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Alien Scientist: The Ultimate Dictionary

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: January 2002, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

What a frustratingly self-referential thing is a dictionary. It tells the meaning of so many words. But it uses words to do so. You have to already understand words to get any meaning out of it. Think of a dictionary entirely in another language - especially one written entirely in an alien script - or one converting from one alien script into another. You would not even recognise it was a dictionary in the first place. You would know not that you knew not what you knew not. Now imagine, far away in a distant galaxy, an intelligent alien creature from a society so advanced in its faculties that words have been extinct for eons. This creature, in some antique intergalactic bargain basement, is intrigued to discover this magical thing, a book full of words, but an especially bamboozling concentrate of words to boot - a dictionary. The sales pitch, with a nod towards Earth, is that this is a special invention, the key to unlock a billion books. This alien might not know much about words, but it can do a trillion-a-second symbol-matching algorithm in its head, and store the result in a single pictograph in its left appendix. So after not very long, this alien has digested and cross-referenced the entire Earthling literature. It knows what the words all mean - at least, relative to each other. It knows the meaning of 'signifier' relative to 'signified'. But it is a little hazy on the signified side of things. For example, it has never seen a tree.

The dictionary definition of a tree is something with a trunk and branches. But the meaning of 'trunk' and 'branch' are entirely bound up with the structure of the tree. If the alien hasn't a clue what a branch or a trunk is, it is no nearer to knowing what a tree is. In a sense, all the signified objects themselves really have to be considered a kind of extended contribution to the dictionary. You really need the tree, its trunk and branches, its structure and context, to be somehow 'inside' the dictionary too, for the whole thing to work.

So imagine then, our resourceful alien rolls up its tentacle sleeves, and goes about concocting an amazingly advanced, massively multimedia dictionary, with a miracle of dimensions all bound into it. It really has everything: as many signifieds as you can shake a stick at, from trees and branches to every last iota, inkling and dint. It has point-and-click figures of speech, a pop-up onomatopoeia player, and instant wormhole-cam views of Earth on location. To ensure universal applicability, the dictionary comes available in telepathic and anti-matter versions. And to be sure that everyone gets it, it has an immersive teach-yourself language laboratory built into it, and a free downloadable plug-in mind for those who have not yet evolved one of their own.

"Our crafty alien has surely created the ultimate dictionary: everything a dictionary could possibly be. But, since the ultimate dictionary has absolutely everything inside it, it is now more ultimately and absolutely self-referential than ever."

<< Tsukuba You World: Great Entertainment Value | Master Index | English Help and Information Lines: January 2002 >>

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