translation project has to exist. If the Chenjesu or Mmrrnrrhrrm had time to listen to and study everyone's transmissions long enough to make up an enormous dictionary, then why can't *other* civilizations everywhere make their own dictionaries by listening to everyone else's transmissions? They might do it slowly and by detective work by spying on, say, TV transmissions (where words can be matched to pictures) or they might do it much more quickly and easily in cases where they actually make contact with other races and mutually cooperate to make a dictionary. Then they could actually *learn* other languages the ordinary way; train specialists among their ambassadors, diplomats, merchants and soldiers; offer courses in  college (or the equivalent) for young people; that sort of thing.

It's a lot longer and more boring and *realistic* than the idea of making a UT, but it makes one hell of a lot more sense, and it's not contradicted by *anything* in Star Control 2, and actually makes most of SC2 make more sense.

If you think about it, a UT *would* be telepathy, in a sense; it'd be pulling the meaning of your thoughts straight out of thin air, or buried from within a text, with no other information. I fail to see any good explanation for how a text can, itself, contain explanation for what the text means -- it *can't*. If I make up my own language that no one else knows and write a book in it, there's *no way* to figure out what the book means, *ever*, without reading my thoughts. If you hear a language that neither you or anyone else has ever heard before, there's *nowhere* you can take the meaning of the language from. It doesn't exist in the words themselves -- you have to translate the language by detective work, by comparing words to objective reality -- physical objects, numbers, that sort of thing. That kind of detective work takes some time and interaction to do; I can buy that different races make pre-programmed translating devices or else just *learn the language* (because learning to speak a natural language yourself is many times easier than programming a machine to speak a language) based on long study of TV transmissions and such. Not that they can make a machine that does it within seconds of meeting a new alien race.

The idea that we take psychics seriously and believe that all sentient minds exist in some sort of common undetectable energy field, encoded in common patterns, that can interact with each other may be far-fetched, but at least it's a speculation about something which we know nothing about. We *do* know how ordinary spoken and written languages work, and what we know says that making computers that can magically translate a foreign spoken language with no prior knowledge of it is ridiculous. (It's like how believing in sentient energy-beings somewhere in the galaxy is far-fetched but in a way not as far-fetched as believing that, say, toasters and tennis shoes are sentient and we just don't know it.) Similarly, the idea that Talking Pets exist is far-fetched, but it makes slightly more sense than saying that a machine that does the same thing as a Talking Pet is buildable by every sentient race in the sector and comes standard-equipped on every starships.  

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Now, Accents.
The UTD has been built after a huge length of time, and the Mhrhmmmnm have no knowledge of any type of accent, because theyre machines. So, any translations would carry over the original accent, because they can't distinguish between say, an umgah accent, and a texan accent.


Um. No. This doesn't make any sense at all, if you think about it. People have accents because of varying habits of pronunciation, but that, itself, has nothing to do with meaning. Particularly, people have *foreign* accents because they're in the habit of speaking one language that uses a certain set of sounds and when they try to use a different language with a different set of sounds they use the wrong ones. Accents exist because of human frailty -- because we don't reproduce sounds perfectly when we learn them.

Computers, however, *can* reproduce sounds perfectly when *they* learn them. If you teach a computer how to say the word "rice" a certain way, it will always remember that specific pronunciation. If you teach a computer that "rice" in English and "arroz" in Spanish mean the same thing, then when translating it will replace an "arroz" pronounced in Spanish with a correct Spanish accent with a "rice" pronounced in English with a correct English accent. That's the basic way a translator would work.

Now, you might want to program the computer to *recognize* different accents. In some Spanish-speaking countries the "rr" would be very hard -- sound almost like a series of "d"s in English -- while elsewhere it'd be very soft, like a light "l" sound. In Latin America the "z" would sound like a "s", while in Spain it'd sound like a "th". And if the speaker were an English speaker for some reason trying to speak Spanish she might say it as "a rose". Recognizing all of those and turning those to "rice" would be the translator's job. Similarly the translator could be programmed to say "rice" different ways -- if the guy making the translator thought that the proper long "i" in "rice" was more likely to be understood, he might program that word into the computer; if he were from the American South he might program it with a longer drawled "ah" sound for the "i". That sort of thing.

There's *no reason*, however, for the computer to try to carry over an accent from one side to the other. Yes, a Spanish speaker would have a hard time pronouncing the word "rice" perfectly, and it might come out sounding like "dice". The translator, however, would be stupid if it worked by first connecting "arroz" to "rice", then stopping and thinking, "But Spanish speakers couldn't pronounce that first 'r' perfectly without practice, so I'll make it sound like 'dice' or 'lice'". That's *extra work* on the translator's part, since it *already knows* the correct pronunciation and doesn't need to practice it, like a human does, to get it right. And it serves no purpose, since it makes the resulting translation *harder to understand* for the user, and the whole point of a translation is to try to get the user to understand as clearly and easily as possible.

I'll put it another way -- if the machine is telepathic and can pull the meaning out of the speaker's head, there's nowhere it can get the accented pronunciation of "dice" or "lice" from. Inside the speaker's head is *only* the word "arroz"; if the speaker doesn't know English there *is* no word "rice" in there for her to mispronounce. When the translator translates into the listener's language, it pulls the word "rice" out of *his* head, and *he* knows how to say rice correctly in *his* English-speaking accent. There's no reasonable mechanism for the two different words to collide together in such a way as to come out as an English word pronounced with an accent that simulates a Spanish-speaker who's at a certain point in the process of learning English.

Any machine that can be programmed to perfectly speak a language -- or that can pull a language magically out of thin air through telepathy, or whatever -- won't use accents. Accents *only exist* because flawed humans, or other human-like organic beings, take time to train their mouths and vocal chords into the habit of using phonemes that they haven't used before. A Spathi who speaks English with a weird accent *must* be a Spathi who *learned* English at some point. Foreign accents are *nothing* but markers of the way someone learned a language, and how well they have learned it -- someone who speaks no English *has no accent* in English, because they don't speak English *at all*! For someone to have an accent they must first learn to speak English, and then the precise nature of the accent they have depends on how well they've learned English -- at the beginning it may be so thick as to be unintelligible, at the end of the process, if they study hard and practice hard, they may have no detectable accent at all. To assert that there's a natural level of Spanish accent a Spanish speaker "would have" if they spoke English is ridiculous.

All this holds doubly true for a race that doesn't "understand" accents, since they won't bother to do anything for flavor (the only reason -- and a rather offensive one -- I can think of to make a machine that translates, say, a French person as going "I zink I zhall depaht now" just so you can tell they're French). They'll study each language in its natural accent and make a machine that translates naturally-accented Spathi *directly* into naturally-accented Human (English) without any frills; they'll have to, because naturally-accented Standard Spathi and naturally-accented Standard Human are the only versions of Spathi and Human they've heard, if you're proposing that the Mmrrnrrhrrm or Chenjesu or Melnorme or whoever started their project before there was *any* contact between other races on their own (which I find unlikely, but whatever).

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As for sound traveling in space, I always assumed the ships computer simulated the sounds for the benefit of the pilot. That way he can use more than his sight to fly


Cute idea, but it's a bit stretched. I mean, without special training most people's perception of sound is a lot blurrier and less precise than their sense of sight, even their sense of sight when abstracted into some sort of instrument like a radar display. I imagine having lots of random sounds going off around the pilot would be more distracting than helpful, though having never been a pilot I wouldn't know. Even so, if I were going to make such a system I'd make it more directly useful -- like, say, a proximity alarm that warns you when there's a large object or energy discharge outside your field of view -- rather than going to the trouble to make nifty sound effects for different kinds of weapons (so that, for example, I could hear the sounds of plasmoids going off even when they're very far away and I can clearly see them, but an Androsynth in Blazer form creeping up behind my ship is completely silent -- not very useful).

The sound effects as they work in the *game* are clearly for our enjoyment as players who are seeing the battle from an unrealistic above-the-field 2D perspective, and who enjoy hearing explosions and things.

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The VUX do have a UT; their tech in that field is above anyone else's current tech.  That's why Rand got caught.  Presumably, earthlings have limited UT (mostly for the U.N.), or something they got from another race.


How is their tech above others' tech? The incident as described just leads us to think that Rand thought the VUX didn't know their language at all and that the VUX did -- he thought they were going to initiate "first contact procedures" (which probably include standard procedures for establishing language translation -- sending over picture-dictionaries for the computer to download, giving a greeting for them to record, etc.) but the VUX already knew English. It doesn't say that, for instance, he thought he wasn't speaking into the microphone and he was, or he thought the transmission was off and it wasn't. If true Universal Translators (that don't need pre-written dictionaries) exist at all Rand should've expected to be translated if he was heard, if not right then, then later (since they were probably recording the transmission in the log). He was clearly surprised, not at being heard, but at being *understood*, meaning he didn't expect the VUX to have *learned* English so quickly, meaning languages still have to be learned in this day and age, not magically translated with a magic device.

The idea that us humans could invent anything like a UT by the 22nd century on our own stretches credibility. Even making a plain ol' regular translator between two very well-known languages is a painful, excruciating task given all the ambiguities and such in natural language, which is why so many human interpreters and translators are still in business. Even ignoring the "universal" aspects of a universal translator, a machine that simply accepted data describing several languages and then was able to translate whole texts from one language to another naturally, without distortions and awkward phrasings and such, would be an amazing feat of artificial intelligence.

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The Precursor ship does have a UT, and it only hiccups with the Orz and (sort-of) Arilou.  I say sort-of with the arilou, because they seem to be putting in the lingual best-fits themselves, in your language instead of making the computer do it.


Er, if the Arilou know our language well enough to be able to predict what the translator will and won't translate, and then *put* the English words in, in place of the Arilou words (which may not even be literally possible if Arilou grammar is radically different from English grammar -- try speaking a mixture of Latin and English and see how many fake rules you have to invent on the spot to get it to work)... why can't they just talk English to us in the first place? It'd probably be easier, for them and for us. (What would the Arilou be doing needing to take advantage of a translator anyway? They're friggin' obsessed with the human race and have been for our whole history; why *wouldn't* they talk to us in English?)
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #1 on: August 12, 2004, 02:23:13 pm »

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The Ur-Quan don't care about learning other languages; it's the act of communicating itself that the find distasteful, no matter the language.  I doubt a UT would help with that aversion, so despite what some people say, the Dnyarri may have a job even after SC2. *shrug*


This doesn't make sense either. At least not to me. It might make sense to an Ur-Quan, I don't know, but I don't see it doing so. So the Ur-Quan don't like communicating with non-Ur-Quan sentients? Well, if the Talking Pets count as sentient by the Ur-Quan's definition, then why should talking to a Talking Pet be any different from talking to a human? It'd be worse, because Talking Pets are both lower on the scale of non-Ur-Quan life than humans in their reduced mental state and are living reminders of the most hated figures in Ur-Quan history.

If the Talking Pets are *not* considered in any way sentient and are the organic equivalents of a machine, then there doesn't seem to be any obvious difference between talking through a Talking Pet and talking through a machine. In both cases the Ur-Quan isn't speaking directly, but through an intermediary device, just one's organic and the other's artificial.

Yes, you might say that the Ur-Quan aren't physically speaking to the Talking Pets, they're just thinking or thought-speaking. Fine, that's a compelling theory, but, first of all, that's still communicating -- even if they don't move their mouths, they're still composing quite detailed and ordered series of commands to you in *mental* speech. They're paying *attention* to you and thinking about what to say to you, and whether sound vibrations move through the air or not doesn't seem relevant to me. Typing a message on a keyboard or using some other indirect medium that's clearly different from "normal" communication would work just as well. Maybe the Ur-Quan have some fetish about thought-speaking being non-real communication since it's wholly nonphysical, but I doubt it -- they were an entire race that communicated with their slavemasters mentally for a long time (this has to be true, because one Dnyarri could rule a whole planet at once); why should they think that telepathy doesn't count as real communication?

If they really disdained all communication, they wouldn't speak to you in clear, composed speeches the way they do; they'd lounge around and idly think, and their thoughts would trickle down to you in the third person, the way the Orz's dialogue sometimes sounds. ("Oh, look, it is a human. If the human leaves the boundaries we shall be forced to destroy it. Stupid humans. Why can't they accept our wisdom?") If they really thought of Talking Pets as intermediaries keeping them from direct communication, I'd think they'd do something like compose their thoughts out of sight ahead of time, and have the Talking Pet deliver messages to you by itself, and avoid having to actually see you on their screens in real time -- after all, you'd still be talking to them even if they weren't talking to you.

My opinion? The Ur-Quan seem very obsessed with purity of their own culture; they don't aver physical contact with other species, at least I don't think so, since they have Battle Thralls do all incidental work on their ships and such. But they do fear being contaminated by other beings' way of life -- they have a slavish devotion to their Path of Now and Forever as a self-contained philosophy of *everything* they need in their culture, and as we've seen the first thing they do to a new slave species is annihilate their pre-existing culture by destroying their landmarks. They allow Battle Thralls to serve on dreadnoughts, but they use no Hierarchy ships in the Doctrinal Conflict, probably because they don't want thrall captains using *their* strategies and cultural fighting styles against the Kohr-Ah.

To me using the Talking Pets doesn't feel like avoiding direct communication -- they still indulge in real-time conversation with you and give you *visual contact* with their persons, and converse with you quite naturally, speaking directly about themselves as participants in the conversation, allowing you to ask questions and responding to your comments, etc. The Talking Pets are quite obviously used as *devices* for translating, not as go-betweens. (Sort of like how when telephones were first invented people talked through them, telling the telephone to "Tell Margaret I love her" instead of saying "Margaret, I love you". Compare that to how casually many of us treat typing in a box on a screen as "talking to Margaret".)

If the Ur-Quan want to remain culturally uncorrupted, they *cannot* ever learn anyone else's language; to learn another language is by definition to become at least partially immersed in another culture's presuppositions and ideas. That explains why the need for the Talking Pets, rather than the simpler expedient of communicating by delayed recordings or written text transmissions or whatever -- the Talking Pets are the only *true* Universal Translators in the SC2 universe, thanks to their magic psychic powers, and as such the only devices the Ur-Quan can use to talk to people without ever learning their languages or letting them learn the Ur-Quan's.

Finally, about post-SC2: People who complain about the changes in SC3 seem to prefer asserting that nothing really changes after SC2, which would make the victory kind of hollow, don't you think? Sure, maybe SC3 rushed through the eventual defeat of the Ur-Quan too fast, but c'mon; the *whole point* of what you did was that not just the Ur-Quan's empire but their entire culture, and their entire sense of themselves as a superior species and the heirs of the legacy of the Precursors, would collapse with the destruction of the Sa-Matra. That the Ur-Quan would continue or be *allowed* to continue their high-and-mighty attitude after their humiliating defeat at the hands of the New Alliance is unlikely. And given just how friggin' paranoid the fellas are about mind control, the idea that they'd just ignore the fact that their defeat was *caused* by a rogue Talking Pet and keep on using the things despite how dangerous they are is insane. Both the Ur-Quan's confidence in the Talking Pets and in their own superiority were given a crushing blow at the Battle of the Sa-Matra; their future should reflect that.
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #2 on: August 12, 2004, 09:25:28 pm »

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Both the Ur-Quan's confidence in the Talking Pets and in their own superiority were given a crushing blow at the Battle of the Sa-Matra; their future should reflect that.

Absolutely, as long as they don't put on masks, and whine about the loss of the great Ult--- Sa Matra.  Grin
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #3 on: August 12, 2004, 10:44:21 pm »

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Unless you're saying there's some "universal structure" that underlies all languages and can be analyzed, which is a poetic idea (dating back to the Biblical Tower of Babel) but one that has little basis behind it.

I disagree. Some things are unversal, and given enough raw data, you should be able to extract them.
There are a few basic things you can communicate. One of the most used ones probably is of the form "<someone> <does something>". Now these things can be contracted and structured in a number of ways, but it's reasonable that a language has recognisable forms. Of course in theory, it doesn't have to, but given that languages evolve as a convenient way to communicate thought, I'd say it's a fair bet that this works with most, if not all, actual languages.
If you've got the basic structure, you can then try to find the meaning of concepts, based on context and common frames of reference.
Those common frames of reference can be fed by your communication partner before the communication begins.

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(It's the same kind of Star Trek logic that says there's something universally useful about the human shape, so that all intelligent aliens have to be humanoid. Unimaginative nonsense.)

The logic behind that is that the ST universe was seeded by an older race. (Explained in episode The Chase). Though probably the real reason was the budget and the idea that the viewers prefer humanoids because they are easier to identify with.
I doubt the reason was a of lack of imagination. At least not for all writers.

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I fail to see any good explanation for how a text can, itself, contain explanation for what the text means -- it *can't*. If I make up my own language that no one else knows and write a book in it, there's *no way* to figure out what the book means, *ever*, without reading my thoughts.

If your book is big enough, you can get a long way. Certain concepts will be used alongside eachother a lot, and if you know one, you'll have only limited choice for the other. Once you know the word for "eat", you'll know a lot about the nouns that accompany it. Initially, it's just a matter of trying things, and trying something else if that doesn't lead to a consistent whole.
But a human language is a lot easier than an alien language, as for humans you know you have a lot more common reference points.

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I can buy that different races make pre-programmed translating devices or else just *learn the language* (because learning to speak a natural language yourself is many times easier than programming a machine to speak a language) based on long study of TV transmissions and such. Not that they can make a machine that does it within seconds of meeting a new alien race.

If the communication partner feeds your computer enough data, then I don't see why not. A future computer should be able to process that quickly enough. And it's likely that they would feed it specially crafted text that would make it even easier. Something like a complete text which shows the grammar being used in practice, plus a dictionary and an explanation of the grammar rules to fill in the gaps when you already know enough to read the explanation.

Then again, stuffing a Babelfish in your ear is much easier. Wink

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Accents exist because of human frailty -- because we don't reproduce sounds perfectly when we learn them.

They also exist because we do reproduce sounds perfectly after a while. That's why areas have specific accents of the same language.

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Cute idea, but it's a bit stretched. I mean, without special training most people's perception of sound is a lot blurrier and less precise than their sense of sight, even their sense of sight when abstracted into some sort of instrument like a radar display. I imagine having lots of random sounds going off around the pilot would be more distracting than helpful, though having never been a pilot I wouldn't know.

Have you played fast action computer games? Try playing them without sound when you're used to playing them with sound. Sounds can be very helpful.

As for the VUX, it is possible that communications were not actually initiated (at least not intentionally). The VUX may have found some way to tap into what the humans were saying to eachother aboard their own ship.

Then again, what we read in the SC1 manual is presented as what "The Division of Synthetic Special Reconstruction" has reported. Maybe in fact the VUX were bluffing. They saw the humans, wanted to kill them, but needed a reason. Quickly realising the VUX appearance may had the same effect on Humans, they claim one of the Humans insulted the VUX, thereby giving them an excuse to attack. As it turned out, indeed someone (the captain no less) insulted them.

BTW, assuming the other party can't understand you when speaking through the inter-ships communication systems is foolish, as it is common sense to record everything. Even if they couldn't understand it as it was spoken, you can count on it being analysed afterwards.

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[...](which may not even be literally possible if Arilou grammar is radically different from English grammar -- try speaking a mixture of Latin and English and see how many fake rules you have to invent on the spot to get it to work)...

You would just apply English and Latin rules to words they were not meant to apply on. You're not inventing any new ones.

Re talking pet:
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This doesn't make sense either. At least not to me. It might make sense to an Ur-Quan, I don't know, but I don't see it doing so. So the Ur-Quan don't like communicating with non-Ur-Quan sentients? Well, if the Talking Pets count as sentient by the Ur-Quan's definition, then why should talking to a Talking Pet be any different from talking to a human? It'd be worse, because Talking Pets are both lower on the scale of non-Ur-Quan life than humans in their reduced mental state and are living reminders of the most hated figures in Ur-Quan history.

I'm assuming for a moment that the Ur-Quan talk to communicate with talking pets through thought. Talking takes a lot more effort than thinking. And thinking you'll do anyhow, but by explicitely not talking to specific races you show them they are not worth the effort. Just as symbolism, because Kzer-Za at least do a lot more for "lesser races".
Also, each time an Ur-Quan uses the Talking Pet for translation, it humiliates it, which was exactly the idea in the first place.

And cultural habits aren't always rational and consistent. Compare it to Western Muslim girls who wear a kerchief on their head, as a form of body modesty, and yet put on make-up on their faces.

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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #4 on: August 13, 2004, 04:42:04 pm »

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If your book is big enough, you can get a long way. Certain concepts will be used alongside eachother a lot, and if you know one, you'll have only limited choice for the other. Once you know the word for "eat", you'll know a lot about the nouns that accompany it. Initially, it's just a matter of trying things, and trying something else if that doesn't lead to a consistent whole.
But a human language is a lot easier than an alien language, as for humans you know you have a lot more common reference points.


Even if the book is large enough, it is still very hard to translate without dictionaries. Yeah, if you can identified the words. But how can you identified the words in the first place?

A human language is a lot easier that an alien language. Therefore, I quite doubt the effectiveness of SETI project unless it has sucessfully translated the ohter human languages  in to english without help of the dictionaries.
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #5 on: August 14, 2004, 12:12:59 am »

Well, the SETI project simply assumes that whatever signal there is will have lower entropy than background noise. Which, for high-redundancy interstellar communication, would be a really good idea. We might not get a translation even if we can tell there's a signal, though.

As for decoding languages -- invented languages have been cracked by decoders before. Some of them had rather peculiar syntax not closely related to any human language. In fact, several of them of them were designed to confuse decoders. Yet they were decoded.
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #6 on: August 14, 2004, 11:13:28 am »

*sigh* My rants get longer and longer, while the max message length stays the same...

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I disagree. Some things are unversal, and given enough raw data, you should be able to extract them.
There are a few basic things you can communicate. One of the most used ones probably is of the form "<someone> <does something>". Now these things can be contracted and structured in a number of ways, but it's reasonable that a language has recognisable forms. Of course in theory, it doesn't have to, but given that languages evolve as a convenient way to communicate thought, I'd say it's a fair bet that this works with most, if not all, actual languages.
If you've got the basic structure, you can then try to find the meaning of concepts, based on context and common frames of reference.
Those common frames of reference can be fed by your communication partner before the communication begins.


No. You suffer from the misapprehension that language "contains" objective meaning. It contains no such thing. Language only means something because people agree it defines something -- the sounds or letters themselves mean nothing. Without any prior knowledge of what the language means, you will see *nothing* inside of the "data"; you might see that it is ordered and not purely scrambled (the field of information science is based on just being able to tell if a message *exists* and tell messages apart from random noise; it's still a very difficult and complex problem).

English does have a certain amount of order as opposed to chaos -- there are certain letter combinations that occur more often than others, certain general rules about which words follow others, and so on, but that doesn't contain *meaning*. A computer can analyze how much "information content" a message has and write an entirely new message with the same information content that is entirely meaningless. There's a classic sentence "The gostak distims the doshes" that demonstrates this -- there's nothing that makes that sentence inherently less information-full than "The waiter brings the food", and there's *nothing* that says there isn't a language somewhere "gostak", "distim", and "doshes" don't mean something like "waiter", "bring" and "food" -- but we *don't know that langauge*, and so for us "The gostak distims the doshes" will *always* be meaningless, and so will a very long description of how the gostak distims the doshes murmfully while klerpling the hoovoo. Unless you make the sentence longer by adding *words we already know*, adding more detail and complexity to the bit of unknown language does *nothing* to strengthen our understanding of how those linguistic symbols relate to real concepts.

Information content is the measure of how much meaning a piece of writing has the *potential* to contain; whether it contains information depends on how people define the symbols within it, and there's no way you can magically know that short of either telepathy or, more likely, having it explained to you through nonverbal means.

"Decoding" a language in real life among humans is usually done by reference to something that's truly universal -- external reality, non-verbal perceptions. We point to a man and say our word for "man", point to a woman and say our word for "woman", point to a rock and say our word for "rock". However this kind of "pointing" is a lot more difficult over radio transmissions. One solution is to encode non-verbal data like graphics, which is a lot less arbitrary and a lot more data-rich than words. Assuming the aliens see somewhat similarly to the way we do, they could take an encoding of a picture and try different means of decoding it until they get one that gives them an image rather than random noise; that would be a starting point, since we could include a separate, much simpler  transmission that would hopefully be an obvious caption, that they could use to begin to translate.

The best way for us to learn an alien language would be the same way babies learn a completely new language -- by associating words with pictures. Similarly, other sorts of information, like numbers and scientific data, would be universal starting points. If we encoded an obvious binary signal of ascending numbers and then sent audio transmissions of the English words "one", "two", "three" and so on it'd give them a starting point on a wordbank. Some hopefully obvious arrangement of graphic data to represent a periodic table, or literal image of the spectroscope of an element, followed by the English name of the element would also work -- chemistry information is universal, as is physics. But this would be a slow process, and only simple ideas could be communicated at first -- you won't tell aliens what "love" or "democracy" or the Declaration of Independence mean this way, and the process of building up a dictionary this way would be slow detective work. A computer that could do all of this within a few days or so would be, to put it mildly, a very smart computer -- one probably equal to doing any other human task, like conducting military strategy or finding cures to diseases.

It's rather insulting to the entire field of linguistics that science fiction assumes that what writers consider the *interesting* jobs are still done by humans and can't be replaced by computers. Human administrators manage resources and workers; human commanders come up with battlefield tactics; human scientists study evidence and develop theories about that mysterious radiation source; human doctors diagnose and treat diseases and injuries. But something that in real life is just as fuzzy, intuitive, and complex as any of the above tasks, if not more -- studying unknown natural languages and translating them effectively and accurately -- is not only all done by machines, but is done so well the process is automatic and can be done in a matter of *seconds*.

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The logic behind that is that the ST universe was seeded by an older race. (Explained in episode The Chase). Though probably the real reason was the budget and the idea that the viewers prefer humanoids because they are easier to identify with.
I doubt the reason was a of lack of imagination. At least not for all writers


Well, it *is* a lack of imagination, whatever other reasons there are behind it. Even if the writers are capable of greater imagination, they choose not to use it, perhaps because they think the viewers or the producers don't have much imagination.

And anyway, the elder race explanation is a stupid one. It's not the "real" explanation -- it was introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation long after the original series established that most races in the galaxy look human, and actually claimed that other races' *history* had to closely follow human history because that was a Law of Nature. (They visited a world that was in its "Roman Empire" era -- you know, the one all worlds pass through -- and sure enough everyone was wearing Roman armor and living in Roman villas that looked like they'd been borrowed from some historical drama's set for the afternoon.)

Even TNG's attempted explanation, bold as it was, was still ridiculous. The "seeding" was suppposed to have happened billions of years before all these sentient species developed, meaning that while human beings' ancestors were little hairy shrew-like things they had some sort of hidden code in their genes to become five-and-a-half-foot tall, five-fingered, bipedal, large-brained, hairless beings, where males were taller and stronger and females had enlarged mammary glands as a secondary sexual characterstic, etc. And so did *every other damn race*. That's *not* how evolution and natural selection work (and of all the things sci-fi writers often get wrong, what evolution actually *is* seems to be number one).

Admittedly TNG did a better job of making their aliens look different than TOS did, but even so, the idea that Klingons and Romulans and Cardassians would be shaped that much like us after billions of years of random chance and evolution and accidents after the Master Race had long ago died is preposterous. (Cardassians in particular are supposed to look that much like us even though every other aspect of their physiology is quite different -- they're supposed to be reptiloid in origin, no?) Our *own* race used to have various subspecies that were pretty different from Homo sapiens sapiens -- Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Neanderthals, were quite a lot like us in all the important ways, maybe even cross-fertile, yet they looked very different from us, much more so than Klingons look different from humans (aside from the face they're shaped just like humans, with no average difference in height, no different carriage to the spine or collarbone, no different shape to the head).

But this is a sidenote. Let's not forget that SC2 was cool enough to have many alien races, most of which were, within story limits, pretty different from humans, and yet was able to make us sympathize with many of them and make them interesting characters nonetheless.

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If your book is big enough, you can get a long way. Certain concepts will be used alongside eachother a lot, and if you know one, you'll have only limited choice for the other. Once you know the word for "eat", you'll know a lot about the nouns that accompany it. Initially, it's just a matter of trying things, and trying something else if that doesn't lead to a consistent whole.
But a human language is a lot easier than an alien language, as for humans you know you have a lot more common reference points.


Prove it. *Try* it. You're not really thinking about it. I'm not talking about a translation of an existing book that you've read before, I'm talking about a *new book* you've never seen before, without pictures. Try, without knowing any Korean, getting a Korean book from the library and translating it into English based on what you generally know about books. It's impossible -- it's *ridiculously* impossible. You might be able to tell that one word is a lot more common than another word, and probably means something *like* the word "eat" or "speak" or "stand" rather than something like "transubstantiate" or "quantize" or "interpellate", but you will *not* be able to figure out which word means "eat" and which ones mean "sit" or whatever, not without cheating by using outside knowledge of Korean or of the book's subject matter.

What makes the sentence "Kleem dragul macnaff" *mean* "I ate some soup", inherently? What will make that "obvious", no matter how many times you see it? Remember that a langauge doesn't have an intrinsic meaning -- it has a meaning by how it's defined. In theory any cluster of letters can mean *anything*. A sentence may have internal structure, and assuming that the alien language really is a lot like English you could deduce that one word is a subject and another is a verb after long study (though this is perilous, since we don't really know that an alien langauge will be anything like English at all). But that still doesn't assign *meaning* to the word -- you can't tell what one word you don't know means just from other words you don't know. You can only *ever* define a word by using simpler words you *already know* or by attaching the word to some non-word -- to a picture, a real object, etc. Otherwise, if everything is unknown, you won't get anywhere. Lewis Carroll made a hobby out of creating made-up words and defining them in terms of other nonsense words, and writing whole stories with them, and even though the entire framework is pure standard English, the words are incomprehensible.

That's the whole point of language, after all -- it symbolizes external things. If it, itself, contained the external things (if "eat" were a picture of a person eating), it'd lose much of its convenience value. English is convenient because it doesn't draw any sensory representation of a house to say the word "house"; it abstractly connects a random word "house" to the idea of a house. What we know about languages is limited, but one universal is that any language that reaches a certain level of development has to reach a similar level of abstraction, in order to be useful -- you become able to write "house" without being able to draw a realistic house; you have to be able to write "house" the same way even if you're talking about two houses that look completely different; you have to be able to write "house" about houses that aren't actual, physical houses ("The new government is trying to clean house"). Even languages that are *more like* pictures, like Chinese, are long past being actual drawing languages -- a non-Chinese speaker with no outside knowledge would never be able to figure out what a Chinese sentence like "We argued about the price of the new housing project" meant, even if he could tell that there was something in there that looked like a house and something in there that looked like a coin.

This isn't just theoretical. The Etruscans were a living, breathing civilization. They were conquered by the Romans, and it seems the Romans purposely forgot Etruscan culture and banned the use of their language. The result is that we have lots of artifacts with Etruscan writing all over them -- the *problem* is that none of them are any sort of dictionary, and as a result even though we know a lot of Etruscan words and a bit about how the Etruscan wrote we have almost no idea what they mean, and no one expects that modern humans will *ever* decode Etruscan, except maybe learning how the Etruscans wrote their numbers (since sums in account-books are less ambiguous than other kinds of writing).

Egyptian hieroglyphs used to be a *total* mystery, even though there were *huge* written histories on ancient papyri and monument walls and such -- even though hieroglyphs were often incorporated into illustrated columns and murals, so that we had actual pictures to compare them with. The only reason we got any start toward decoding hieroglyphs is that, luckily, ancient Egyptian civilization wasn't crushed as completely as Etruscan civilization. The Macedonians who conquered Egypt chose to continue using the ancient language, and left behind one nice, long proclamation with the *same text* in hieroglyphics, demotic, and Greek, and luckily Greek civilization has survived to the present day and the memory of how to speak ancient Greek is still around. With that nice start, the long, grueling process of translating hieroglyphs proceeded (and it was work, with a lot of guesswork involved). Without the Rosetta Stone it's doubtful we would *ever* have translated hieroglyphs, though. That's what you need to translate a language -- a dictionary. Without dictionaries, all the other subtle clues might not be enough -- and to *make* a dictionary, some living person needs to learn the other language from scratch, the way babies do -- by nonverbal communication, with picture books, by pointing to things, by observing the language in action in the world.

And this is assuming we're talking about ordinary human beings who just happen to have never met each other. When we're talking about aliens who may photosynthesize and not eat (so that their word for "photosynthesize" is basic and their word for "eat" is very complex), who may have several genders, who may have a more relaxed attitude toward time and location than we do, who may use a communication medium capable of subtleties we can't perceive... well, the problem multiplies manyfod.

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If the communication partner feeds your computer enough data, then I don't see why not. A future computer should be able to process that quickly enough. And it's likely that they would feed it specially crafted text that would make it even easier. Something like a complete text which shows the grammar being used in practice, plus a dictionary and an explanation of the grammar rules to fill in the gaps when you already know enough to read the explanation.


But a UT wouldn't be a UT if you did that. Because the point of a UT is talking to a species with an *unknown* langauge, where a complete English-to-Spathi dictionary does not yet exist. It's the process of making that dictionary that's the problem. If you know the dictionary and the grammar, then making the computer translate isn't that difficult a problem and probably would end up being commonly done for convenience, though I still think that unless a computer gains a true kind of artificial intelligence that allows it to understand the various double meanings, implications, irrational and creative idioms, and such a language contains, it'd be a poor and unclear way of communicating that would leave out a lot. There'd still be a need for language experts and human translators when you really needed to know exactly what was being said, and if you had to talk to Spathi a lot it would be useful to actually learn how to speak it yourself. It's not a question of simple processing speed but of the sorts of algorithms you can write -- a computer that can understand natural language well enough to translate it accurately is a computer that can think like a human being in many important ways that all our smartest computers *can't*. That's a really big deal; it's a lot harder to explain why computers aren't really thinking beings or true citizens in a situation like that.

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Then again, stuffing a Babelfish in your ear is much easier. Wink


Or a Talking Pet, yeah.
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #7 on: August 14, 2004, 11:14:19 am »


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They also exist because we do reproduce sounds perfectly after a while. That's why areas have specific accents of the same language.


No. Actually it's the exact opposite! Regional accents exist because even people who start out speaking languages perfectly begin to slowly make mistakes, and then make the same mistakes more and more commonly. As the Precursors said, "Introduction of some noise into the signal is inevitable". Any time you have a system left on its own it randomly evolves as small errors are made, errors build up, and errors become changes. English colonists who came to New York in the 17th century spoke 17th-century English perfectly well. Their 21st-century descendants speak a language so different that, judging by the few books from the 17th century that describe how English is "properly" pronounced, they would find their great-grandfather almost completely incomprehensible, and vice versa -- the great-grandfather would see the language as having utterly deteriorated, which in a sense it has. And in another 200 years the language will probably have changed enough so that we wouldn't recognize it.

If anything this underscores my point -- an accent is not some overlay applied to a language but an element of the language itself. In reality the English they speak in Dallas, Texas and the English they speak in Glasgow, Scotland are two very similar but distinct languages. The line between different dialects and different languages is blurry -- Scots, the language Robert Burns wrote in, is considered by many to be a different language (try reading it without a glossary). Different "dialects" of Chinese that share the same written language sound so different and are pronounced by such different rules that they are different spoken languages... and so on.

Spathi-accented English should not be considered English-with-a-Spathi-"overlay"; it's a slightly different form of English, a form that doesn't properly exist until Spathi start learning English -- it's a language created by some Spathi elements creeping into Standard English, just as Scots didn't exist before some Gaelic elements crept into the standard English English of its time. A UT has no reason to turn Standard Spathi into Spathi English if 1) no Spathi speak English at all because of the existence of UTs and 2) it's translating for a human listener who understands Standard English.

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Have you played fast action computer games? Try playing them without sound when you're used to playing them with sound. Sounds can be very helpful.


Doing anything differently after you're used to doing it one way will make it harder. Action games are entertainment; they usually put in audio effects for an increased sense of immersion and realism, since in real life we expect events to create sound and to not hear sound when something blows up is surprising.

The question is *how* necessary they are -- most of the time, especially in third-person-perspective games like SC2's Melee (or RTS games like Warcraft or C&C) the sound is unnecessary. The primary purpose of sound is to let you know there's something going on outside your field of view, behind or to the side of you. This is the primary purpose sound plays in, say, first-person shooters, and it's an important one because FPS's have a restricted field of view compared to real life (you have no peripheral vision).

That's what our sense of hearing is mostly designed to do, in the context of combat or fast action, to warn us that something is going on far away or behind us. That's *all* it's really designed to do, however. Even audiophiles have to train themselves to build up a "sound picture" of their environment, and doing so is still very difficult compared to building a sight picture, hence the many difficulties blind people suffer even in an area rich in sound cues; we're sight-oriented creatures. We have much lower resolution for hearing than vision. While we can see two very close light sources as separate objects and track their motion separately, put two close sources of sound in motion and we'll quickly become confused and just hear them as a vague motion "over there". *Surround* us with moving, loud sound sources and we tend to shut down, to hear nothing but a "terrible racket" and begin to lose the ability to distinguish even clear, distinct sounds without concentrating. (Try talking to someone in noisy traffic.)

This is the main reason I find the "sound-enhanced cockpit" theory unrealistic. The fact that battlefields are filled with noise makes them exciting to watch in movies, but it's a liability in real life. Hearing a loud, crashing explosion is a *bad* thing if the explosion isn't close to you but a silent, dagger-clutching enemy is. A series of loud noises unnerves and distracts more than it adds information.

The main thing sound is good at doing is forcing the brain into another channel -- it's desigened to distract, to let a hunter know that there's a loud breathing noise following him when he's focused on the prey ahead. So the sensible use of a sound system that, itself, can scan threats and *create* sounds is to generate a sound that warns the pilot of specific danger situations; to ring a proximity alarm for a missile that's coming too close or when he enters a gravity well, for instance (or if he has amazing hearing, to "paint" a tracking sound onto the relative location of an oncoming and close missile.) These are how alarms and sound systems are actually used in fighter planes (where the pilot, wrapped up in a pressure suit and cockpit, can't hear anything for the most part, surprising as it may be to aficionados of boom-laden flight sims). Otherwise, the advantage of being in space is actually that there aren't distracting noises, and that the sound of the Cruiser's nukes crashing into a planet miles away isn't audible to a pilot who's concentrating on firing off a perfect howitzer shot. Keep in mind that nothing's *actually* making any sound in space (no, it's not making a sound that you can't hear, it's *not making any sound*) so all these sounds have to be synthesized and put in by the computer. There's no reason in real life that the computer would bother to put in "realistic" noises for every single thing that explodes in space -- that would be a dumb way to do it. It's always a problem that people seem to think that the best way to engineer some sort of simulated environment (even a sound environment) would be to make it as much like it would be for an "ordinary" person as possible -- the only reason to do so is for the benefit of the movie-watching (or game-playing) audience, just like drama and excitement are the only reason for the sound effects in SC2 (or Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Armageddon, or any other sci-fi movie where there are sounds in space).

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As for the VUX, it is possible that communications were not actually initiated (at least not intentionally). The VUX may have found some way to tap into what the humans were saying to eachother aboard their own ship.

Then again, what we read in the SC1 manual is presented as what "The Division of Synthetic Special Reconstruction" has reported. Maybe in fact the VUX were bluffing. They saw the humans, wanted to kill them, but needed a reason. Quickly realising the VUX appearance may had the same effect on Humans, they claim one of the Humans insulted the VUX, thereby giving them an excuse to attack. As it turned out, indeed someone (the captain no less) insulted them.

BTW, assuming the other party can't understand you when speaking through the inter-ships communication systems is foolish, as it is common sense to record everything. Even if they couldn't understand it as it was spoken, you can count on it being analysed afterwards.


True, there are a lot of common-sense problems with this whole situation as set up in SC2. But the whole problem is credited to the VUX being "master linguists", not the VUX being master spies and wiretappers -- the fundamental nature of the situation was that Rand expected that the VUX would have very little knowledge of English and what he said, even if heard, would be ignored or dismissed as a grunt or something. But your description of the situation from the VUX point of view is a convincing one.

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You would just apply English and Latin rules to words they were not meant to apply on. You're not inventing any new ones.


Latin rules explicitly include inflecting a word to fit its purpose in the sentence, that being partly based on various rules about the word (which declension the word is in, its gender, etc.) Such concepts are unknowns for most English words that you'd be forced to do this in Latin for; you'd have to either find a synonym in Latin (which is what people usually do) or else let the English word sit there uninflected, sticking out like a sore thumb, make up an arbitrary declension and gender to define the word as, and work around how this affects the overall structure of the sentence. We do this very often in English because English in its current form is amazingly lax about grammatical structure, but in other languages this is a lot less common and a lot less natural-feeling. Many English words, for instance, creep into Spanish, but we get unusual sounding translations into Spanish verb-forms to make the word sound natural (the verb "click" referring to computers becomes "cliquear", because using a verb without an "-r" ending is just impossible in Spanish; you lose all the information that comes from conjugation).
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Re talking pet:
I'm assuming for a moment that the Ur-Quan talk to communicate with talking pets through thought. Talking takes a lot more effort than thinking. And thinking you'll do anyhow, but by explicitely not talking to specific races you show them they are not worth the effort. Just as symbolism, because Kzer-Za at least do a lot more for "lesser races".
Also, each time an Ur-Quan uses the Talking Pet for translation, it humiliates it, which was exactly the idea in the first place.

And cultural habits aren't always rational and consistent. Compare it to Western Muslim girls who wear a kerchief on their head, as a form of body modesty, and yet put on make-up on their faces.



Sure. I said it didn't make sense to me but it might to an Ur-Quan, after all. It seems like the distinction is a lot greater and more dramatic if it's a difference between other races, who painstakingly learn each other's languages, write dictionaries, train linguists and build translation devices based on their research and the Ur-Quan who blithely think into organic UTs than if the Ur-Quan use fleshy UTs that require no typing while other people use factory-made ones with keyboards or microphones. The former has a lot more dramatic weight. That's not proof, but I think the burden of proof is on those who think UTs exist, since I don't think there's much in-game evidence for it and all real-life evidence makes them horrendously unlikely.

My crusade is to get sci-fi fans out of the habit of *assuming* UTs exist in whatever new sci-fi they're watching/reading/playing because it's just the sort of thing people can build in the future, y'know? At least people have come to accept that flying cars, food pills, and teleporters are ridiculous, but this universal translator thing really has a grip on people, if only because it makes filming sci-fi movies so much easier.
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #8 on: August 14, 2004, 11:30:04 am »

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How is their tech above others' tech?

The SC2 manual states:

                    The VUX's repulsiveness to most other races is matched
                    by their technological achievement in linguistic transla-
tion devices. This combination led to the unfortunate incident in 2126,
when the Earthling Cruiser Miwok made first contact with the VUX near
the Beta Luyten star system. The Miwok's Captain Rand, upon first seeing
the VUX commander on his view screen, remarked to his officers, "That's
the ugliest freak-face I've ever seen!" Rand was unaware that his every
word was being relayed to the VUX captian with perfect clarity. This grievous
insult, and the subsequent ill-will between Earth and the VUX delayed
the VUX's entry into the Alliance long enough for the Ur-Quan to enslave them.

Of course, the SC1 manual states:

                           The VUX's physical repulsiveness is matched by technological
                           advances and enormous linguistic-perceptive powers. This lan-
                           guage translation ability allowed one VUX ship to intercept the
                           communications of one Cruiser's commander, who had just sighted
the VUX on his laser display. The Captain's offhand remark about VUXian looks led to a
severe Xenoform backlash. The offended VUX, nursing            
a sense of collective insult, soon attached itself to the Hierarchy.

Which implies that it is a natural talent.  It could be a combination of both.
No matter what method it is, the VUX are top-of the line translators; note that they are the only other race who have held a documented dialog with Orz.  The Starbase can be assumed to have used your Precursor vessals' UT to feed their non-U T's with the Orz psuedo-rosetta stone, but the VUX had no such benefit.


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but the VUX already knew English.

I suppose it's possible that even the VUX's translators aren't universal; they might have used the Androsynth tongue (if they have their own) as a rosetta stone.  This of course implies that they met the Androsynth before becoming thralls (they weren't yet thralls when rand met them).  Also, the Orz only mention that the VUX keep asking about the Androsynth; it's possible that the VUX merely repeated the question because the didn't understand any of the responses from Orz (note that they do not mention Orz at all).

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Er, if the Arilou know our language well enough to be able to predict what the translator will and won't translate, and then *put* the English words in, in place of the Arilou words (which may not even be literally possible if Arilou grammar is radically different from English grammar -- try speaking a mixture of Latin and English and see how many fake rules you have to invent on the spot to get it to work)... why can't they just talk English to us in the first place? It'd probably be easier, for them and for us. (What would the Arilou be doing needing to take advantage of a translator anyway? They're friggin' obsessed with the human race and have been for our whole history; why *wouldn't* they talk to us in English?)

Well, I actually meant that they'd use words in their own language that would fit within our frame of reference.  If you were explaining a 3D world to someone in a 2D world, even if that person was using a UT, you'd know that some of the concepts _couldn't_ translate because they don't fit in the 2D reality; so you'd have to start hem-hawing your way around: using lingual best-fits in your own language.  If anything, the Arilou probably spoke Celtic to us. Wink
« Last Edit: August 14, 2004, 11:30:38 am by Culture20 » Logged
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #9 on: August 14, 2004, 11:41:23 am »

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Yes, you might say that the Ur-Quan aren't physically speaking to the Talking Pets, they're just thinking or thought-speaking. Fine, that's a compelling theory, but,

I just noticed that the Star Control 1 manual explains how the Talking Pets work:
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The Ur-Quan uses a particularly striking means of trans-species communication. The Talking Pets, an Ur-Quan invention genetically engineered for the purpose, telepathically interpret Ur-Quan commands into the spoken languages of subordinate species, and reverse the procedure when receiving extra-special transmissions.


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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #10 on: August 14, 2004, 11:43:04 am »

And the reason from the SC2 manual:

The Ur-Quan are unwilling to communicate directly with other species
because to do so would be demeaning. Therefore, when giving orders or
interrogating enemies, the Ur-Quan use "Talking Pets," large-brained, frog-
like creatures which are non-sentient, but possess the telepathic/empathic
ability to translate all languages.


Regarding ancient cultures & translation:  How do the Chenjesu, Spathi, Earthlings (Farnsworth, the Captain), and others translate Precursor writings?  There's obviously not going to be a rosetta stone (unless it's a Precursor child's primer complete with Holograms but no holos of precursors themselves since we don't know what they look like).
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #11 on: August 14, 2004, 11:59:31 am »

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Well, the SETI project simply assumes that whatever signal there is will have lower entropy than background noise. Which, for high-redundancy interstellar communication, would be a really good idea. We might not get a translation even if we can tell there's a signal, though.

As for decoding languages -- invented languages have been cracked by decoders before. Some of them had rather peculiar syntax not closely related to any human language. In fact, several of them of them were designed to confuse decoders. Yet they were decoded.


The movie "Contact" portrayed a pretty realistic scenario (it would have to be, since the original story was by Carl Sagan) where contact was first made by a simple series of pulses that demonstrated a pattern created by intelligence and not random natural activity, in that case the sequence of prime numbers, then used an encoding of a known data file (an transmission they'd received from Earth) to establish the format in which they sent the rest of their data (all of which was in graphical form). In real life we've done similar things, sending out transmissions in binary code consisting of numbers and simple graphical data and putting pictures and analog sound (on a record) on the Pioneer and
Voyager probes.

As far as the invented languages -- I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to, but I do know of many challenges where linguists and conlangers have created constructed languages and translated a *known* work into them, like the Bible or a Shakespeare play; the challenge was then to take the two texts and come up with a dictionary and description of the conlang's grammar. This is a difficult and demanding task, yet by definition it's extremely simple compared to studying a "new" language -- it's not a new language, since the inventor of the language actually gives us a complete Rosetta Stone! You *need* that "hook", that Rosetta Stone text, to "decode" a language; otherwise you don't know what you're decoding from. A naked, context-less fragment of language is *impossible* to decode, and only somewhat esoteric principles of information theory allow you to tell the difference (by looking for more or less repetition, more or less complexity) if something is a language or not at all. In theory any random arrangement of letters could be a language and could mean anything; you need some hint of what the message was intended to mean or you'll get nowhere. (Or you'll be just as stranded as the people in Borges' "The Infinite Library", a good short story to read to get a grasp on the problems of language and communication the way "Flatland" is good for grasping higher dimensions.)

The real-life work on secret codes and ciphers used by spies and such is crippled by that very same problem; their "hook" is that most "secret codes" aren't really codes but ciphers (same language, different script) where the language is actually Japanese or German or Russian but the language has been written in different letters, or scrambled, or in the modern day and age translated into a binary form like ASCII and scrambled using a computer algorithm.

In such cases the actual *language* -- the base set of symbols and their meanings -- is known; it's Japanese, or English, or Arabic. It's just written in a different way (with every letter shifted four letters over, or scrambled by switching every third letter and split into four-letter blocks, or usually other more complex things). Since if you know a natural language you know that language's specific patterns and can begin to try to look for structure by trial and error. This was much easier back in the days when ciphers had to be simple enough for people to hold them in their heads or, at best, in a typewriter-like machine like the Enigma, which meant that brute-force mathematical analysis would spit out the message in time. (Nowadays computers can create ciphers more easily than they can decipher them, and the cipher that encodes, say, your credit card number in an online transaction would take a great deal of effort for the NSA's powerful supercomputers to crack. Unless quantum computing pans out, but that's a different story.)

Ciphers are *fundamentally* different from codes, however. Ciphers are always related to a known language (the English language, the common language of HTTP protocols that store Web pages, the set format of a credit card number) by a strictly *mathematical* relationship. A code is something human-created that's only a set of abstract, human relationships. There's a mathematical relationship between "Star Control" and "Rats Lortnoc" or "Star Control" and "Fgne Pbageby". There's no mathematical relationship between a CIA code that says "MK-Ultra" means "mind control experiments" any more than there's a mathematical relationship between English "Hello, how are you?" and Chinese "Ni hao ma?". They mean the same thing because human beings *say* they do, and there's no way to read the minds of the human beings who created a code just by looking at the code.

Codes are *not* breakable by mathematical analysis; their weakness is that they require people to learn them rather than applying a simple mechanical method to decipher them, so historically codes have been broken by either simply finding a code book and stealing it (or capturing a spy and torturing him) or by the much longer, trial and error method of comparing the code to real life -- by figuring out that whenever the radio transmissions say "Red smells like drizzling Mercedes" a friendly bombing occurs here, and when they say "Green looks like crunching Cadillac" an enemy aerial recon team appears there, and working from that. Doing the latter is a long, hard process and if a country was forced to try it the war would often end before they succeeded. While the Enigma machines failed in World War II because even really complicated ciphers can be broken mathematically, the Navajo code-talkers succeeded and were *never* decoded, because they had a completely internal code (with no codebooks), the Navajo language, that was truly alien to English or Japanese and could not be broken mathematically.
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #12 on: August 15, 2004, 07:47:00 am »

Some comments to toss into the mix...

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The line between different dialects and different languages is blurry


Actually I think Noam Chomsky summarized it quite well: a language has an army and a navy.  Smiley  Which is to say, the distinction is fairly arbitrary from a linguistic standpoint, and has much more meaning from a political and cultural standpoint.

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The primary purpose of sound is to let you know there's something going on outside your field of view, behind or to the side of you.  That's *all* it's really designed to do, however.


Having read a number of your posts here, I am inferring that you're like me in that you tend to let your theories run away with you and start making claims that, interpreted fairly literally (which is how we have to interpret them, since all we have is your literal text), don't make much sense.  So, I'm going to reign you back in on this one (and I hope you'll do the same when my theories run away with me): on what basis, and by what authority of research or expertise can you make such a claim?  Is it even meaningful to try to state the "primary purpose" of something like the phenomenon of atmospheric pressure differentials that our bodies and brains decode into something we call "sound"?  And who "designed" that phenomenon, anyway?  Come on Art, I know you can write more precisely than that.  Smiley

I would offer that sound is a valuable source of information about our environment, just as sight is; it is useful to be able to hear things which you can see, just as it is useful to hear things you cannot see (for slightly different reasons in each case).  Which leads neatly into the next quote:

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This is the main reason I find the "sound-enhanced cockpit" theory unrealistic. The fact that battlefields are filled with noise makes them exciting to watch in movies, but it's a liability in real life. Hearing a loud, crashing explosion is a *bad* thing if the explosion isn't close to you but a silent, dagger-clutching enemy is. A series of loud noises unnerves and distracts more than it adds information.


This is true, but it is also incomplete.  In a situation like a very loud and chaotic battlefield or a very busy street, yes, the noise tends to hurt more than it helps because the amount of information being conveyed on that channel (the auditory one) is more than we can handle, so it just confuses us.  However, in a situation like 1-on-1 ship combat in SC2 (that is, not a fleet engagement, not a particularly 'chaotic' environment), simulated sounds could be extremely useful, and let's recall that we're talking about 1-on-1 ship combat in SC2, and not a chaotic battlefield where enemies might be sneaking up on you with a knife.

Also, just because noise can be confusing and distracting to the average Joe doesn't mean it has the same effect on a seasoned starship captain.  I imagine that with experience, captains learn to subconsciously interpret those auditory cues and extract quite a bit  of useful information without it really distracting them much at all.  So for those experienced captains, simulating the sounds of 1-on-1 ship combat could be a very useful thing, and therefore a perfectly plausible thing for ship computers in the SC2 universe to do, or at least be able to do.

And finally, let's remember that in every discussion on this forum, we have to think about this stuff in two fairly distinct ways: we all enjoy thinking about how (or if) the 'universe' of SC2 would actually work and make sense, but we also all know that, at heart, it's still a computer game, for humans, on Earth, in the 20th Century, and therefore it has to bend the rules a little to be compelling.  Although ship combat with no audio except humming engines and your own grunts would be more 'realistic', it'd be a crappy gaming experience for most people.  So let's not get *too* in depth about it.  Smiley

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While the Enigma machines failed in World War II because even really complicated ciphers can be broken mathematically, the Navajo code-talkers succeeded and were *never* decoded, because they had a completely internal code (with no codebooks), the Navajo language, that was truly alien to English or Japanese and could not be broken mathematically.


I'm actually just responding to this becuase that point about the Navajo "code" is a really good one and I want people to read it again.  I actually wrote a paper for a linguistics class a few years ago that made a similar comment: the Germans couldn't decode Navajo because they were starting from a faulty assumption (that it was a cipher of English, or of some other language known to them) - the idea that humans will be able to decode an alien language without a *huge* amount of assistance (from the aliens) seems fairly perposterous.
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #13 on: August 15, 2004, 12:00:57 pm »

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Having read a number of your posts here, I am inferring that you're like me in that you tend to let your theories run away with you and start making claims that, interpreted fairly literally (which is how we have to interpret them, since all we have is your literal text), don't make much sense.  So, I'm going to reign you back in on this one (and I hope you'll do the same when my theories run away with me): on what basis, and by what authority of research or expertise can you make such a claim?  Is it even meaningful to try to state the "primary purpose" of something like the phenomenon of atmospheric pressure differentials that our bodies and brains decode into something we call "sound"?  And who "designed" that phenomenon, anyway?  Come on Art, I know you can write more precisely than that.  Smiley


You're right. "Design" is a really poor way of putting it. Though what I mean here is "hearing", not "sound" (not the vibrations themselves but the way our ears happen to decode them), and what I mean by "design" is the primary use to which we've ended up putting them after years and years of evolution. That is, we evolved into a sight-based species and not a hearing-based one -- unlike dolphins, we can't see clear and distinct shapes based on patterns of echoes and such. Most of the things our eyes do our other senses are poor replacements for, because we've evolved to depend so much on light.

We can certainly use our hearing much more effectively than we normally do if we train it, but most of us train ourselves to use our hearing to supplement our sight, not replace it, and so have a hard time telling much based on what we hear other than that something's going on outside of sight range. Our hearing is very good at getting our attention but it's not that accurate -- one example is how people lost in the woods will often walk in circles or meandering paths trying to find some landmark by sound -- it's very easy to mistake one sound for another in such a situation, and to grossly misjudge the angle that a sound is coming from, etc.

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This is true, but it is also incomplete.  In a situation like a very loud and chaotic battlefield or a very busy street, yes, the noise tends to hurt more than it helps because the amount of information being conveyed on that channel (the auditory one) is more than we can handle, so it just confuses us.  However, in a situation like 1-on-1 ship combat in SC2 (that is, not a fleet engagement, not a particularly 'chaotic' environment), simulated sounds could be extremely useful, and let's recall that we're talking about 1-on-1 ship combat in SC2, and not a chaotic battlefield where enemies might be sneaking up on you with a knife.

Also, just because noise can be confusing and distracting to the average Joe doesn't mean it has the same effect on a seasoned starship captain.  I imagine that with experience, captains learn to subconsciously interpret those auditory cues and extract quite a bit  of useful information without it really distracting them much at all.  So for those experienced captains, simulating the sounds of 1-on-1 ship combat could be a very useful thing, and therefore a perfectly plausible thing for ship computers in the SC2 universe to do, or at least be able to do.

And finally, let's remember that in every discussion on this forum, we have to think about this stuff in two fairly distinct ways: we all enjoy thinking about how (or if) the 'universe' of SC2 would actually work and make sense, but we also all know that, at heart, it's still a computer game, for humans, on Earth, in the 20th Century, and therefore it has to bend the rules a little to be compelling.  Although ship combat with no audio except humming engines and your own grunts would be more 'realistic', it'd be a crappy gaming experience for most people.  So let's not get *too* in depth about it.  Smiley


Well, I don't say it's impossible, but color me skeptical. The whole thing is that we're not "simulating" sound -- there is no hidden sound that things have in space that you can somehow detect. The natural sound of an event in space is no sound at all. So going to the lengths of detecting some particular event and interpreting it and then making a sound for it is a pretty complicated rigmarole. It might help in battle, but I don't see it being an optimal or even very good solution. The computer has to detect the event using visual data in the first place; why not transmit the data directly to the pilot in visual form rather than turning it into sound information?

Yes, there are cases where you want the pilot to hear rather than see, when you want the pilot to be able to think about two things at once, but since you can control the sound environment inside the cockpit you can *optimize* the playing of sounds for maximum effectiveness. You wouldn't "simulate" sound by slavishly playing a sound for every time a weapon fires. Distracting or not, it's unnecessary; you only need to warn the pilot away from watching his viewscreen when there's, say, a closeby missile lock or something, so why make noises for other things? (We need to get away from the idea that the computer is consciously playing sounds for some things and choosing not to play sounds for others. Everything has no sound, in reality -- every event that the computer generates a sound for is something the computer has to be specifically programmed to look for.) It'd be like giving the pilot a radar screen that draws a detailed 3D model of what the ship looks like from overhead instead of a simple labeled blip, or a nice little videophone so he can see his commander's face instead of just hearing vocal instructions. Waste of resources. Video game cockpits tend to have all sorts of really kewl looking things built into them like textured, realistic radar screens, videophone communicators and such, but real-life cockpits rarely do, since resources are at a premium in combat situations.

And yes, none of this is an argument for making the actual game have no sound effects, or for making the aliens speak in an alien language and us have to translate them using a paper alien dictionary, or anything like that. I'm just saying that the "real" SC2 universe is different from what we see in the game, and it has to be  because it's a game; it's no different from every movie that puts sound effects for events in space so we'll be able to follow the action, or has the Russians or the Chinese or the Vulcans speaking English so we won't read annoying subtitles, or whatever. (Even NASA makes space videos with sound effects, after all.)
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Re: Languages in SC2 (new thread)
« Reply #14 on: August 15, 2004, 12:24:21 pm »

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The SC2 manual states:

                    The VUX's repulsiveness to most other races is matched
                    by their technological achievement in linguistic transla-
tion devices. This combination led to the unfortunate incident in 2126,
when the Earthling Cruiser Miwok made first contact with the VUX near
the Beta Luyten star system. The Miwok's Captain Rand, upon first seeing
the VUX commander on his view screen, remarked to his officers, "That's
the ugliest freak-face I've ever seen!" Rand was unaware that his every
word was being relayed to the VUX captian with perfect clarity. This grievous
insult, and the subsequent ill-will between Earth and the VUX delayed
the VUX's entry into the Alliance long enough for the Ur-Quan to enslave them.

Of course, the SC1 manual states:

                           The VUX's physical repulsiveness is matched by technological
                           advances and enormous linguistic-perceptive powers. This lan-
                           guage translation ability allowed one VUX ship to intercept the
                           communications of one Cruiser's commander, who had just sighted
the VUX on his laser display. The Captain's offhand remark about VUXian looks led to a
severe Xenoform backlash. The offended VUX, nursing            
a sense of collective insult, soon attached itself to the Hierarchy.

Which implies that it is a natural talent.  It could be a combination of both.


Hrm. You're right. Though I think when I first read this I interpreted it as saying the VUX are very good at translating languages in the traditional sense, and they use this knowledge to write very detailed dictionary and grammar programs that make very effective automatic translators (which isn't the same thing as making a smart UT that can translate on its own). It would make sense, particularly since it looks like they may not be physically equipped to actually speak English. Their native tongue probably contains a lot of slurping (no pun intended, har har).

Sounds to me like the most likely explanation may be a combination of theories, since you are right that if the Captain knew he was being recorded it would've been dumb to make the comment in any language. Perhaps the VUX's smart translators are able to pick up small sounds or garbled transmissions and come up with very accurate guesses as to the language content -- very good audio enhancers optimized for English or whatever language, so they picked up the muffled echo or faint radio leak from Rand mumbling into the intra-ship communicator.

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No matter what method it is, the VUX are top-of the line translators; note that they are the only other race who have held a documented dialog with Orz.  The Starbase can be assumed to have used your Precursor vessals' UT to feed their non-U T's with the Orz psuedo-rosetta stone, but the VUX had no such benefit.

I suppose it's possible that even the VUX's translators aren't universal; they might have used the Androsynth tongue (if they have their own) as a rosetta stone.  This of course implies that they met the Androsynth before becoming thralls (they weren't yet thralls when rand met them).  Also, the Orz only mention that the VUX keep asking about the Androsynth; it's possible that the VUX merely repeated the question because the didn't understand any of the responses from Orz (note that they do not mention Orz at all).


Unlikely that there was an Androsynth/Orz dictionary, since all signs point to the Androsynth disappearing or at least ceasing to leave records before the appearance of the Orz; Bukowski can't find any references to the Orz as we know them in the Androsynth computers. More likely that the Orz speak a modified form of Androsynth, which itself may likely be a modified form of English; the Androsynth certainly didn't start out with their own separate language and culture, and while it's in character for the 'Synth to make up a new language to distance themselves from their slavemasters it's unnecessary. The other alternative is that, as you say, the Precursor computer is at least a sort-of UT; it's possible given that the Precursors Do the Impossible fairly regularly and that the Vindicator's main computer does show disturbing signs of really, really high intelligence, and may be a preferable theory since presumably the Orz speaking Androsynth *should* cause some comment, but it's up in the air from my POV.

Calling a language's syntax "unorthodox" makes more sense when you're comparing it to an actual known language, particularly one that the language in question is related to -- Pidgin is an unorthodox form of English, but it's not, in general, an unorthodox langauge. And the problematic idea of linguistic best-fits may mean finding a word closely related to a word etymologically rather than finding the word that best fits all the word's possible meanings. We, after all, in decoding Orzese find words that make more sense to *us* for *our* purposes than the computer's best-fits -- "war" makes more sense than "party" when we consider what the Orz parties actually are to *our* eyes, "avatar" or "projection" is both broader and sounds better than "fingers", and so on. The Orzese best-fits seem to be based on the sorts of words the Orz would choose if they knew English or an English-like language for certain concepts, not the words that would make the most sense to us. It would also explain why a puzzling non-word like *frumple* should make it on the computer's list of best-fits (it seems like some sort of portmanteau word -- "frown" and "rumple"? -- but portmanteau words read to me more like an idea that originated with the Orz rather than something a smartass computer came up with for a totally alien word).

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Well, I actually meant that they'd use words in their own language that would fit within our frame of reference.  If you were explaining a 3D world to someone in a 2D world, even if that person was using a UT, you'd know that some of the concepts _couldn't_ translate because they don't fit in the 2D reality; so you'd have to start hem-hawing your way around: using lingual best-fits in your own language.  If anything, the Arilou probably spoke Celtic to us. Wink


Well, okay, that's almost certainly true. The Arilou flat-out say it -- they grope around for some way to describe the way They sense mortal races and call it "smell", etc.

By the way, is Ariloula'leelay authentic Gaelic? It brings up the usual weirdness of assuming that people are saying things in just one language and yet the translator can magically distinguish between when they want it translated into English and when they want to quote that word in their own language -- like the Supox and Vlik/Earth. Anyway I think it's unlikely that they're speaking Gaelic since, after all, even though they liked the Celts a whole lot they've had their most recent large-scale contact with us mostly in 20th-century America, if you believe the stories, not counting their communications with Star Control during the war. Heck, if you take that Men in Black stuff at the end seriously they had long-term ongoing communication with parts of the US government for a long time, so their speaking English is almost a given.
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