The Etymology of Literary Martian.

A delightful squib by Edmund Griffiths, Some remarks on the etymology of literary Martian, begins:

§ 1. MARTIAN is the language spoken by the intelligent indigenous inhabitants of the planet Mars. Since, to the best of current knowledge, there are no such inhabitants, its study has been somewhat neglected: in fact, I am not aware of a single learned monograph on the subject since Victor Henry’s pioneering Le Langage Martien appeared in 1901. The fictional exploration of space was then in its infancy, and the evidence on which Henry based his description came necessarily from ‘Martian’ glossolalia enunciated by the spirit medium Hélène Smith (see Flournoy, From India to the Planet Mars). Subsequently, however, more or less extensive samples of Martian have been offered to the reading public by several generations of writers in the science fiction idiom. True, these writers’ approach to the language has varied, as has their diligence in reporting it: Edgar Rice Burroughs luxuriates in naïve exoticism (Tars Tarkas, Barsoom), Aleksandr Bogdanov contents himself with a few rather monotonous personal names (Ènno, Mènni, Nètti), and Ray Bradbury disdains to concoct a plausible-sounding language at all, choosing instead to name his Martian characters Mr. Ttt, Mr. Bbb, and so forth; but A. N. Tolstoy presents whole sentences of Martian dialogue (Aiu utara šókho, Tao khatskha ra khamagatsitl), and Percy Greg even draws up grammatical tables (although the early date of Across the Zodiac’s publication means its Martian is rather archaic). Readers may feel that the language attested in these various records is an inept mishmash, just too crass and too shoddy to be spoken under minimal atmospheric pressure in the frigid and unchanging rockfields that we all know from the photographs. I make no objection; I share the feeling. I only ask such readers to wonder, as I do, whether our unease at seeing the perfect celestial places thus polluted with sublunary trash does not reflect an emotional attitude to the solar system that is really pre-Galilean,—one that we should perhaps be trying harder to overcome.

It’s a lot of fun, and much respect to him for including Russian sf writers as well as the more familiar Westerners.

Comments

  1. Let us not forget Mastharnorvod Tadavas Sornhulva ‘tenth-year GEN-metal matter-knowledge’, or less literally ‘Monthly Journal of Metallurgy’, as the Martian year had ten months. This is from H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual”. (I’ve linked to my redaction of the story.)

  2. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, JC. The story rang a bell, although I only recognized a few details. I wonder if you or someone posted it a few years ago?

  3. Why on Earth anybody would think that Martian is a single language?

  4. I heard that the Martians have 83 words for ‘red’.

  5. It’s always bugged me in space opera settings when each alien race is depicted as having only one language, perhaps with an occasional mention of there being some “dialects”. Of course, the humans are often treated no better vis-à-vis English.

  6. I heard that the Martians have 83 words for ‘red’.

    Even when you count their many words for ‘canal’ they don’t reach anywhere near the total for words for ‘cheese’ on the moon.

    As to the Martian-Hungarian dictionary, it’s resting.

  7. Something I’ve never seen explored: What will happen to language learning in a world of ubiquitous, instant, perfect computer translation?

    What if children don’t feel the pressure to perfect their language skills because the computer already understands everything they say, and translates it perfectly for everybody else so the social ostracism of ‘sub-par’ speakers isn’t an issue either?

    Maybe everybody will speak an idiosyncratic creole with their computer interface that nobody else ever hears … and linguistics will be very different.

  8. What will happen to language learning

    The same thing that will happen to superhighways in a world of ubiquitous personal flying cars.

    In other words, such a world is conceivable, but certainly not likely, and may not even be reachable from this world. Don’t be deceived by the statistical machine translation we have today: it is not just a matter of throwing money and technology at it to make it even as good as human translators (never mind perfect). That would require a large number of currently unforeseeable theoretical breakthroughs

  9. Third-year student level machine translation is already well-nigh impossible. And I would die for one.

  10. A reader just sent me Google Translate’s attempt to render “If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?” into Russian: “Если я сказал, что ты красивое тело бы вы держать его против меня?” Which is so abysmally awful it sinks well beneath even my low standards for automatic translation.

  11. “It’s always bugged me in space opera settings when each alien race is depicted as having only one language.”

    Or, more broadly, only one culture. The TV Tropes entry is called, appropriately for our host, ‘Planet of Hats‘.

  12. Excellent!

  13. Can you explicate the details of the abysmal awfulness? Such things are always amusing to low minds such as my own.

  14. ə de vivre says:

    What will happen to language learning in a world of ubiquitous, instant, perfect computer translation?
    Even the universal translator in Star Trek wasn’t able to understand pragmatics. And once computers are able to understand pragmatics I imagine we’ll be all too busy being enslaved by our machine overlords to give much thought to language learning.

    That said, in high school I remember almost all the 1st generation Chinese immigrant kids had these little electronic dictionary things that seemed to extend their ability to at least read and write English ‘in the field’. It’s no universal translator but it was the functional equivalent of some of those cybernetic brain enchancements sci-fi promised us for the future.

  15. One of the early attempts to use machine translation for translation of commercial contracts from English to Russian gave this result in the first clause:

    “The Seller agrees to sell itself and the Buyer agrees to buy itself…”

  16. Google translate (I understand) is ignoring grammar as a matter of principle. But giving a double entendre to an automatic translator is way beyond its expected capabilities. It is amusing, though.

  17. Can you explicate the details of the abysmal awfulness?

    “If I said that you beautiful body would you hold (physically) it against (=contrary to) me?” The absence of the verb “had” is particularly distressing, but the whole thing is a mess

  18. >>“The Seller agrees to sell itself and the Buyer agrees to buy itself…”

    I can’t resist:

    Как-то раз потребовалось одесскому пароходству перекрасить пароход. Нашли маляров – Рабиновича и Абрамовича, договорились. Потом приходит комиссия и видит – пароход покрашен только с одной стороны.
    – Че за дела? – возмутилась комиссия.
    – Ребята, не надо нам парить мозги,- ответили маляры, – в договоре ясно написано: “Одесское пароходство, с ОДНОЙ стороны, Рабинович и Абрамович, с ДРУГОЙ стороны, договорились покрасить пароход”!

  19. Paul Ogden:

  20. Did you have something to say to him?

  21. No, he’s just very quiet.

    Why on Earth anybody would think that Martian is a single language?

    Well, this is grounded in hard science though. The noted Martian scholar Ngo’xamax Ch’qomskeltron observed many of our Earth years ago that if an Earth linguist were to visit Mars they would conclude that there was only one dialect, with certain limited local variations.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    … numbering in the thousands, and most of them unintelligible with the others.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    A Martian observer of Europe in the 1600’s and only having access to serious written documents could have deduced that there was a single language there, called Latin.

  24. Mars is currently inhabited only by a race of intelligent robots, and their native language is VxWorks.

  25. As far as I am aware, there are two languages on Mars.

    Russian (written on Mars-3 and Mars-6 landers) and English (written on Viking-1, Viking-2, Pathfinder, Sojourner, Beagle 2, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity).

  26. once computers are able to understand pragmatics I imagine we’ll be all too busy being enslaved by our machine overlords to give much thought to language learning

    I put my hopes on the machines developing nostalgia at the same time, and deciding to keep us fed and occupied.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    Machine translation?

    Then around 2020 the people working on Natural Language Processing made a series of break­throughs. Computers gained the ability to compose and parse sentences smoothly and effectively. It should have meant workable translator devices for all, except that nobody wanted to risk that again – instead it was the Sales and Marketing departments who bought this technology. Soft­ware agents that were capable of generating plausible conversational English flooded the virtual forums. Although far from AIs, they could pass for slightly stoned and extremely shallow adolescents well enough to affect the flow of traffic and of advertising revenue.

    The automatic reaction was an explosion in consensus reputation net­works incorporating related algorithms. Human beings were still better than machines at handling colloquialisms and word­play, so now verbal eloquence tests came to be used (much like CAPTCHAs) to distinguish the bots from the humans, the goths from the vandals, and the trend‐setters from the dweebs. Suddenly, people were being objectively scored for how well they talked the talk. Once employers realised there was a publicly accessible ranking system for socio­linguistic status, they soon started putting minimum “rep” values in vacancy adverts. Parents could no longer pretend to their children that academic grades mattered more than popularity…

    Civilisation was indeed doomed, though not for that reason.

    “If I said that you beautiful body would you hold (physically) it against (=contrary to) me?” The absence of the verb “had” is particularly distressing, but the whole thing is a mess

    Also, “you” is rendered as singular/informal the first time, but plural/formal the second.

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