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Sharer language: Subject = Object

October 30, 2011

Sharers uses plants and animals only as they are used in return. So, because Sharers consume plants and animals as food, they accept that they in turn will become food for other life forms; that predators will ultimately consume them.

A unique expression of the Sharer worldview is their language, in which subject and object are interchangeable. The Sharers know by context what subject and object are–but their language does not allow them to make a distinction. As a result, they always know that what one person “forces” upon another involves force in return. Their language prevents anyone from “giving orders” to dominate others. If someone says, “You must obey me,” the Sharer hears, “I must obey you,” or (the closest translation), “We must share agreement.” Their language reinforces the Sharers’ refusal to allow any individual to dominate another by force.

In A Door into Ocean, a Valan confronts a Sharer about their language:

“If Beryl bears a child, does the child bear Beryl? That’s ridiculous.”
“A mother is born when her child comes.”
“Or if I swim in the sea, does the sea swim in me?”
“You can’t be that crazy. You do know the difference, don’t you?”
“Of course. What does it matter?”

What do you think?  Does the subject – object difference really matter? What would the world look like if we didn’t think so?

16 Comments
  1. October 30, 2011 5:37 pm

    You are essentially positing language in terms that resemble a Newtonian force (equal but opposite effect, etc). Interestingly, English allows such thought experiments by analogy: it’s almost entirely uninflected, so it can be/come as ambiguous as one likes. Not so for most other languages, which are forced to convey specifying information by their very structure.

    Even ambiguous languages manage to denote power relationships, however, even for people as non-violent as Jainists. Creating a language without such items would be as tall an order as creating one that does not lie by omission or commission.

  2. October 31, 2011 1:47 am

    I always thought the sharer language was fun. I guess the best test is whether you can use the sharer language to do everything they need to do during their lives. For instance, in sailing from one raftwood tree to another, how do you give the directions in Sharer, especially when the trees are moving relative to each other?

    • October 31, 2011 8:30 am

      It seems to me you’ve answered your own question. If raft trees are always moving, then the sailor and the tree both have to “share moving” and meet together.

  3. October 31, 2011 10:08 am

    Hi Joan. Let’s say that Tree A is moving west on one side of a gyre, while tree B is moving east on the other side of the gyre several hundred kilometers to the north. How do you navigate from tree A to tree b across the gyre, in Sharer language?

  4. October 31, 2011 7:24 pm

    An additional point: “If I swim in the sea, does the sea swim in me?” is theoretically gender-neutral (we’re 70% salt water, after all). However, it’s far likelier to be understandable/acceptable to someone who is penetrated than someone who penetrates. The former tend to have blurrier boundaries than the latter.

    • November 1, 2011 10:30 am

      The Sharers as a whole understand being penetrated by living things, since they host breathmicrobes. In fact, this is a more realistic awareness of being a human creature. All humans are penetrated by microbes, especially digestive and skin microbes. So regardless of gender, it would be appropriate for all humans to consider themselves penetrated life forms.

  5. Esebian permalink
    November 1, 2011 8:08 am

    Every time you need a neurolinguist, no one’s near…

    The context-dependency might be problematic for outsiders who are, well, out of the loop. Not only for such stark examples as interstellar travellers, but members of the next raft or one of the opposite side of the planet. If the context is opaque in the first place, then it’s hard to convey information on a confusing basis. A sufficient IT infrastructure could probably establish context for any participant, but that’s a pretty great expense for a language.

    • November 1, 2011 10:35 am

      This is interesting, but perhaps it’s getting over complicated.
      Why can’t the Sharers just say, “Let’s you and I meet at Raft X.” Then whichever is at Raft X knows the other has to “move” to get there. Or else, Raft X has to move; in which case, they can say how much each will move.

      • November 1, 2011 12:52 pm

        I guess the question is: “how do you get there?”

        I’m not disputing that interaction is a good feature in a language. What I’m trying to figure out is how to deal with situations where the separation between subject and object is useful and critical (as in navigation). With respect to navigation, each raft is in (effectively) a separate frame of reference (they’re in different places, moving in different directions).

        There’s a couple of ways to do it. One is to assume that there’s one frame of reference (the global map), somehow plot the movements on the rafts, and figure out the math for how to get from one to another. At this point we’re trying to figure out how to phrase trigonometry and vector algebra in the Sharer language.

        Another way to do it is the Polynesian way: they navigate linguistically, by making the assumption that the canoe stays still (with the stars wheeling above them and the islands move relative to the boat. This is easy to do without map technology, through mental gymnastics. However, it requires three changes of frame of reference: you go from the raft A to the boat, then from the boat to raft B. That’s three different frames to share, and I’m not sure how you do that in the Sharer language.

  6. November 1, 2011 3:35 pm

    the islands move relative to the boat.
    Actually, I’m wondering how you do it in *our* language. I’m not sure I see what the Polynesians do; but if it works just as well to imagine the island moving to me as to think of me moving to the island, that’s exactly how Sharers think.

  7. November 1, 2011 5:41 pm

    Actually, if you have a GPS, you see the oceanic model of motion. You’re stationary in the center of the screen, and the map moves around you. The old navigators just did it in their heads.

    Here’s how it might go: As they sail, the Sharers see Raft A sink into the sea behind them, taking a back sighting to see how the raft is moving relative to their boat (to gauge how the current is moving them. Then they watch how the stars sink on the horizon (which is the equivalent of their compass), feel how the waves hit the boat, and watch for slicks that mark the boundaries of currents and such. All this provides direction and location cues. Then they start searching for signs of Raft B ahead of them, things like “birds” flying back to roost at sunset, clickflies heading between rafts, sounds from the Rafts, and so forth, and use that information to adjust their headings to steer for Raft B. Oceanic navigators have it easier, because their islands were mostly big, mostly came in archipelagos, snag clouds, reflect waves, and even have big, still lagoons that reflect sun more brightly, making bright spots on the horizon. All of these are easier to spot than a smallish raft tree.

    There’s a book called We The Navigators (also, The Last Navigator) that details all these techniques. Maybe someone (a student in your SF class?) can figure out how to parse a Shora voyage in the Sharer’s language.

  8. paws4thot permalink
    November 1, 2011 6:42 pm

    A “moving map” system works fine once someone has drawn the map and/or laid out a grid system that allows you to state that you are at $coordinate_pair. Heteromeles’ suggestion would work fine if the wind direction and currents are constant, but if that were the case then 2 Rafts at the same Latitude should hold a constant separation, at least if the planet has polar ice caps, since those would be forced to be circular (ours aren’t basically because of the land constraining them).

    Navigating beween 2 objects that have a variable separation and aren’t in sight of each other basically can’t be done without a means of describing their motions relative to each other in a static frame.

    • November 1, 2011 8:30 pm

      It’s complicated; a wonder that mariners ever crossed the Pacific.
      In the case of the Sharers, they do share information among rafts using clickflies (flying insects with DNA recorders) and hydrogen bladder plants (a sort of living dirigible). So they can get some positional data from a distance.

    • November 1, 2011 10:12 pm

      “Navigating beween 2 objects that have a variable separation and aren’t in sight of each other basically can’t be done without a means of describing their motions relative to each other in a static frame.”

      I’m not sure it’s that impossible: lots of deep ocean predators seem to do it pretty well, moving between schools of fish. I’d also suggest that a deep space civilization (say one that’s moving from comet to comet) might find it useful to adopt shifting reference frames, rather than work in a static frame.

      Still, I’d agree that it’s much simpler with math. The trick is to find a way to do the math sustainably, and that’s one of the issues with Shora. After all, saying that “Clickflies can navigate between rafts, but people can’t,” simply switches the problem to figuring out how clickflies do it.

      I’d still suggest this is where students can have some fun figuring out mechanisms.

    • paws4thot permalink
      November 2, 2011 11:16 am

      In the case of the Pacific, we don’t know how many people were lost, only that some weren’t. Also, in the initial colonisation phase, we know that the colonists had the choice of “go one way and hope” or “go any other way and probably get beaten up or even eaten by the existing residents”.

      Every “other species” case either of you’ve quoted could rely on them having a much better sense of smell to tell you “head this way”.

      • November 2, 2011 2:36 pm

        Actually, according to the archeologists, it appears that many islands in the central Pacific were settled much faster than they reached carrying capacity. Probably something like “the first son got the land, the second son got the canoe” played out. Certainly many people died on the water, but there’s good archeological evidence for normal interisland trade. The old idea that the Pacific was settled by accident and desperation doesn’t hold well with the evidence available.

        As for the clickflies, you’ve got to read Joan’s book, if you haven’t already. They’re an artificial species used to relay messages among rafts.

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