A. Walker Scott

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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. 


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?