Linguistic First Contact: Encountering the Kyo in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner Series

This column is a continuation of the previous column, in which I discussed intercultural communication in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series with examples drawn from the first trilogy in the series. This column will look at the very specific form of intercultural communication that is first contact with a focus on the second trilogy (Precursor, Defender, Explorer).

This story arc sees Bren sent to the space station as the representative of Tabini, the leader of the Western Association, as the resident population in space continues to expand. Human and atevi workers are rebuilding the derelict station, working on separate sections of the ring with a co-run ops and control center in the middle. They learn that Reunion, the supposedly abandoned and destroyed station Phoenix had built at a different star, was actually not destroyed and is still inhabited, so Phoenix gears up for a rescue mission. The truth about Reunion Station slowly comes out: an unknown ship appeared while Phoenix was poking around nearby stars, and they fired on Reunion. Because interspecies mediation is what Bren has trained his whole life for, Tabini sends him along on the trip, along with Ilisidi and his son Cajeiri. They arrive at Reunion, and the unknown ship is still there. The plot of Explorer revolves around Bren communicating with this unknown species, the kyo, plus navigating some tricky diplomatic issues, which brings us to the following scenario…

When Phoenix encountered this ship the previous time, it blinked its lights at them three times. Ramirez, the captain, ran away. This time, they have Bren and his knowledge of intercultural communication with them. Bren has the ship blink three lights to the ship, because he hopes duplication is seen as neutral and cooperative, and suggests that Phoenix approach the unknown ship slowly, in order to signify a desire to communicate. This could backfire, if the other ship interprets it as hostility, so Phoenix changes its position slightly in case the unknown ship fires on them.

Unlike the original paidhiin, Bren can draw on two species’ cultures and instinctive behaviors, and he has atevi around to offer second opinions. This keeps him from making too many assumptions about what the aliens’ behavior means. He thinks about the instinct seen in both atevi and humans not to turn their backs on an enemy, but he can’t assume it’s universal. It’s statistically likely, but his sample size is only two.

In this situation, where nothing is known about the other species, Bren operates under the assumption that everything they do is a word: the direction they travel, their speed, the light signals. He assumes that a slow approach shows calmness (again, based on his sample of two). Attempted communication, he hopes, will show that they are peaceful and do not want war. He suggests flashing the lights in a sequence like a turn signal toward the kyo ship, then turning (slowly) in that direction.

Phoenix has eight lights in a line on its hull. Eight is an extremely infelicitous number to atevi, and Banichi, Bren’s bodyguard, suggests making the numbers more harmonious and using an 8×9 grid: almost like television. Bren thinks this is a great idea, and he works out grid matrices for the ship to signal: basic still images, like a human figure, the station, the ship. The next messages are animated and show the ship going to the station, getting the people, and leaving. The kyo reply with their version of events. This goes beyond basic mirroring, and it suggests that they’ve understood what Phoenix was doing and innovated in crafting their response.

The kyo transmit their next message in higher resolution, and Bren learns that the station fired on a kyo pod and took their envoy captive. He asks his bodyguards for their interpretation, which aligns with the human interpretation: the kyo approached with minimal force and were attacked. Phoenix should make another gesture. Bren sends what he hopes is a non-aggressive signal: seated human with bowed head and repeats the evacuation sequence. The kyo repeat their message: retrieve the captive, then we negotiate.

There are a lot of assumptions Bren starts from, in approaching the ky0, but they’re logical: The unknown ship signals with light; therefore, they’re a visual species. This is a reasonable assumption. He assumes that they can interpret line-by-line pixel grids as images. This is a bit of a stretch, but when you know nothing, not even what the other species looks like, you try anything you can think of. It works, so he then tries animation, which also works. He also stops himself repeatedly from making further assumptions about the kyo based on his own human instincts and what he knows of atevi society. So far, so good. Now we come to the meaty part of the first contact scenario: Bren retrieves the kyo envoy and has to communicate with him, once they get him off the station. (Bren assumes “he” without further knowledge.)

After brief introductions, Bren takes the envoy, Prakuyo, to the atevi section, where he presents what he assumes is a non-threatening environment: there’s food and water (they feed him, and he loves the tea cakes), plants, decor, and an old woman and a child. Perhaps most importantly, Prakuyo can observe that humans and atevi interact with each other and are not the same as the station-humans, who captured him and treated him poorly. Bren realizes that he doesn’t even know if Prakuyo is a personal name, a rank, or some sort of intraspecies distinction, which is rather important.

Prakuyo’s speech sounds “like grinding rocks.” He has trouble with some of the consonants (unspecified) in the sentence “Bren’s ship goes to the station,” and ship ends in an explosive p, which may be an ejective [p’] or heavily aspirated. There are booms, rumbles, and gutturals, and some of these may be below the range of human hearing. When Bren gets to the grammar part, he finds it even more complicated than atevi: negation and other modifiers seem to have a subjunctive (conditional) as well as tense distinctions, and he’s unable to make heads or tails of the past tense.

To help establish some vocabulary and short phrases, Cajeiri, age seven, offers to bring his word-picture books and use them with Prakuyo. It turns out that Prakuyo learned some ship-language while he was captive for six years, but children’s Ragi comes more easily for him. They reach the tricky concept of friend and associate, which are important for their negotiations, and Bren finds a reluctance on Prakuyo’s part to include the kyo in we or associate. There is something in the kyo’s cultural mindset that doesn’t want to include Others in we, and Bren thinks of a variety of reasons why this might be: a need or desire to hold themselves separate from other groups, disgust or fear response, political or social structure—or possibly even a grammatical one, such as a lack of pronouns.

Bren comes up with a list of necessary vocabulary for negotiation with the kyo, which he knows is a lot harder than it seems. Concrete things, like objects, motion, or activities that can be mimed, and thus present less of a challenge than abstractions like always, never, or soon, let alone counterfactuals like may or could. Then there are those pesky abstract structures that seem so simple but aren’t: concepts like leader, nation, government, people; and these are critically important for political negotiations.

It turns out that the kyo have been trading with other species for a long time, and it seems that Prakuyo was sent to negotiate trade agreements with the humans at Reunion. A species which trades extensively must have experience with these types of linguistic first encounters, and they may even have a simplified trade language that they use to communicate with non-kyo. Bren thinks of all these things.

There seems to be a cultural sticking point around association and we. The kyo on the ship are completely puzzled by the approximately equal relationship between atevi and humans, and they are appalled when Prakuyo refers to kyo, atevi, and humans as we. Up to this point in their history, the kyo have used trade as a lead-up to absorbing their neighbors, and this could be part of the reason for their reluctance: they consider the species they trade with to be inferior. It’s also a reason to be cautious in negotiations and and makes it necessary to define terms carefully.

Another potentially troubling aspect of kyo culture is their belief that once people meet, they are always associated. Bren translates a phrase from kyo that, he thinks, means “What cannot stay in contact is a constant danger of miscalculation.” Bren interprets this to mean that their culture places high importance on communication in a relationship. He hopes he’s right.

I can’t fault Bren’s field work. He gets a speaker, points to things and exchanges vocabulary, and hopes that the pictures he draws are interpreted correctly—that trade isn’t interpreted as bride-gifts or tribute offering, for example. The speed with which he makes his dictionary and begins elucidating grammar is rather fast. Prakuyo is on the ship for a few days, and the two species stay at the star for negotiations for an additional week or two. Real-world field work takes much longer. I accept this breakneck pace as a narrative necessity, because nobody wants to read 300 pages of two species painstakingly working out each other’s languages. (Well, if it was well-written enough, I might, but the day-in and day-out is potentially pretty boring.) Plus there’s the ship’s fuel, food supplies, and the thousands of refugees from Reunion who want to go back to Alpha Station.

Cherryh depicts many of the considerations a linguist would have to make when encountering a new culture, let alone a new species. Bren’s considerations are naturally colored by humans’ history with the atevi, and he’s aware of the problems you can cause when you assume the wrong thing. A lot of it works out conveniently well, and Bren suffers enough in all the other arenas Tabini-aiji puts him in that I’m willing to let Bren claim this minor victory—after all, he knows that his success in dealing with the kyo may still be tinged with danger.

What do you all think? Is Bren’s first contact with the kyo too easy? What are some other examples of first contact in science fiction you’ve read and enjoyed?

CD Covington has masters degrees in German and Linguistics, likes science fiction and roller derby, and misses having a cat. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise 17 and has published short stories in anthologies, most recently the story “Debridement” in Survivor, edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and J.J. Pionke. You can find her current project, a book on practical linguistics for writers, on Patreon.


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