Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ever Notice How the Whole Universe Speaks English?

It's one of my earliest and I think it deserves more than 7 views!

This has been a pet peeve of mine for years, ever since I first encountered the Universal Translator in the original StarTrek.  This was way back when the series first appeared, before most of the people reading this were even born.  Of course, that was long before the kind of computers we have today, but even now I can't find the concept credible.  The translator microbes in Farscape are a little more acceptable given the really far-out milieu of the series, but even that has certain problems.  There is no way around it -- when we make finally first contact, Earthers and ETs are going to have to buckle down and learn each other's language!  (I fully understand that the convention of universal English speakers is required on a TV series; otherwise we would be watching a whole year's worth of grammatical exchanges --"Today we're going to learn how the Slime Mold people construct the present perfect tense and later we'll get into uses of the subjunctive."  Boy, would that bomb!) 
     So that's part of my purpose in writing The Termite Queen (certainly not the whole purpose or even the chief): to show what might really happen in a first contact.  The situation is complicated here by the fact that the alien language is not vocal.  Termites don't have vocal organs and they're totally deaf.  I could have made the language pheromonal, the way Bernard Werber does in his Les Fourmis, but I wanted a real verbal language that had words corresponding to English words, so I devised the radio wave idea, producing a spectrographic or bioelectric language.  Evolution can produce some pretty strange adaptations.
     Since the Shshi have no concept of sound waves (although they can feel vibrations), there is no way for them to learn human language, so it's incumbent on my linguistic anthropologist to learn theirs.  (Also, since two of their Castes are blind -- only the Alates have eyes -- the concept of writing has never occurred to them.)   The language exists only in transliterated form and so pronunciation is not an issue -- it's just like English, although Kaitrin Oliva, being fluent in Spanish, tends to roll the r's slightly   Several chapters are devoted to the process of learning to communicate with the Shshi. To me, this process is fascinating and I hope it will be so to at least the conlangers out there!  People who aren't interested can simply skim through those parts and focus on the many other aspects of the book.
     Now, three other alien races play a part in The Termite Queen, because the novel is laid in the 30th century, when Earth belongs to a Confederation of Four Planets.  One of the main supporting characters in the novel is from the planet Krisí’i’aid, on which intelligent life evolved from birds.  Prf. Tió’otu A'a'ma, who is a human-sized eagle, is the only off-worlder ever to hold a full Professorship in a terrestrial university.  He speaks excellent English, but his native language is !Ka<tá, a language far more complex than Shshi and one I've worked out in even greater detail, mainly for a different novel (which, alas, may never be publishable).  The eagles have the vocal apparatus of songbirds, so their language has tonal characteristics and utilizes warbles, trills, whistles, chirps, coughs, and clicks.  It is totally unpronounceable by the human throat.  For example, suffixing a warble (transliterated as ) makes a plural.  This language is not used extensively in The Termite Queen and I generally don't translate it when I do.  Here are a couple of examples:

Chitú<^ ♫po·atré ♫Wéwana♪] (An insult meaning "A pair of stork-heads!")  
kheda<tri’e hi kukh^maw’ez (To make the gizzard happy; would correspond to "from the bottom of my heart.")
     I'll get into !Ka<tá a lot more at a later time.
     Anyway, my point is, in Termitewriter's universe, English (or Inj, as it is called in the 30th century) is spoken natively only by Earthers!


  1. these old posts are great; gives a lot of insight into your more recent posts. Glad you linked up and even copied the code!

    1. Yes, it was over a year ago when I first posted this! When a blog is brand new, nobody looks at it, so I thought it was a good one to call attention to.

  2. Interesting background/history about your termite characters.

  3. Thanks, Angela! Maybe it will make you want to inquire a little more deeply into them!

  4. That's incredible how much detail you put into languages of your races. That takes real devotion. Definitely an admirable quality!

    1. Thanks, James! There are literally thousands of conlangers out there, some of whom write their languages for fiction, and some for conworlds that exist only as constructs with no story, and still others who write conlangs solely for their own sake or to use them as a medium for exploring the nature of language. If you are interested in writing something for your own books, try my post called Conlanging for Beginners