A number among you will no doubt have heard the anecdote about a supposed Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge’ in whose remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
The reference is plucked out of an essay by Jorge Louis Borges entitled ‘El idioma analítico de John Wilkins‘ or ‘The analytical language of John Wilkins‘, a fact which led me to search out said essay and find out more about this Mr. Wilkins and his proposed language. As it turns out, this 17th century thinker was inspired by Decartes’ writing on ciphers and the possibility of a language in which all ideas are systematically coded into each word, and thence decided to make up a this fantabulous language himself.
The idea goes something like this: you divide the universe into a given number of overall categories (in his case 40); you then subdivide these into “differences”, and the “differences” into “species”. Each of the categories is assigned a monosyllable composed of two letters, each “difference” is represented by a consonant, and each “species” by a vowel.
So, as an example, ‘de’ means an element; ‘deb’, the first of the elements – fire; and ‘deba’, a part of the element fire, a flame. And the simple word ‘zana’ will immediately tell you a whole lot more than the inadequate English equivalent – ‘salmon‘, (that is, if you know your forty categories and the species of these categories), namely that the subject is a scaled river fish, with ruddy meat .
Of course you quickly run into considerable conundrums when attempting to categorise the world in such a way, because, as Borges points our with his Chinese Encyclopaedia example, the universe sort of defies categorisation, and each categorisation is largely a reflection of the categoriser’s culture and society. So, as you are probably aware, Wilkins’ idea didn’t quite catch on, and four centuries later we are still left babbling in our impenetrable and meaningless tongues.
Borges leaves us, as I leave you for today, with this rather marvelous quote which I here plagiarise in full: “He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest… Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of this own inside, noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire”. (G.F. Watts by G.K. Chesterton)
The internet has unarguably been the biggest revolution in communication since the printing press. Never before have you been able to share so many thoughts with so many strangers and start arguments with someone half-way around the world in some common dialect of international English. Still, we have so far remained in the domain of human communication, but it seems that the next revolution may be just around the corner.
The concept of the Interspecies Internet has just been launched at a TED conference this week by Vint Cerf (chief Internet evangelist at Google and one of the founders of the world wide web), Diana Reiss (a researcher in animal cognition), Neil Gershenfeld from MIT, and Peter Gabriel (yes, as in the songwriter, who you can see in this video jamming with an ape).
They are interested in the power of using new technology to help us communicate with the more intelligent animals out there and have already started collaborating with elephant, dolphin and orangutan sanctuaries. It turns out that animals have generally been better able at figuring out how to communicate with us than the other way around, largely by pressing strange buttons to show us what they want.
So we are hopeful, even though the project is still at the stage of being ‘an idea in progress’, that one day soon we will be sharing videos and tunes with our animals friends around the world and seeing how they react. Will orangutans find cats and funny babies as fascinating as we do? Will elephants show their sense of humour or will dolphins express a penchant for jazz? Let’s just hope that we don’t simply end up arguing with them over whose momma is fatter.
A popular youtube clip demonstrating that animals and humans really can communicate, and who needs words anyway? I think the dog is saying “pay attention to ME for once!”.
What happens when a bunch of academic hippies take a new-born chimp and attempt to raise him like a human in New York with the aim of teaching him sign-language and finally bridging the inter-species communication gap? Well, first they give him a highbrow joke for a name, then they let him smoke weed and ride motorcycles, and finally, when the animal gets too big and is still not displaying use of syntax, they ship him off to an experimental research laboratory.
A couple of decades later, they write memoirs about their time with said chimp, and then the cherry on this sordid cake is the film: the moving documentary Project Nim. Director James Marsh managed to interview just about all of the people involved in the process of raising Nim and attempting to teach him sign language – you can see their individual profiles in this Guardian article. In the end, he not only succeeds in showing us the emotional involvement the researchers had with the chimp, he also untangles the love-affairs between the human participants which only added to the delicate and complex nature of the project.
This is a documentary worth watching if only to be reminded that chimps may not have syntax, but they are probably nicer than most humans. I know whose side I’m on in any case.