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Author Topic: Morse Code as Language  (Read 10926 times)
AB2T
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« on: October 23, 2010, 06:45:29 PM »

I'd like to start a discussion on Morse Code as Language.  Specifically, I'd like to compare the syntax of CW to the English language.  Other languages can be part of the discussion so long as the commenter provides context in English.  For example, it'd be great to start a discussion of Wabun.  I'll begin by throwing out one idea.  Let's see where the thread goes.

--------------
Use of the Question Mark in CW

The CW language adapted for English uses the question mark in a few interesting ways.  For the moment I will ignore the specific use of IMI as I don't have military experience.  Those who have military experience might want to clarify that usage.

Take this example:

RST 599 5NN BT QTH CONN BT HW?

BT is a "pause for thought" in my opinion.  Another topic to explore.

HW is what linguists call a particle.  It is a self-contained syntactical expression derived from HOW [do you] COPY [me].  Its meaning is completely encapsulated in the two letters and the question mark.  I am sure that most operators would understand HW alone without the question mark, but it is customary to follow HW with a question mark.  Here the question mark emphasizes the particle.  Redundant, yes, but necessary to clear some ambiguity.

Unlike spoken or written American English, the CW language can't express questions through stress and tone.  Rather, it often (but not exclusively) relies on the question mark to turn a declarative sentence to a question.  Some other English dialects, such as certain regional variations on Canadian English, use a particle to turn a declarative to a question.  For many Americans, "eh", and to a lesser extent "about", "out", and "sorry", are the classic differentiations between American and Canadian English.  "Eh" is not as common in Canada as some Americans think.  Don't use South Park as a metric for Canadian English :-)

For example:

American English: Don't you like your new Yaesu?

Here there is sentence order inversion, stress on first two words, expected answer is "yes".  

Canadian English (certain dialects): You like your new Yaesu, eh?

Here "eh" is the question particle that converts a declarative sentence to a question.  Expected answer is "yes'.  "Eh" often receives a higher tone and stress than the rest of the sentence.    

English CW language: FB ON NEW YAESU BT SOLID COPY BT LIKE IT?

? in this case is equivalent to "eh".  Sure, an operator could send a question inversion, such as

FB ON NEW YAESU BT SOLID COPY BT DO YOU LIKE IT?  

Verb inversion on CW is inconvenient since the CW verb range is very limited ("to be", "to have").  Also, economy tends towards ? as the question particle.

Just ideas.

73, Jordan  
« Last Edit: October 23, 2010, 06:50:41 PM by Jordan » Logged
N2EY
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« Reply #1 on: October 23, 2010, 08:12:08 PM »

Interesting!

However, the first order of business IMHO is to define "language" in this context.

If you define "language" as "a system of symbolic means by which people, animals and/or machines communicate", then of course Morse Code is a language.

But if you define "language" as "a stand-alone system of verbally-based communication used by people", then it isn't, because it's not stand-alone.

To put it another way, there are millions of people whose only language is English. Same for French, German, Italian, Farsi, Mandarin, etc. But there is probably no one whose only language is Morse Code. 

A person who knows only English can communicate with other English-speakers, the biggest problem being accents and dialects. But Morse Code has to be based on a language like English (or French, German, etc.) - it doesn't stand alone.

I say the first definition is the correct one.

---

While the prosigns/punctuations such as ? and BT have their use, there are ways around them in Morse. For example, if I send "HW U LIKE UR FT-1000MP" and then pause, the fact that it's a question is obvious.

There's also the use of abbreviations and Q signals which compress lots of info and specific concepts into a very few characters.

It is also possible to express some things by the manner of sending.

73 de Jim, N2EY
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AB2T
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« Reply #2 on: October 23, 2010, 09:05:29 PM »

However, the first order of business IMHO is to define "language" in this context.

If you define "language" as "a system of symbolic means by which people, animals and/or machines communicate", then of course Morse Code is a language.

I say the first definition is the correct one.

I agree.  Still, let's say that the first definition is the working model (premise) rather than a conclusion. 

While the prosigns/punctuations such as ? and BT have their use, there are ways around them in Morse. For example, if I send "HW U LIKE UR FT-1000MP" and then pause, the fact that it's a question is obvious.

True, but I would argue that HW acts as a verb in an inverted question because it is an abbreviation for "how do you".  In a contact troubled by interference or noise the ? would probably be necessary even if redundant.  Perhaps the operator did not hear the question particle HW the first time around, or only caught part of the message.

Redundancy is a part of every language.  English is no exception.  It's not improper in Canadian English, for example, to combine the question word order and "eh" for greater emphasis.  "Don't you like your new Yaesu, eh?"  is quite similar to HW U LIKE UR [...]?  An extreme redundancy would be an extra HW? or HW CPY? at the end of the transmission.  That's somewhat liddish, but perhaps necessary under poor conditions.   

Interestingly, CW question conventions have exerted unintended effects on phone.  One could argue that the use of QSL? or "copy" as a question particle on phone is the logical extension of particle use on CW.  The use of QSL? as a phone question particle instead of "okay" or simply the use of tone and stress to convey meaning is a very bad habit (daresay lid habit) that's invaded HF phone and repeaters.  I cringe when operators invent nonstandard English verbs such as "destinated" (reminds me of "shuffling off this mortal coil").  Nevertheless, I have often thought that some hams enjoy jargon and lingo, as if speaking in this manner distinguishes an in- and out-group. 
 
It is also possible to express some things by the manner of sending.

What do you mean by this?

73, Jordan
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W0XI
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« Reply #3 on: October 24, 2010, 09:20:19 AM »

Hi Jordan & Jim!

Me too; interesting thread topic!

Study CW as a language to what end? Just to study or just for fun would be two good reasons. Perhaps you were thinking too about the efficiency of CW, e.g. information throughput? That would be interesting too.

In working on the code with various programs available and in searching for ways to increase speed and improve comprehension (of the message), it seems clear that there are sub-groups within the CW "language family". For example, different skills and exchanges are needed for contesting and rag-chewing QSOs.

Further, what shall we include within syntax beyond word order, prosigns, Q signals. Digging deeper, should we include the phonetics of the code message, types of pauses, rate changes, doubling of portions of the messages, e.g. call twice.

Do we want to dig even deeper? I'm thinking here about how the mind processes sounds-letters-words into meaning. To me, this is the real "secret" kernel of CW and encompasses "following behind." Neurologists suggest that language skills of kids expand once sentence usage commences, adding depth and therefore assisting in comprehension to what is being said. WWI and WWII efforts to train coders displayed this. Random letter and word WPM copy leveled off. But when meaningful sentences were added WPM copy again began to increase with practice sessions. What say OMs?

Phil

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NK6Q
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« Reply #4 on: October 24, 2010, 11:35:44 AM »

Intriguing post.  I love it!

Need I mention that morse and cw ham ops may be the originators of text messaging widely used today, especially by teens?  When I first became aware of texting, its brevity and use of numbers and letters in place of words for the sake of speed immediately reminded me of my younger days pounding out the code.

Hey, what about using the question mark to indicate a sending error?  I personally like it better than throwing out eight "dits".  I've even heard some ops use it as a space between repeating information, although I still can't figure that one out.

Bill in Pasadena
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N2EY
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« Reply #5 on: October 24, 2010, 01:11:02 PM »

Still, let's say that the first definition is the working model (premise) rather than a conclusion.

Agreed.
 
Redundancy is a part of every language.  English is no exception.  It's not improper in Canadian English, for example, to combine the question word order and "eh" for greater emphasis.  "Don't you like your new Yaesu, eh?"  is quite similar to HW U LIKE UR [...]?  An extreme redundancy would be an extra HW? or HW CPY? at the end of the transmission.  That's somewhat liddish, but perhaps necessary under poor conditions.

I agree about the redundancy; some languages and some users are more redundant than others.

But the "HW?" at the end of a transmission can serve a real purpose: to let the receiving op know it's being turned over to him/her. In the old days it was common to hear "WAT SAY?" or "WATSA?" meaning "So what do you have to say, OM?"

A lot depends on the context. If conditions are good, the ops sharp and there's a common ground of operating procedure and situational awareness, a little goes a long way. In other circumstances the redundancy is really needed.
 
Interestingly, CW question conventions have exerted unintended effects on phone.  One could argue that the use of QSL? or "copy" as a question particle on phone is the logical extension of particle use on CW.  The use of QSL? as a phone question particle instead of "okay" or simply the use of tone and stress to convey meaning is a very bad habit (daresay lid habit) that's invaded HF phone and repeaters.

That's nothing new, and it predates repeaters by many, many years. There were comments in QSTs of the 1950s and earlier decrying the use of CW stuff on 'phone.

Some examples:

- the use of "kay" rather than "over" or "go" at the end of a transmission ("....cq from n2ey, kay someone please...")

- the use of "aitch-eye" or "high-high" instead of laughing ("..and then he found he had two different socks on as well as two different shoes, high-high")

- the use of Q signals which are actually more syllables and less clear than plain language ("I'm at the home QTH")

The reason for all this isn't CW invading phone practice. Rather, it's the result of 'phone ops trying to give the impression that they are such hotshot CW ops that they forget they're not at the key.

Or at least that's how it got started, decades ago.

I cringe when operators invent nonstandard English verbs such as "destinated" (reminds me of "shuffling off this mortal coil").  Nevertheless, I have often thought that some hams enjoy jargon and lingo, as if speaking in this manner distinguishes an in- and out-group.

Jargon is usually the result of a communications need. New words are coined and old words reused to meet the need for a short way of expressing a complex concept.

Take "destinated", which makes you cringe so much.

The word is the result of the repeater era, which put many more hams on the air from their cars than ever before. Repeaters made mobile operation easy and reliable, and rules changes meant you didn't have to ID as "mobile" all the time.

But, in most cases, when a ham reached destination, s/he had to turn off the rig and leave the car - and the QSO - in a hurry. "Destinated" came to mean "I don't want to be rude, and I enjoyed the conversation, but I have to go right now".

One word doing the work of a whole sentence - pretty good stuff, that.

 
It is also possible to express some things by the manner of sending.


What do you mean by this?

The way someone sends can convey things like impatience, sarcasm, careful thought, etc.

For example, it's just common sense that you don't send faster than you can receive, because the speed you send indicates how fast you can copy.

Now suppose a ham in a contest is running QSOs at 20 wpm, holding a frequency, making good time. Conditions are good, signals strong, frequency clear.

He is answered by another ham going 30+ wpm. Which is a bit of a challenge to begin with.

So the first ham cranks up the speed to 25 and sends the exchange. And the ham who called at 30 needs several repeats to get it right. (IOW, the ham who called at 30 wpm can't even copy 25, and the exchange takes more time than it would have if he'd called at 15 wpm).

So the ham who's running the frequency grabs the straight key and pounds out the exchange at 7 wpm - as if to say "Can you copy THIS?"

There are many more examples.

73 de Jim, N2EY
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AB2T
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« Reply #6 on: October 24, 2010, 05:04:33 PM »

Study CW as a language to what end? Just to study or just for fun would be two good reasons. Perhaps you were thinking too about the efficiency of CW, e.g. information throughput? That would be interesting too.

That's a good question, Phil.  It's similar to Bill (in Pasadena)'s remark about the similarities between text messaging and CW.  I don't have an answer to your question about the thoroughput of CW.  An "average" English speaker talks at 120 to 150 WPM.  That doesn't mean, however, that spoken content contains more information than coded content. 

In working on the code with various programs available and in searching for ways to increase speed and improve comprehension (of the message), it seems clear that there are sub-groups within the CW "language family". For example, different skills and exchanges are needed for contesting and rag-chewing QSOs.

Quite true.  After all, auction calling is a different type of speech than a casual conversation.  So far we've distinguished two layers within code: grammar (language mechanics) and the content of communication.

In working on the code with various programs available and in searching for ways to increase Further, what shall we include within syntax beyond word order, prosigns, Q signals. Digging deeper, should we include the phonetics of the code message, types of pauses, rate changes, doubling of portions of the messages, e.g. call twice.

Yes.  What do you mean by rate changes?  Is this similar to when an operator slows down slightly to spell a difficult word, or repeat information?

Do we want to dig even deeper? I'm thinking here about how the mind processes sounds-letters-words into meaning. To me, this is the real "secret" kernel of CW and encompasses "following behind." Neurologists suggest that language skills of kids expand once sentence usage commences, adding depth and therefore assisting in comprehension to what is being said. WWI and WWII efforts to train coders displayed this. Random letter and word WPM copy leveled off. But when meaningful sentences were added WPM copy again began to increase with practice sessions. What say OMs?

I don't know, Phil.  I'm not a neurologist or linguist, even though I have studied classical languages for many years.  Maybe an uncovering of the CW grammar will help us all better contextualize what we hear.  From personal experience, I know that it is not necessarily a bad idea to introduce new language students to more difficult texts in tandem with simple texts.  The ratio of "simple" to "difficult" text changes over time.   

That's [the use of CW language on phone] nothing new, and it predates repeaters by many, many years. There were comments in QSTs of the 1950s and earlier decrying the use of CW stuff on 'phone. (my brackets)

- the use of "aitch-eye" or "high-high" instead of laughing ("..and then he found he had two different socks on as well as two different shoes, high-high")

The reason for all this isn't CW invading phone practice. Rather, it's the result of 'phone ops trying to give the impression that they are such hotshot CW ops that they forget they're not at the key.

Or at least that's how it got started, decades ago.

I don't doubt your explanation for this phenomenon.  Regardless of its beginnings, the use of CW language on phone demonstrates a certain economy of language and subtle grading of meaning.  "HI HI" on phone, for example, could be interpreted as a method of implying or suggesting humor.  "LOL" serves a similar function on the internet.  What the operator or computer user says might not be amusing to others or even to the operator.  Nevertheless, a statement can be "flavored" by the suggestion that there's something interesting in the statement. 

Some languages, like Greek and Latin, are filled with "flavor particles" like HI HI.  Here's a "weak question" in Latin (sorry, no English equivalent that I can think of offhand):

conduxistine tuam raedam in urbem

(verb)-(ne particle) (adjective) (direct object) (prepositional phrase)

"you have driven-ne your carriage to town."

The -ne is a very subtle part of the sentence.  the inclusion of one syllable suggests a weak question rather than a simple declaration.  The listener, then, entertains the notion of being asked something without the expectation or obligation of response.  Similarly, HI HI is a weak way to elicit a comment (hopefully favorable) from the other operator in a less obtrusive manner.

73, Jordan
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W9PMZ
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« Reply #7 on: October 25, 2010, 02:16:46 AM »

If CW, communication via on off keying, constituted a language then I suppose that the type I am sending into the PC constitues a language, or is it ASCII language...

Then I suppose writing on a piece of paper is a language...

Then I suppose shorthand is a language...

Then I suppose that what is transcribed in a court is a language...

Reductio ad absurdum

73,

Carl - W9PMZ

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AB2T
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« Reply #8 on: October 25, 2010, 03:45:45 AM »

Earlier Jim noted the following.

However, the first order of business IMHO is to define "language" in this context.

If you define "language" as "a system of symbolic means by which people, animals and/or machines communicate", then of course Morse Code is a language.

I say the first definition is the correct one.

I did not disagree.  Yet I left the statement open as a premise and not a conclusion.

I agree.  Still, let's say that the first definition is the working model (premise) rather than a conclusion.

Carl's statement ostensibly contends that certain forms of symbolic communication, specifically non-verbal communication,  are not "language".

If CW, communication via on off keying, constituted a language then I suppose that the type I am sending into the PC constitues a language, or is it ASCII language...

Then I suppose writing on a piece of paper is a language...

Then I suppose shorthand is a language...

Then I suppose that what is transcribed in a court is a language...

Reductio ad absurdum

Carl, why would you say that writing, shorthand, and court transcription are not "language"?  Is there a limit to symbolic communication?  A limitation of "language" to the spoken word could pose some difficulties given that people without the facility (or ease) of voice easily communicate.  Your question is important because it challenges the thread to justify its conceptual boundaries.

Perhaps the original premise should be refined.  If so, then perhaps the idea of CW as language should be scrapped or modified significantly.

73, Jordan
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N2EY
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« Reply #9 on: October 25, 2010, 04:40:51 AM »

If CW, communication via on off keying, constituted a language then I suppose that the type I am sending into the PC constitues a language, or is it ASCII language...

What you type into the computer is language if it results in communication. ASCII is how it is transmitted from one computer to others.


Then I suppose writing on a piece of paper is a language...

Then I suppose shorthand is a language...

Then I suppose that what is transcribed in a court is a language......

Yes, yes and yes. They're all forms of language.


Reductio ad absurdum


Not at all - here's why:

Consider the English language. Better yet, the "American" version of English.

Spoken English where speaker and listener can see and hear each other is one form.

Spoken English where speaker and listener cannot see each other but can hear each other is a second form.

Written English is a third form.

Printed English is a fourth form.

Shorthand is a fifth form.

Morse Code is a sixth form.

Etc. There are lots more.

Yes, they're all language, but they're all somewhat different. If they weren't, people wouldn't travel enormous distances to meet in person - they'd just have telephone conversations.

A handwritten letter conveys a different communication than a printed one even if the words are exactly the same. A conversation, letter, phone call and email have different meanings even if the intended messages are the same.

Same for texting, Morse Code, ASL and other forms of communication, even if they are all based on English.

To a person who is illiterate, written or printed English is gibberish. To a person who can read, the same thing can have incredible meaning.

73 de Jim, N2EY
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AA4PB
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« Reply #10 on: October 25, 2010, 05:14:50 AM »

I'd say that Morse is not a language, but simply a means of encoding a language for transmission. In that respect its no different than Baudot or ASCII. If I transmit the English text from a book via Morse, someone who does not understand the English language will not understand what I sent. If Morse were actually a language then they should understand it without knowing English.

As hams we can often communicate a limited amount via Morse with someone who does not know English because we have common Q signals and radio procedure signs. I submit however that these signs are not actually a part of Morse Code but are made up of English letters, even though they are often run together.
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NI0C
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« Reply #11 on: October 25, 2010, 06:40:16 AM »

Is Morse code itself a language or merely a means for coding languages?  I go back and forth on this question.  Perhaps it is something like the physics question: does light consist of particles or waves? 

I do think that at very high speeds, where we begin decoding words instead of characters, Morse code takes on more of the characteristics of a spoken language.  W4BQF has some interesting notes on his website: http://sites.google.com/site/tomw4bqf/copyingcwover70wpm.

I'm training myself to recognize random words at high speeds using Learn CW Online: http://lcwo.net/
Sometimes I have to play a word over and over until I get it. Once I get it, I play it one more time and it sounds crisp and clear.  It is just like asking someone to repeat the pronunciation of a spoken word until you get it.   

73,
Chuck  NI0C
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KC9HOZ
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« Reply #12 on: October 25, 2010, 07:05:45 AM »

Yeah, morse code is just that... a code!  Coded English to be exact (in the context of this conversation).  If two CW ops decided to use Spanish for their QSO, my knowledge of morse code would be useless in understanding them.

Though they are closely related (even intertwined) it's important not to confuse "language", with "a form of communication".

Scott
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K7KBN
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« Reply #13 on: October 25, 2010, 07:19:35 AM »

I'd offer that perhaps Morse code is a language for those who KNOW this particular language.  At the United Nations, there are translators working feverishly, translating what is being said in whatever language into several other languages.  Of these other languages, most are "gibberish" to those who don't speak those languages, but have perfect meaning for those who do. 
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73
Pat K7KBN
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W0XI
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« Reply #14 on: October 25, 2010, 08:19:04 AM »

I do think that at very high speeds, where we begin decoding words instead of characters, Morse code takes on more of the characteristics of a spoken language.  W4BQF has some interesting notes on his website: http://sites.google.com/site/tomw4bqf/copyingcwover70wpm.

Aside, W4BQF's article is neat and worth bookmarking. Thanks.

[AB2T] "Maybe an uncovering of the CW grammar will help us all better contextualize what we hear.  From personal experience, I know that it is not necessarily a bad idea to introduce new language students to more difficult texts in tandem with simple texts.  The ratio of "simple" to "difficult" text changes over time."

I too am not a linguist! However, your comment here rings true. Those with interest might read the following article  by linguist, Steven Greenberg, SPEAKING IN SHORTHAND - A SYLLABLE-CENTRIC PERSPECTIVE FOR UNDERSTANDING PRONUNCIATION VARIATION. Just google for the url. His study uses words from conversation rather than from text sources, so the top 100 words are different than those of N0HFF's work. 73 Phil, W0XI   
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