The Martian Anthropologist

I was talking with the Martian anthropologist. She had asked me to explain some of the features of our written language. I was explaining about the alphabet.

"The alphabet represents the base sounds of language with a manageable number of symbols, which get combined into patterns to express the building blocks of spoken language. I guess you'd call it a means of transcribing the phonetics of language into an efficient written form. Visually, you only need to remember a small handful of symbols, and everything derives from there."

"Ah, yes," she said. "We have something similar. Only …" she hesitated. "We have a couple of senses for which humans have no analogue, and we encode those senses as well into what you'd understand as written language."

"Wow," I said.

She performed a complex flexion of musculature around her upper mouth, along with a quiet, keening note from the lower. I'd come to recognize this compound gesture as her species' version of a smile.

"Your alphabet seems like a very efficient system," she said.

"Well, there are some issues," I said, and I wrote down and pronounced the following words:

  • bough
  • cough
  • tough
  • though
  • through
  • thought

She was silent for a very long time. Finally, she spoke.

"I think I am finally coming to understand," she said, "how it is that humans so regularly commit atrocities against each other."

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