by Jim Hurford


Two facts about Knox's boyhood presaged the cruel linguistic experiments he perpetrated in middle age, and for which he was sentenced to language-confinement (``lator exile'') for the rest of his life.

One fact, which he emphasized in his elegant speeches at his trial, was that he himself was a victim of the worldwide lator culture: a freak set of circumstances in a global lifestyle defined by the use of lators had made him the monster that he was. Knox's speeches in his defence remain a disturbing but isolated challenge to the common belief that human life was changed irrevocably for the better by these versatile simultaneous-translation machines.

The other fact Knox kept to himself, though uncomfortably aware that it showed an innate flaw in his character, for which external influences could hardly be responsible. This fact concerns a turn-of-the-millenium toy crystal ball.

The ball was very pretty and had survived unbroken for over 500 years. It was a gift from his keepers before his adoption. It had an absorbing translucent patina never seen in more recent artifacts. Vivid metallic scraps deep in the glass glinted in a way no modern toy quite matched. Though he and his keepers could not have discussed beauty except in the crudest terms, the boy Knox had an eye for beauty and treasured this intriguing globe. But as its beauty became familiar, its other notable property fascinated him more. It was breakable. Its fragility set it apart from the permanent props of his everyday experience. Modern toys, furniture, tools, once made, can take frantic bashing and pounding and show no detectable change. The fact that the old orb would probably shatter if mistreated held an increasing mystery for the young Knox. And in the end, whether accidentally or not he was never sure, he dropped it hard enough to smash it into splinters and fragments beyond feasible repair.

He never mentioned this episode to any of the dozen disciples who took the enormous trouble to learn his language and come to talk to him without lators in his language-confinement. But he reflected that the incident had marked a personally crucial experiment, in which he had weighed a feeling against a proposition, balanced emotion against factual knowledge. He had traded a chance of admiring beauty for the empirical certainty that a particular object would behave in a particular way (would smash) if dropped from a particular exact height (he had measured it afterwards). He could never bring himself to decide whether he had got a good bargain in smashing the ball, or not.


One of the earliest advertisements for lators, in 2025, described them in these words:

``A lator is a small hand-held device that you speak into in your own language; your message is simultaneously translated into output speech in another language. A range of input and output packs is available for different source and target languages -- just clip in a pack for the language of your choice. A lator is essential for work abroad, for businessmen, international inspectors, police, tourists, etc., making language learning and human translation obsolete. Lators put you instantly in touch with people across the world who don't speak your language.''

Progress was rapid. Within 20 years, packs had been prepared and distributed for almost all the 4000 or so languages still spoken in the early 21st century . Although there was no commercial advantage in making packs for languages spoken by small minorities, religious missionaries and superpower propagandists who saw the potential in lators for preaching and conversion produced packs for languages spoken by as few as 100 people, typically tribespeople from New Guinea and Siberia. Lators saved these languages from extinction. Using lators, people with obscure native languages could converse about all practical matters with anyone. There was no longer any practical advantage in belonging to one of the great majority language-communities, such as English or Chinese.

Packs were soon produced for nonstandard dialects, to spread the advantages of lator use beyond just those speaking a central variant of a language. This made ``translation'' between dialects of the same language possible, so that there was no advantage to speaking the standard dialect of a language, provided language packs for your own dialect were available, which they usually were. If a Cockney spoke to a Tennessee backwoodsman, he used a lator. This freed dialects to diverge from standard norms, and language packs were updated to keep pace. Cockney, Geordie, and Southern Californian became separate languages.

The social effect of lators was extreme diversification of languages, with accompanying diversification of communities and their cultures. Languages previously thought to be dying, such as Gaelic, and remote African and Indian languages, in fact survived and split themselves into hundreds of daughter languages, one for each small community. Languages formerly spoken by hundreds of millions of speakers diversified into tens of thousands of separate descendant languages. There are now over a million different languages registered with the World Translator Standardization Service. As the world's population increases, the number of languages increases. The comfortable size for a language-community is about 5000 speakers, although this varies with the nature, occupation and organization of the communities.

Within communities, people talk without lators. Even discounting the inconvenience of carrying a lator, face-to-face communication without lators is easier and more subtle than communication through lators. Intimate family exchanges, emotional talk, banter between friends and lovers, poetry and song come across poorly through lators. But for intercommunity trade and diplomacy, communication through lators is preferred, being well-suited to the transmission of factual information without emotional overtones and nuances.

Normal children learn the language of their own community without lators. Unusual children, like Knox, who have learnt their language via lators sometimes have emotional problems, are withdrawn and have difficulty forming close relationships. But this is only a tendency. There are contented, well-adjusted people who have learned their first language through lators. Since he had been brought up with lators, Knox had a lator-like voice quality which he could never fully lose.

Communities are largely family-based -- clans and tribes, in effect. Endogamy is common because of the cultural isolation of the clans, but exogamous conception, using artificial insemination, is also practised, as is adoption. There are single-sex clans, which continue through exchanges in which male communities export semen for male babies from female communities. Knox was born into a female clan and there was a crucial delay of nine years before he moved to his male adoptive community. His mother and other women, believing that he would soon go to his adoptive male clan, raised him speaking the male clan's language, always talking to him through lators. A squabble between the two clans persisted for nine years and kept the boy waiting for his move.

Knox, like other children, soon learnt to play with lators end-to-end. When he could obtain the right language packs, he would speak into one lator, and pipe the output into another lator with different language packs, and so on until the last lator in the chain gave an utterance back in the original language. The results could be amusing. Messages came back neutralized and emasculated, especially after being filtered through an unrelated language. ``God damn you'' came out, in one game, as ``I curse you strongly, invoking the name of the single deity of my culture.''

Lators function by first reducing speech in the input language to a universal neutral logical code. The message is then synthesized into spoken output in the target language. The logical code is very verbose: all semantic elements of messages are made totally explicit, and expressed in scientific formulae wherever possible. This makes it impractical for use as a spoken lingua franca between humans. There is a vast common core of real-world facts, relating to all concrete matters and important intercommunal matters such as trade, diplomacy, and intercommunal law, known to the logical code, so that conversation via lators is possible on virtually any concrete topic from fishfarming to steel recycling, vulcanology to molecular biology.

Philosophy, religion and literature, however, have become highly specialized and esoteric. There is virtually no intercommunal communication on these topics. Furthermore, most communities have become isolated from the philosophy, religion and literature of their ancestors. Knox's adopted clan was a rare scholarly one. His mentors taught him ancient languages, especially English and German, in which he acquired a good reading fluency. English- and German-speaking philosophers from the 17th to the 21st century became like a family to him. He would rehearse philosophical debates like domestic quarrels, taking all sides alternately. At first, after a day's study, he could not sleep for the anxiety of reading his philosophical heroes tear each other's works apart, just as a child witnesses for the first time the destroying spectacle of an all-out row between his parents.

As he grew up, he toughened and took the argumentative slings and arrows less personally. Indeed, he came to relish the camaraderie of battle over ideas and determined that he himself would further the arguments by developing subtler versions of the historical positions of the classics. Such an ambition might have been common in the 20th century, but in the 26th century the intercommunal scholar in any nonpractical field was virtually extinct. Knox was a throwback. Nobody debated ideas on ethics, mind and aesthetics any more, because language-communities were too small to contain a viable nucleus of people with the necessary interest in abstractions and fundamental generalities. And discussion of such topics through lators was fraught with insuperable difficulties. It is only through people knowing and operating in a common language that enough basic consensus in these fields can grow to permit flourishing dialogue. So Knox debated with himself (in English and German), and with the ghosts of such as Leibniz, Locke, Kant and Chomsky.

Knox knew that he personally, perhaps he alone, would have been happier living in the 20th century. He saw that ``lator culture'' was no culture. Values constantly articulated by millions have deep resonances, subtle textures and reliable solidity. The values of tiny clans are fads, vulnerable to the whims of strong personalities. Knox saw too that his own combative personality would have been more at home amidst the global social stresses that had affected the giant language-communities before the advent of lators removed the practical advantage of a common language and they dissolved into microcommunities. He despised the insular complacency and self-satisfied ignorance of these microcommunities.


For a while Knox was happy just to live in the reconstructed company of the ancient scholars. But he became more ambitious, and wanted to surpass them. He longed to discover some great truth for which a less benighted posterity would honour him above his heroes.

Knox's one consolation for living in the 26th century was that it provided the perfect environment to settle an argument about the human mind which had occupied earlier ages. The human mind is infinitely plastic, some had said, and can adapt itself to grasp any concept. The other side of the argument said that the mind was inherently limited just like a body -- there were concepts it found as easy as breathing and others as inaccessible as flight is to a turtle. In the 20th century this argument had become diverted and focussed on language. Human languages would always stay within certain bounds, so the limited-mind proponents claimed, because only certain types of languages were actually easily learnable by humans. Philosopher-linguists had identified a list of properties that no attested human language had, and claimed that such properties were actually beyond the grasp of ordinary language-learning children.

In the intervening centuries the debate had petered out with the general demise of philosophy. When Knox rediscovered it, he saw immediately that even if the 4000 or so languages of the 21st century had included none with the alleged unlearnable properties, there was a good chance that he might find some among the million now spoken. Perhaps the lack of such languages in the earlier sample was a fluke.

Knox researched for fifteen years, on and off, at the World Translator Standardization Service. He met the linguistic engineers who updated language packs and who between them knew better than anyone the detailed structures of the world's languages. It became clear that the earlier sample of 4000 languages had in many ways been a freak. For example, in those days, languages which put the object of a verb before its subject had been extremely rare. But now, the linguists told him, and as he could verify with his own ability as a linguist, there were many languages that normally ordered the object of a verb before its subject.

Some of the new languages permitted the most surprising order of words in sentences, and Knox wondered that their speakers ever managed to sort out their structure and understand them. A group of languages that amazed him for a while would express ``the man that lived in the house that Jack built'' with a word-order something like ``Jack built that house lived in that man the''. But these languages worked perfectly well for their communities and children never had any trouble picking them up. Still certain kinds of linguistic structure eluded Knox's search. Little words marking questions and subordinate clauses, which most languages had, did not appear in all the positions one could imagine. Knox never found, and linguists at the Translator Service had never heard of, any language which allowed constructions exactly like ``Did that John arrived please you?'' or ``The man who I read a statement which was about is sick''.

Perhaps the absence of constructions like these from the world's languages was also a fluke. Just looking at languages, one could never be sure whether the absence of some structures meant that humans were actually incapable of learning to speak a language with such structures. Experimentation was necessary. And, tragically, Knox had the facilities. Babies were frequently adopted into his community from outside, and he knew a couple of lator fraud programmers from the Translation Service.

(Lator fraud is possible because records of intercommunal contracts are kept centrally in the universal logical code. Parties to contracts are responsible for ensuring that the stored version states the content of the contract as they understand it. Crooks can reprogram language packs to systematically adjust, or mistranslate, certain passages (for example, altering agreed prices by a percentage or simply eliminating clauses which place obligations on a particular party.) Such doctoring is as difficult as forging banknotes, possible but beyond the expertise of most people.)

Knox carefully constructed an experimental series of languages. These were genuine languages in the sense that it was perfectly feasible to translate real languages into and out of them with absolute reliability. You could play the children's end-to-end lator game with one of Knox's constructed languages in the middle of the circuit, and the messages would go through with no unusual problem. So the experimental languages were certainly capable of carrying meaning just as well as any extant human language. But their grammatical structures ranged from slightly to wildly eccentric, and each possessed some structural properties he had not found in any of the million real languages.

Knox's hacker accomplices produced input and output language packs for each of his menagerie of fantastic languages. They set up an environment in which adults speaking real languages would raise children using lators. The children would hear, and try to learn to understand and speak, Knox's artificial languages.

Knox's time was short. A child takes at least six years to learn its first language. He could not push successive infant subjects cautiously towards the limits of learnability, gradually increasing the bizarreness of the fake languages if the first wave of children coped well enough with what they were exposed to. Some would have to be thrown in at the deep end if he was to get results in his lifetime. With an untypical pinch of sentiment, he picked children whom he fancied were most like himself as the ones who were to receive the most unnatural linguistic upbringing.

The experimental subjects were treated with affection, well fed and entertained, and educated as well as their language development would allow. Each child was always spoken to through lators with output language packs for his designated test language. And each child's attempts to respond in this language were translated, to the extent that they made sense, back into the language of the child's keepers. Apart from the artificiality of the languages, this was the kind of environment in which Knox himself had grown up.

After about ten years, Knox had his truth. A dozen ten-year-olds expressed it mutely with blank uncomprehending faces. These children had not managed to learn Knox's invented languages. Subsequent remedial work in a real human language after Knox reported himself to the authorities brought some of them to a fluency comparable to that of a three-year-old. But their mental and social birthrights had been denied. Knox's experiments had shattered their prospects of an unconfused passage through life.

The decision of Knox's judges to forbid him the use of lators for the rest of his life had a sound public rationale. It made sure he could never commit such crimes again. The sentence was also politically shrewd, as it prevented Knox from broadcasting his adverse opinions on the stable lator world. Knox died guilty, played out, somehow fulfilled, but unconfident of his place in posterity's Pantheon.