The Linguistics and Science Fiction Newsletter

Sample Issue

Volume 1, Issue 1 — January 2000

The Linguistics & Science Fiction Newsletter is written and published every other month by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D. (linguistics), from the Ozark Center for Language Studies. It is available by e-mail only, in plain text, and is free to members of the Linguistics & Science Fiction Network (annual dues, $5.00). To receive the current issue as a free sample, send an email request.

In This Issue: The Linguistics/SF Interface; Cyberspace; Real World Linguistics; Other Things

The Linguistics/Science Fiction Interface

1. Two sample items from the alphabetical list of links to languages (roughly 200 of them) on Richard Kenneway's constructed languages website:

"Bogomol is used by the insectoid race of Epsilon Indi II. The designer describes it as a 'quantum language': the meaning of an utterance remains only potential until the very end, when a 'ranking syllable' collapses all the potential meanings into one. Bogomol is created by Teresh."

"Eunoia is the human name for the language of the Taelons, an alien race that appears in Gene Roddenberry's posthumous TV series Earth: Final Conflict. Their language 'is the lingua franca of an enlightened consciousness, the product of an intelligence that has exceeded all the categories of our own anthropic philosophy...."

Links here to the usual suspects like Esperanto and Interlingua, languages from specific authors and novels (like Hani, in many of C.J. Cherryh's books), and useful items that are not exactly languages but fit here nicely, like Basic English and Dutton Speedwords. Plus links to conlang/auxlang mailing lists, resources for constructing languages of your own, and a great deal more. Very highly recommended. [Note: There's a link here to Jeffrey Henning's LangMaker software, which you can download for free. I can't review it, because it won't work on my Macintosh, but the site shows some glowing testimonials. I'd welcome input from any of you who have used it.]

2. Many thanks to Randy Farran for a copy of a story by Eleanor Arnason titled "The Grammarian's Five Daughters" (Realms of Fantasy for 6/99, pp. 38-65.) You know those tales where the king has various sons who go off to seek their fortunes carrying a gift from him, with the oldest son getting the most splendid gift and things going downhill thereafter — but the youngest son, the one who gets the dregs of the possible gifts, always turns out to be the Winner? Arnason turns her hand to that staple, but she starts with a widowed and impoverished lady grammarian who has five daughters. And when the daughters set off to make their fortunes, she gives them the Parts Of Speech. The older daughters, in order of age, get nouns, then verbs, then adjectives, and then adverbs, in traditional fashion. (In nontraditional fashion, one of them marries a princess instead of a prince.) The youngest daughter is given the dregs — the prepositions — and saves the day. Here is Arnason's description of prepositions from page 65, as the youngest girl opens her traveling bag and turns them loose: "Now, departing in orderly rows, they reminded her of ants. Granted, they were large ants, each one the size of a woman's hand, their bodies metallic gray, their eyes like cut and polished hematite. A pair of tongs or pincers protruded from their mouths; their thin legs, moving delicately over the ground, seemed made of iron rods or wire."

The story is a lovely conceit; if I were still teaching linguistics, I'd have students write a version of their own as a paper. It would also serve to start a riot at linguistics conferences, if you had somebody there charismatic enough to convince Their Linguistnesses to play. There'd be the linguists who say all adjectives are verbs, and the linguists who consider verbs superior to nouns, and the linguists saying Arnason left out the conjunctions, and there'd be me (My Linguistness, yes) saying that all adverbs are either nominals or verbs...

3. Jessica Hekman writes that copies of John Weilgart's "aUI: The Language of Space" are still available, from Cosmic Communication Company, 100 Elm Court, Decorah, Iowa 52101. She says she has one and it's a neat book.

4. I had a long letter from Ken Rolph, who is writing sf and wants to construct several languages to use in his work. He had a list of very good questions, including some we can summarize as "Where do I find resources about constructed languages?", which can be answered (a) by going to the Kenneway site (item #1 above) and navigating from there, or (b) going to your favorite search engine and typing in "International Auxiliary Language" in the search box. And then he had questions like "What languages are good to steal from?" and "Which are the attractive and unattractive sounds or letter combinations?" and "What are possible rules for syllable construction?" — and more. All complicated questions, with complicated answers that won't fit in a newsletter. I've suggested that he go to the LinguistList site, where there are hundreds of useful links. I'm looking forward to seeing his novels. Ethics oblige me to try a short answer to the question about stealing from languages, whether I have room enough or not. As follows: You can't steal from a natural language. You can select things from the universal Human Language Inventory, as all natural languages do; and you can borrow words and phrases from languages, as all natural languages do. You can be accused of stealing from a constructed language, because those who construct them tend to consider the results their property in the way they would a novel or symphony (and are often willing to go to court to defend their claims). But with the exception of borrowing a specific word or phrase — which would be a compliment to the language and its originator, in my opinion — you can't really steal from conlangs either. They're constructed by human beings, using materials from the Human Language Inventory, which belongs to humankind as a whole. [Note: I don't want to confuse anyone; the term "Human Language Inventory" is from me, so far as I know, and won't turn up in searches.]

5. The one thing a constructed language really needs if it's to be of any use in the real world is a writing system that poses no problems for standard keyboards and people typing on them. So what did I do when I constructed a language, trained linguist that I am alleged to be? I gave it a tone, which meant an accent mark over vowels, which means it poses a problem. I've been using a capital letter for letters with tone (so the name of the language gets typed as LAadan, meaning accent mark over the first A). Dumb. I wanted tone — higher pitch, in this case — because it increased the number of possible syllables I could get with a small number of sounds. But it's important to realize that I could have achieved that goal (not as generously, but adequately) and still avoided the entire problem for keyboards if I had just given the language a rule saying that whenever you have two of the same vowel together the first one gets the tone. (Or the second one gets it. Whichever.) Did that occur to me? No. I could have had a rule saying that when you have double vowels the first one gets the tone, except when the next letter is an M (or whatever), in which case the second vowel gets the tone. That didn't occur to me either. Dumb. I could of course go back and do that now, and come out with "Reformed LAadan," but that would be cheating.


1. From InfoWorld Electric for 11/11/99, "Universal translators move into the real world," by Ephraim Schwartz: "Star Trek technology will come to life when ViA demonstrates its version of a universal translator. Similar to the devices used by the members of the United Federation of Planets, ViA's device is partially funded by the U.S. Navy and performs voice-to-voice translations with a wearable PC... While ViA's device cannot translate Klingon to Romulan, it does interpret seven other languages..." Schwartz goes on to report other developments, all for launch at Comdex 99: GlobalTV, from MultiLingual Media, which offers instant translation/interpreting for videoconferencing, with closed captions as subtitles, in "numerous" languages; and Marnee, a new gizmo from Dragon Systems and Totally voice, described as a "speech-centric personal information manager."

2. Thanks to Sally Lloyd for a copy of "The Robot That Loves People: Machines that walk, talk, move, and show humanlike emotions are no longer science fiction," by Douglas Whynott (pages 66-72 of the 10/99 Discover). There's been a lot of media attention lately to the robots developed by Cynthia Breazeal (Kismet) and Rodney Brooks (Cog); this article is a good brief overview. Kismet is an especially interesting robot because the idea was to make a robot that people would perceive as a Baby and interact with as they would with a baby. (It seems to be working.) On page 71: "Breazeal also had to write special software consisting of what she calls 'drives' and 'emotions.' Drives are similar to needs, and there are three in Kismet. The social drive becomes a need for people, the stimulation drive seeks toys and other objects, and the fatigue drive creates a need for sleep." I've seen Kismet on tv a few times, and it seems to me that it needs fur. If scientists want robots to be endearing, they should lean toward baby apes instead of baby humans; fur is cheap, and it would cover a multitude of non-endearing features.

3. The 11/15/99 issue of Forbes, pages 314-316, had an excellent article by Spencer Reiss titled "St. Tim of the Web." It's about Timthy J. Berner-Lee, described as the "Johnny Appleseed of cyberspace." On page 314: "His masterstroke, inventing the World Wide Web, transformed an obscure Pentagon-funded communications project...into history's most spectacular technology launch. Berners-Lee wrote a set of software rules for linking and displaying information on computers. Without them, the Net would have remained the playground for a handful of techies; instead, Berners-Lee and his codes singlehandedly created what most people know today as cyberspace." And he gave it all away, for free. (Want your blood to run cold? Reiss reports that Berners-Lee first tried to give it all away to the French government, which turned it down.) Read all about it in his recently-published Harper San Francisco memoir Weaving the Web, written with Mark Fischetti, recommended by Reiss in spite of what he refers to as "thorny nerdspeak." Sounds like the name of a British village....

4. Websites to look into, bouilloncubed to a faretheewell. #Scattered Tongues, the mission of which is "to connect wired linguaholics worldwide.". #Gorilla Foundation, everything about the gorilla Koko, including details on how she was taught American Sign Language. #"Found" haikus, at the "Headline Poetry" page, or from a link called "Haikucaracha." #Ask Anything — said to provide expert answers to any question whatsoever —. #Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database. Anybody writing sf about the coming century will have to devote careful attention to the problem of where/how humankind is going to get water; this is the resource you need. Searchable. #Search Engine Guide, the search engine for search engines. #Teaching Indigenous Languages — just what it sounds like, with abundant resources —. Lots of useful things for those of you who are constructing languages. #From the Scout Report: a site with everything you ever wanted to know about the Samurai (including women Samurai) and Bushido. #And finally, despite carping recently from commentators who call it guilt-tripping, I do recommend The Hunger Site. It loads instantly; you click on "Donate Free Food" and sponsors donate two cups of food for distribution by the U.N. World Food Program. The click brings up — also very fast — a screen with buttons for maybe a half dozen sponsors. But unless you click on one of them, that's it; nothing else happens, and you're through. Only one click per day per e-mail address is accepted. PLUS — This site has translations of its basic information page into 51 different languages, each on its own link, Afrikaans through Welsh. A wonderful little database for comparing languages, all ready to print out...

Real World Linguistics

1. For your Ozark English collection... This one I heard with my own ears, on November 30th: "You know John, that has the fifth-wheeler, that he was my friend that I was trying to buy his truck?" (The commas are in the right places, yes.) Two more, about antique collecting, quoted in the 10/29/99 Arkansas Times ("From Trash to Treasure," by Jan Cottingham, pages 10-13). On page 12: "It was one of those thing that the minute I saw it I knew." On page 13: "This is one of those that the money wasn't as important as the object."

2. The recent attempt by HUD to bring out an informational brochure written in "Creole" (roughly comparable to bringing out one in "American Indian," but never mind that) has led to a rash of media reports. Here's a snip from a sample paragraph: "Dis is a brochure distributed to yuh cawze Hud ah provide some fawm ahf assistance aur subsidy fi di whole apawtment buildin." Much carryingon ensued, brouhahas erupted, and the brochure was withdrawn; Hud officials nevertheless said they had investigated and that the "Creole rendering" was accurate. [You can read the whole thing, and some of the carryingon, at] I sent it off to sf novelist and creoles expert Nalo Hopkinson and asked whether she found it accurate, and she very kindly sent me a detailed answer. She writes: "My first impulse was to think perhaps it had been intended as a phrasebook for a non-Jamaican trying to talk 'yardie' to a working class Jamaican. That would have been just as ludicrous. But of course no, they intended Jamaicans (and only Jamaicans; other English creoles are different) to read this thing and feel welcomed. Oi. Well-intentioned, but so, so misguided. Not racist, just ignorant. Someone made the point beautifully; a literate Jamaican reads standardized English, even if she speaks a creole of English. Jamaican creole is an oral form. Writers who represent it as text are representing speech. There is no agreed-upon standardized written form. ... It's trying to be a phonetic rendering of the accent of certain Jamaican sociolects (if that's the correct terminology). By characterizing Jamaican speech a certain way, HUD made a class-based assumption of who their Jamaican clients are, and one moreover which ignores geographical and regional variants and arbitrarily selects one particular one." [See Nalo's science fiction novels for her own take on how this should be handled. Her website is]

3. I'm always glad to receive another proposed white-trash-bashing Language Thing for my collection. [I'm serious, now; I'm not being sarcastic. They don't usually amuse me, but I'm glad to have them for the file.] The most recent, forwarded by Patricia Mathews, informs me that I'm a "high-tech redneck if" and is thereafter mostly the usual drivel about pickup trucks, trailer houses, and wife-neglect. I do find "if your e-mail address ends in" interesting; we need that one. However, "if you start all your e-mails with the words, 'Howdy y'all' " is wrong. Rednecks don't say "y'all." They say "youall" (Urban White Trash English) or "you-uns" (Rural White Trash English). "Y'all" is a middle-class/upper-class thing. Those movie ladies doing southern dialects (like in Steel Magnolias) do not speak Redneck.

4. "The scene was the Suntory Museum, Osaka, Japan. ... The occasion was the opening of a show of the work of four of the greatest American illustrators of the 20th century... The Suntory's director began his introduction in Japanese, then paused for the interpreter's English translation: 'Our guests today are a group of American artists from the Manual Age.' Now the director was speaking again, but his American guests were no longer listening. They were too busy trying to process his opening line. ... All at once they got it. The hundreds of young Japanese staring at them from the auditorium seats saw them not as visionaries on the cutting edge...but as woolly old mammoths who had somehow wandered into the Suntory Museum from out of the mists of a Pliocene past... They were children of the dawn of — need one spell it out — the Digital Age. Manual, 'freehand' illustrations! How brave of those old men to have persevered, having so little to work with. ... Creating images from scratch? What a quaint, old term, 'from scratch,' and what a quaint old notion." This is Tom Wolfe (which is why I needed all the ellipses) at the beginning of "Digibabble, Fairy Dust, and the Human Anthill," on pages 213-227 of the 10/4/99 Forbes ASAP. It's a wonderful article; do read it. I'm convinced that Tom Wolfe could write Hifalutin Ozark if he put his mind to it; he's that good.

5. "Language and ethnicity continues to be one of the most volatile issues facing the pits brother against brother and neighbor against friend; it divides nations and brings governments to their knees, all while representing the strongest bond a people and a community can share. ... The distinguished sociolinguist Joshua Fishman has commissioned 28 previously unpublished papers that explore the issue from every possible vantage point." This is from the flyer I received from Oxford University Press for Language & Ethnic Identity, Fishman's new book; please ask your library to order a copy. At $50.00 plus $4.00 shipping it's cheap for a linguistics book but too expensive for most of us; your library should make it available, however. Order from 1-800-451-7556. [Note: The flyer says "Accessible writing allows for a wide readership." You never know what that means, when linguists are involved. But Joshua Fishman is an exception to many a rule; I suspect that with him as editor the volume truly IS accessible. And the contributors are from all over the world.]

6. Finally, I'd like to let you know that my new book from Perseus (The Language Imperative) is now available in the stores and online. It's as real-world as you can get.

Other Things

1. Thanks to the Kinast-Porters for sending a copy of an article by Lawrence Osborne titled "A Linguistic Big Bang" (pages 84-89, New York Times Magazine for 10/24/99); the title blurb reads "For the first time in history, scholars are witnessing the birth of a language — a complex sign system being created by deaf children in Nicaragua." About what happened when hundreds of deaf children without a shared sign language were brought together in schools for the deaf in Nicaragua in the 1980s. This article needs to be read in its entirety, and it's hard to choose a quote. Let's try these from page 85 and the other from page 88.

"The children's creation has become a sensation of modern linguistics. Nicaraguan Sign Language...has been patiently decoded by outside scholars, who describe an idiom [sic] filled with curiosities yet governed by the same 'universal grammar' that the linguist Noam Chomsky claims structures all language. Steven Pinker...sees what happened in Managua as proof that language acquisition is hard-wired inside the human brain. 'The Nicaraguan case is absolutely unique in history,' he maintains, 'We've been able to see how it is that children — not adults — generate language, and we have been able to record it happening in great scientific detail. And it's the first and only time that we've actually seen a language being created out of thin air.' "

[About a 1978 paper on deaf children of hearing parents, by Heidi Felman, Susan Goldin-Meadow and Lila Gleitman.]: "The researchers found that a deaf child making crude home signs would, in time, begin bending them into languagelike patterns without knowing what he was doing and without being taught. ... And while the parents used the home signs erratically, the deaf children deployed their home signs in a more consistent order."

2. Here's Michael Bishop, engaged in metaphor, talking about one of his stories: "In 'Among the Handlers', the main character is a young a heightened sort of religious background...with this emphasis on coming in contact with the holy spirit through snake handling, and that one cannot handle snakes unless one has the holy spirit upon one. Maybe there's something in that, maybe there's something in my idea that if I'm really writing well or handling snakes, I have the spirit upon me in some sense. Maybe the fiction itself is my snake-handling. But for me, the fiction writing is subduing the serpent in one way or another. And unless that spirit is upon me, it doesn't happen. That's what the character in that story wants too, for the spirit to be upon him all the time, so that you can actually see it in the room, floating around like pollen or mist." ("Michael Bishop: Subduing the Serpent," pages 4-5 and 73-74, Locus for 7/96.)

3. Hal Davis sent me to "A Rare Sight — Elizabeth Goldring looks for art and gets an eyeful," orginally published in the 9-10/98 Technology Review. Goldring has damaged vision; she "uses a laser to project the video and computer images she creates directly onto a small, functional part of her retina." She is creating "word images"; for example, for the word "door." She says: "For the last seven years, I've been working on creating visual experiences and digital language — poetry — for people who have very limited eyesight. ... I've worked a lot with this particular word because it's so difficult for me to see — the two o's and the d are all so similar, they get in the way of each other. But if I separate [them] with this image I can see the whole thing much faster. I've also tried door in another way, which I'm quite excited about because it is one of the first times that I have been able to get any sense of depth when using the scanning laser ophthalmoscope.' She demonstrates, holding her hands up next to one another, palms toward her face, and pivoting them apart like swinging saloon doors. 'The word opened: d-o and o-r swung back like a door, and it worked...' "

4. If all of you are already familiar with Benford's Law — a law "so unexpected that at first many people simply refuse to believe it can be true" — and haven't mentioned it to me, shame on you. Otherwise, please do read "The power of one," by Robert Matthews, pages 27-30 of the 7/10/99 New Scientist. The Benford in question is physicist Frank Bedford. On page 27: "Using more than 20,000 numbers culled from everything from listings of the drainage areas of rivers to numbers appearing in old magazine articles, Benford showed that they all followed the same basic law: around 30 per cent began with the digit 1, 18 per cent with 2, and so on." ("And so on" turns out to end with 4-6 % starting with a 9.) You can use Benford's law to look for fraud in research data. You can use it to check accounts — think of royalty statements! If the data doesn't conform to the 30% starting with 1, 18% starting with 2, and so on, something's wrong. On page 29: "In a ground-breaking doctoral thesis published in 1992, [Mark] Nigrini showed that many key features of accounts, from sales figures to expenses claims, follow Benford's law — and that deviations from the law can be quickly detected using standard statistical tests. Nigrini calls the fraud-busting technique 'digital analysis', and its successes are starting to attract interest in the corporate world and beyond." I'll bet they are; I can also imagine a strong interest arising in ways to keep Benford's law from leaking out to The People. A sidebar on page 30 says: "In a nice little twist, it turns out that the Fibonacci sequence, the Golden Mean and Benford's law are all linked. The ratio of successive terms in a Fibonacci sequence tends toward the golden mean, while the digits of all the numbers making up the Fibonacci sequence tend to conform to Benford's law." I love this. I'm even willing to put up with being told that Benford's law is the mathematical form of the Distribution Of Distributions, which sounds like only a qualified wizard ought to be allowed to say it. [Fibonacci sequence....just in case, that's every number being the sum of the two numbers before it, as in 1-1-2-3-5-8; as in the seeds on sunflower heads, for example.] There's lots more of this, like the fact that the most common second digit in a batch of non-random numbers is zero and the least common is 9, so that there should be roughly 10 times more that begin with 10 than begin with 99. Thanks to Frances Green for the article.

5. From a publisher's review (on Linguist List) for David Katan's Translating Cultures: An Introduction for Translators, Interpreters and Mediators: "Culture is perceived throughout this book as a system for orienting experience, and a basic presupposition is that the organization of experience is not 'reality', but rather a simplification — even a 'distortion' — which varies from culture to culture. Each culture acts as a frame within which external signs or 'relity' are interpreted." (St. Jerome Publishing, UK.)

6. In one of the final print issues of this newsletter, I fussed about the uproar coming from some parents about the alleged wickedness of the Harry Potter books, and I mentioned the analogous uproar about the Tarzan books, with Tarzan and Jane — according to the parents — living together unwed. Many thanks to Margaret Carter for writing to tell me that "Tarzan and Jane may not have been married in any of the classic films, but they certainly are in Burrough's original series. Their wedding ceremony occurs at the end of the second book, The Return of Tarzan." Librarians of the world, take note! [I'm still reading the King James Bible from cover to cover a little at a time, by the way. The King James, which no parent will demand be removed from a library shelf, contains the most astonishing things. For example, did you know that in the King James Bible a common way of expressing the meaning "male human being" is with the sequence, "one who pisseth against a wall"? Pisseth, yes. Over and over again, Gentle Reader.]

Happy New Year to you one and all....