excerpts from

Omnilingual

by H. Beam Piper

1957

edited by Thomas Gangale

The letter on the page in front of her began squirming and dancing, slender vowels and fat little consonants. They did that, now, every night in her dreams. And there were other dreams, in which she read them as easily as English; waking, she would try desperat4ely and vainly to remember. She blinked, and looked away from the photostated page; when she looked back, the letters were behaving themselves again. There were three words at the top of the page, over-and-underlined, which seemed to be the Martian method of capitalization. Mastharnorvod Tadavas Sornhulva. She pronounced them mentally, leafing through her notebook to see if she had encountered them before, and in what contexts. All three were listed. In addition, masthar was a fairly common word, and so was norvod, and so was nor,but -vod was a suffix and nothing but a suffix. Davas, was a word, too, and ta- was a common prefix; sorn and hulva were both common words. This language, she had long ago decided, must be something like German; when the Martians had needed a new word, they had just pasted a couple of existing words together. It would probably turn out to be a grammatical horror. Well, they had published magazines, and one of them had been called Mastharnorvod Tadavas Sornhulva. She wondered if it had been something like the Quarterly Archaeological Review, or something more on the order of Sexy Stories.

A smaller line, under the title, was plainly the issue number and date; enough things had been found numbered in series to enable her to identify the numerals and determine that a decimal system of numeration had been used. This was the one thousand and seven hundred and fifty-fourth issue, for Doma, 14837; then Doma must be the name of one of the Martian months. The word had turned up several times before. She found herself puffing furiously on a cigarette as she leafed through notebooks and piles of already examined material.

...

Penrose had picked up the page and was looking at it.

"I don't think there's any doubt about this being a magazine, at all." He looked again at the title, his lips moving silently' "Mastharnorvod Tadavas Sornhulva. Wonder what it means. But you're right about the date—Doma seems to be the name of a month. Yes, you have a word, Dr. Dane."

...

They found a globe of Mars, made when the city had been a seaport. They located the city, and learned that its name had been Kukan—or something with a similar vowel-consonant ratio.... They also found a Martian calendar; the year had been divided into ten more or less equal months, and one of them had been Doma. Another month was Nor, and that was a part of the name of the scientific journal Martha had found.

...

Jeff Miles, the Space Force captain, came over, accompanied by one of the lab-crew from the ship who had come down on the rocket the day before.

"This ought to be up your alley, Mort," he was saying to his companion. "Chemistry and physics department. Want to come along?"

The lab man, Mort Tranter, was willing. Seeing the sights was what he'd come down for. She finished her coffee and cigarette, and they went out into the hall together, gathered equipment and rode the elevator to the fifth floor.

The lecture hall door was the nearest; they attacked it first. With proper equipment and help, it was no problem and in ten minutes they had it open wide enough to squeeze through with the floodlights. The room inside was quite empty, and, like most of the rooms behind closed doors, comparatively free from dust. The students, it appeared, had sat with their backs to the door, facing a low platform, but the seats and the lecturer's table and equipment had been removed. The two side walls bore inscriptions: on the right, a pattern of concentric circles which she recognized as a diagram of atomic structure, and on the left a complicated table of numbers and words, in two columns. Tranter was pointing at the diagram on the right.

"They got as far as the Bohr atom, anyhow," he said. "Well, not quite. They knew about electron shells, but they have the nucleus pictured as a solid mass. No indication of proton-and-neutron structure. I'' bet, when you come to translate their scientific books, you'll find that they taught that the atom was the ultimate and indivisible particle. That explains why you people never found any evidence that the Martians used nuclear energy."

"That's a uranium atom," captain Miles mentioned.

"It is?" Sid Chamberlain asked, excitedly. "Then they did know about atomic energy. Just because we haven't found any pictures of A-bomb mushrooms doesn't mean—"

She turned to look at the other wall. Sid's signal reactions were getting away from him again; uranium meant nuclear power to him, and the two words were interchangeable. As she studied the arrangement of the numbers and words, she could hear Tranter saying:

"Nuts, Sid. We knew about uranium a long time before anybody found out what could be done with it. Uranium was discovered on Terra in 1789, by Klaproth."

There was something familiar about the table on the left wall. She tried to remember what she had been taught in school about physics, and what she had picked up by accident afterward. The second column was a continuation of the first; there were forty-three items in each, each item numbered consecutively—

"Probably used uranium because it's the largest of the natural atoms," Penrose was saying. "The fact that there's nothing beyond it there shows that they hadn't created any of the transuranics. A student could go to that thing and point out the outer electron of any of the ninety-two elements.

Ninety-two! That was it; there were ninety-two items in the table on the left wall! Hydrogen was Number One, she knew; One, Sarfaldsorn. Helium was Two; that was Tirfaldsorn. She couldn't remember which element came next, but in Martian it was Sarfalddavas. Sorn must mean matter, or substance, then. And davas; she was trying to think of what it could be. She turned quickly to the others, catching hold of Hubert Penrose's arm with one hand and waving her clipboard with the other.

"Look at this thing, over here," she was clamoring excitedly. "Tell me what you think it is. Could it be a table of elements?"

They all turned to look. Mort Tranter stared at it for a moment.

"Could be. If only I knew what those squiggles meant—"

That was right; he'd spent his time aboard the ship.

"If you could read the numbers, would that help?" she asked, beginning to set down the Arabic digits and their Martian equivalents. "It's decimal system, the same as we use."

"Sure. It that's a table of elements, all I'd need would be the numbers. Thanks," he added as she tore off the sheet and gave it to him.

Penrose knew the numbers, and was ahead of him. "Ninety-two items, numbered consecutively. The first number would be the atomic number. Then a single word, the name of the element, then the atomic weight—"

She began reading off the names of the elements. "I know hydrogen and helium; what's tirfalddavas, the third one?

"Lithium," Tranter said. "The atomic weights aren't run out past the decimal point. Hydrogen's one plus, it that double-hook dingus is a plus sign; Helium's four-plus; that's right. And lithium given as seven, that isn't right. Its six-point-nine-four-oh. Or is that thing a Martian minus sign?"

"of course! Look! A plus sign is a hook, to hand things together; a minus is a knife, to cut something off from something—see, the little loop is a handle and the long pointed loop is the blade. Stylized, of course, but that's what it is. And the fourth element, kiradavas; what's that?"

"Beryllium. Atomic weight is given as nine-and-a-hook; actually it's nine-point-oh-two."

Sid Chamberlain had been disgruntled because he couldn't get a story about the Martians having developed atomic energy. It took him a few minutes to understand the newest development, but finally it dawned on him.

Hey! You're reading that!" he cried. "You're reading Martian!"

That's right," Penrose told him. "Just reading it right off. I don't get the two items after the atomic weight, though. They look like months of the Martian calendar. What ought they to be, Mort?"

Tranter hesitated. "Well, the next information after the atomic weight ought to be the period and group numbers. But those are words."

"What would the numbers be for the first one, hydrogen?"

"Period One, Group One. One electron shell, one electron in the outer shell," Tranter told her. "Helium's period one, too, but it has the outer—only—electron shell full, so it's in the group of inert elements."

"Trav, Trav. Trav's the first month of the year. And helium's Trav, Yenth; Yenth is the eighth month."

"The inert elements could be called Group Eight, yes. And the third element, lithium, is Period Two, Group One. That check?"

"It certainly does. Sanv, Trav; Sanv's the second month. What's the first element in Period Three?"

"Sodium, Number Eleven."

"That's right; it's Krav, Trav. Why, the names of the months are simply numbers, one to ten, spelled out."

"Doma's the fifth month. That was your first Martian word, Martha," Penrose told her. "The word for five. And if davas is the word for metal, and sornhulva is chemistry and/or physics, I'll bet Tadavas Sornhulva is literally translated as: 'Of-Metal Matter-Knowledge.' Metallurgy, in other words. I wonder what Mastharnorvod means." It surprised her that, after so long and with so much happening in the meantime, he could remember that. "Something like 'Journal,' or 'Review,' or maybe 'Quarterly.'"

"We'll work that out, too," she said confidently. After this, nothing seemed impossible. "Maybe we can find—" Then she stopped short. "You said 'Quarterly.' I think it was 'Monthly,' instead. It was dated for a specific month, the fifth one. And if nor is ten, Mastharnorvod could be 'Year-Tenth.' And I'll bet we find that masthar is the word for year." She looked at the table on the wall again. "Well, let's get all these words down, with translations for as many as we can."