Friday, August 21, 2020

Complexities of Teaching Alien Birds to Speak English

 Here is an excerpt from The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Part Eight: Rare Birds.  This is one of the language sessions that Lt. Avi Oman conducts with the avian Science Officer Pikei.  I need anybody, but especially my friends who are conlangers and linguistic scholars, to read and critique this.  Is it terminally boring? Incorrect? Amusing?  Should I cut it out of the book?  Remember part of my purpose is to show how Earthers would go about learning to communicate with extraterrestrials in a first-contact situation.

While Robbie occupied himself preparing his crew for the next chapter of their lives, the language study was proceeding full tilt.  Avi decided he could no longer put off tackling the perfect tenses, so he said to Pikei, “Today we will learn a new tense – a different tense.”

“A n’yew tense ai↑~,” repeated Pikei with excitement but also slight apprehension.

“Yes!  You can say ‘I walk to the door’ – present tense – and you can say ‘I walked to the door’ and ‘I will walk to the door’ – past tense and future tense; but you can also say, ‘I have walked to the door.’  It is called the present perfect tense.”

She twittered her non-comprehension.

“The present tense of the verb ‘to have’ goes with a different form of another verb.  In this use, ‘to have’ is called an ‘auxiliary’ verb.  Remember, we talked about that when you learned of the use of ‘to do’ in questions and negatives.”

Heihei, yes!” said Pikei.  “Aug’zelerery ver’b!”

Avi gritted his teeth and ignored the mispronunciation for the moment.  “When ‘to have’ is an auxiliary verb, it does not mean ‘to possess’ – it only makes the following verb a different tense.  You will use the present tense of ‘to have’ and you will put a verb form called a ‘past participle’ after it.”

“‘Pest … parsefep’le’ … ai↑~] 


“‘Par-te-fep’le.’”  And to the kibitzing Skrov’t, she said, “‘Aug’zelerery’ … ‘parsefep’le’ … This Enge has stranger words than any language I have ever studied!”

Avi was continuing, “With regular verbs like ‘to walk,’ a past participle is the same as the past tense, so it is easy.  You say ‘I walk to the door now’ and you say ‘I walked to the door yesterday’ and you say ‘I will walk to the door tomorrow.’  And you can also say ‘At times in the past I have walked to the door.’”

Avi was despairing about how he was going to explain exactly what this construction implied, but Pikei surprised him by bouncing off her perch, ruffling her feathers, and then hopping back on again.  Hei, I un’dersten’d!  You mean … Nei ani<↔ ch^ !i hí’ut]  Et means the theng thet you do makes the  … ”  She pecked at her breast in frustration.  “I know not the words to say.  Of !Ka<tá the words are chirronó r♪o<naf.[1]  We put ‘<↔’ efter the p’resent tense!”

Avi was astonished at how quickly Pikei had caught on.  It seemed their language had the same concept, expressed by suffixing a drawn-out whistle to the appropriate verb. 

Pikei was saying, “Es the per’fect tenses to the pest end the f’yuture also?”

“Yes!  You can say, ‘I had walked to the door after he arrived’ – that is past perfect.  And ‘I will have walked to the door before he arrives’ is the future perfect.”

“Pest per’fect – Nei anim<↔ ch^ !i hí’ut oit !id hwomam]  And f’yuture per’fect es Nei oi’ana<↔ ch^ !i hí’ut <uk !id hwoma]  I got et!”

They both cackled and laughed with great pleasure and Pikei warbled enthusiastically to Skrov’t, “♪♫♫  I have wondered if they lacked these subtle semantic variations, although I may have heard this construction used a thousand times and simply didn’t catch it.  This knowledge will make my ability to communicate much more flexible.  But using multiple words – that certainly is an odd and awkward way to form the consequential verb.”

Then to Avi she enthusiastically intoned some examples of her new knowledge.  “‘I heve ate the food now.’  ‘I hed saw them when I was there .’…  Ai↑~]

Avi was shaking his head.  “No, P.K. – remember, I said the past participle of regular verbs is the same as the past tense.  With irregular verbs the participles have different forms.”

This caused Pikei to again leap from her perch and hop around the room, the feathers flying from her tortured breast.  Skrov’t whooped merrily.  Ú↔kha, <Wagumát, come back and settle – you’re making a bald spot!  Surely you weren’t expecting it to be that simple!”

Glaring at her companion, Pikei returned to her place.  Avi was saying, “Here is the correct way to speak those sentences:  ‘I have eaten the food now.  I had seen them when I was there.’  But sometimes the participle for an irregular verb is the same as the past tense.  An example is ‘to hear.’  You say ‘I heard you clearly yesterday’ and you also say ‘I have often heard you clearly.’  I will read you a new list of irregular verbs with the past participles added.  You will have to memorize them.  That is the only way to know what the form is.”

The distracted Pikei warbled, “♫♫  ‘Parfeteple!’  ‘Aug’celery!’  Hakhis↓]

Keeping an admirably straight face, Avi said, “Not ‘aug-celery.’  ‘Celery’ is a vegetable.  I think the Dauntless gave us some – I’ll bring it to show you.”

Later, when Avi was reporting to Robbie on the language progress, he said, “I was really amazed.  She caught on to perfect tenses right away and we quickly moved on to the progressive.”  Noting his Captain’s blank expression, he added, “That’s like, ‘I am speaking to you’ or ‘I am walking to the door.’”

“Oh, yeah, I would have known that if I would just think!”

“So that meant I had to introduce her to the present ‘parsifipple.’”

Robbie guffawed.  “Is that how she pronounces it?”

“That and half a dozen other ways!  I shouldn’t make fun of her – I mean, we can’t say anything right in their language – but it can be amusing.  It’s all I can do sometimes to keep from laughing out loud, Captain.”

“I can empathize with that!”

“Their language also has the progressive concept, and they do use a sort of an auxiliary verb for that, or maybe it should be called an indicator.  They stick the word nok with a high-pitched whistle in front of it after the verb.  I would like to know why they do it that way.[2]  In fact, it would be really fascinating to study the etymology and syntax of their language even though we may never be able to speak it.”

“Well, you’re just the boy to do that!”

“Oh, no, I’m a rank amateur, Captain!  If I had known that being a Com Officer meant I’d have to teach somebody else the rudiments of Inge, I’d have taken more linguistics courses!  You really need to be a Professor Specialist in the field to do the work justice!”

“You know what?  In my little communiqué to Pres. Sarkisian, I suggested that they form a task force to deal with this first-contact situation, and two people I recommended they recruit were a Professor of anthropology and a Professor of linguistics.”

“Oh, that’s terrific, sir!  That showed great foresight!”

“If you can find the time, you ought to work up a little treatise on what the Birds know and how you’ve taught them – help out the expert who takes over the study.”

Avi nodded.  “I thought of that myself, Captain.  I’ve made a rough beginning.”

[1] Consequential verb, a term comparable to the proper definition of the perfect tense or aspect in Inge.

[2] The progressive indicator <&nok is related to the verb khenokí’a (to act or to carry out).  An example in !Ka<tá would be Vral nei ni’afim <&nok | ♫vei ♫hwomam <&nok] (When I was leaving, they were arriving).


  1. It’s a great example of how difficult learning and pronouncing english can be for a non english speaker, Lorinda, keep it in.

  2. There are a lot of passages like this, but this is one of the most technical. I'm glad it didn't turn you off. At least it has a good bit of humor! Thanks for commenting, Chris.

  3. I was just reviewing the passage in the context of the story, and it doesn't seem nearly as confusing to me as it did. I think it's really quite clear if people are interested and pay attention. And if people aren't interested in the linguistic aspects of this book, they can skip over them - I don't mind. I've had people skip over parts of my books that have nothing to do with language. Some people don't like the love story plot line in The Termite Queen, e.g., but they love the termites.