Raj suggested for example that we consider the mantis shrimp, which has incredibly complex eyes with sixteen color-receptive cones (the Oatmeal has a great introduction to this badass critter). Butterflies, which have the ability to see UV light and colors beyond our perception, have only five, and humans have three. To butterflies and bees, flowers have "targets" that are visible only in UV light. Thus, these creatures perceive the world in a way very different from us.
Imagine the consequences of that type of vision when you are writing. You have to describe what the world looks like. Our color words are pretty limited. Worldwide, we can see patterns in the way that different languages describe color. A language with only two words for color will have light and dark. A language with three words will include light/white, dark/black, and red. A language with four will include blue/green. Five will include blue and green...and then it gets much more complex from there. These patterns have to do with how our eyes work. Once we get beyond the range of visible light, however, we tend to base our words on existing ones - like ultra-violet, and infra-red. Eye function and brain function are involved in the perception of color. Brian pointed out that orange was considered a form of red until the fruit came to Europe.
How do you describe what is beyond our language's capacity to describe? You can take the usual approach and base the concept on an existing word, or you can take the approach of creating a new word and teaching readers what it means.
Glenda pointed out that even our existing senses are more complex than they seem. "Touch" is actually several things: perception of temperature, roughness, pressure, etc. An alien population might easily separate these things out as separate senses.
You may have heard the story about Eskimos having 100 words for snow. Well, first off: it's not true. However, it is trying (badly) to capture something that happens in language, which is that when certain kinds of categorical distinctions are important, people create words for them. So let's say that in order to be safe outdoors, we need to be able to distinguish between a type of snow that is easy to walk on, and one that is easy to get lost in; we may have a distinct name for each type. Similarly, categories that exist in language can cause people to be more attentive to particular types of distinctions, such as different shades of blue in Russian, or gender in French and Spanish, or stativeness in Japanese (whether something happens in an instant, or is ongoing).
If you are going to try to teach people words in an alien language, you need to make sure that you put structure into the story to support those words and make them as easy as possible to learn and memorize. Essentially, you are creating vocabulary. Children can learn English vocabulary (or vocabulary in any other language) by hearing it in context, because language is very very redundant, and the surrounding context of a word will contain all sorts of cues to its meaning. Make sure when you use an alien word, that you make those cues available in the same way.
You can also redefine existing words by changing the context surrounding them, or blend words with each other. Redefining contexts around these words is the critical ingredient for success here.
Raj suggested that it might be possible to have a sense that perceived time as a persistence of vision, as in the painting "Nude descending a staircase" by Marcel Duchamp. It would be interesting to explore how a limited persistence of vision might divide time into chunks and how that would influence the culture of time.
Glenda pointed out that even though a people might not have the words for magnetism or electricity that we do, the concept could still exit among them. I mentioned how my aliens in "The Liars" had a magnetic sense, but they didn't understand magnetism as such - they spoke about what kind of information was transmitted via magnetism rather than talking about magnetism itself. In fact, we talk a great deal more about what we see, i.e. content, than we do about the qualities of vision itself. The fact that we have eyes and they generally work in a certain way goes without saying (in most contexts, but not all!).
Che suggested that an alien species might require the presence of others in order to communicate, such as in a symbiotic relationship.
We discussed synaesthesia, the cross-mixing of senses. In humans it is very subjective, but in another population it might not be. It bears some similarity to the perception of pitch and tonal quality as having shape amongst musicians.
We spoke about onomatopoeia, which bears some similarity to the perception of tone as having shape. There are commonalities in onomatopoeia across the globe, linking the shape of the mouth and sound quality with larger or smaller, heavier or lighter things.
Sign language gives a similar sense of iconicity - the sense that the gesture-words represent actual things - but this can be something of a trap, because the icons used will not be generalizable across cultures or even across time. For example, the sign for "boy" looks like touching the bill of a baseball cap, while the sign for "girl" references the strap of a bonnet. Anyone not aware of those hat styles will not feel that the signs are at all iconic! In fact, it tells us a lot about when the signs were invented.
Simplicity in language is another type of trap. If you perceive simplicity, then likely you are just missing the place where complexity exists. This is exactly what I was working with in "The Liars," because I wanted to problematize the concept of the aliens who speak a very simple language. Humans perceived the Poik as having a simple language because they did not possess all the same senses as the Poik did, and therefore missed a major component of what the language expressed.
One could imagine that sensing pressure changes could be an interesting alien sense - or a sense of topology.
The idea of alien sense is not just for science fiction. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the earthbender Toph turned her magical ability into a special sense to compensate for her blindness.
We also spent some time talking about sensory differences that already exist in human beings, and how those can have a huge influence on people's ability to interact in the world. Autism often involves special sensory sensitivities, or ways in which senses are processed differently by the brain. This is worth exploring further.
We also felt it would be valuable in an alien environment to consider why a particular sense might have developed in a population. Is the environment murky, making vision less of a priority? Or consider dolphins, whose channel of communication is the same as their major perception channel - how would that change the way they perceived the world?
We left this discussion feeling like there was a whole lot more we could have talked about! Thanks so much to Brian, Che, Glenda, Morgan, Raj, and Reggie for joining me!
Join me this afternoon at 3:00pm Pacific on Google+ to talk about Names, Titles, and their Social Significance!
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