15 February, 2007


What would you say to the men of 6939?

In 1938, a capsule was lowered into the ground at the New York World's Fair, designed to last 5,000 years. It was made of Cupaloy—an alloy of 99.4% copper, 0.5% chromium, and 0.1% silver—seven feet, six inches long, and sealed with asphalt. Inside, within a glass 'envelope' from which the air had been 'exhausted' and replaced with nitrogen, were placed items and artefacts of the world as it was on the eve of the Second World War: pictures, microfilms—religious texts, the Constitution, a history of the world—and other objects. A small pamphlet was included, with a key to the English language, and other notes; this pamphlet was also distributed to the world's libraries to commemorate the event.

Recently Rick Prelinger at the popular blog Boing Boing scanned one of these pamphlets and wrote a little notice about it. My brother-in-law forwarded this article to me last week. As usual with this sort of thing, the piece consisted mainly of "here's something neat" without any substantive discussion of the pamphlet's contents. Well, I'm glad there was something for me to do.

History, c. 1938.

The tone of the pamphlet is fascinating—it has a sort of wistful, almost elegiac quality in parts, combined with the gung-ho eulogy of technological progress that you'd expect.

For there is no way to read the future of the world: peoples, nations, and cultures move onward into inscrutable time. In our day it is difficult to conceive of a future less happy, less civilised than our own. Yet history teaches us that every culture passes through definite cycles of development, climax, and decay. And so, we must recognize, ultimately may ours.
Was history teaching them that in 1938? Will Durant seems to have been telling that story, for one. And Spengler had been propounding a gloomy version of the thesis for 20 years. In any case, the capsule team commissioned statements on 'the strengths and weaknesses of our age' and 'the discernible trends of human history' from three eminent men of the time. Who would you pick, dear reader? They chose Nobel physicist Robert Millikan, Thomas Mann, and Albert Einstein. It will be instructive to compare their responses. Millikan writes:

AT this moment, August 22, 1938, the principles of representative ballot government, such as are represented by the governments of the Anglo-Saxon, French, and Scandinavian countries, are in deadly conflict with the principles of despotism, which up to two centuries ago had controlled the destiny of man throughout practically the whole of recorded history. If the rational, scientific, progressive principles win out in this struggle there is a possibility of a warless, golden age ahead for mankind. If the reactionary principles of despotism triumph now and in the future, the future history of mankind will repeat the sad story of war and oppression as in the past.
It is obvious that Millikan is not much of a stylist. In the first sentence 'representative' badly clashes with 'represented', and 'Anglo-Saxon' is precious; 'practically the whole' is childish; 'triumph now and in the future' is redundant, and 'in the future' knocks painfully against 'future history of mankind'; finally, one does not repeat a story 'as in the past'. His dream is the old dream of the humanist Enlightenment—that of the triumph of the rational and scientific against the forces of despotism, and establishment of a 'golden age'. It is almost simperingly naïve. Compare the novelist:

WE know now that the idea of the future as a "better world" was a fallacy of the doctrine of progress. The hopes we center on you, citizens of the future, are in no way exaggerated. In broad outline, you will actually resemble us very much as we resemble those who lived a thousand, or five thousand, years ago. Among you too the spirit will fare badly—it should never fare too well on this earth, otherwise men would need it no longer. That optimistic conception of the future is a projection into time of an endeavor which does not belong to the temporal world, the endeavor on the part of man to approximate to his idea of himself, the humanization of man. . .
Millikan was an American. Mann was not. Mann has no illusions of a golden age: he speaks almost like Hegel of the spirit among men—but in his eyes there is nothing transcendent, for the spirit is only a man's personal quest to absolve himself of temporality, and attain his own Ideal Form. This is in the tradition of Eckhart and the German mystics, and wants nothing to do with the humanist cartoon still trumpeted by Millikan. Read side by side, the men of 6939 will be scratching their heads and laughing at one of them. My money's on Millikan. I suspect that for as long as the human race survives, 'the intelligence & character of the masses [will be] incomparably lower than the intelligence and character of the few who produce something valuable for the community'. Those are Einstein's words, describing the present—he prays that the future will 'read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority', but I doubt it.

The English Language, c. 1938.

Included in the pamphlet is a 'Key to the English Language' written by one John Peabody Harrington, an ethnographer of Native Americans based at the Smithsonian Institute. His job is to explain how English works to those living when 'all the spoken languages of the present time will have become extinct'. Grammars have been written since time immarmoreal, of course—but they have been addressed to contemporaries, and many concepts are taken for granted. Harrington's task is more comparable to that of the Arecibo message, or other communiqués destined for the stars.

Still, his approach is in many ways conventional. He starts with phonetics—vowels, diphthongs, then consonants—moves on to syllables, then the grammar of inflexions and pronouns, deictics, adjectives, comparative and superlatives, and finally verbs. Classical grammars, likewise, began with the smallest elements (stoicheia) and moved up the scale of complexity, generally ending in syntax and poetic metre. A simple early grammar of English, that written by Ben Jonson around 1620, divides the study into two parts—'etymology' (OED sense 3, 'That part of grammar which treats of individual words, the parts of speech separately, their formation and inflexions') and 'syntax'. The first begins with an enumeration of English sounds—vowels, then consonants, then diphthongs. Vowels are classically defined as those sounds which can be made alone, whereas consonants, as the name indicates, require another sound (ie. a vowel) so as to be heard. Harrington's conception of phonology is much more sophisticated—we should expect this, as he was writing during the heyday of descriptive linguistics, and Bloomfield's standard Language had been published five years earlier. The Key defines the vowel as a sound 'whose hemming amounts to mere cavity-shape resonance', while the consonant is a sound 'whose hemming amounts to closure, violent restriction, or closure followed by restriction'. The IPA had reached pretty much its present form in 1933, the same year as Language. But for some reason, Harrington eschews its notation, using instead a [j] to denote the schwa (IPA [ə]), and a [c] to denote a lengthened vowel (IPA [:]). Harrington also offers a 'mouth map' of the sounds of English:

This is already better than previous guides could do. The Key next discusses grammar, using pictures to indicate grammatical distinctions. The difference between singular and plural is indicated by a picture of one bird and a picture of three. The difference between 'here' and 'there' (or 'this' and 'that') is indicated by a picture of two men pointing to each other. The 'good-better-best' distinction is shown by three arrows in a target. And best of all, 'past-present-future' is represented by a ship between two cities. The idea is admirable, but the problem, as Wittgenstein realised (Philosophical Investigations I.6), is that it is impossible to use a picture to indicate an idea unless the person looking at the picture already has some context for the idea to be taught. The 6939 man looking at the ship between towns might equally conclude, without further knowledge, that "paest" was the name of the first town, "prezjnt" that of the ship, and "fyuctur" that of the second town.

This becomes especially evident when Harrington deals with 'subordination', which is really the only sophisticated bit of grammar he treats. To illustrate "Running he aimed", where 'running' is subordinate to 'aimed', Harrington shows a man running with a bow and arrow:

One wonders how helpful this will be. The Key concludes with the Fable of the North Wind and the Sun rendered in his phonetic spelling, and a list of the thousand most used words in the English language, keyed on a series of diagrams. The words include 'ridgepole', 'rafter', and 'haystack'.

That's 1938 for you.


Gawain said...

A+. Now compare/contrast with the Voyager capsule. (One would hope that the code of THAT, based on the structure of the hydrogen atom, would be more intuitive, though one does wonder what the aliens will make of the humpback whale song). Still, if we could decipher the Maya script, we THEY should be able to decipher this (assuming they are around). Didn't know about the project, and am delighted to know it featured Thomas M himself. Interestingly, it featured two Germans. How unpatriotic. But then that's NY for you, no wonder no real people ever want to go there.

John Cowan said...

What, I'm not real enough for you, Gawain? I wanted to go there, I went there, and I shall leave there (permanently) only when dead.

Why is it that I seem condemned to play the Anti-Snob Snob (see Russell Lynes's book) among you?

Proserpine said...

Interesting (and rather touching) to note that from the perspective of the year 1938 the extinction of all human languages is inevitable, while human subjectivity will persist, in its ideal form or its frailty, immutable. It's distinctly possible that an anthropologist of 6939 would find both Mann and Millikin risible. Or not.

I like the visual example for "running, he aimed." Why a guy in his shorts with a bow and arrow? Why not someone in uniform with a Smith and Wesson? The idea that such an illustration would clarify any grammatical point is breathtaking, even without the benefit of Quine's "gavagai."

Conrad H. Roth said...

For what it's worth I quite like NYC.

Gawain said...


Perhaps you like what they offer on Broadway. (but though I dont like the theatrical offering, that was not what I meant to say: it was 1938, and the city chose two Germans for a time capsule. That's interesting, no? i wonder if two __ might merit that honor today).


i am not American, or a patriot of anything. i am a snob, but in my world one's attitude to NYC is immaterial (it's all Tokyo and Singapore and Mumbai for us, the first 2 of which I do not like). but i am glad i borrowed another persona so well as to fool you.

Erik said...

Another fascination on this fancy-fair blog. It reminds us to our attempts to decipher Egyptian figures, Hammurabi's pillar, etc. Many questions arise: how will people know that they are allowed to read the stuff only after 5,000 years? Why not after 3,000? I'm sure that before that time time-travelling will be invented, and that among us time-tourists walk around, we can't spot them because they know the tricks to avoid the problem of "killing your father before your birth", so they seem normal law-abiding taxpayers with families. But they have secret methods to inform people in their time about us. I'm sure they will discover this text on the eternal Internet, and give me the posthume (hope this is the right word) Zubo-prize for my deep insight(Zubo is their Nobel-equivalent).

Robert said...

What would you say to the men of 6939?

If we were to make a list of the most used words now I assume haystack would be replaced by mobile.

It seems that the 5,500 year old guy they found in the Alpine glacier was not a lot different to us physiologically. So if mankind does survive to dig up New York, (assuming he was not warned off by reading Heaventree,) with a flint edged spade or a “mechanical matter transporter” cira 6930, he is likely to understand the bow and arrow.

As to the subtleties of the English language between 1938 and 2007 we can see them at “my” level as a learned academic can read Chaucer or Egyptian hieroglyphics.

You have supposed however that there is a gap between 2007 and 6939 when human recording and understanding is lost and that by 6939 we have had to start again perhaps more than once. Or perhaps a new species altogether is the “reader” perhaps even from another universe. Did you read the story of the reptiles watching Mickey Mouse and spending hundreds of years and millions of dollars researching the meaning of it all especially when the two cars collide?

Ok then it is only, in my view, that assuming your creature of 6939 has feeling (one has to start somewhere) that only physical objects will do to inform them of our world. Why not pictures? Because it has been suggested that before the wall paintings in Lascaux France (15,000 years old) 2D images could not be read by man though he could presumably see. Only 3D objects pre date those which must mean some sort of communication if only to the sculptor himself. This gives you the best chance of catching the attention of intellect beyond our understanding whether on a higher level or not.

As you have shown a new and differently programmed brain may interpret a 2D image quite wrongly. So it has to be the sculptor to come up with the only practical solution to your problem of how to communicate with the unknown.

I would say that we need to go back to fundamental strategies. Fitting an object into another object that will only fit one way and so pass on the messages. Graded sophistication is added when it can only work in a specific order. So the problem of the towns and ship sequence could be overcome.

Simple language can be taught this way.

A fits into A
P fits into P
P fits into P
L fits into L
E fits into E

Sculpted Apple fits into hole for it.

Fundamental facts of life (as we see them now before test tube babies)

Man fits only into one gap
Woman fits only into another gap
Only when both gaps are filled can baby be fitted!

From here you can move on by bounds where the real language professions will come up with “deep and detailed work” based on the growing sophistication of the same principle till you get to Πr2 and beyond.

By now I think they would understand that we are “keen” to communicate with them in the future and also to a lot of strange people we haven’t met and may be to some hostile aliens in space giving away our state of intellect or lack of it.

Casey said...

I'd put all the extant works of Aristotle in the capsule.

Erik said...

About Robert's suggestion. It has to be elaborated. I'm afraid a problem is that when you want to communicate information, then the receiver must have a decoder. Your code is enclosed in the "fitting model", and the receiver must have its key. When I was 18, I read something about decoding the "Linear B scripture" (http://www.ancientscripts.com/linearb.html) which costed an enormous lot of effort to find the key.

I admit that 3D pictures are the most safe language, added with universal signs (arrow: follows from, leads to, etc. , circles: encloses, includes, etc., crosses (Jung gives a number of universal meanings of crosses), etc.

Maybe this way a 3D-picture language can be developed. All our subtle varieties of religious and unreligious experiences, however, cannot be captured by it I'm afraid.

I wouldn't know what messages we had to pass on. The Cro-Magnon man would let us know things that they found important (animals they hunted), we find cars and big houses important, so why not make models of cars en houses and expose them in caves that we expect will survive thousands of years? :-)

Conrad H. Roth said...

It strikes me that a 3D "picture-language" would lose the single greatest feature of actual language--namely its built-in linearity, which allows one to create subtle and sophisticated variations of meaning by means of word-order.

Erik is quite right that a key would still be needed, though I did enjoy Robert's elaborate exposition. Perhaps Robert could write something a little more extended for us on the communicative powers of sculpture, surely his forte!

John Cowan said...

Gawain: I am not a patriot either, by which I mean that my love of my homeland (not my native land) does not have a boundary of hate. I also love the theatre, but I don't care much for Broadway at all; I think it's better to live here (or at least have a local guide) than to visit here, though I encourage visitors (we need them, in a multitude of senses).

Casey: I think we can do better than Aristotle on biology.

Erik: Indeed, Ventris would never have cracked Linear B without the hypothesis that it was Greek, and Linear A (which apparently is not Greek) remains undeciphered to this day.

My CAPTCHA today is "unlyxe", a most suggestive nonword.

Robert said...

My suggestion, for what it is worth, is simply that the 3D is needed as the key to over come initial basic understanding; pre "language".

"The Word" has surely been the making of man, but The Venus of Willenof was there 27,000 years ago almost certainly before the written word".

What does that Venus mean to us now 27,000 years on? That man produced his first communication, the start of language? (10,000 years before the Lascaux paintings).

To write a thesis on the meaning of life in 3d would be easy but for Shakespeare to write Hamlet would be quite a challenge in 3d as would Shaw for Pygmalion.

Daniel said...

"Time immarmoreal" = "Time so old it has calcified"?