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One of the key elements of Alien Awakening is the portrayal of intelligent alien individuals who appear to think on their own and have the ability to converse with each other and the player. One of the most important aspects of this is language. One of the most important things that separate human beings from other, non-sentient animals such as dogs, is our language. Language is not just a tool for communication but a tool for thought itself. Our language defines the elemental concepts of conscious thought – that which lies beyond the basic qualia of feeling and need. By changing the language, not just the language we are speaking but the language that we use to form our conscious thoughts, we change the way we think. As an example, one could imagine a species like the Borg from Star Trek – their language would have no words forI or self. As a result they cannot form thoughts of individuality or self – it is a completely foreign concept. Before they could think of themselves as individuals, they would need to learn how to think of individuality.

It follows, then, that the language in Alien Awakening performs several very important tasks: it forms a means of communication between the player and aliens, it forms a visible form of communication between the aliens themselves to make them feel more alive and finally it forms a framework for the alien thought process itself. This thought process would inherently be alien – the concepts expressible in the alien language would certainly be different then our own – and yet understandable if you learn to think in the alien language (or at least understand the concepts that they can express) . This means that the alien AI must express “conscious” thought in their own language – if it is not expressible then it cannot be thought of at a conscious level. True conscious thought can not be achieved at this level, obviously but the goal is to give the appearance – at least in this constrained problem space. Of course, at first this seems crazy, but the AI would need to be scalable. When dealing with individuals, each individual has it’s own thoughts and perceptions. When talking about groups acting out of sight or far away, a group AI would take over. It would still track the individuals – similar to particles in a massive particle system – but work at a much higher level. This would allow individual behavior when needed as well as group behavior for the rest of the world.

So, then, the language should be relatively simple but must be complex enough to give the aliens adequate – even rich – expressiveness of thought and action. First thing, the basic rules of the language must be simplified. For example, in English, there are a large number of phonemes (a group of sounds that serve the same purpose in a language) which each have a number of allophones (individual sounds that belong to the same phoneme). To add additional complexity, there is a poor match between spelling and phonemes. Several things will be simplified here – each phoneme will have exactly one allophone, one sound. Each phoneme will also be represented by a single symbol or letter. In addition the number of unique phonemes will also be reduced, allowing players and aliens to “speak” directly in phonemes – greatly reducing the complexity at the base level.

There is a lot more to talk about when it comes to the language system but that will have to wait for future posts. Feel free to let me know what you think.

7 Responses to “Language and Thought”

  • Simon Buchan:

    I’m not convinced by the argument that language defines thought, or at least I feel that the converse, that thought defines language, has more influence; if only because I too often have to spend a fair amount of mental effort to translate my thoughts to words. This may be a personality driven thing though: certainly I struggle with this more than my co-workers or friends do! (Maybe I have more complex and difficult thoughts? :P)

    Obviously, however, with an alien species you have the perfect excuse to have your language be sur- or bijective to thoughts, and it can make things a lot easier to think through when you have words to label things! I’m curious as to what you can come up with as “alien” concepts, since depending on where you put the dividing line you can consider just about any thought as either alien or not: I find, for example, the idea that man is not meant to know some things completely bizarre, and difficult to hold in my head, but it’s a fairly commonly held tenet; and on the other hand, I can (with a fair amount of effort, to be sure!) understand religious or racial hatred, despite not being exposed to any amount of it from either side. Any true aliens we find could be anything from completely indistinguishable to completely incomprehensible!

    Your language sounds like it would be a pain for a human to actually speak :). Korean/Hangul has the closest match between its phonetics and syntax that I know of, and even that has thousands of used syllables and non-trivial rules modifying the phonetics of the same syntax (at least, that’s what Wikipedia tells me :P). At least historically, it seems the constraints on human speech and of writing don’t have a solution that doesn’t compromise one or the other (or more commonly, both!). Again, aliens here save the day, and in fact, this is probably going to be one of the biggest things to sell the “alienness” of your aliens: too many fake alien languages are just “dehydrated” English phonetics: basically just hugely overusing a small set of somewhat uncommon English phonemes (consonant heavy if you’re evil, vowel heavy if you’re good!), but still with English phonotactics (damn I love that word!). Real foreign languages are *hard* to pronounce right!

    • luciusDXL:

      Well clearly this is based on a theory, not fact. But for the purposes of this project, I’m using this as a premise. So in that sense it is fact, at least in regards to the virtual world of Alien Awakening.

      As for problem of proper pronunciation, well its not a problem at all. The player won’t be interacting by speaking – but another interface that I’ll talk about later. You will hear the language spoken but it won’t be done using human vocalization. How this is to be accomplished will follow in a future blog post.

  • softdrinkviking:

    I do not believe that language changes the way we think, not directly anyway. It is closer to say that language directs thought. If we think of languages as tools of communication, then each different language has a slightly different tool set. The goal, of course, is for an idea or feeling, or some other various packet of information to be transmitted as completely and accurately as possible from one person to the next. The fact that each and every language can be more or less useful than another one at transmitting different kinds of information makes it a certainty that the information exists in our bodies and minds in a form that is different from the language that we use. Indeed, only the language center of our brains even understands the semantic codes that we use to communicate. What language absolutely does dictate is the nature of our communities and our bureaucratic structures (media, government, ect.)
    If you are just on about it from a purely philisophical point of view, and not a structural one, I believe it was through one of the various branches of existential phenomenology that philosophers began to explore the concept of languages as thought, but I think that it really only calls into question the exact definition of thought rather than the existence of structural information outside of language.

    Anyway, what all of this means, or what it means to me, is that the only way I can see you making a language, or even a partial language for your aliens is to start from the top down. Once you figure out what the government and media look like, you can begin to understand the basic structure of their society and from there, you could possibly extrapolate what their language would look like. I think a very good place to start is an examination of pictographic Vs. phonetic languages, because that is a major linguistic and cultural divide. Also, look at intonation and inflection as way of changing the meaning of a word. Not all languages do this to the same degree (example: Chinese vs. Japanese).

    • Mike:

      A good example of this is the mandarin: ‘ma’. Which, based on the way it is pronounced, can mean any one of five different words.

  • JP:

    You should check out the old Amiga game “Captain Blood”. It handled conversation with aliens with an icon-based “inverse parser” that had surprising depth and really helped add an otherworldly atmosphere.

    You’re much more likely to succeed building something with an inverse parser or toy language. Real language, the kind made out of arbitrary (to a computer) arrangements of phonemes, is hopelessly ambiguous and parsing it properly goes beyond a programming problem into a philosophical problem.

    • softdrinkviking:

      I agree with JP as far as gameplay goes. Actually forcing your players to learn an alien language could put a serious cramp on the gameplay. Looking at past examples of how alien languages were dealt with in games seems like a great place to start. I remember there being at least some of that in the Lucasarts game called “the dig,” and they also had a whole alien world and mythology that was handled pretty well in my opinion.

      However, if your primary reason for imagining your language is to have a more complete world to interact with, it is a good technique to flesh it out a bit. If you think of how language was used in Star Wars or in other such space dramas, there is always a clearly defined universe that the action takes place in, complete with languages and cultures. It is not necessary for the player to actually speak wookie, the depth of the world speaks for itself and adds richness to the gameplay.

      • anonymous:

        Another thing to consider is how will you handle the language between different runs of the game?
        Will it be “randomly” generated, just as the world? Then the task of creating one for each run will be even more difficult, if not impossible. If it will be the same every time, then a returning player will already know it, and all the puzzles/plot/progress tied to the language will be ruined.
        IMHO it might be better to keep the language as “English” and borrow words for fundamental “Alien Awakening” world(s) from some existing, but less known language(s) for the “atmosphere”.

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