So we'll still be having this debate thousands of years from now and hundreds of light years away?

(Think of this post as a kind of supplementary village at the base of the Tensor's almighty Mt Linguistics-in-SF.)

Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky (which this post will spoil parts of so caveat downloador) is a first contact novel in which two groups of humans stumble across and then prepare to reveal themselves to an alien species they call "Spiders". The Spiders don't know about the humans at the beginning of the book, but the opposite isn't true, so we get to spy on them along with the humans. This is where it gets interesting (and spoilery.)

Rather than make up a language for the Spiders, Vinge sidesteps the issue completely. Not only does he translate their dialogue and vocabulary into unremarkable English, with very occasional alien color (references to extremities called "midhands", etc.), he even overhauls their proper nouns. The first spider we meet is named "Sherkaner Underhill" -- the Spiders have a culture where burrowing is very important. He is from "Princeton", and his nation is at war with a nation that has a city called "Tiefstadt."

In other words, the Spider sections are presented in about as hard a translation as you could get without denying their basic physiology. Even the enemy nation is dressed in German to show contrast with the English of the main society. I don't think I've ever read an SF novel this linguistically obstinate before. Most alien language creators at least want to invent a fancy word for "king" or something. And even within the story, we learn that the translator responsible for this (our) view of the Spiders isn't pleasing her superiors:

"Whatever you're doing, it's messing her up. She's giving me figurative translations. Look at these names: 'Sherkaner Underhill,' 'Jaybert Landers.' She's throwing away complications that all the translators agree on. In other places she's making up nonsense syllables."
"She's doing just what she should be doing. You've been working with automatons too long."
"You're no linguist. ... Her grotesque simplifications are not acceptable."
"No! You need people who truly understand the other side's minds, who can show the rest of us what is important about the aliens' differences. So her Spider names look silly. But this 'Accord' group is a young culture. Their names are still mostly meaningful in their daily language."
"Not all of them, and not the given names. In fact, real Spider talk mixes given names and surnames, that interphonation trick."
"I'm telling you, what she's doing is fine. I'll bet the given names are from older and related languages. Notice how they almost make sense, some of them."

(In the end, the second speaker there manages to calm down his boss by persuading her that the translator is providing a "higher level of translation," allowing the average human crew member to easily comprehend mission-critical information without having to deal with interphonated names and other cultural cruft.)

From a literary point of view, the reason Vinge sets things up this way is so that he can tell the story he wants to about how governance, social structures and science influence and are influenced by each other. And one of his major points is that we, the readers, are more like the Spiders than the human protagonists... at least in the ways that a "higher level" translation preserves.

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Yeah, I always had the impression that it was essentially a shortcut (albeit a really smart one), just so readers wouldn't have to slog through meaningless goofy SF names before they could start seeing past them to the characters underneath. Acknowledging it within the fiction was just the icing on the cake.


Hi~ Been reading your blog regularly after discovering it recently. I love languages (planning to get into the field of teaching and translation one day) and your posts are really informative! Thanks for sharing!



Zusty: Word. I wonder if he started out with the contrarian idea of writing the aliens as normal as possible and tried to figure out how to work it into the story / what it would let him do within the story.

Antonia: Thanks! I do my best...


The spider is from "Princeton"?!


Yep! Which presumably means a town whose actual name is composed of the Spider word for "Prince" plus a mutated version of the Spider word for "town", put together in the standard Spider compound-forming way.


Either! That! Or! 'Princeton' had exactly the right connotations, for the translator to use to evoke a specific sort of town.


Tolkien did something similar, of course. Even most of the names and unfamiliar words (like "hobbit") in LOTR are, as revealed in the appendices, not actually supposed to be the words in the mouths of the actual characters, but are translations derived from English or Old English roots to be at the appropriate level of foreignness. That's not SF, though. I'm sure I thought of a partial example in a more SFnal work last night, but I've forgotten it.

When you're talking about aliens, it's perfectly legitimate to have them speak a language with a phonology not readily pronounced by humans (or, at least, not admitting of representation by spelling conventions obvious to a normal reader of English). In such a case the option of using the alien words themselves isn't there; everything must be translated or calqued. Of course, there are degrees within this, with "Princeton" and "Tiefstadt" at one extreme, and, I don't know, maybe a detailed morphemic gloss at the other.


Being a bit acousticentric in our thinking, aren't we? After all, there are other modalities possible, not to mention combinations thereof. The chirolingual members of our own species should be sufficient proof of this. (I even understand that there is speculation that all human language might have developed from manual gestures. Interesting, no?)

In such cases, a translation would be the best we could hope for. In lieu of more space-consuming anatomically-correct articulatory "morphological glosses", that is. : )


Zusty, that would be completely outrageous! But entirely possible. Someone needs to write to the guy.

Tim: Oh yeah! LOTR is a great example of a similar concept. Albeit the other way around -- Vinge wanted to get the language issues out of the way so he could tell his story, and Tolkein told the story so that he would have somewhere to put his conlangs.

IDR: But human sign languages can still be broken down into things that correspond to phonemes, right?... (re language and gestures, did you ever read Clan of the Cave Bear?)


IDR: yeah, by my reference to unpronounceable "phonologies", I really meant to include chiremes, chromatophore patterns, pheromones, neutrino spin modulation and what have you. I'd probably have been more explicit about it if it weren't for the "interphonation" reference in Matt's excerpt, which makes it clear that Vinge's Spiders are actually using sound.

Matt:Yes, it's interesting how opposite approaches can sometimes lead to similar solutions.

Speaking of xenolinguistics, I got The Klingon Dictionary yesterday as a birthday present. Of course, I did what everyone else does in that situation, and spent the day trying to come up with less ugly latin orthographies than Okrand's. What's a good one-letter representation for a voiceless uvular affricate? q̌?


Hey, hands up everyone else who studied Klingon once!


Heh, heh.. yeah, me, uh, me either.

The absolute worst orthographic decision Okrand made there, I think, was insisting on the capital I along with the lowercase l.


Yeah, that's probably the single worst thing, if you had to pick one. (And they even have phrases printed in a sans-serif face in the book!) But really, using capital letters at all was a bad idea. It's ugly, and it prevents the normal uses of capitals. And it's so unnecessary. Making an English-friendly ASCII orthography for Klingon is actually pretty easy.

(OK, possibly it's a good system for scripting lines for extras, but not for much else.)


Not that they actually use the language in the series, I hear. The usual complaint was that they look up a few words and string them together in English order. (I think the movies are supposed to have been done more carefully, though.)

The diehard Klingonists explained this away, continuity-wise, as representing "different dialects".


Tim: Point taken. (But what the heck is interphonation, anyway?!)

Matt: My knowledge of ASL, etc., isn't what it should be, but yeah, I suppose the movements composing signs (ignoring the alphabetic "spelling" ones) could be (are?) analyzed into chiremes. I remember that there are morphemes for verb inflection, etc. (As for Clan, I have thus far spared myself that pleasure.)

Re Klingon (guiltily raises hand), I always thought it was neat how Okrand chose tl for the initial sound(s) of the name. From a field methods class using a Blue Hmong speaker as informant, I know firsthand that it does indeed sound like kl to an English ear.

The orthography definitely has its problems (Tim, any plans to share what you came up with?), but I've always found Lojban's much more annoying!

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