Saturday, 15 March 2014

Not Tardis But Diaglossa

Doctor Who's Tardis not only transports its passengers to other times, places and planets but also enables them to understand and speak whatever language is currently in use at their arrival point. Impossible. At least two fundamental changes need to be made in any revamp of Doctor Who: first, the Time Lords should be not an extraterrestrial species but descendants of humanity, maybe colonists of Gallifrey, and, secondly, they should encounter linguistic problems when they time travel although, by the time we meet them, they might conceivably have learned many languages and programmed them into something like the "diaglossas" in Poul Anderson's The Corridors Of Time (London, 1968).

A diaglossa, a small artifact inserted into an ear, is a molecular encoder storing important languages and basic customs of an area and era, drawing energy from body heat and meshing its output with the user's brain, thus adding an artificial memory center. Thus, different diaglossas are necessary for different periods and the diaglossas' programmers have had to learn the languages and customs in the first place. Similar effect to the Tardis but a lot more plausible. Diaglossas are silent about historical events so that native auxiliaries will not learn their futures.

In northern Europe in 1827 BC, Lockridge's diaglossa gives him an agglutinative language with a complex grammar and many fine distinctions unknown to civilized men, like twenty words for water, but no single word for "mass," "government" or "monotheism," and very different concepts of cause, time, self and death.

At the gate of Viborg in 1535 AD, Lockridge is suspected of spying because, although he claims to be English, his diaglossa makes him fluent in both German and Danish. In the late fortieth century, he has learned how to draw information from his diaglossa: two languages, Western and Eastern; two ideologies, materialism and pantheism; much information on Ranger subordination of underlings but far less on the Wardens, whose diaglossa he uses, although he does get an impression of benevolent hierarchy (!).

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