Telephone game

In communication, and language, the telephone game has an important role to play in how meaning is sent. We can use this game to model real world things that happen. When we communicate, things change

The Game

The telephone game is played by one message being transmitted between person to person until the message goes in full circle.

For instance, if there are 10 people sitting in a circle.

The first person passes the message “I like ice cream” to the 2nd person.

The 2nd person might hear “I like cream” and then passes that message on to the 3rd person.

The person might hear “I like cream” and then pass the message to the 4th person and misspoke saying “I like reams”

The 4th person didn’t understand the 3rd, so the 4th person tries to make something that sounds right and say “I like beans”

And this game continues on and on until the the 10th person says something that is completely different from the 1st.

Some people have played the game with body language instead, and the results are similar.

Tribal knowledge

Tribal Knowledge is knowledge that is orally passed down. You can consider this like a tutelage, a mentorship, or on-the-job training.

The status quo or ‘what works best’ is different depending on the culture or the tribe. This knowledge is passed down onto the most experienced worker. If that experienced worker doesn’t pass on the knowledge, then it is lost.

Plague doctors used to teach by apprenticeship. They would perform medicine by learning from their instructors and masters. There was not formal curriculum and they lived a fairly hermetic life in the pursuit of knowledge and alchemy.

Tribes would pass down knowledge from one chief to the next. There is some sort of rite of passage for those that qualify for the knowledge. Like a Tribal shaman passing down wisdom to the next shaman. Likewise, an Arch Bishop or Cardinal passes down knowledge to their successor. Similarly our President of the United States passes down to the next oncoming president.

So much wisdom, secret knowledge, and information can be lost by not properly passing it down or having an early retirement before a rightful successor can be elected or named.

Remember how the telephone game yields miscommunication? The message that we pass down is different from the person that receives it. The work that we create is differenlty interpretted.

If it was art, then they say a picture is worth 1,000 words. Well, to each person, those are 1,000 different words. Every person would interpret things differently. Including art, literature, or whatever medium you send your message through.

Eventually someone has the technology, time, and idea to write down the tribal knowledge. Writing down these passed-down teachings formalizes the teachings.

You, the reader, knows a lot of things. Various random things that you might feel or think is useless, but it could make a world’s difference to other people. Like the ability to surf the internet.

Sometimes we get far enough in life, that it is sort of a duty of ours, to help make it easier for the future generations of people. If you are skilled and talented, or know something, it can help give meaning and purpose in your life to give it back. To give back the things that you had once taken from the world.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, it’s only helpful to have others stand on our shoulders. We must become the giants, and the Titans.

Generation Loss

“Generation loss” is the loss of quality between subsequent copies or transcodes of data. A copy of the original is not the original. And a copy of a copy is less like the original. The small changes and loss of quality to being close to the original, is the generation loss.

Generation loss can be seen when you photocopy a copy and then photocopy the new copy. Taking a copy of a copy of a copy is not going to look close to the original.

There is a nice music piece called “I am sitting in a room composed by Alvin Lucier. The piece is of Lucier recording himself narrating a text, and then playing the recording back into the room, re-recording it. Over and over, until you get this mumbled static sound. Below is the full recording if you’d like to listen to it.

Additionally, when DNA is transcribed and replicated, it is different from before. The Telomeres and other forms of genetic code change. As DNA copies itself over and over again, there is loss between generations.

A copy of a copy is different, than the original or even the copy itself.

So the telephone game is a sort of generation loss, where the meaning is transcribed through each person. In that copy of each other, the words get changed, the meaning gets changed, and the end result is a different meaning all together.

Some participants focus on the words. The body of the words.

Some participants focus on the meaning. The spirit of the words.

When the chain of command says something, the promulgation of executive direction and vision is just a telephone game from the top to the bottom. The workers get the end result as it is handed down the ladder.

For large companies with many layers of division, any good idea will be widdled down to a simple and inefficient one. The crux of communication in a juggernaut industry.

Military use

This is a comic strip that eloquently explains how things work in the military.

This is the type of thing you’ll see in a military or corporate setting

Ingenious people have invented ways to communicate to help mitigate risks of mistranslation or misinterpretation. In specific faucets of the military, we’ve learned Submarine interior communications where communications are very important to help operate a billion dollar warship. A wrong number or message sent can be the difference between life and death when your leagues below the sea during casualty situations or even daily routine operations.

The basic communication pattern to transmit messages goes as follows:
Name of recipient, name of sender, message.
Hey you, it’s me, message.
The receiver would reply with:
message, name of sender, name of recipient.
Message, Hey you, it’s me.

The name of the recipient is sent first to grab their attention, just as if you would hitch up upon hearing your name, its important to grab the attention of the recipient before sending a slew of vital information.

The name of the sender is said to relay who the communicator is, in the event that they are asking for information or awaiting a reply. This helps the recipient know whom to follow up with.

The message is first sent and repeated back to ensure that there are no errors due to accents, communication difficulties, EMI (electromagnetic interference on the lines).

The recipient then states the name of the sender to confirm to the sender that the recipient acknowledges the sender’s position.

The Recipient than acknowledges who they are to ensure the sender that the correct recipient has received the message.

NASA, Other military branches, police, and commercial airlines work in a similar, allbeit more fluid, manner. They more or less, eliminate the repeat back portions and use the words “copy” or “roger that”.

The Advanced Telephone game

Doing it across languages is like having someone repeat what you said using completely new words. For instance, translating words from Chinese to Japanese and the English, things can get lost. sometimes things are “lost in translation”.

Meaning is interpreted and lost, especially when you can’t use the same words and have to use words with different connotations and implications.

When translating from one language to the next, whether it is another language, or the same language over time. There is a drift (in the aging of languages).

Meaning is lost. Much like the telephone game. That’s why it is very difficult to properly convey or translate certain texts while holding all the same meanings.

Because there are words, and there are meanings. And words can have multiple meanings. And meanings can be expressed through multiple words. Which, now we’re juggling context, meanings, and words.

Reading online, the rule of thumb seems to be 3 translations. After three translations, the words are syntactically or semantically too different to compare with the original text.

With regards to Time;

From an Ancient language, that evolves into a modern language. Over time, as the language evolves and changes, there are details that are lost in translation. Words change over time, meanings change over time.

The telephone game happens between languages. This also happens to languages themselves over time, as one language turns into another language.

For instance:
Latin is different from its descendent French.
French is different from the descendent Old English.
Old English is different from the descendent English.
English is slightly different from American English.
However, the differences between American English and Latin is large.
Due to linguistics drift, the evolution of meaning, and translation.


I hope this passage helps to point out the differences and difficulties that you may come across through out the world. There are always all types of translation and meaning errors.

Sometimes something is misheard, or sometimes people are mispoken. There are a variety of reasons for things to go downhill, who knows.


Words Mean Things

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