Friday, March 22, 2019

Tales From Ancient Days

     I’m a dinosaur. My Gentle Readers know that already. Other visitors might not, which is why I’m saying so out front. Having said that, allow me to present two videos, both short:

     Love them or hate them, “Stardust” and “Deep Purple” were immensely popular love ballads when my parents were young. I, a child of the Fifties, didn’t hear either one until I was a teen. When I did, I couldn’t figure what all the fuss was about. But this screed isn’t about changes in popular tastes. It’s about communication between the generations.

     One evening when I was about twelve, I was seated on the living room sofa with my father watching television, when a noteworthy exchange took place during the program he’d selected. It was one of the early Sixties comedies, the sort that starred a comedian well known from other venues. If memory serves, this one featured Joey Bishop. The exchange of which I speak concerns a singer that one of them had already heard but the other had not. It ran roughly as follows:

First Character: Is he any good?
Second Character: With his voice, he could destroy “Stardust.”

     Dad laughed uproariously. I was puzzled. I asked what made the line so funny. Dad proceeded to tell me that “Stardust” is one of the immortal ballads, so universally beloved that it couldn’t be ruined even if Phyllis Diller sang it through her nose to kazoo accompaniment. Being unacquainted with the song, I remained puzzled, but kept it to myself.

     That was fifty-five years ago. This morning I found myself wondering what shape such conversations take today…if they occur at all.

     “Time Shards,” a story by the great Gregory Benford, grazes the same subject. It concerns the investigation of a curious phenomenon: the possibility that potters of the First Millennium might unintentionally have managed to record conversations in their fine detailing of their pots. A researcher succeeds in recovering one such conversation. I hope Professor Benford won’t mind if I post a long excerpt from this fine and somewhat sobering story:

     Hart pressed a switch and the turntable began to spin. He watched it for a moment, squinting with concentration. Then he reached down to the side of the turntable housing and swung up the stylus manifold. It came up smoothly and Hart locked it in just above the spinning red surface of the pot.
     “Not a particularly striking item, is it?” Brooks said conversationally.
     “Who made it?”
     “Near as I can determine, somebody in a co-operative of villages, barely Christian. Still used lots of pagan decorations. Got them scrambled up with the cross motif a lot.”
     “You’ve gotten . . . words?”
     “Oh, sure. In early English, even.”
     “I’m surprised crude craftsmen could do such delicate work.”
     “Luck, some of it. They probably used a pointed wire, a new technique that’d been imported around that time from Saxony.”
     The computer board hooted a readiness call. Hart walked over to it, thumbed in instructions, and turned to watch the stylus whir in a millimeter closer to the spinning jug. “Damn,” Hart said, glancing at the board. “Correlator’s giving hash again.”
     Hart stopped the stylus and worked at the board. Brooks turned nervously and paced, unsure of what his attitude should be toward Hart. Apparently the man had discovered something, but did that excuse his surliness? Brooks glanced out the window, where the last crowds were drifting away from the Vault dedication and strolling down the Mall. There was a reception for the Board of Regents in Georgetown in an hour. Brooks would have to be there early, to see that matters were in order—
     “If you’d given me enough money, I could’ve had a Hewlett-Packard. Wouldn’t have to fool with this piece of…” Hart’s voice trailed off.
     Brooks had to keep reminding himself that this foul-tempered, scrawny man was reputed to be a genius. If Hart had not come with the highest of recommendations, Brooks would never have risked valuable Vault funding. Apparently Hart’s new method for finding correlations in a noisy signal was a genuine achievement.
     The basic idea was quite old, of course. In the 1960s a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York had applied a stylus to a rotating urn and played the signal through an audio pickup. Out came the wreeee sound of the original potter’s wheel where the urn was made. It had been a Roman urn, made in the era when hand-turned wheels were the best available. The Natural History “recording” was crude, but even that long ago they could pick out a moment when the potter’s hand slipped and the rhythm of the wreeee faltered.
     Hart had read about that urn and seen the possibilities. He developed his new multiple-correlation analysis—a feat of programming, if nothing else—and began searching for pottery that might have acoustic detail in its surface. The sgraffito technique was the natural choice. Potters sometimes used fine wires to incise their wares. Conceivably, anything that moved the incising wire—passing footfalls, even the tiny acoustic push of sound waves—could leave its trace on the surface of the finished pot. Buried among imperfections and noise, eroded by the random bruises of history . . .
     “Got it,” Hart said, fatigue creeping into his voice.
     “Good. Good.”
     “Yeah. Listen.”
     The stylus whirred forward. It gently nudged into the jug, near the lip. Hart flipped a switch and studied the rippling, dancing yellow lines on the board oscilloscope. Electronic archaeology. “There.”
     A high-pitched whining came from the speaker, punctuated by hollow, deep bass thumps.
     “Hear that? He’s using a foot pump.”
     “A kick wheel?”
     “I thought they came later.”
     “No, the Arabs had them.”
     There came a clop clop clop, getting louder. It sounded oddly disembodied in the silence of the long room.
     “Horse. I detected this two weeks ago. Checked it with the equestrian people. They say the horse is unshod, assuming we’re listening to it walk on dirt. Farm animal, probably. Plow puller.”
     The hoofbeats faded. The whine of the kick wheel sang on. “Here it comes,” Hart whispered.
     Brooks shuffled slightly. The ranks upon ranks of ancient pottery behind him made him nervous, as though a vast unmoving audience were in the room with them.
     Thin, distant: “Alf?”
     “Aye.” A gruff reply.
     “It slumps, sure.”
     “I be oct, man.” A rasping, impatient voice.
     “Ah ha’ wearied o’ their laws,” the thin voice persisted.
     “Aye—so all. What mark it?” Restrained impatience.
     “Their Christ. He werkes vengement an the alt spirits.”
     “Hie yer tongue.”
     “They’ll ne hear.”
     “Wi’ ’er Christ ’er’re everywhere.”
     A pause. Then faintly, as though a whisper: “We ha’ lodged th’ alt spirits.”
     “Ah? You? Th’ rash gazer?”
     “I spy stormwrack. A hue an’ grie rises by this somer se’sun.”
     “Fer we?”
     “Aye, unless we spake th’ Ave maris stella ’a theirs.”
     “Elat. Lat fer that. Hie, I’ll do it. Me knees still buckle whon they must.”
     “I kenned that. So shall I.”
     “Aye. So shall we all. But wh’ of the spirits?”
     “They suffer pangs, dark werkes. They are lodged.”
     “Ah. Where?”
     “‘Ere? In me clay?”
     “In yer vessels.”
     “I chanted ’em in ’fore sunbreak.”
     “Nay! I fain wad ye not.”
     whir whir whir
     The kick wheel thumps came rhythmically.
     “They sigh’d thruu in-t’wixt yer clay. ’S done.”
     “Fer what?”
     “These pots—they bear a fineness, aye?”
     A rumbling, “—will hie home ’er. Live in yer pots.”
     “Whon time werkes a’thwart ’e Christers, yon spirits of leaf an’ bough will, I say, hie an’ grie to yer sons, man. To yer sons sons, man.”
     “Me pots? Carry our kenne?”
     “Aye. I investe’ thy clay wi’ ern’st spirit, so when’s ye causes it ta dance, our law say . . .”
     A hollow rattle.
     “Even this ’ere, as I spin it?”
     “Aye. Th’ spirits innit. Speak as ye form. The dance, t’will carry yer schop word t’ yer sons, yer sons sons sons.”
     “While it’s spinnin’?”
     Brooks felt his pulse thumping in his throat.
     “Speak inta it. To yer sons.”
     “Ah . . .” Suddenly the voice came louder. “Aye, aye! There! If ye hear me, sons! I be from yer past! The ancient dayes!”
     “Tell them wha’ ye must.”
     “Aye. Sons! Blood a’ mine! Mark ye! Hie not ta strags in th’ house of Lutes. They carry the red pox! An’…an’, beware th’ Kinseps—they bugger all they rule! An’, whilst pot-charrin’, mix th’ fair smelt wi’ greeno erst, ’ere ye’ll flux it fair speedy. Ne’er leave sheep near a lean-house, ne, ’ey’ll snuck down ’an it—”
     whir whir thump whir
     “What—what happened?” Brooks gasped.
     “He must have brushed the incising wire a bit. The cut continues, but the fine touch was lost. Vibrations as subtle as a voice couldn’t register.”
     Brooks looked around, dazed, for a place to sit. “In . . . incredible.”
     “I suppose.”

     The probability of that “recording” being comprehensible, much less useful, to generations two or more removed from the makers approaches zero. The significant elements in it – practices, persons, institutions, et cetera – would have vanished from their society. They, of course, couldn’t know that.

     Communication, to be worthwhile, must be bilaterally comprehensible. That is: the hearer must understand what the speaker is saying as the speaker himself understands it. In pre-technological societies, when the number of elements an individual was presumed familiar with was small and travel over long distances was rare and difficult, a common language composed of stable terms and a simple grammar would have sufficed to meet that requirement. Things are different today.

     The old game “Twenty Questions” embedded an important assumption that’s seldom discussed: the person or item the questioner seeks to discover is within a “sociocultural space” that twenty yes-or-no questions can span. That’s only about a million elements. There are far more elements in our sociocultural space today.

     Today “a common language composed of stable terms and a simple grammar” isn’t enough to assure bilaterally comprehensible communication. The number of possible referents, many of them almost as important to John Q. Public as food, clothing, and shelter, is so great that the odds are poor that John and a randomly selected person who speaks the same language will both be familiar with a major subset of them. This has a constricting effect on the social space within which JQP’s communications will be reliable. As long as he stays within that space, he’ll understand and be understood by the others in it. Outside it, things will be a lot more challenging. The size and populations of such spaces can depend on our occupations, educations, pastimes, neighborhoods, tastes, opinions, and other matters. And there is essentially nothing to be done about it.

     Not long ago there was a vogue for creating and burying “time capsules” whose contents were intended to represent our societies to their future discoverers. Pre-technological societies didn’t do such things; they couldn’t conceive of so much change that their present would need to be demonstrated to their future by word, sound, or artifact. Today’s society probably couldn’t agree on what should go into such a capsule. Add to this the rapid transformation of language – every human language of importance – and what are the odds that a communication to Americans a century hence would be comprehensible, meaningful, or useful?

     Even communication between parent and child is becoming strained. Yes, the distortion of the meanings of words is an important factor. But let’s not discount the explosion of the sociocultural space or our selectivity about it. Parents and children need not have largely overlapping subsets. A game of “Twenty Questions” involving different generations of the same family has a significant chance of inducing frustration. Throw in a few players from other parts of the English-speaking world, and what then?

     How conversant are you with Strine idioms or English rhyming slang?

     The above are “Friday morning thoughts,” the sort I indulge on a Friday morning after a relatively strenuous week. Yes, they’re relevant, generally at least, to contemporary concerns. You already know how sensitive I am to the deliberate misuse of words. But Man does not communicate by words alone. The complexity of our societies and the speed with which they’re creating specialized domains of knowledge – some of them useful, some of them trivial – guarantee that facility in communication will be an ever more highly prized skill, requiring both mastery of language and breadth of sociocultural knowledge.

     Now go back and listen to “Stardust” and “Deep Purple,” and reflect. Must have been some atrocious voice if the singer spoken of could “destroy Stardust,” eh what?


Tracy Coyle said...

Hirsch?'s Cultural Literacy is one of the few actual books that I keep around. It was a thing back in the 90's in my sphere to determine what percentage of the list at the back of that book we could speak a sentence or two about. I'm in the 90% area but most can't get above 50%. Of course I am, and always have been, a voracious reader so it tracks.

Takes quite an author to use a word I have to look up!

I think we are the last generation that can span generations....certainly my nieces and nephews are considerably less aware. I have no hope for the current 20-somethings...

Linda Fox said...

English rhyming slang - yes. I'm of that era that was enraptured by the British Invasion of the 1960s.

Never heard of strine until today (I looked it up) - nope, I couldn't handle most of these.