Book spine poem: Microworlds

April 16, 2017

It’s a few months since I made one of these. So: a new book spine poem.



Microworlds, a patchwork planet
Solar bones brighter than
A thousand suns.
Gut symmetries collapse,
All fall down,
Vertigo: wide open –
Full catastrophe living.



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A fine distinction from Philip K. Dick

July 16, 2015

Philip K. Dick’s pleasurably paranoid science-fiction novel Time Out of Joint (1959) has a passage that shows the ingenuity of children in using language to manipulate perceived reality (something Dick himself did with brio in his writing). Sammy, a boy working on a makeshift radio, needs to get its crude antenna somewhere high:

Returning to the house he climbed the stairs to the top floor. One window opened on to the flat part of the roof; he unlatched that window and in a moment he was scrambling out onto the roof.

From downstairs his mother called, ‘Sammy, you’re not going out on the roof, are you?’

‘No,’ he yelled back. I am out, he told himself, making in his mind a fine distinction.

I imagine most kids, once their command of language is sufficiently sophisticated, play similar semantic games for short-term gain or amusement. The same kind of hyper-literalness is the basis for a lot of childhood humour (e.g., ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Yes.’). I like PKD’s understated use of it which puts us in Sammy’s head for a moment.

Modern English as an archaic dialect

October 22, 2013

Voltaire is said to have described etymology as a science in which vowels count for nothing, and consonants for very little. The line’s provenance is questionable, but the point holds. Over time, vowels shift and so do consonants: words may transform radically. If people are around in a few centuries’ time, we won’t just be using lots of new words: we’ll be using old words that sound different.

I haven’t seen this treated much in science fiction, despite the genre’s reliance on time travel and future scenarios. But I came across an example last weekend in the Ursula K. Le Guin–edited Nebula Award Stories of 1975. Joe Haldeman’s story ‘End Game’ is a futuristic military drama that refers briefly, on a few occasions, to phonetic change and to language change more generally:

(1) Language, for one thing, was no small problem. English had evolved considerably in 450 years; soldiers had to learn twenty-first century English as a sort of lingua franca with which to communicate with their officers, some of whom might be “old” enough to be their nine-times-great-grandfathers. Of course, they only used this language when talking to their officers, or mocking them, so they got out of practice with it.

(2) Most of the other officers played chess, but they could usually beat me – whenever I won it gave me the feeling I was being humoured. And word games were difficult because my language was an archaic dialect that they had trouble manipulating. And I lacked the time and talent to master “modern” English.

(3) He said a word whose vowel had changed over the centuries, but whose meaning was clear.

No dialogue or descriptions provide any details of the form to which English had changed in four and a half centuries, but that may be just as well, as it leaves it to our imagination and avoids suggesting something a linguist might object to. It’s nice to see the subject addressed at all, and so explicitly; the sociolinguistic reference to mockery is an especially good touch.

The celestial aspirate of Mister Lem

March 8, 2013

Stanisław Lem, in The Star Diaries, has an amusing inversion of our custom on Earth of adding more and more letters and titles to our names as we gain academic and other distinctions.

From “The Thirteenth Voyage”:

My object, when I set out from Earth, was to reach an extremely remote planet of the Crab constellation, Fatamiasma, known throughout space as the birthplace of one of the most distinguished individuals in our Universe, Master Oh. This is not the real name of that illustrious sage, but they refer to him thus, for it is impossible otherwise to render his true appellation in any earthly language. Children born on Fatamiasma receive an enormous number of titles and distinctions as well as a name that is, by our standards, inordinately long.

The day Master Oh came into the world he was called Hridipidagnittusuoayomojorfnagrolliskipwikabeccopyxlbepurz. And duly dubbed Golden Buttress of Being, Doctor of Quintessential Benignity, Most Possibilistive Universatilitude, etc., etc. From year to year, as he studied and matured, the titles and syllables of his name were one by one removed, and since he gave evidence of uncommon abilities, by the thirty-third year of his life he was relieved of his last distinction, and two years later carried no title whatever, while his name was designated in the Fatamiasman alphabet by a single and – moreover – voiceless letter, signifying “celestial aspirate” – this is a kind of stifled gasp which one gives from a surfeit of awe and rapture.

Lem’s literature is as much philosophical excursion as it is storytelling (with plenty of playful asides, as above). He has a gift for both, and a wicked sense of humour – some chapters in The Star Diaries are like Borges having a Douglas Adams dream, as I remarked at the time.

He’s probably best known for Solaris, but it’s not one of the handful I’ve read so far, all of them brilliantly entertaining and consistently thought-provoking. It seems appropriate that Mister Lem’s own name is so short: not quite Master Oh’s stifled gasp of awe and rapture, but not a million light-years away either.


Edit: Speaking of aspiration and verbal invention, Passive-Aggressive Notes has a note this week from a 6-year-old girl to her mother with what appears to be a sigh of frustration: “hhhh”. I don’t think I’ve seen a sigh spelled so perfectly before.

How the Klingon language was invented

November 22, 2011

For Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), linguist Marc Okrand was asked to develop the Klingon language. Most of it he made up, but there was some raw material to begin with: Klingon names, improvised speech from an earlier film, and aspects of Klingon culture (they are a warrior race, honourable and direct).

‘Human languages are very patterned,’ he says. ‘There’s no 100% rules, but there’s a lot of tendencies, and more-likely-than-nots.’ Creating Klingon allowed him to subvert these patterns. So, for example, syntactically Klingon has OVS (object-verb-subject) word order, which is very rare in human languages.

Because Okrand was working with filmmakers to a studio budget and schedule, he couldn’t be too fussy. Sometimes he would make adjustments to the language (phonetic, lexical, or grammatical) simply in order to accommodate an actor’s imprecise delivery of a line.

Asked by the Wall Street Journal if he drew from real languages, he replied:

You can’t help being influenced by what you know, which (for me) was a bit of Spanish, French and American Indian. I also knew Southeast Asian languages. I’d be writing something and suddenly realize that it sounded like Navajo. I’d stop and make sure the next thing sounded as different as it could possibly be.

Okrand wrote a Klingon dictionary (which to date has sold hundreds of thousands of copies), and the language soon took on a life of its own. It remains a niche within other niches — Star Trek, conlanging — but by the standards of invented languages, it is thriving.

The Klingon Language Institute, founded in 1992, publishes a quarterly journal (HolQeD) and a literary supplement, offers resources for people who want to learn Klingon, and has created an extended corpus of Klingon vocabulary. People get married in Klingon ceremonies; one man tried (unsuccessfully) to make it his son’s native tongue.

Few of its many enthusiasts are fluent, but all are surely encouraged by the growing body of Klingon literature, which includes translations of Hamlet, the Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh, and other great works.* Arika Okrent, a linguist who has studied Klingon, told me a Kama Sutra translation may be on the way.

In Okrent’s book In the Land of Invented Languages, she describes Klingon as ‘the solution to an artistic problem, not a linguistic one’; in this respect it is similar to Na’vi and Tolkien’s languages. She writes that Klingon

both flouts and follows known linguistic principles, and its real sophistication lies in the balance between the two tendencies. It gets its alien quality from the aspects that set it apart from natural languages . . . . Yet at the same time it has the feel of a natural language. A linguist doing field research among Klingon speakers would be able to work out the system and describe it with the same tools he would use in describing a remote Amazon language.

In the video below (21 minutes), Marc Okrand explains how he created Klingon. If you’re into Star Trek or constructed languages, you’ve probably seen it already. If, like me, you’re not particularly so, don’t be put off. It’s aimed at a general audience, and anyone curious about how languages work is likely to find it interesting.

* Jeremy Kahn says Gilgamesh seems most suited to Klingon; Hamlet ‘seems more of a Romulan thing; Tao [Te Ching]: Vulcan.’

In the virile way

August 4, 2010

The following passage appears near the end of chapter 1 in H. G. Wells’s dystopian science-fiction novel When the Sleeper Wakes:*

A number of children going along the road stopped and regarded the artist curiously. A boatman exchanged civilities with him. He felt that possibly his circumspect attitude and position seemed peculiar and unaccountable. Smoking, perhaps, might seem more natural. He drew pipe and pouch from his pocket, filled the pipe slowly.
“I wonder,” . . . he said, with a scarcely perceptible loss of complacency. “At any rate we must give him a chance.” He struck a match in the virile way, and proceeded to light his pipe.

The phrase “struck a match in the virile way” struck me in a verbal way. Virile means manly, masculine, potent; marked by strength, vitality, or sexual energy. How would someone strike a match in the virile way? By flicking it off a thumbnail, a boot, a stubbly jaw, or the neck of a nearby stranger? Suggestions are welcome.

* When the Sleeper Wakes was first published in 1899. Wells rewrote it, as The Sleeper Wakes, some years later; he explains why in the preface to the second version.

Their puzzling devoutness

July 23, 2009

Two caveats: the law is not my strong point, and structure is not this post’s strong point – I wrote it in a hurried state of discombobulated semi-disbelief – so corrections and points of information are welcome.

Star MakerIn 1937, British historian and philosopher Olaf Stapledon published a science fiction novel called Star Maker. It is a book so imaginative, thoughtful and beautifully written that the great wonder is that it never achieved the same public renown as the works of, say, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells or Arthur C. Clarke. Certainly Star Maker is acclaimed as a masterpiece of science fiction, but its crossover success has been limited: it does not seem to be widely read by people who are not fans of the genre. (I would love to hear reports to the contrary.)

I was recently reminded of Stapledon’s story by the exasperating senselessness of those who saw fit to criminalise blasphemy in Ireland. As the Defamation Bill staggered through the Oireachtas (Irish national parliament), John Naughton examined the constitution of what he called a “backward statelet”, Bock described it as among other things a waste of the Garda Síochána’s time, Jason Walsh offered further analysis and historical context, and Martyn Turner’s satirical cartoons encapsulated the absurdity. In the Irish Times, Eoin O’Dell explained the bill’s dubious constitutionality; in the Guardian, Padraig Reidy observed that “Irish law has now enshrined the notion that the taking of offence is more important than free expression.” Despite an eleventh-hour twist and the best efforts of a newly formed lobby group, the defamation bill was passed today, including the aforementioned provisions on blasphemous libel. The links above are but a small selection of the critical commentary on the matter.

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