“Yes,” you say. “Let’s go.” Your tongue trips over the word—there’s a structure you should have used, a pronoun you should have said instead of the lapidary Galactic sentence. But nothing will come, and you feel like a field of sugar canes after the harvest—burnt out, all cutting edges with no sweetness left inside.
I have a new story up on Strange Horizons – One-Eyed Jack’s, about an old woman fighting a supernatural battle against the evil strip club and the church gone rotten that are trying to take over her West Virginia valley.
One person who saw this before it was published painstakingly informed me that “ain’t” isn’t good English, as if I had somehow reached adulthood in the United States of America without ever encountering this fact, and that it ought to be changed. Longtime AT readers will recognize this as what’s called prescriptivism – the idea that one variety of a language is right, and if other varieties are different, they are therefore wrong. A linguist would say that calling one variety of a language “wrong” is like calling one color of hummingbird “wrong” – they’re all perfectly good languages, or birds as the case may be, with some varieties commanding more respect than others.
Alien Tongues will be back on our regular posting schedule after InConJunction. In the meantime, here’s the brochure we did for the Indianapolis Klingon ship, the IKS lIywI’.
Careful readers will notice that while the Klingon is mostly a translation of the English, there are a few differences. “Please spay and neuter your tribble” becomes “Kill all tribbles”, and “Tribbles might be cute, but …” becomse “Tribbles are contemptible.” (I’ll leave the other differences for comments.)
First! I have a new story out at AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. It’s about the man who sells out the human race for alien pocket change. The linguistics in it is incidental, but real, though the post about how humans perceive continuous sound waves as a string of separate sounds – and why – is probably not going up until next week.
Second, there are two Away Team presentations at the InConJunction science fiction convention in Indianapolis this weekend. Professional Klingon translator naHQun (a.k.a. Michael Roney, Jr.) and I will be giving a one-hour Klingon lesson, and I’ll also be doing a panel on Xenolinguistics, where we talk about what we know about human languages and other communication systems, and what might be possible for alien languages.
Posting on AT is light at the moment because the Away Team will be giving several presentations at InConJunction in Indianapolis next weekend, meaning I’m making slides and media clips instead of posting.
However, we did want to bring you this from our correspondents in Bulgaria, where volunteer artists – some might say “vandals” – updated this Soviet-era monument:
The label at the bottom is cut off in a lot of photos – it says в крак с времето, translated by most reporters as “Moving with the times.”
Bulgarian is a Slavic language, meaning it’s related to Russian and Polish, but not all that closely – the three languages come from different branches of the Slavic family, and Bulgarian is more closely related to Serbian and Croatian.
Nowadays Bulgarian is written in Cyrillic, which is also used to write Russian (Russian uses a couple of additional vowel letters), and which is chock full of letters that look kinda-sorta like the Roman alphabet but have different sounds. If you don’t read Cyrillic, you may have scratched your head over the СССР on Russian spacecraft (though once you know that the С is pronounced like our “s” and the Р like our “r”, you can map СССР roughly onto “Soviet Socialist Republics” without having to know the exact Russian.) If you do read Cyrillic, you get a headache every time some comics letterer uses я for American “r”, because я is pronounced “ya”, and it’s hard to re-train yourself on just a few lines of dialogue.
С and р are almost all we need to sound out (badly) the vandal’s message. The other one that throws English speakers is в, pronounced “v”. V krak s vremeto (the consonants are prepositions, and no, there are no vowels in the words; just run them onto the next word) – that’s still just an approximation of the sounds, of course. But our lesson on Bulgarian pronunciation will have to wait until after our ICJ lesson on Klingon pronunciation, coming next weekend.
In part 1 of our series on the Atlantean language from Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, we looked at how creator Marc Okrand drew on historical linguistics to create words that could have eventually become the vocabulary of modern languages (while showing a noticeable tilt towards European languages). This time, let’s take a look at the sounds of Atlantean, and see if they show a similar influence – or if they’re closer to the ideal of a common linguistic heritage.
“You were right,” [the alien] said. “If it amuses the fellow to pretend that he can read, I see no obstacle. And if it contributes to the efficiency of your department, we all shine that much brighter.” (More literally, with fuller etymological values, his words could be rendered: “If it amuses the fellow to pretend that he fingers wisdom, my hands are not grated. And if it smoothes your quarry wall, we all hew more easily.”)
C. M. Kornbluth, “The Slave”
Kornbluth’s aliens are exquisitely sensitive to touch, but cannot see. Their writing system is based on raised symbols, but unlike Braille and tenji – which were designed for blind humans – the symbols are hard for humans to distinguish. Kornbluth’s hero, who’s already learned to speak the alien language, reads their books by sight, holding them at an angle so the raised symbols will cast shadows and wishing he could get away with making rubbings.
Maybe “designed for blind humans” isn’t a good standard to measure by, though – New York Point was also designed for blind humans, and Helen Keller herself said it was ass.
… man, I am now wishing Kornbluth had written a story about Helen Keller learning alien writing so she could lead a slave revolt and seize an enemy warship.
But the only news story I saw was headed: THIRD LOAD OF RIP VAN WINKLES ARRIVE TODAY.
The reporter or whoever it was who wrote the piece had fun with it and I hope he chokes. It seems that our clothes were quaint and our speech was quaint and we were all deliciously old-fashioned and a bit simple-minded. The picture was captioned: “Off Hats, Chuckies! Grandpa Town-comes.”
Robert A. Heinlein, Time for the Stars
Tom Bartlett only aged a few years aboard the Lewis and Clark, but returns to an Earth where seventy-two years have passed. The language has changed enough that his speech sounds hilariously old-fashioned. What happened? And what didn’t happen?
“Tina. I’m Tina. ‘Akushtina Santis Pulivok.” I had no idea why I gave him my full name. I could always tell when someone thought it was strange and that happened often enough that I had quit saying it.
“?Akushtina,” he said. “A beautiful name. For a beautiful woman.”
I stared at him. The surprise wasn’t so much that he thought it was beautiful, though that was unexpected too; the glottal stop at the beginning of `Akushtina sounded ugly to most people who didn’t speak Tzotzil Mayan. But what really hit me was that he pronounced it right.
Catherine Asaro, Catch The Lightning
You can't usually use "uh-oh" in a sentence. Unless you're a Wonder Woman villain.
English has a lot of sounds that briefly block the flow of air – “t”, “k”, “p”, for example – but the only glottal stop many English speakers use is in the word “uh-oh”. And “uh-oh” is an interjection, and interjections don’t necessarily follow the rules other words do – take “shhh”, the shushing sound, which doesn’t have a vowel.
Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire is unusual in having a linguist hero, and less unusual in having rather silly linguistics. The linguist is mainly a translator, and in the first scene of the movie announces he’s found a mistranslation in a “Viking” text which is English spelled out in futhark. (This isn’t a little detail in the background for specialists to freeze-frame and roll their eyes at; Milo Thatch has written out the futhark on a blackboard, with an English letter under each character, helpfully spelling out an English phrase.)
However, Thatch’s grandfather went to Georgetown, so I’m going to be generous with the movie (Hoya Saxa!) and focus on what’s more interesting: the conlang Marc Okrand created for the Atlantean culture.
“The mischievous and wise sage from the original trilogy had been replaced by a little green asshole whose backwards speak should have earned him a punt off of a transport ship by a syntax-respecting Clone Trooper.”
Here all the world’s alphabets, abjads, and syllabaries are sold [...] Another class of symbolists exists, who conduct their trade in secret, against both city and royal law, meeting clients in clandestine assignments, fashioning unique, customized writing ways for them.