Long-distance communication: From fire beacons to ósanwe in Middle Earth

The Lord of the Rings movies are classics for the holiday season. The mythological past of J.R.R. Tolkien is so influential that it even inspired a Dutch town, Geldrop, to name streets after the inhabitants of Middle Earth. As Tolkien fans know, there are many ways in Middle Earth for different beings to communicate over long distances. The fire beacons of Gondor, the horn of Boromir, the eagles of Manwë, and the war drums of Orcs are among some fantastic examples. Yet even fans may not know that they are quite in tune with the factual past. Long-distance communication has been critical throughout the history of humanity and is obviously not a modern era phenomenon. But how did people communicate at a distance before the arrival of smartphones?

Synesthesia: a colourful alphabet!

For some people, the name of their best friend is bright green. For others, their telephone number has the colours of the rainbow. This may sound odd to most of you, but for four percent of people around the world this is a daily experience known as synesthesia. People with synesthesia are also known as synesthetes. For them, particular stimuli from their daily life can elicit multiple sensations; for instance, hearing a specific musical tone can elicit the perception of a specific colour or touching an object can elicit the sensation of taste.

Conversation is not like a game of ping pong

You might have noticed that when you’re having a conversation with another person, you take turns with them – you switch between producing your own sentence and listening to your partner producing theirs. This process seems fairly effortless. In fact, we often take turns with our partner without leaving long gaps between the end of their turn and the start of our own. Research suggests that there is some variability in turn-taking across languages. In Japanese the average gap between turns is around 7 milliseconds, while in Danish it is around 470 milliseconds. However, this gap is most commonly around 200 milliseconds, regardless of the language we speak.