ALIEN LANGUAGES.

I’m so out of touch I knew nothing about James Cameron’s forthcoming science fiction movie Avatar, but I’m happy to learn from Ben Zimmer’s latest “On Language” column for the NY Times that Cameron has taken the trouble to commission linguist Paul Frommer to create a coherent, plausible language for its aliens the Na’vi, “with mellifluous vowel clusters, popping ejectives and a grammatical system elaborate enough to make a polyglot blush.” Ben discusses the history of alien languages onscreen (the first linguist to be commissioned for such a purpose was apparently Victoria Fromkin, “a U.C.L.A. professor who fashioned a language for the apelike Pakuni creatures on the 1970s children’s TV series ‘Land of the Lost'”) and quotes my pal Arika Okrent, and the whole column is worth your while (especially, of course, if you have a fondness for sf).

Comments

  1. Thank you!
    ¡Sí que valió la pena!
    (I do have a fondness for sci fi)

  2. ToussianMuso says:

    Would this sort of thing have figured into J.R.R. Tolkien’s career had he been born into a later generation? One can only speculate.

  3. Very good point. I also thought of Tolkien as I read the article. I wonder if the new attention to linguistic detail is due to some kind of crossover from the fantasy genre to the SF genre.

  4. Yes, I think Tolkien’s carefully constructed languages were a huge influence.

  5. Off topic: in some phrases “wave” is starting to equal “waive”: “they waived him through”. ZSor to like “free reign / rein”.

  6. Fortunately, ‘rain’ has always been free.

  7. Again off-topic, but you can get three classic Mongolian-English -French -Russian dictionaries (Lessing, Mostaert, Kowalewski) on CD for 39 Euros here.

  8. The whole site is interesting, a Spanish-language site on Mongolia with a Czech URL.. Maybe Bulbul knows the guy.

  9. I believe Jane Austen sometimes wrote wave meaning waive.

  10. Jane is just a goldmine for anti-prescriptivists.

  11. Jane is just a goldmine for anti-prescriptivists.

  12. Even her name is an alternative speling of “Austin” (32 million hits for “Austin” vs 9 million for “Austen” — 5 million of which are for “Jane Austen”).

  13. Тэрлэг says:

    I’ve written to that site in the past asking where to send the money etc. but they haven’t replied.

  14. Dressing Gown I’ll take care of it, just send it to me.

  15. i recalled my younger sisters and their calssmates used to talk in some mechanical language, there was like that period, so it’s just regular talk but after every or every other syllable they would put some another nonsense syllable so the words would be longer and like nonsense sounding, but if to drop those syllables it would be just regular speech
    i wonder whether sf writers used this kind of method or something like coded languages in creating ‘alien’ languages, it would be so much easier to write and read the text then, instead of creating whole new words and languages (i say so b/c never read sf and am lazy and it seems a lot of work to create alien languages)

  16. Read, people who create artificial languages are doing it as an obsession and an art form, and the more time they spend the happier they are. If it were too easy, they’d be terribly unhappy.
    You could create a Mongol secret code just by pronouncing words the way they’re spelled in the old script. English is about the same. (A friend of mine met a Catholic priest in Mexico once who’d learned English entirely from books and pronounced all the silent letters).
    Yuan-ren Chao (the Chinese linguist) and his friends in China spent some time learning to converse in a reconstructed version of ancient Chinese. It must have been fun, but it was tremendously laborious, because the very weakly phonetic Chinese writing system makes all reconstructions of the ancient pronunciations into educated guesses.

  17. i’ve downloaded the dictionary from your link, thank you
    pity the pc won’t display the old script, but the old way of pronunciations of the words sound fun

  18. I believe that there is a way to get a PC to display Mongolian old script, but I don’t remember how to find it.

  19. this lyrics i could follow, surprisingly
    if to exercise everyday, could become literate in the old script pretty quickly

  20. George Lucas just went and used existing languages that he deemed obscure enough that the audience wouldn’t recognize them. He used some dialect of tibetan for the Ewoks, and then sped it up so the Ewoks sounded like the Chipmunks. Supposedly he used Quechua for Jabba the Hutt – I’m sure people in Peru appreciated that.
    “Paul Frommer to create a coherent, plausible language for its aliens the Na’vi, “with mellifluous vowel clusters, popping ejectives and a grammatical system elaborate enough to make a polyglot blush.”
    Something from California might just be what he’s looking for. Yokutsan languages have ejectives, and I think there are some runs of voelws and semivowels.

  21. David Marjanović says:
  22. What would really be fun would be to write movie dialogue based on tonguetwisters from exotic languages (e.g. Tsimshian, famous for its consonant clusters).
    According to Wiki, our own M-L has worked on Tsimshian. I suspect that she does not accept Dunn’s theory (no, I’m not kidding) that Tsimshian is an Indo-European language.
    I love Wiki. But obviously Tsimshian is a Dravidian language.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: … “with mellifluous vowel clusters, popping ejectives and a grammatical system elaborate enough to make a polyglot blush.” – Something from California might just be what he’s looking for. Yokutsan languages …
    Klingon was invented by Mark Okrand, who had worked on California languages related to the Yokutsan ones, and although he invented many other details, there is still a lot of California in Klingon.
    JE: (e.g. Tsimshian, famous for its consonant clusters)
    “Tsimshian” here covers more than one language, and English is also famous for its consonants clusters, as in strings or glimpsed (pronounced “glimpst”) or sixths (pronounced “siksths”). But the Amerindian language most famous for its consonant clusters is Nuxalk, also known as Bella Coola, which has many words without vowels at all, as well as more mellifluous ones.
    As for Dunn’s “theory” and his attempt to prove it, “laughable” is one of the more charitable words one could use to describe it. (It was mentioned here a couple of years ago, I think). As far as I know, Dunn has not even tried the obviously more plausible Dravidian connection.

  24. When my son was very young (not sure how young) he could not pronounce the word “Squirt” (the name of a soft drink, among other things.) He said “stroot”.
    In normal speech I will usualy pronounce “sixths” as “sikss”, with a sort of syllabic “s” distinguishing it for the number six.

  25. Siganus Sutor says:

    By the way, didn’t Dravidian come from outer space? Martian is very much rooted in Earth, but who knows where Dravidian ultimately comes from.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    JE: In normal speech I will usualy pronounce “sixths” as “sikss”
    Most people do, but there is always the possibility of “siksths” in careful speech.

  27. Emerson has both a sixth sense and a sick sense of humor.

  28. pity the pc won’t display the old script
    From the “Diskette Dictionary” (diskdict.zip)? There aren’t any fonts in there; it just uses stacked GIF image files. It seems to display fine in vanilla IE7 or FF. There is also a PDF in the archive, built the same way, which displays if opened on its own, but not from the link inside the index.htm file for some reason.
    I don’t think it’s relevant to this case, but to vertically render Mongolian Unicode fonts on Windows, you need a newer version of the Uniscribe library. This probably comes with Windows 7 (and maybe Vista). For XP (which sensible people still use), you had to join VOLT to get it.

  29. thanks, MMcM, i’ll try Firefox

  30. David Marjanović says:

    Dunn’s paper is freely available online somewhere. It was quite nice (especially the archeology part… which probably tells us something…), except some of the sound correspondences were uproariously laughable, and some of the semantic correspondences were… more like farting in some general direction.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    I hate to dignify that paper and its author with further comments, but it should be made clear that his “Proto-Tsimshian” is his own invention, not proposed, accepted or even taken seriously by other Tsimshianists or historical linguists. The dedication of the paper to two “esteemed colleagues” is an embarrassment to both of them.

  32. A lamentably brief lexicon of “R’lyehian” or “Cthuvian”, which I found in this thread, which also discusses possible pronunciation rules:

    ~”The lettor h does a lot of magical things. For all we know, it could make the f pharyngealized. That would be perfectly reasonable.”
    ~”I suppose so, although it’s phonetically very implausible. There’s strong evidence that the Ubykh phoneme /vˁ/ is the pharyngealised counterpart of /f/ (there’s no /fˁ/ in Ubykh, and nor is there a plain /v/), and it’s been hypothesised that the reason why is that there’s insufficient phonetic distinction between [f] and [fˁ] to maintain a phonemic contrast through pharyngealisation alone. Out of interest, do you know of any languages with phonemic /fˁ/? One idea that sprang to mind was that the /h/ might be a representative for an unclear whispered vowel, especially considering that it comes between two voiceless consonants… or maybe it represents a fricative phoneme produced by scratching one’s leg against one’s carapace. I guess we really don’t know. 🙂

    Iä! Iä! Cthulhu Fhtagn!

  33. Ubykh has 83 consonants and one vowel?

    As the legend goes, when the Turkish sultan first heard of Ubykh, the bizarre-sounding language spoken by Muslims who had emigrated from the northwestern Caucasus in the mid-19th century, he dispatched a servant to learn more.

    When the servant returned, he described what a language with 83 consonants and one vowel sounded like by taking out a bag of pebbles and pouring them on the sultan’s marble floor. ”Listen to these sounds,” he said. ”Foreigners can gain no greater understanding of Ubykh speech.”

    What Ubykh sounds like: “Eating fish makes you clever”, a short story in Ubykh language with French translation. [Partial translation: Once, two men set out together on the road. They went to buy some provisions for the journey; the one bought cheese and bread, and the other bought bread and fish. While they were on the road, the one who had bought the cheese asked the other, “You people eat a lot of fish; why do you eat fish as much as that?” “If you eat fish, you get smarter, so we eat a lot of fish,” he answered….]

  34. Now all we need is a collection of Ubykh tonguetwisters, or at least tonguetwisters from some none-extinct related language, or maybe from Nuxalk.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks, Nijma. I had never heard Ubykh, but it does not seem so outlandish in terms of sounds.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Ubykh has 83 consonants and one vowel?

    Up to about three vowel phonemes depending on the analysis… but most, perhaps all, of the minimal pairs involve loans.
    Also, four of the 84 (not 83) consonant phonemes (/g k? k? v/) occur only in loans. That’s right, in native words /g k? k?/ merged into /g? k?? k??/ rather than the other way around.
    Wikipedia articles on the language and its phonology.
    I suppose loaning a consonant phoneme is easy when you already have so many that you don’t notice one more…

  37. David Marjanović says:

    Argh. Forgot again that I can’t post any Unicode from here. The plain velar plosives (voiced, aspirated, ejective) have merged into the palatalized ones instead of the other way around.

  38. I suggested a Yokuts langaugae not only for the consonants but also because of the requirement for long runs of vowels. I suppose that combination is considerd unusual to find in one language.
    M-L – there used to be a theory running around that Ainu had some IE connection. Maybe it was the blue eyes or the hairy backs.
    Tsimshian – how solidly do people put it/them in Penutian these days? And one more – I heard a suggestion that Chimakuan might have a Penutian connection. That sounds like a guess, but it’s not so fanciful that there might have been a string of colonies of Penutians along the coast, with final landfall at the mouth of the Columbia, kind of like the string of Malayo-Polynesian languages along the coast of Vietnam and China in our time.
    “Once, two men set out together on the road. ”
    …and they talked to a sheep and a horse.”

  39. I suppose loaning a consonant phoneme is easy when you already have so many that you don’t notice one more.
    The Chinese seem to have absorbed the Roman alphabet effortlessly as a set of abbreviation characters.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    there used to be a theory running around that Ainu had some IE connection

    Linguistically? Because their incredibly heavily prefixing language looks nothing like IE (or for that matter Nostratic in general!). There’s one possibly unpublished paper I’ve seen which suggests it is part of the Austric supergroup (with Austronesian, Tai-Kadai, Austroasiatic, and… I forgot, but I think a few more); this would, geographically at least, fit the idea that Japanese has a big fat Austric substratum.

  41. Internet Explorer connection? Nah, they were hardcore Firefox users.

  42. “there used to be a theory running around that Ainu had some IE connection
    Linguistically? Because their incredibly heavily prefixing language looks nothing like IE (or for that matter Nostratic in general!).”
    Oh yeah, David – it was hilarious. They adduced evidence such as “wata” for “water” and some kind of tendency to ablauting. I shit you not. I was a high school kid at the time, and even then I knew it was really about the Ainus’ blue eyes and hairy backs. And it turns out the PIE speakers probably had brown eyes after all.
    The Austric connection makes a lot more sense if only geographically. I also wonder about New World connections. People that can use boats to get to Japan can easily keep on going to Kamchatka, coastal Alaska and onward. Once a group of settlers hit those salmon runs, they’d be golden. How much of a contiuous language community that would be, and how much of it would be left after all these millenia, I don’t know. Physical characteristics – the Makah don’t have hair on their backs but they do all grow full beards, at least the men. That’s an anomaly asking for an explanation.
    And speaking of physical traits, there may have been something like an Ainu population on the continent too.

  43. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: the Ainus’ blue eyes and hairy backs.
    I have never actually met Ainus but all the pictures I have seen of them don’t suggest light-coloured eyes (a recessive feature, therefore affecting only a minority among “whites” anyway). They were all clothed in the pictures (both old Japanese pictures and more recent photographs), so I couldn’t tell you about their backs, but they all had very thick heads of somewhat wavy hair, and the men had huge beards. Those features are not particularly Ainu: many “white” men with dark hair on their heads have bodies covered with black curly hair, only excepting the tops of their faces and the underside of their hands and feet (as I remember from seeing them on French beaches in my youth). But in some more recent pictures of Ainu, a few people looked amazingly like some people of the Northwest Coast (not just in general, but sometimes like actual people I had met), and also like some pictures of Maori. (See the beautiful and comprehensive book Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People by William Fitzhugh and Chisako Dubreuil (herself an Ainu), which is abundantly documented and illustrated).
    Tsimshian – how solidly do people put it/them in Penutian these days?
    Talking about the (small) family, the right word is now Tsimshianic (like German – Germanic). I don’t know about other people (not too many are interested in the topic), but I myself put it quite solidly in “Penutian” (which is still not totally defined), not out of a whim or hunch, but as a result of my personal research for the last fifteen years.
    And one more – I heard a suggestion that Chimakuan might have a Penutian connection.
    Who suggested it? Chimakuan being so isolated (two small pockets), looks like the language might have been preserved in a small remnant of a formerly larger territory. Since very few people are cognizant about “Penutian” as a whole, and even fewer about Chimakuan (which I don’t know at all), I can’t comment at present.
    That sounds like a guess, but it’s not so fanciful that there might have been a string of colonies of Penutians along the coast, with final landfall at the mouth of the Columbia, kind of like the string of Malayo-Polynesian languages along the coast of Vietnam and China in our time.
    This idea is not fanciful at all, and I have thought along the same lines. Let’s correspond!
    (There were never “Penutians” any more than “Indo-Europeans”, in the sense that there were people who identified themselves by those names – the names only refer to two large language groups – but Penutian is not an established group like Indo-European).

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