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.