April 14th, 2008

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Linguistics; crosscultural communication; Foreigner series; part three...

More data, from Foreigner; the narrator is Bren Cameron, the Terran whose official role is translator, interpreter, and cultural liaison....

1. "There were some odd interfaces in the dealings of atevi and humans. One couldn't blame the atevi for clinging to traditional procedures, clumsy as the stacks were, and there was a computer record. ... But ask the atevi to use citizen numbers or case numbers? Convince them first that their computer-assigned personal numbers were auspicious... Convince them that changing those numbers caused chaos and lost records -- because if things started going wrong, an ateva faulted his number and wanted it changed, immediately." (page 82)

2. "... [T]here might be a second ugly test of human technology versus atevi haroniin, a concept for which there was no human word or even complete translation. Say that atevi patience had its limits, that assassination was essential to the way atevi kept their social balance, and haroniin meant something like 'accumulated stresses on the system, justifying adjustment.' " (page 91)

3. [Jago, the woman referred to in the quote below, is one of the two atevi assigned to Bren as ... roughly ... bodyguards and minders; Mospheira is the island territory where humans live.]

"He couldn't even get his points across to one well-educated and unsuperstitious woman with every reason to listen to him. How could he transmit anything, via his prepared statements to the various councils, make any headway with the population at large, who, after two centuries of peace, agreed it was a very good thing for humans to stay on Mospheira and grudgingly conceded that computers might have numbers, the way tables might have definite sizes and objects definite height, but, God, even arranging the furniture in a room meant considering ratios and measurements, and felicitous and infelicitous combinations that the atevi called agingi'ai, 'felicitous numerical harmony.' Beauty flowed from that, in atevi thinking. The infelicitous could not be beautiful. The infelicitous could not be reasoned with. Right numbers had to add up, and an even division in a simple flower arrangement was a communication of hostility. God knew what he had communicated to Jago that he hadn't meant to say." (page 110)

4. "If there is, he wrote now, one area of technological difficulty, it is ironically in mathematics, in which the different uses of mathematics by our separate cultures and languages have led to different expressions of mathematics at an operational level. While these different perceptions of math are a rich field for speculation... for the present, these foundational differences in concept remain an obstacle particularly to the beginning atevi computer student attempting to comprehend a logical machine which ignores certain of his expectations, which ignores the operational conveniences and shortcuts of his language, and which proceeds by a logical architecture adapted over centuries to the human mind." (page 137)

5. "Maybe he was the most naive, maybe because he'd gone into a relationship with the most friendly of aijiin, and it was so damned easy to ignore the warnings in every text he'd ever studied and fall right into the same trap as the first humans on the planet ... expecting atevi to be human. Expecting atevi to do what one naturally expected nice, sane human people to do and, God help him twice, what he wanted atevi to do, what he emotionally needed atevi to do, instead of himself waking up, paying attention to danger signals, and doing the job he'd been sent here for." (page 290)

[Note: There is a special register of the atevi language reserved for children; we learn on page 22 of Precursor that that register is "number-neutral." That is, when speaking that register a human being wouldn't have to constantly be afraid of saying something that contained an "infelicitous" number.]
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Linguistics; crosscultural communication; Foreigner series; part three -- afternote...

An anonymous comment came in this morning, saying:

"I think it is important to remember that Bren Cameron is not Terran; he is, by his own reckoning, Mospheiran. His ancestors for many generations were Mospheiran. Their ancestors were born and bred on the ship that went off course and ended up in the atevi solar system. It's a big plot point in future novels in the FOREIGNER series that the Mospheirans are very, very different from the folks who stayed aboard ship -- and in neither case, do they appear to think of themselves as Terran. Using 'Terran' as shorthand for 'human' is risking the set-up of subtly inaccurate premises for our discussion."

My response was: "You're absolutely right, and I apologize for my carelessness; thank you for bringing it to my attention. I'll try to avoid that mistake in future."

I will try to avoid that mistake in future. Referring to Bren Cameron (or to any of the other Mospheirans that appear in the series) as "Terrans" was abysmally stupid of me. I'm grateful to Someone for making the facts about this explicit. However, a clarification is needed at this point:

The discussion we're having was based on the idea that we could use the difficulty Bren Cameron has, in his crosscultural communication with the atevi, as a metaphor for exploring crosscultural communication problems we Terrans have on this Earth. That means that the scenarios and contexts we're setting up here have to do with a hypothetical Discussion Universe in which the crosscultural contact is between Terrans -- us -- and the atevi, not between Mospheirans and the atevi.