Sixty-one “letters”

I just read/skimmed a story from 1983—“Cryptic,” by Jack McDevitt—in which the protagonist has come across a radio signal that seems to include “sixty-one distinct pulse patterns, which was to say, sixty-one characters.”

The protagonist consults the only linguist he knows, who says, among other things: “Sixty-one letters seems a trifle much.” And goes on to suggest (if I’m interpreting right) that it’s unlikely that any sophisticated aliens would have an alphabet containing sixty-one letters.

That is, of course, a ridiculous thing for a linguist to say.

In the real world, modern Malayalam script has over fifty characters. Japanese hiragana and katakana each include 40+ base characters, with modifying markers that result in over 70 distinct characters (in each of the two sets of characters) representing different syllables. (Well, technically the characters represent mora, not syllables.) A couple of thousand kanji are in common use, and 13,000 kanji can be represented numerically in various encoding standards. And the GB 18030 standard defines numerical representations for over 20,000 Chinese characters.

So I strongly suspect that most linguists, even English-speaking ones, would be aware that sixty-one distinct characters really is not a lot in a written human language. And I furthermore suspect that most linguists would point out that seeing sixty-one distinct patterns in a transmission doesn’t necessarily mean that the aliens have an alphabet, much less that it contains sixty-one characters. The patterns could, for example, be numbers in a base sixty-one numbering system. (Or base sixty, with an extra character used as a sexagesimal point or other such punctuation.) For that matter, even ASCII (which was in wide use in the real world by the time this story was written) includes 256 distinct characters; that doesn’t mean that English uses 256 letters.

In short, I suspect that McDevitt didn’t know any linguists and didn’t know much (if anything) about character encodings, and that he didn’t consult any experts when he was writing this story.

Part of why I’m annoyed enough to write this post about a minor error in a thirty-plus-year-old story is just that I hate to see authors handle linguistics poorly in fiction. But part of my reaction is also political: this story reads to me like another example of American sf author provincialism, a recurring pattern in which white American writers take for granted that all human culture is pretty much the same as late-20th-century upper-middle-class white American coastal English-speaking culture, and thereby end up writing fiction that tries to portray alien cultures but doesn’t even manage to portray the range of diversity of real-world humanity.

(I should note that it’s possible that I’m misinterpreting what the linguist character says; maybe McDevitt didn’t mean it to come across anything like the way that I’m reading it.)

2 Responses to “Sixty-one “letters””

  1. Fred Bush

    McDevitt is still writing in that way.

    See also this Charlie Stross blog post:

  2. James Davis Nicoll

    Jack McDevitt is an author whose novels set ten thousand years from now read like they were set in North America in the 1950s.


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