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A blog by Leon Oudejans

Language = communication + decoding

21 November 2022


The Sumerian civilization is credited with having invented language, amongst many other inventions still in use today (eg, agriculture, calendar / time). If the neighbouring Akkadian empire had not been able to decipher Sumerian cuneiform script, the Sumerian language would only have been unknown communication.

“Understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics took the lucky 1799 find of the Rosetta Stone, which translated a Demotic decree (the language of everyday ancient Egyptians) into Greek and hieroglyphics. Even so, French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion labored more than two painstaking decades to make sense of the strange Egyptian symbols.”

Excerpt of a 2022 Smithsonian article: Have Scholars Finally Deciphered a Mysterious Ancient Script?

In the human view, any nonhuman communication is not a language (eg, animal sounds, plants, trees). In my view, the only reason for such a (weird) belief is that we lack a translator (eg, Google Translate for animals). Nevertheless, there have been several recent animal communication studies (eg, cats, dogs).

Several films describe the painstaking deciphering process of (future) alien-human communication, like the 1977 Spielberg movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (rated 7.6 in IMDb), the 1997 Zemeckis film Contact (rated 7.5 in IMDb), and the more recent 2016 film Arrival (rated 7.9 in IMDb).

A 2019 obituary on Miguel Civil (1926-2019), “who knew the Sumerian language better than anyone since it was last spoken 4000 years ago”, mentions that he forged a better understanding by “drawing on modern linguistics and fundamental truths about how languages are organized”. (source)

“Sumerian literary and scholarly texts rely on a complex web of intercultural connections, metaphorical reasoning and arcane knowledge known only to the scribal elite, and Miguel had this wonderful ability to elucidate these subtle connections and unpack them”.

Excerpt of 2019 obituary on Miguel Civil, world’s leading scholar of ancient Sumerian, 1926-2019

That quote suggests all communication can be deciphered into language once there’s a decoder.

It’s intriguing why we spend so much money on space travel (eg, moon missions, JW space telescope, future mission to Mars) and so little on ocean research, or even animal languages. SA-2014: “Less than 0.05 percent of the ocean floor has been mapped to a level of detail useful for detecting items [ ]”.

It looks like that we are in a hurry leaving this planet. Moreover, understanding animal languages would pose moral and legal issues (eg, animal rights). At least, animals make sounds. NPR-2019: “In early July, Bangladesh became the first country to grant all of its rivers the same legal status as humans.”

Some interesting quotes on language:

  • Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world. Noam Chomsky
  • Language is a form of human reason, which has its internal logic of which man knows nothing. Claude Levi-Strauss
  • Language is the dress of thought. Samuel Johnson
  • But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. George Orwell
  • Math is the language of the universe. Lucas Grabeel

Decode (2022) by Sabrina Carpenter
artist, lyrics, video, Wiki-artist, Wiki-album+song

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless in quotes or stated otherwise.


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