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Stories from the Verse
In Verse Proportion
Chapter 34: Slade 179
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Previous chapter: Kondor 183
After breakfast Slade and Shella wandered over to the technology building. The engineering professor was already there, and his students had helped him cobble together a working model of the telegraph, as Slade had described it. He pressed and released the button, listening to it click and clack.
The professor said something, and Slade was pleased that it was a simple enough statement that he could get the gist without having raised the language link. It was something like “Now what?” He picked a random student, and mentally connected so He could answer.
“Now we have to invent the code. I don’t know enough about language in your world. Where I come from there are hundreds of different languages. Most of them use letters which identify specific sounds, and our words are then constructed from those sounds and spelled with those letters. But there are some languages in which the words are represented by pictures, and you have to know the picture for each word you want to write and hope that your reader knows the pictures you’re using. That would be incredibly difficult to turn into code, I think. Our language has, I don’t know, about twenty-five different letters that we use--”
“Twenty-six,” Shella interrupted him.
“Right, twenty six. And I’d guess that there must also be a few codes for punctuation. But I don’t know how many you’ve got, and I’m probably the wrong person to try to design a code for you. I think that the code we use has shorter sequences for the most common letters. But as I say, I don’t know it--and it wouldn’t help you if I did.”
He realized that the professor was not understanding all of this. He wondered briefly whether the link had failed, but then decided that he should be talking to someone in the linguistics department. But then, did they even have a linguistics department? Was that a field of study here? It’s possible that all the birds speak one language, and no one has ever thought about studying language because there was only the one. Well, he would have to ask.
“Do you have someone here at the school who studies language?”
The professor licked his teeth, or whatever you should call that yellowish beak-like structure behind his lips that acted much like teeth, which it occurred to Slade might be something like clearing his throat. “Well, yes, there’s,” and this was followed by what Slade realized was someone’s name; he mentally assigned that to mean Professor Linguist. “But do we really have to involve her?”
Her. That was interesting. Slade had not expected woman professors in the equivalent of a nineteenth century university. But that was not a point to address at the moment.
“Well, would she be the one who would know the most commonly used letters and letter sequences in your language? Would she be the one who best understands the structures, the way your words and sentences are built? If you needed someone who understands communication, would you go to her?”
“Frankly, I don’t think I’d go to her if I needed someone to watch my chicks for an afternoon. She talks about language as if studying it were science, engineering, math. And she seems to think that because in our mythology the Hen Lauren taught writing to hens, hens are naturally better at it.”
“That sounds like yes to me. Shella?”
“Oh, yes, my lord. She is definitely the one we need.”
“You don’t have to work with her. You just have to explain what it is we need--a relatively simple way to communicate all the sounds of the language through a code of short and long tones represented by clicks and clacks. I’d suggest to her that the most commonly used sounds should have the shortest codes, and that the longest codes probably should not be more than five sounds, although if she needs to go to six that’s possible.”
Slade realized that his explanation was not really adequate, but it would have to suffice for the moment.
“It would also help if there was some intuitive way to remember at least some of the codes, but I have no idea how to do that.”
The professor did not seem happy about enlisting the aid of the linguist, but Slade did not think there was likely to be a better way to do it. They needed the code to make the telegraph useful, and they needed to make it useful in order to patent it.
He had another thought.
“We’re going to want to demonstrate the usefulness of the gadget,” he said. “I propose we build one that connects the major buildings on campus, and have the people who proctor the buildings learn how to use it. Then messages can be sent between buildings, and we’ll have a working system to show to the world.”
The professor nodded. Progress was being made.
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with twenty other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #437: Characters Relate. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: