Saturday, May 3, 2014

RavenCon Panel 3 - Xeno-linguistics

Technically--temporally, I guess--Xeno-linguistics was actually the last panel I was on rather than the third.  I want to discuss it next, though, because it presented the same situation as Creating Believable Magical Systems but with the opposite cause and reaction.

Specifically, do you remember my comments about being steamrolled at the CBMS panel?  Sometimes that happens due to force of personality, and I know this in large part because at my day job, the one doing the steamrolling has, at times, been me.  I mean, I enjoy maintaining a nice, collegial environment, but there's just some times when I as the Dean and head academic poobah have to make my opinions known.  I haven't always been very delicate with it, though.  Hence, the verbal demolition act.  I've been the demolisher at work, so I didn't mind too much being the demolished at panels where I'm really rather junior as an author.

That's one circumstance, though.  The other time I've seen this happen is when one person is a great deal more qualified or knowledgeable than the others in the group, and that's what happened at the Xeno-linguistics panel.  And no, still not naming names, though in this case I doubt anybody would mind.

I mean, the guy has a PhD in linguistics.  He's studied a couple of dozen languages.  He's responsible in large part for the successful propagation of the Klingon language.  A linguistics nerd like me could spend hours discussing the topic with him.

Now, when there's a guy with a PhD in linguistics in the room, one would expect his voice to be the dominant one in a discussion of linguistics, just as one might expect my voice, that of a PhD in education, to be dominant in a discussion of that field.  Right?  You'd be disappointed in the latter expectation, actually.  Linguistics is a hard subject, as we all know from listening to the complaints if we ask someone to identify, oh, I don't know, let's just say an adjective, in a sentence.   "I can't remember what all those word names are for!"   Bring up the subject of education, though, and you'll likely discover that everybody who's ever sat in a classroom is an expert.

Anyway, back to linguistics.  Other guy: educated and experienced on the topic. Me?  I wrote a book that uses Welsh as a plot device.  Yeah, I'd say there's a gap in qualification levels, and so I really didn't mind that another person on the panel had so much more to say than I did.  Matter of fact, I enjoyed it.

Heck, I learned from it.

Did you know there's a fourth person?  I didn't, either, till this discussion, and that rocked my world.  The subject came about when an audience member asked what we thought of efforts to create an alien language without verbs.  The entire panel snorted as one, of course.  Verb is just the meta-tag for a word that identifies action, and any language without the ability to describe action is going to be a pretty useless one.  But we got into a discussion of types and classifications of verbs, because the specifics of verb use can actually vary quite a bit among languages, and that led to the linguistics doc telling of a story he'd written that used the little-known fourth person of Ojibwe to set up a puzzle that could only be solved by someone else who spoke the language.

Fascinating, huh?

You're wondering about it, too, now, right?

How does a language get a fourth person when the world seems awfully three-person-ish?  I mean, there's me, and then there's you, and then there's everybody else.  I ask, and then you ask, and then he asks, and those are three separate persons.  It might be a she instead of a he who asks, but there's not nearly as much difference in the gender of the other person as there is lying within the core identity difference among you, and me, and that person.  Right?

Yeah, that's exactly what I thought as I looked it up as soon as I could.  The answer is cool!  Turns out that a few languages, Ojibwe among them, splits the "everybody else" into two groups: those who are evident/salient, and those who are not.  The third person is used for those who are there: a boy, for example, might dream about a movie that is going to be coming out.  In this example, the boy is there; he has salience.  Thus, "the boy" would be rendered in the third, or proximate, person.  The movie, though, isn't salient; it's not even out yet.  It's in the distance, in the future, and until it becomes a part of our reality it's rendered in the fourth, obviate, person.  The verbs get the appropriate conjugation, too; the boy's dreaming is rendered into third person, while the movie's "to be coming out" is similarly in fourth person.

Cool, right?  And then there's even a fifth person in a very few languages that's kind of an extension to that, but I'll leave investigation of that as an exercise for the reader.

We did talk of other stuff.  We discussed the necessary bits about creating a language of your own, and I pointed out the same thing I did in the CBMS panel: people read the story for the story's sake, not for a dictionary and lexicon on the language you create.  It enhances, and it flavors, but it should only be used as such.  The example we lit on for a while was Na'vi, the language of the blue people in Avatar (who are also, of course, called Na'vi).  Did you know that the majority of the language wasn't even created till after the movie came out?  They created enough of it to flavor the discussion.  Remember when Ney'tiri explained to Jake what "skown" meant?  She didn't use it in a sentence, or give a lecture about its use within grammatical structures.  She simply told Sully that he was being called a moron, thus creating conflict, and as we all know, conflict is to stories what jet engine fuel is to airliners.

So that's the panel's take on vocabulary, and it's actually one of the least important parts of linguistics.  Yes, I know; I was surprised by that, too, but it makes sense.  Look, if you will, to the Mother Tongue for proof.  We had a discussion--more of a brief difference of opinion--about whether English is truly the hardest language to learn, and that was one of the very few points our linguistics doc conceded to another panelist.  She, the winner of the debate, is a non-native English speaker who explained that yes, English is a complex language in terms of vocabulary and grammar, but the way that it's used makes up for that challenge.

Huh?  That doesn't make sense at first, but she explained further.  Other languages don't have the complexity (let's call it the wibbly-wobbly bits for the time being, just 'cause that will make me happy) of English, but that in turn means their speakers are expecting a certain degree of consistency.  If you throw out a phrase that's a little garbled in many other languages, those you're communicating with will either not understand you at all, or they'll politely request that we just speak English (as I've witnessed myself).  English speakers, though, are so used to our own wibbly-wobbly bits that if a non-native speaker mixes it up a little, many of us don't even notice, and those who do often shrug it off.

Now, that's an important point in terms of xeno-linguistics as it relates to world-building.  People who are crafting languages to go with their new fantasy world often gleefully bounce off into creating new alphabets and phrases and such without ever considering the peoples' attitudes toward the language itself.  Are the inhabitants of your fictional sphere going to be militant and have their own version of the Académie française, or are they going to be like English speakers and engage in all the wibbly-wobbly inclusions from here, there, and all places timey-wimey?

Apparently, by the way, Klingon is like French.  Who knew?  It makes sense considering the Klingon society's world-view, but I still hadn't considered it before.  I can't tell the story nearly as well as the linguistics doc did, so I won't bother, but they do have their own linguistic version of a high poobah, and he's the only one who can create new vocabulary words, which he is, in fact, still doing (for example, they never needed a word for umbrella on Star Trek; it wasn't till conventions in places like Seattle came around that the need came up).  He, the grand poobah of Klingon, even creates the official slang, which according to the story told at the session is as rapidly forgotten as it is created, because there's no folk history to go along with it.  Which, in turn, is another story that I am running too long to tell.

Hope this helps, or better yet, inspires!



  1. Dude, that is freaking interesting as hell. I don't suppose this guy recommended a book for folks to read if they were interested in linguistics? I get that he had a PhD and that an intro-level book wouldn't compare to his knowledge, but talking about the 4th/5th person concept just captured my attention like crazy. I'd love to learn a bit more about it.

  2. If you're interested in books on linguistics, try the works of David Crystal (I read "How Language Works" when I was first learning about linguistics).
    The Linguistic Society of America ( is also a good starting point.