A. Walker Scott

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My Early Fascination with Culture and Language

Posted on June 1, 2018 at 8:35 PM Comments comments (0)

Anyone who knows me learns pretty quickly that I am fascinated with cultures and languages. Often people ask me why or how I became so interested in these aspects of what it means to be human. I usually just say "This is the way God made me," and leave it at that. And on a very fundamental level, I believe that is probably the best answer. I'm wierd this way. But I got to thinking about my personal history the other day, and realized that I could see hints of the man I was to become way, way back.

When I was 4 years old, my family moved to the San Luis Valley in Colorado. My dad was having helath problems and we had moved there to be close to my mother's family. We were brok when we got there, and spent several weeks or so living in a hotel room. There was very little to do, and no TV. Mom read to us from some story books she had from when she had been a little girl. Two of my favorite stories from that book were "Posh and Tosh" by Matilda Schirmer, about a young family, perhaps Germans or Scandinavians and some silly domestic goings on. But the pictures, oh the pictures! The illustrations were so colorful, and the clothes the family wore were...different...exciting...other. The second story I remember was "Auntie Katushka and the Poppy Seed Cakes," by Margery Clark. That one had such strange names: Auntie Katushka, Andrewshek (the little boy). and there was an angry goose who came from "the old country" to reclaim his feathers from Andrewshek's feather bed. I had a feather pillow. I wanted a cool name, and those colorful clothes, and a fight with a goose for my bedding!

When we moved back to Dallas, shortly after my fifth birthday, I discovered Sesame Street. this was back in the day when Sesame Street often would run the same sketch more than once in a single episode, once in English and once in Spanish. I was fascinated. Adn there was a show called Villa Alegre, which was almost entirely in Spanish. I didn't speak the language, but I watched faithfully. And then Sesame Street added Linda to the cast. She was Deaf and used American Sign Language.

When I started kindergarten, I had a great teacher...for the first six weeks. Then the school moved her to the fourth grade, and gave my class a new teacher. The new teacher did not like me. And the feeling was very much mutual. My mother met with the principal a number of times. The only option they gave her was moving me to the bilingual kindergarten class. Mom talked to me about that, and I was cautiously excited. (I had already learned how miserable a bad teacher could make life.) But I got very sick, just befor Christmas, with pneumonia and never went back. I became a kindergarten drop out. For real.

There were other books, like Gypsy Girl's Best Shoes, and The Story of Ping. They intorduced me to even more cultures.

First through third grades, I only really remember two culture or language related experiences. My sister, who was two grades behind me made a friend in kidnergarten (so I would have been in second grade) whose grandmother was Deaf. I learned the manual alphabet and a tiny handful of signs, and remember spelling my name to that woman a few times. The other cultural event of this period was wehn my mom bought me a set of books that were a sort of...children's encyclopedia of sorts. There was a volume on science with illustrated articles on what was known about each of the planets, and the beginings of spaceflight and communications satellites, and such. There were articles on biology, and the discovery of germs, and such. One volume included an article witha chart of how to say "hello" in various languages, and how to count to ten and a few other things. I learned them all by heart.

We moved to one of the suburbs before fourth grade, and there was a Filipina girl between my sister and me in age, who lived in one of the downstairs apartments on the other side of the building. I remember trying to get her to teach me to speak her language. She never did. The most exciting thing that happened in school that year were writing my first story, "The Puffin Who Stole a Muffin" (which I sill have in a box somewhere), and the unit we did on the fifty states. That was fun all the way through, but really got good when we got to Hawaii and learned a song in Hawaiian, and a dance jumping in and out of bamboo poles before our feet got caught.

From very early, I was collecting and storing in memory, everything I could learn about other languages and cultures. I didn't have access to much, but it was important to me. And when I got to college and had the opportunity to meet people from dozens of countries. I did. I made friends with, and spent so much of my time with, sudents from other countries that many of my fellow Americans just assumed that I was a foreign student, too. I've continued to take every oportunity to learn and experience and enjoy. Who I am today started way back when.

Alien languages, part 2

Posted on January 24, 2018 at 5:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Last time we looked at examples of Esperanto, a constructed language meant for real-world use, being used in speculative fiction (mostly sci-fi) as a standin for either an alien language, or a future language of Human society. And we also touched on the fact that the Esperanto used in these contexts is sometimes sloppily translated (even smacking of lazy use of Google Translate) with ungrammatical usage. This time we'll look at natural languages that have been similarly used.

The first example of this that comes to mind, for me, is Tenctonese, the language spoken by the alien Newcomers in Alien Nation. This language is probably most memorable, to those who do remember it, for its use of a click, specifically, the alveolar click. This is not one of the two clicks which are familiar to English speakers, beacuse we use them as non-linguistic "noises." This is neither the tsk-tsk click used to show disaproval (a dental click, spelled c in Zulu and other South African languages of the Nguni family), nor the sound used to urge a horse on (a lateral click, spelled x in Zulu, et al.). This is the alveolar click made with the tongue behind the gum ridge. It's the only really exotic thing about the languge. 

The song during the opening credits is simply the names of the lyrics writer's daughter (Katie Johnson) and wife (Susan Appling) read backwards -- Ei-Tak Nos-Nhoj, Na-Sus Ngil- Ppa. Much of the vocabulary of the language was built in similar fashion, often from mutilated Russian. The word for name is manya which looks like a mixing and mangling of Russian имя (imya) mixed with the English name. The word for a "love cult" in Tenctonese is liubof which is transparently the Russian word for love любовь (lyubov). The word for what is kak another straight borrowing from Russian как. Vots, meaning your, is slightly more sophisticated (if I can use that word here); it is a slight mangling of the Russian ваш (vash) meaning your. This, then, gets shortened to vot meaning you.

More backwards English shows up in nac meaning can. Another example is dlow meaning would. Call become lock; ignore the spelling, just sound them out. And when just gets scrambled to newha. This is...less than impressive, but it gets worse. I is na, and would is dlow, remember? So what would you expect the contraction I'd to be? Na'd, of course. Wait! Why does this alien language even have contractions? And even if it does, why the same ones as English? I mean, it's not even Na'w! And this isn't the only example. Toe = it. Toe's = its.

Then just for spice, we throw in a Swahili greeting with one missing vowel, sjambo.

There are a few "borrowings" that are clever. One of these is sus, meaning love, which is half of his wife's name. That's clever.


Next time, we'll look at more interesting ways of using modified natural languages in sci-fi settings. 


Alien Languages, part 1

Posted on January 17, 2018 at 6:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Alien languages have shown up in sci-fi for a very long time. The 1951 movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, includes the famous line Klaatu barada nikto, which has become a part of popular culture. Klingon, Sindarin, Quenya, Black Speech, Dothraki...sci-fi and fantasy movies, TV and books abound with brief examples, or sometimes just hints about, alien or non-human languages.

Tolkien's languages are not, technically, alien languages, since they are spoken by non-human denizens of Earth. But elves, dwarves and orcs are not human, so they kind of fit here. And for the last 60 years, they have continued to be the most visible of conlangs. Though more people are said to speak Esperanto, I have no doubt that far more people know of Sindarin and Quenya, though maybe only as "Elvish." After all, more than 150 million copies of The Lord of the Rings having sold, and millions more, world wide, have seen the films.

Many of the languages in fiction are the merest sketches of languages, not even worthy of an appendix, or a glossary. Some reach that level, but no more. A few, here and there, support elaborate appendices, or even the publication of dictionaries and grammars for those who want to dig in and learn more. 

And then there is Esperanto. This one is a special case, indeed. Esperanto started out as (and still is) what's called an international auxillary language (or auxlang), a language intended for use by real-world men and women in real-world communication across language barriers. Esperanto has beeen used in science fiction, for a very long time, as a language used in Earth of the future to hint that we are in a world that has a single government and one language for international use. It appears in Babylon 5 as one of the languages heard on the PA system announcing arrivals and departures, etc. It's used much the same way in Gattaca, voices on the PA system. In Blade: Trinity, all the signage is bilingual in English and Esperanto, and an Esperanto movie is on TV in one scene. Red Dwarf used Esperanto on all bilingual sings in its early seasons, declaring it the international language of the future. Harry Harrison, in his Stainless Steel Rat, and Philip José Farmer, in his Riverworld, both present Esperanto as the language of the future and occasionally present Esperanto in dialog. In all of these cases, Esperanto is depicted, in story, as a human language, perhaps even as a natural language, but there are other uses to which Esperanto has been put.

In the Nickelodion cartoon Danny Phantom, one of the ghosts, Wulf, speaks in grammatically incorrect Esperanto. So here we have a supernatural character speaking Esperanto. Superman/Batman: Apocolypse takes it even further. This film uses a pastiche of Esperanto and gibberish as a standin for actually making a Kryptonian language, so here Esperanto is presented as an alien language. This use is less than ideal, but it is something that has happened in speculative fiction.

I'll come back to this topic later, and look at other kinds of "alien" languages in speculative fiction.

Why aliens?

Posted on January 17, 2018 at 12:45 AM Comments comments (0)

Sci-fi is a big field, and there are so many sub-genre that you can get dizzy trying to keep track of them all. So what is it about aliens that attracts me more than ray guns and spaceships? It's the possibilities for exploring cultures and languages, and odd ways of looking at the universe. 

When I look at cultures here on Earth, the variety is amazing. There are so many different ways of doing the same essential tasks. In America, we eat with fork and knife and spoon. They do the same in England, but they hold their fork turned the other way. Some fork-knife-spoon cultures find it perfectly acceptable to stab bites with the knife and place them in the mouth; others don't. Then there are chopstick cultures, and again, good manners in their use varies from place to place. And then there are dipping cultures that use sops, and hand cultures that pick up food with their fingers and...the list goes on. And that's just the physical act of eating! We haven't started to talk about cooking methods, or walking styles, or the proper way to rear children. Or governance. Or beliefs about the spiritual world. Or...

You get the idea. But all this dizying variety is just within Human cultures. What about aliens? They should be at least as odd as we are. 

I like exploring cultures here on Earth. I grew up in a multicultural neighborhood, in a city where over a hundred languages are spoken at home. I attended a church that was about evenly split between Balck, White, and Hispanic. At college, I had so many friends from other countries, that American students often just assumed I was a foreign student, too. I've visited exotic places like Singapore, Budapest, Hong Kong, and Timișoara. I've lived in Taiwan, Solomon Islands, and North Dakota. Crossing cultures and learning how others do things, learning to appreciate different perspectives and ways of accomplishing things has been part of the way I've lived. So, when I start building an alien culture for one of my stories, and one of them needs to eat, I start thinking about all the ways that we do that here on Earth, and ask myself, "Is there a reason why this culture could do this the same way as one of our cultures here? If so which one? Perhaps a combination? Or is there some other way to do this, one that no Human culture (that I'm aware of) does it?"

If it isn't at least as odd as other Human cultures, how can I call them aliens?


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