Kem and Doy

In modern English, there do not appear to be any generally accepted terms identifying people by their genital configuration and secondary sex characteristics without having to invoke gender and the social convention surrounding it, as “AMAB” and “AFAB” do. While those terms (and a few others) allow discourse to function to a certain degree, they continue to feel a bit awkward for the task at hand. It would seem useful to have unanalyzable terms for each of these categories.

Thus, let the word “kem” /kɛm/ refer to a person with traditionally Y-chromosomal physical traits (both in terms of genitalia and in terms of secondary characteristics), and the word “doy” /dɔɪ/ refer to a person with traditionally X-chromosomal traits. These terms are intended to be used as adjectives, but could be repurposed as nouns if necessary.

Now, of course, there are a lot of people who have traits from both categories, often with one of them being dominant. That’s okay, since there’s no need for these two words to be mutually exclusive — one can be mostly doy but have a couple of kem features, or fairly equally distributed between the two. The important thing is that these words refer to aspects of physical bodies, rather than gender identities. Additionally, they refer to aspects of a person’s physical body regardless of how they came to possess it — thus, a kem person is kem even if they were born doy, and vice versa.

Etymologically, the word “kem” is at some level inspired by the term “kemmer” in Ursula Le Guin’s work, although it isn’t clear whether that was conscious, or whether it only became apparent after the word had been coined. The word “doy”, on the other hand, is entirely a priori, with no known source of inspiration other than the need for a new word that didn’t already mean something in English.

Michael Burnham: Missed Opportunity?

This post is spoiler-free.

For those of you who haven’t been watching it, Michael Burnham is the main viewpoint character in the new television series Star Trek: Discovery. Although female, she was given a name that, in our era, is traditionally male, which appears to be a signature move of her creator Bryan Fuller’s. However, given when the series is set, it would not be at all surprising for the name “Michael” to have become a woman’s name.

As languages evolve, it is entirely natural for names to switch which genders they are associated with. Due to sexism (and possibly other factors), it is far more common for traditionally male names to be adopted by women than the other way around, and at first glance, that is what appears to have happened in Michael Burnham’s case: since Star Trek: Discovery is set at least two centuries in the future, it would make sense for the name “Michael”, and probably a number of other names as well, to have become female names (given the egalitarian nature of the Star Trek universe, you might also expect a number of female names to have switched to male, and possibly a much larger number of names being entirely gender-neutral, but the absence of those particular changes is not in and of itself surprising from a linguistics perspective in the way that no change at all would be).

Alas, this was not to be. Within a couple of episodes, it is established that Michael Burnham is one of a very small minority of women bearing the name “Michael”, if not the only one, when her roommate correctly guesses her identity from her first name alone. And while it isn’t that surprising that the producers of Star Trek would miss a minor linguistic detail such as this, it is a bit disappointing. All they would have had to do is to write one scene slightly differently, and possibly add a couple of minor characters with names corresponding to the “opposite” gender in modern English.

Perhaps if I ever try to write futuristic science fiction, I’ll get a chance to show how future names might actually look.

Diglossia

To start off with a couple of potential biases: I’m a polyglot. I learn languages for fun. While I definitely understand how sharing a native language makes communication easier, I probably will never truly grasp the mindset of a person who is okay with remaining monolingual. There are languages that are more or less of a priority for me, but I would never be able to give up all foreign languages.

Secondly, at this time I would prefer not to comment on what the linguistic situation on Earth will look like in two or three centuries. That would require a lot more research than I’m willing to do for one blog post, and even then predicting the future with a high degree of certainty is usually impossible. The one thing I will say is that we are just about guaranteed to see a major die-off of languages over the course of the next century, and there is little we can do about it other than supporting extant speaker communities and recording as much information about those languages as we can.

Anyway:

This post, and a number of people whom I have spent time with, have argued that in the long run, it would be better if the world had only one language, so that all people could communicate with one another more easily. While I personally am very strongly in favor of preserving linguistic diversity, this post is not here to argue that point, so much as to show that linguistic diversity and ease of communication need not be at odds with one another.

To me, there is an obvious way to allow nearly everyone to communicate without unnecessary difficulty, while preserving the world’s languages: diglossia. For anyone unaware, the term “diglossia” refers to the situation in which two (or sometimes more) languages are used side by side in the same community. Typically, each language is used in a particular, well-defined domain — for instance, German-speaking Swiss use Standard German in written work and in education, as well as when communicating with people from Germany, but speak Swiss German (which is not mutually intelligible with Standard German) just about everywhere else.

The aforementioned diglossic system in use in Switzerland is probably a good model for what an ideal worldwide diglossia might look like, although there would probably be need for a few changes — for instance, every local language would retain their own literature and written language, and schooling would be conducted bilingually through secondary school. Universities would probably end up having a mixture of classes taught in the local language and those taught in the global one, much as modern European universities will occasionally offer classes in English. The result would be that almost everybody would be natively or near-natively bilingual in their local language and the global language, and could communicate with people across the globe without having to sacrifice their native culture.

One issue with multilingualism brought up in the blog post I cite is the existence of people who have little to no ability to learn a foreign language. While I personally am not particularly familiar with the science behind how common this is, or whether learning two languages natively would obviate this issue, it stands to reason that a generally bilingual world would probably have little trouble accommodating such a person. If a child were clearly struggling to acquire both languages even with extra help, they could prioritize the common language in order to ensure their ability to communicate in the larger world, without having to worry that they would then be unable to communicate with their (bilingual) family. And if they chose to prioritize the local language, there would be no shortage of bilingual citizens who could serve as impromptu interpreters and translators as need arose.

At any rate, there is no reason to assume that global communication requires everyone to give up their heritage languages. Multilingual societies have been around for a very long time, and it would serve us well as a global community to emulate their model.

The Future

When I was little, I would watch Star Trek and other science fiction movies and TV shows, and imagine what the future would be like.

I thought it would be awesome — it was the future, after all. Everyone would be driving a flying car; every wall would have an intercom and video phone in it; the buildings would look like something out of The Jetson’s.

But then, the future started to arrive. It didn’t feel much different, and I hardly realized what was happening until much later. Time ticked on, years went by, and new inventions came, but nothing really changed. We got smartphones, faster computers, drones — but cars still drove on the ground, buildings looked the same as ever, and nobody went around installing shiny new touchscreen intercom panels in every wall. Why would they? Everyone had a smartphone!

As a child, I always thought the future would replace the past. But in the end, the past didn’t go anywhere. The future just got grafted on top.

Alternatives to Panels at SciFi Cons

At all of the Science Fiction/Fantasy conventions that I’ve been to, the primary sort of event offered has been the panel. For those who aren’t aware, panels at these sorts of cons generally consist of three to five experts on a particular topic — either authors, scientists, or people who just happen to know a lot about something — who present their views, and then discuss amongst themselves while the attendees listen.

While there is usually an opportunity for the audience to ask questions at the end, the panel is usually a fairly monodirectional event from the perspective of audience members who aren’t actually on the panel. Although this isn’t always a bad thing by any means — being able to just sit back and listen can be a blessing if one doesn’t have anything to add — it can start to feel limiting when an audience member has a lot to say on the topic being discussed, or otherwise feels that they could contribute to the discussion if only they were allowed to speak.

In light of this, I propose that cons set aside a room or two that can be reserved on a first come first served basis by anyone for anything that they can think of. I imagine that many people will present readings, lectures, and perhaps plays or concerts if the necessary equipment is on hand, but attendees would also be encouraged to use the rooms for kaffeeklatsch-style discussions and other more egalitarian activities (ad-hoc filk sessions come to mind, but the possibilities are endless).

Crucially, there would be (1) no authority deciding who was allowed to use the space and who wasn’t, with the possible exception of rules preventing individuals from hogging the rooms for extended periods of time, (2) no restrictions on the format of the goings-on in the room, as would be the case with traditional lightning talk and/or talent show spaces, and (3) no judging or evaluation not explicitly organized by the attendees who had booked the room. With luck, this would lower the bar to entry, allowing more people to take advantage of cons as places to share their ideas without waiting for them to be published or otherwise “noticed” (in fact, assuming the presenters were okay with it, these sorts of small, ad-hoc venues would probably be a great place for publishers to hang out in, keeping their eyes open for interesting work).

If anyone is involved in running a con and would like to try something like this, go right ahead, although I would appreciate some sort of citation if you were inspired by this post. I expect that the first few times, it would take a bit of tweaking to get the right number of rooms, but you’d probably be able to gauge how many you’ll need after a con or two, and plan accordingly.

Too Like the Lightning: Too Perfect?

So I recently read Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning.

It was definitely an enjoyable book, although there were lots of things in it that were way outside of my sphere of understanding — I got the impression that without a much more thorough background in the philosophy and literature of the era that the book’s style emulates, a lot of the story will remain relatively obscure. I’m not here to complain about that, though — it’s a feature, not a bug, and hopefully I will eventually learn something from it as the series progresses.

That all said, this novel had one major problem that I’m finding it very hard to overlook: the world is just too smooth and perfect. There are the seven hives with their primary (and sometimes secondary) languages, a few extra-hive categories of people, and that’s about it. All of the hives operate at a global scale, and have enough members that everyone on the planet knows of them and has an idea of what their main “thing” is, and what projects they’re currently pursuing.

And while the world isn’t *supposed* to look like the one we live in, I feel that in this particular aspect, the author has gone a little bit too far. Why are there only seven hives, period? Where is the tiny hive of idealist Esperanto speakers, who’ve abandoned the Fina Venko, but still retain their internal culture? Or the Trekkies whose preferred internal language is Klingon? Or even better, Esperanto speakers who *haven’t* abandoned the Fina Venko, and regularly hold various publicity stunts to try and convince people to adopt Esperanto as the world’s lingua franca?

None of this is meant to lampoon the book or its worldbuilding — as I said earlier, it’s a great novel, and this is just a nitpick. However, it would be cool to see these issues explored a bit more, either in the upcoming sequels or in fanfic.

I Don’t Want a Humanoid Robot

(Note: just about everything I say here about humanoid robots I would also say about “more human” user interfaces and similar technology. I’ve decided to focus on robots to keep this post short.)

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of reports of research into making robots that are better imitations of humans, in a number of ways (speech, movement, etc.), and it would appear that roboticists are making great strides in this field of research. While I don’t want to minimize the amount of effort that has gone into these achievements — they really are impressive from a technical standpoint — I would like to take a moment to question whether robots that mimic humans should be considered the ultimate goal of robotics.

Personally, as a potential customer who would totally buy a robot to deal with housework, I really don’t want a robot that thinks, acts, and moves like a person. Even if we lay aside the ethical issues with owning an intelligent machine (perhaps by assuming that the researchers know what they’re talking about when they say that, despite appearances, the robot is in fact non-sentient — whether we can safely do that is a topic for another post), we’re left with a machine that’s going to say “Good Morning!” when I walk past it, and possibly (if the designers are accurate enough) guilt me into replying, when all I really wanted was a machine that could make me breakfast. The last thing I (and a suspect a lot of people as well) need in the morning is a bunch of unnecessary pleasantries — coming from a machine that could have been programmed otherwise, no less — standing between me and my cereal.

In addition to wasting the user’s social energy with unnecessary phatic communication, a truly human-mimicking robot would probably make it nearly impossible to relax for those of us on the introvert side of things. Having a person around is draining, even if they aren’t trying to interact, and it’s hard for me and many others to really, truly relax unless we are totally alone. Trying to precisely imitate the experience of having a human maid do the cleaning would likely lead to a machine that also precisely imitated those burdens on neuroatypical folks. It would be sort of like designing a tablet whose only input method was to write commands by hand* — although you see things like that in SciFi from time to time, the shear impracticality of that design prevents them from gaining a foothold in the physical world.

The one area where I would appreciate greater humanoid-ness is in language processing, since being able to give voice commands would be more convenient when my hands are full. But even there, the robot doesn’t need to imitate all of the phatic communication that humans are fond of. And there are plenty of times when it would be nice to be able to turn off the voice command interface, and give commands by pushing buttons — say, if it’s late at night and I don’t want to make noise, or don’t want to hear noise because I’m lost in thought and don’t want to be disturbed by it.

I don’t mean to imply that research into humanoid robots should stop, or that nobody should try to build or market a robot that can act human (again, evading ethical issues by assuming that it is non-sentient). But please try to make sure that doesn’t become the one holy grail of the industry that everyone strives towards, leaving the people who would prefer a robotic robot in the lurch. Because we’re out there, and we’re potential customers. In fact, we’re likely to be early adopters if the technology suits our needs. So please do try and make sure that your robots are usable for us as well.

 

*Lots of people are probably now thinking, “but I have a tablet that lets me do that! I’ve even used it to take notes!”. To this I ask: is that how you answer your email, or do you use the keyboard? Obviously, there will be some people for whom the handwriting option may be the better one, but I suspect that a substantial majority will prefer the keyboard.