Artificial languages and their varying degrees of proximity to natural languages—that’s what Professor Noni has been working on as one of his innumerable side-projects.
This series, produced in close collaboration with the staff of the Zhadhya Archive Centre, features selections from the institution’s recent acquisitions. This week, we are focusing on the collected papers of the Kankurgachi Amateur Balloonists Society; the excerpts below are from the diary of a still unidentified balloonist. Loose leaves from what is suspected to be a diary were found inside a light green envelope labeled The Balloonist’s Sandbox. Dr. Raruli Seal, chief archivist at Zhadhya, is still trying to decipher the society’s date-encoding system. Consequently, the excerpts may not be in strict chronological order.
You must be wondering what could I possibly have to say to Professor Noni. The answer is, to be honest, nothing much. It was first and foremost a fan letter. But in passing, I managed to ask him something that had nagged at me for many years: How did he reconcile his lexicographer and chemist selves? Did vowel-consonant conjugation remind him of Van der Waals forces and hydrogen bonding? Or was the lovingly designed product catalogue for his chemical and pharmaceutical company a not-so-distant cousin of his dictionary? I was aware that my suggestions might have been a bit reductive; the lexicographer-chemist relationship didn’t necessarily have to be a one-to-one mapping. But it was all I could come up with in my genuine bafflement at the ease with which he handled his parallel careers.
Artificial languages and their varying degrees of proximity to natural languages—that’s what Professor Noni has been working on as one of his innumerable side-projects. While his interest was triggered by P.C. Mahalanobis’s recently developed tools for calculating the distance between two multivariate data sets, Professor Noni decided to borrow some of the techniques popularly used to study boxes filled with gaseous molecules in collision. So, this is his research question: How do people react when they hear the artificial-language version of a word they use every day? And by studying this reaction, can we learn anything about the best ways to create new artificial languages that are equidistant from at least five prominent natural languages?
Not content with mere thought experiments, Professor Noni wants to explore these questions in a real-world context using live human subjects. His plan is to seed a large urban crowd with a team of n-word-reciting volunteers. While the precise value of n will be determined by the final size of the crowd, the ratio of n to crowd population will be a very small fraction. In other words, a stadium-filling crowd might contain as few as five volunteers. For the duration of the experiment—approximately two and a half hours—each of these volunteers will try to move through the crowd while whispering a single artificial-language word into the ears of his or her immediate neighbor. Ideally speaking, the crowd has to be dense (or “viscous”) enough to significantly resist volitional movement. Therefore, what Professor Noni wants is a crowd within which one’s locomotion is not a simple case of willed motor activity, but is rather an emergent property of the entire field. You are tossed around continually by the crowd; you are forced to go where it takes you.
Professor Noni’s Sticky Trajectory Hypothesis states that in a static crowd (that is, one whose members are not trying to move en masse toward a specific destination), a trajectory resulting from the willed and directed locomotion of an individual fully immersed in that crowd can be read as an indicator of the same individual’s stickiness within the crowd.1 For example, consider you and a friend are both immersed in a viscous static crowd whose density is spatially invariant, i.e. remaining constant in all directions. Both of you want to cover a distance of eight feet in 30 minutes. However, after half an hour of concentrated effort, your realize that you have covered only two feet and that your resultant trajectory is hardly straight but a sawtooth gone awry, a highly irregular zigzag line that often doubles back on itself. On the other hand, your friend has managed to cover six feet, and via a less jagged trajectory. In such a scenario, one could invoke the Sticky Trajectory Hypothesis and conclude that, your friend is significantly less sticky than you are with respect to the given crowd.
As a necessary corollary to the Sticky Trajectory Hypothesis, Professor Noni proposes that the introduction of an actual spoken word would attenuate the trajectory of a given volunteer in a manner strongly correlated to the crowd’s affective response thereto. A positive response would result in a spikier trajectory. Therefore, by studying the trajectories corresponding to multiple artificial-language words, one may arrive at an embodied yet quantitative sense of the ways in which a given language population reacts to its artificial cousin.
By now, you must have guessed the nature of Professor Noni’s request: He wants me to plot the trajectories of the volunteers from the elevated vantage point of a balloon floating high above the crowd. To help me in my observation, he has even designed a glass plate in the shape of the playground in which he is planning to assemble the crowd. Needless to say, the plate is marked with a grid corresponding to the playground’s chalk-line grid. For each session, I have to track a given volunteer by marking their position on the glass at equally spaced intervals of time. At the end of a session, joining up these points will generate the cumulative trajectory for the given volunteer and the corresponding artificial-language word he or she was instructed to recite. Now, what if the crowd’s uniform density, crucial to the experiment here, shows signs of significant perturbation during the session? Professor Noni seems to have anticipated my concern here; a footnote assures me that he has enlisted the services of the best orators in town.
This text is part of Abhishek Hazra’s ongoing exploration of the social history of scientific practices in colonial India. While what is presented here is speculative fiction striated with some anachronistic extrusions, it draws from historical instances and personalities active in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Calcutta. For instance, “Professor Noni” is a character from one of Rajshekhar Basu’s short stories. The remarkably polymathic Rajshekhar Basu (1880–1960) was a trained chemist who for many years headed the Bengal Chemical and Pharmaceutical Works in Calcutta, a pioneering pharmaceutical company established in 1901 by the scientist P.C. Ray (1861–1944).
In Bengali literature, Basu is well known as brilliant humorist, and the author of numerous comic and satirical short stories. He was also an incisive essayist. Even when addressing “serious” topics such as the hazards of hydrogenated oils or the perils of an anti-scientific attitude masked as facetious scientism, his taut prose is shot through with a characteristic irony. However, Basu’s popularity as a humorist has often overshadowed other dimensions of his writing. For instance, one might argue that his scientific rationality is ruptured by a strong pataphysical sensibility: strange, idiosyncratic contraptions—a harmonium repurposed to transform carbohydrates derived from grass into proteinaceous edible matter, or rubber stamps designed to automate the repetitive writing that the faithful is supposed to offer to his chosen deity—surface repeatedly in his short stories. Basu was also a significant lexicographer whose compact dictionary Chalantika is an important intervention in Bengali lexicographic history, remaining in print ever since its 1931 publication.
Abhishek Hazra is an artist and occasional writer based in Bangalore.
- It is apparent here, that in this current context, stickiness is just a colloquial term related to the more complex affinity vector. The experienced reader will surely have already noticed other such slippages in these humble pages, for which I can only apologize. ↩