SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!
DID I MENTION SPOILERS!
YOU SHOULD NOT PASS… if you haven’t seen the movie and want to be surprised.
You have been warned…
Okay, the disclaimer is out of the way. Today, I went with the family to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the 3-D HFR version. Having now seen it, I’m surprised at the vitriol that’s been heaped on the movie by some (e.g., here and here just to name two). Maybe “vitriol” is too strong a word, but it seems some of the negative press is unwarranted. I’ve also seen Tolkien fans that have written reviews saying they’re not even going to see movies two and three in this trilogy. I’m planning on seeing the next two without question. To me, An Unexpected Journey seemed like a quick three hours. There were some parts that dragged on too long (more on that below) and some superfluous material, but, overall, it kept my attention, didn’t offend my sensitive Tolkien sensibilities (too much – again, see below), and was a fairly enjoyable and entertaining ride. I just have to remember that any shortcomings of the film in no detract from Tolkien’s work and world. The films aren’t canon. They’re based on an interpretation of Tolkien’s work and can stand or fall on their own.
Some of the best parts, in my opinion, in no particular order were:
- The scenes inside Bilbo’s hobbit hole. These were, for the most part, true to the book (in spirit if not literally). I’ve read some reviews that talk negatively about the dishwashing sequence but found this to be very faithful to the book itself.
- Elrond showing up in his armor. No, it wasn’t in the book, but it always bothered me that Rivendell was supposed to be this idyllic sanctuary in the mountains. How did it stay safe? Well, it makes sense that Elrond and his house would ride out once in a while to “take care of business” in the neighborhood. Plus we got some Sindarin in here 🙂
- The opening prologue inside and around Erebor. Seeing Thrór, Thráin, and Thorin ensconced in their kingdom and getting a glimpse of Dwarven culture was very interesting. Plus this also gave us a peek at Smaug’s feet and fire. The scene with all the dwarves waiting inside Erebor as flames lick at the front door was very cool.
- Radagast. Yes, Radagast. As a character design, I thought he worked very well. I have other misgivings about him in the movie, but overall his look and action seemed very in keeping with what I had always thought about the brown wizard.
- Seeing the progression of Balin from Erebor, to Azanulbizar, to the “present”. The only issue here (literal book-wise) is that Thorin is actually older than Balin: Thorin was 24 when Smaug attacked Erebor; Balin was 7.
- Gandalf’s look on his face when he finds that Saruman has shown up at Rivendell. I could almost hear a “Oh, man, it’s my boss.”
- Gollum and riddle game. This was worth seeing the HFR version right here! Gollum is absolutely amazing looking, and Andy Serkis is in full command of bringing Gollum to life.
Before we go any further, let me address the conlanging aspect of the movie. There was some Sindarin in Rivendell. It’s always nice to be able to pick up a word here and there. I got Gandalf’s “Mellon nin!” even before I read the subtitle. Yay, me. I was very disappointed I didn’t hear any Khuzdul (except maybe a snippet from Bifur). However, as I was given a heads-up by Erunno Alcarinollo on Twitter, I expected a lack of Khuzdul and that the orcs seem to be speaking the Black Speech or at least some orcish dialect of it. Interesting turn of events when both the elves and the orcs get subtitles. But it’s not all the orcs. The goblins of the Misty Mountains still speak English with a British accent although they know the ones who speak only Black Speech. (We know this because the Goblin King is going to send a message to the leader of the Black Speech orcs.) And even the Black-Speech-speaking orcs seem to have some auto-tune reverb thing going on with their voices. I am looking forward to some notes online on the Black Speech in the film.
I’m going to assume that Black Speech and Khuzdul maybe sounded too much alike to do them both in the film. Plus, some movie-goers may have said, “Okay, the dwarves were speaking with subtitles before but now they’re speaking in English. What’s up with that? And why are those orcs speaking the dwarves’ language? I don’t get it!” So, I’m going to cut some slack to Peter Jackson and let the Khuzdul go. However, I still want to hear a “Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd aimênu” at the Battle of Five Armies, most likely from the armies of the Iron Hills.
Okay, so that brings us back to this band of Black-Speech-speaking orcs and their leader, Azog. Yes, that Azog. We see him, Thorin, and Balin in the Battle of Azanulbizar. I was really looking forward to this but found the movie adaptation somewhat disappointing. Azog, referred to subsequently in the film as the Pale Orc, becomes the primary antagonist of Thorin & Company because of an extreme hatred of Thorin himself. It seems… SPOILER! again… after Azog beheads Thrór in the battle (not as in the Appendices), Thorin battles the orc chieftain and cuts off the orc’s forearm. Inexplicably, the orcs carry their leader back into Moria, the dwarves claim victory, and Thorin assumes Azog dies. Bad move, Mr. Oakenshield. Azog sticks an iron claw on his forearm (with a nice spike sticking out of his elbow) and swears vengeance on the “Dwarf-scum” or whatever Black Speech phrase means that.
The creation of Azog’s revenge seems to be a superfluous sub-plot for the film. If Peter Jackson did want to have this storyline, it seems a better tactic might have been to have Azog fighting at Azanulbizar with his son Bolg. I don’t know how you show this, but having Azog kill Thrór, then have Thorin kill Azog (yes, I know he didn’t kill Azog but I’ll give them some leeway here), and have Bolg retreat (maybe with the look in his eyes as the orcs of Mordor when the Rohirrim rode down on them in Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King). But showing an orc swearing revenge on someone who slew his father might be ascribing too many emotions to orcs (who are really the expendable Star-Wars-stormtroopers or battle droids of The Lord of the Rings films).
And Azog really does look like a very good CG video game character, but a CG video game character nonetheless. If they were going with an orc antagonist, it would have been nice to see something like Lurtz. I do have to agree with those who have mentioned that aspect of the movie.
I mentioned above that I enjoyed the look and behavior of Radagast. I still stand by that. My only beef with Radagast in the film was the… SPOILER! again… rabbit-sled race to distract the orc band. “These are Rhosgobel rabbits!” I don’t even know what that means? He breeds super rabbits? And the sled just goes around and around, constantly bringing the orcs back to Thorin & Company who finally find a way to escape on their own. And Radagast just disappears then. It’s really Elrond and his elves who get rid of the orcs. So, the sled race went on way too long and, in my opinion, was superfluous in the first place.
Another part that went on a little too long was the Stone-giants scene in the Misty Mountains. I’m fine with them being in the film, but it seemed prolonged and didn’t really move the story forward. A few boulders crashing through the rain and knocking debris down on the company would have been plenty.
Just a brief note on the HFR: It didn’t really thrill me nor distract me. Maybe I’m just jaded from watching HDTV at home. Other than seeing the weave of Bilbo’s shirt and an absolutely stunning, crisp Gollum in all his slimy paleness, the HFR was just fine but nothing to get really worked up about (positively or negatively).
So, as you can see there were some disappointments but some absolutely enchanting moments, too. It could have been a great movie, but it wasn’t a failure as some seem to have suggested. Even with what I know of Peter Jackson’s additions and alterations, I’m still looking forward to seeing The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again.
Yesterday, I attended The Lord of the Rings Marathon at my local movie theater. This was an all-day showing of each of Peter Jackson’s films based on Toikien’s magnum opus from 11:00 am to 11:30pm (with only a half hour break between each film). I also saw it with my children who never got the chance to see the films on the big screen when they were first released so that was fun, too. Viewing the film trilogy in one fell swoop was an eye-opening experience and really allowed me to see the work as a whole. I’d like to share some thoughts and favorite moments from the films. Some of these will be familiar from ten years of voluminous commentary in print and online, but this is meant to be my subjective reaction to Jackson’s opus.
There were probably around 20 to 25 people in the theater for our marathon, so it was somewhat of a shared experience. There were even a couple women who showed up in medieval gowns. Of course, no one talked to anyone else, but we all clapped when each film was over, and giggles went through the audience at several key points: Boromir’s “One does not simply walk into Mordor” line, Sam’s “PO-TA-TOES” line, Legolas’ “They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard“, and several others. My daughter and I enjoyed Elrond’s facepalm during the Council.
One of the things that struck me was the prevalence of clasped hands. Take a notice next time you happen to watch these films. I often saw one character reaching out for another’s hand and the other grasping the outstretched hand. The two biggies are Frodo rescuing Sam from the water when leaving the Fellowship, and Sam rescuing Frodo in the Sammath Naur. There are a number of others, and I wish I had kept track. One of the reasons it struck me was when it didn’t happen. When Aragorn stretches out his hand to Gríma after Théoden is ready to kill Wormtongue on the steps of Meduseld… and Gríma spits on Aragorn’s outstretched hand.
Not having viewed the trilogy for quite some time, another thing that struck me was the prevalence of tears. I knew there was crying, but, wow, that was a lot of tears over 12 hours of movies.
And the last plot device that struck me was people plunging off of cliffs. Gandalf in the first (okay, it’s a chasm but the effect’s the same); Aragorn in the second (not in the book); Denethor, Frodo and Gollum in the third (only one of those goes over in the book). Even Boromir plunged off the Falls of Rauros, but he was already dead. I may be reading too much into this, but it looked to me like Middle-earth needed a lot more signage to alert people of dangerous cliffs.
I do have some favorite moments from Jackson’s films:
- Gandalf and the Bridge of Khazad-dûm
- Gandalf driving out Saruman from Théoden
- The ride of the Rohirrim into the forces of Mordor on the Pelennor
- Any scene with Sindarin in it 🙂
There are more, but those really spring to mind. I do find it interesting that none of those first three occur in the movie exactly as they transpired in the canon. For example:
Fire came from [the Balrog’s] nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm
“You cannot pass,” he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”
“You cannot pass!”
Yes, a lot of the film dialogue in that scene is from the movie, but I think the change from “You cannot pass” to “You shall not pass” was a very good decision.
The episode between Gandalf and Théoden is also much more dramatic in the film than the book. The addition of Saruman’s possession of the king of Rohan appears to have helped that plot point along in the film. Kudos again to Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair and Peter Jackson. Finally, the ride of the Rohirrim. One scene I did want to see there was Théoden blowing on the horn until it “burst asunder” although I realize that might be a little difficult to pull off realistically.
I do believe that Jackson absolutely got the casting spot on with Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey and Christopher Lee as Saruman the White. In fact, McKellen’s Gandalf is one of the major reasons I can’t wait to see The Hobbit this coming week. In my opinion, Théoden, as portrayed by Bernard Hill, was also very regal and convincing. The design team also hit the nail on the head with the Black Riders, right down to the nails coming out of the bloody hooves of the horses. And Andy Serkis’ Gollum/Smeagol is always amazing (and disturbing… in a good way) to watch.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some scenes and plot points I don’t particularly like:
- Elves at Helm’s Deep: If the Elves were going to show up anywhere, it would have been to come to the aid of Minas Tirith
- Elrond himself bringing Narsil to Aragorn: This is like Capt. Kirk always having to lead the away team (Although I did go back to the book and see that Elrond’s son, Elrohir, was the one to remind Aragorn about taking the Paths of the Dead).
- The avalanche of skulls in the Paths of the Dead: WTF?
- Faramir taking Frodo, Sam, and Gollum to Osgiliath: Seemed a little needless
- Aragorn’s angst: The “book Aragorn” seemed much more sure of himself and his duty to be king
- Denethor’s death
That last one especially still bothers me. After watching it again yesterday, it seems to me that it would be easy to blame Gandalf for Denethor’s getting torched. In the film, Denethor even has a last moment of sanity looking at his son’s face before he bursts into flames and runs off the cliff. And it looked to me like Shadowfax either pushed him onto the pyre or, at the very least, Denethor was trying to get away from the rearing horse. In the book, it’s Denethor that takes the torch and leaps onto the pyre. He takes an active role in his self-immolation. In the film, it looks, in the end, to happen almost by accident.
I really enjoy the movies, but I have to remember that they’re based on Tolkien’s work. Masterfully adapted in many cases and even (gasp) improved-upon in some, but based nonetheless. I find that the films drive me back to the books and Middle-earth again, and maybe that is the most important thing. I’m fine with some people only experiencing Middle-earth through Jackson’s prism, but I would compare it to someone only knowing the Iliad through the Brad Pitt film. Yes, you can get a good idea of the characters and the plot, but there’s no substitute for returning to the source material.
Hannon le, Tolkien. Hannon le, Peter Jackson. Eglerio!
So, today is Thanksgiving in the U.S. The title of this post is as close as I can come to “Today is Thanksgiving!” in Quenya. Hopefully, it’s correct. Since it’s a holiday and I had some time, I thought I might compose a little shout-out to what I’m appreciative of conlangery-wise (in addition, of course, to being thankful for family, health, and those things I’m thankful for every day).
I’m thankful for all the fascinating people I’ve met through conlanging, both those I’ve met personally and all those who’ve ever been ready to share their advice and knowledge through Conlang-L or other venues. Thank you all!
I’m thankful (I think “thankful” is an appropriate word) for finding a hobby/craft/art that constantly has new things to learn. I realize that’s true of most hobbies, but this happens to be the one I enjoy. Just when I think I have a handle on some aspect of language, I find another new one to explore (and to humble me). Enjoying the “multifariousness and beauty of language” (to quote The Conlang Manifesto) is one of the great things about conlanging.
I’m thankful I have the opportunity to represent the LCS as prime tweeter @fiatlingua (or is that twitterer?), secretary, and librarian. I recently had the chance to talk with Christine Schreyer‘s class via Skype about the LCS, my exhibit, and some of my conlanging efforts. I’m also writing an article on conlanging for an online magazine. All this came about due to my involvement with the LCS.
It’s easy to get frustrated if one is a conlanger. There’s not enough time to devote to the craft. There’s too much to learn. There are so many others far better than you. But these things are usually true of any worthwhile endeavor. We make the time. We enjoy becoming knowledgable. We learn from those more experienced than ourselves. Be thankful for the opportunty 🙂
Happy Conlanging and Alassëa Hantalë!
I’ve been thinking for quite some time about how one would introduce the idea of creating languages with children. Tolkien mentions in his pivotal essay (A Secret Vice) how natural it was for him as a child to create languages. The playfulness, openess, and boundless creativity of children is not hampered by preconceptions and societal expectations and so seems tailor-made for conlanging. Some people seem to think that language creation should be something one grows out of; but, as we know, that is certainly not the case. Language creation can just get more complex (and fun) as we get older. Conveying that to kids, however, can be difficult.
As primary Twitterer for the Language Creation Society’s @fiatlingua, I just came across an interesting tweet today from TEDx concerning use of Esperanto in the classroom. The video connected to the tweet is at http://youtu.be/8gSAkUOElsg . The organization is called Springboard … to Languages and the goal is to use Esperanto as a “springboard” to learning other languages and language in general. The speaker’s point was that it is an “easy” language to learn (easier than Spanish or French or Chinese), and children can begin communicating in the language much faster and more efficiently than other languages. This, in turn, builds confidence and engenders curiousity about “more difficult” languages. His analogy to bassoon-playing seems apropos.
However, this does not provide an avenue to language creation (even though Esperanot is a conlang) but one to learning natural languages. The goal is not for the children to create their own languages but to see Esperanto as a bridge language to introduce concepts about language.
There just aren’t a lot of books or movies that children can be introduced to that engender and encourage the craft of conlanging. I myself fondly remember Dr. Seuss (especially On Beyond Zebra) that got me interested at a young age in scripts, words, and the playful use of language. The Lord of the Rings (the books, long before the movies) was pivotal to my development as a conlanger (and “evangelist” for the craft). Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy included Sindarin and Quenya, but most people who see that (if they don’t already know about Tolkien’s languages) will most likely think something along the lines “That’s cool! I want a tattoo now that says [fill in your “Elvish” phrase here].” It once again doesn’t show that you too can create languages. Likewise, you can’t really speak Huttese or other Star Wars languages. Children don’t really get Star Trek with its Klingon language, and we really can’t introduce kids to Dothraki (at least in context).
We do have some worksheets and other tools on the Education page of the Library, but those are one-time workshop type of things. “That was cool… now onto something else.”
The answer to this question also depends on what age group one is talking about: Elementary-school age, middle-school, tweens, teens, etc.
I believe there are also those conlangers that believe we should do nothing to encourage young people to join in conlanging. That “evangelizing” the “secret vice” is neither necessary nor warranted nor even desired. My own feeling is that we certainly can’t make anyone into a conlanger against his or her will, but those that do show a proclivity towards it and an aptitude for it should be encouraged and shown that conlanging is a viable, worthwhile, and enjoyable hobby.
So, any ideas on introducing the viability of conlanging to children (at any age)? I’m all ears.
Okay, the newest John Carter movie trailer is out. As I’ve stated before, I’m a big fan of the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burrough (ERB). When I heard there was finally going to be a movie, I was skeptical but cautiously optimistic. After all, I was very pleased with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and my Tolkien hurdle is much, much higher than my ERB one. That being said, when I heard that Andrew Stanton was directing, my heart sank. I love Pixar and who can argue with Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and all the rest. But John Carter? It just didn’t seem to fit.
Well, now that two trailers are out…I’m very cautiously optimistic that the movie won’t stink. How’s that for hedging my bets? The visuals look kind of cool although the tusks on the Green Men seem a little out of place. They’re described as coming from the lower jaw. And I’m a little unsure of Woola’s look. But, I’m willing to give it a shot even with those caveats and the superfluous wardrobe department on the set. If nothing else, maybe it’ll be a rollicking space adventure.
But, as always, this is a conlanging blog, and the bone I have to pick with the film is conlinguistical. First of all, take another look at Tars Tarkas. Take a look at the descriptive paragraph. It’s okay, I’ll wait….Oh, you’re back. Notice that it says, “Tars gives Carter the Thark name Dotar Sojat, which translates to ‘my right hand.'” Uh, no. Dotar and Sojat were the names of the two warriors slain by John Carter upon his arrival on Barsoom. Unless one was named “My Right” and other was named “Hand”, that “translation” doesn’t work. Plus, Dotar Sojat isn’t just a Thark name. All inhabitants of Barsoom speak the same language, so “Tars gives Carter the Barsoomian name” would have at least been more accurate.
But that’s not the worst on the official site. Take a look at these: A Martian “Decoder” and a Martian Translator. Uh, once again, that’s not “translating” that’s what’s called a “code” (or “cipher” if you want to get fancy), Disney. What’s worse, the “Decoder” has every letter of the Roman alphabet! Couldn’t they have even put the letters C and K together or something! This is like something you’d get on the back of a cereal box or inside a Cracker Jack prize. Disney obviously told their art department to come up with some nifty designs, and, oh hey!, there’s 26 of them, let’s call them the “Martian language.” Tah dah!
With the inventiveness of ERB’s Barsoomian naming language, I had hoped there was some effort to pay lip service to the language (no pun intended). I’m still hoping there’s something in the final film, some small scene where Carter has to learn the language of Barsoom and then use English as the stand-in for it (a la The 13th Warrior). If not, it just seems like a lost opportunity. Sigh…
The first reaction of most everyone who reads this will most likely be "Duh!" To this, I’d add "I know, but sometimes it just hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks." And by hard I don't simply mean difficult. What I'm specifically referring to is the urge to be original or unique in one's conlanging/conworlding efforts.
Over last weekend, I was out at our local Borders buying some gifts for my son's birthday. I was picking up the Strategy Manual for the new Pokemon Black and White game for him when I noticed the manual for World of Warcraft: Cataclysm on the shelf nearby. I'm not a WoW player, but I can appreciate good artwork and fantasy-type creatures so I picked it up and started looking through it. When I got to the Tauren, I have to admit my heart sank. I’ve been aware of them, but their general resemblance to my Tylnor was suddenly much more disheartening than previously felt. (Oh, and the resemblance between the names Tylnor and Tauren is coincidental. The word Tylnor actually had a voiced stop at the beginning, but I liked the sound of the unvoiced one after all.) You be the judge on looks. Here are some images of Tauren; here is an early version of one of my Tylnor. The Tylnor originally (literally almost thirty years ago) began as my world's gnomes or dwarves and evolved since then into the horned critters you see here. The most recent version came about, originally, when I thought it would be cool to have them with horns, sort of built-in (stereotypical) vikings. Turns out there’s lots of fantasy creatures with horns, so that’s not that original after all. Okay, I thought, no problem. I thought some more and thought maybe I’ll pattern them after my favorite animal: the muskox. So, recently, I’ve added a large, hair-covered boss on their heads from which their horns sweep down on either side. Tylnor arms, legs, and backs also have long, shaggy guard-hairs. I haven’t decided if they’d need to be combed annually. That might set up some interesting cultural features. In any case, the Tylnor are humanoids patterned off a bovine or caprine form (muskoxen are actually related to goats), and that picture of the Tauren just made me think %$#@&! Do I have to entirely revamp the Tylnor? I’ve even gone so far as to investigate Tylnor skeletal structure, and I think I’ve determined they have a characteristic natural hump on their back from something that might be considered kyphosis in humans along with some spines on their thoracic vertebrae to hold up their massive heads and horns. Anyway, that’s all in the planning stages. Plus, of course, the Tauren themselves aren’t even original: Minotaur anyone?
Additionally, a year or so ago, I posted an image of my Drushek on ZBB and someone astutely noted "That looks like a Bothan." And, sure enough, if it didn’t, which led me at the time to say %$#@&! So, I’ve also gone back and redesigned those guys a bit, too. They now have a different hair-style, ears, and long thing tendrils on the corners of their mouths and chin. I haven’t decided whether their hair is more cilia-like or actual hair. They’re still hopping creatures though. I’m keeping that.
And then we come to language. This is a conlanging blog after all. The shorthand for this urge to be unique/original but you’re not, is ANADEW as used on CONLANG-L. For those who don’t know, ANADEW stands for “A natlang’s already dunnit, except worse” (See here.) Even my own Dritok has parallels in reality (whistled languages, sign languages, etc.). My only claim to fame may be that I insisted on including the nasal-ingressive voiceless velar trill as a regular phoneme. Even those who try to create an a priori conlang are often constrained by what their own mouths can produce. Notable exceptions to this are Rikchik and Fith. I’m in the process of formalizing Dritok and Umod (the Tylnor’s language) and eventually Elasin (another race’s language living in the same conworld), but it gets disheartening sometimes. I’m toying with the idea of using a bilabial trill in Umod. This is a stereotypical sound a horse or cow makes, so I felt it would fit the physiology. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to go too overboard on the exotic phonetics. But, on the other hand… Well, you get the idea.
In some ways, I’m hoping my having concerns like this makes me a better conlanger. At least, I’m thinking.
Thanks for listening. Whine-fest over. Back to the notebooks and drawing pad!
Today, I downloaded the relatively-recent English translation of Kirill Eskov‘s Последний кольценосец (The Last Ringbearer), the story of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as told from the viewpoint of Mordor and its inhabitants.
I’m only a couple chapters into it, but it got me thinking: Conlangers should really root for Sauron in Tolkien’s work, because Sauron is a conlanger! From what we know, he singlehandedly devised the Black Speech to be used by those who serve him.
Well, that wasn’t very satisfying. After all, Sauron is the bad guy. (At least in Tolkien’s work, not Eskov’s). Who wants to root for the bad guy? (Although, I must admit, I thought Darth Vader was the coolest until I found out he was Luke’s father. Ew! And, mind you, this was way back when A New Hope was the first Star Wars film. But I digress…) So, I started thinking, and remembered Aulë who created the Dwarves and devised a language for them, Khuzdul. It’s interesting to keep in mind that Sauron was originally one of the Maiar of Aulë.
To the best of my knowledge, Aulë and Sauron are the only two conlangers in Middle-earth. Yes, it’s true a couple elves (i.e., Rúmil and Fëanor) devised writing systems, but they didn’t create entire languages.
So, who ya gonna root for? Ash durbatulûk.“
Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, the most recent book by Guy Deutscher, is a thought-provoking, highly-readable romp through some of the more unexpected realms of language. Deutscher is more than happy to take on with relish those ideas considered orthodox or “common sense” and to defend his own views, backing them up with facts and research. A number of very positive reviews of Through the Language Glass can be found online (such as here, here, and here, just to note a few), but what does the work have to offer conlangers? Being primarily an artlanger, I apologize ahead of time if this review strays too far in that direction. Deutscher’s book examines three main areas in-depth: color terms, grammatical gender, and spatial orientation. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
First, we examine color terminology. Deutscher examines how different languages split up the spectrum, and it turns out that my *blue* may not necessarily be your *blue*. In explaining the history of color terms, the author reaches back to W. E. Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, Volume 3, and its section entitled Homer’s Perception and Use of Colour and continues all the way up to the World Color Survey. The idea of slicing up the WCS-Munsell Color Chart or the CIE Color Space in novel ways to highlight the alien-ness or foreign-ness of a conlang’s speakers appeals to me. As Deutscher points out clearly, there are a number of interesting variations on the theme of how colors are designated in the world of natural languages. Even a language as familiar as Russian has "синий" and "голубой" whereas English simply has "blue". Granted, we English-speakers have shades of blue (light, dark, navy, baby, sky, etc.) and blue-related colors (turquoise, azure, indigo, etc.). Is purple a kind of blue? These are all concepts that can be played with in a conlang.
Next, let’s look at grammatical gender. Personally, I think this is a largely untapped field for conlangs to play in. Some of the African and Australian gender systems are very tempting to riff on. Deutscher talks about the “Bantu languages such as Swahili [which] have up to ten genders, and the Australian language Ngan’gityemerri is said to have fifteen different genders.” Of the 319 languages which specify use of grammatical gender in the Conlang Atlas of Language Structure database, over half (175 or 54.8%) use no gender at all. More interestingly, 84 conlangs use the familiar sex-based gender system and only 60 are non-sex-based. Another thing to consider is that it might be fun to determine how gender is assigned to words in one’s lexicon. One of my favorite stories related by Deutscher (in both Through the Language Glass as well as The Unfolding of Language) is how the Gurr-goni word "erriplen" (English "airplane") ended up in the vegetable gender category. It makes perfect sense when the history is known (or surmised), but, on first glance it makes no sense at all. Of course, if one is attempting to streamline or simplify language, gender is probably first on the list of things to excise. Alternatively, a conlang that attempts to be akin to natural languages would be more than likely to have grammatical gender. Why not have fun with it?
Finally, what about spatial orientation? This is the area that made the most impact on me. I really want to come up with a novel (or one that at least doesn’t have too many ANADEWisms) orientation system now. Deutscher provides several excellent alternatives to simple left-right-front-back. One is Guugu Yimithirr which uses an east-west-north-south system all the time. Another is Tzeltal (a Mayan language) which uses a downhill-uphill-across (in the direction of X). On the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, one finds mountainward-seaward-east-west. Depending on the geographical location of one’s conlang-speakers, I can see these or other systems being a lot of fun to create. Is there a specific location of historical/spiritual/geographical significance to your speakers? Orient towards that. This would also have some interesting connotations within a story as well (as well as lots of opportunity for misunderstandings… which could be a positive plot device).
These are just a few of the highlights in Deutscher’s new book. His The Unfolding of Language is one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books on language. (Arika Okrent‘s is, of course, another.) His new one is well worth the read, and has some great quotes, intriguing points, and enjoyable prose. Whether you buy it, check it out from your local library, or borrow it from a friend, make sure to put it on your conlang reading list.
After the mind-numbing tedium of sorting out the situation shared in my last post, I felt I needed something more uplifting. And so…
Over the last couple months, I’ve had the opportunity (as part of my day job) to visit the libraries at Kent State University (KSU) and The Ohio State University (OSU). Having some free time available before or after my official duties were completed, I decided to visit the PM8001 to PM9021 areas of the Library of Congress Classifications hanging out on the open shelves. For those less-versed in bibliographical arcana, those are the areas dedicated to artificial, universal, picture, and secret languages. I was curious what would be represented in my favorite subject on the open stacks of the two universities.
KSU had only a couple shelves dedicated to the PM8001 to PM9021’s; however, it was not all dedicated to what one would expect. What I expected was a lot of Esperanto, which I got; however, they also had several more esoteric volumes sitting there waiting for the eager conlanger to pick them up. These included a facscimile copy of Francis Lodowyck’s Common Writing from 1647 (PM8008 .L59 1969).
One surprise at KSU was a little volume entitled Enterprises of great pith and moment : a proposal for a universal second language by Elmer Joseph Hankes (PM8008 .H34). Published in 1982, the subtitle of the work named this “universal second language” Em Sigh Ay or the “language called please or Polite Language”. The book is “dedicated to the promotion of politeness and consideration in all of our relationships with each other.” I did not have the time to see how this high-minded goal was carried out in detail. For those interested, the title of the work comes from Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
Yesterday’s visit to OSU turned up many more volumes residing in the latter PM’s on the open shelf. This is to be expected, as OSU is one of the major universities in the country. Even so, they fit on about one-and-a-half shelving units total. They had the requisite volumes on Esperanto, David Salo’s Gateway to Sindarin, and some other fairly-well-known languages. Some surprises, to me at least, were aUI: the language of space; for the first time represented and adapted to the needs of this planet by John W. Weilgart with illustrations by Elisabeth Söderberg (PM8008 .W4). This was published in 1968 by Cosmic Communication Company. Another surprise was The complete dictionary of Guosa language: 106,962 head words from traditional Nigerian and West African languages : a 20th century evolution by Alex Ekhaguosa Igbineweka (PM8368.Z5 I359 2007). It appears that Igbineweka also has a website with video on his proposed Nigerian and West African lingua franca. Finally, there was also A Moroccan Arabic Secret Language : the x…xinCa family by Nasser Berjaoui (PM9001 .B47 2007). I’m not quite sure if the language described by Berjaoui is a conlang or not, but it certainly is in the right LCC area. In any case, it was very interesting to see languages from Africa represented on the shelf.
While these titles were new to me, I have subsequently seen some of them listed in both Arika Okrent’s list and Rick Harrison’s comprehensive bibliography. Just goes to show, no matter how much you think you know about invented languages, there’s always more to learn.
Today, I unfortunately had both my Gmail and Yahoo hacked. If you received an email from me saying that I was stranded in the UK, I apologize for the inconvenience…even though I really had nothing to do with it. Anyway, you get the idea. It’s been highly, excruciatingly inconvenient but it doesn’t appear (as of right now) that anything major was compromised. Still working through the Google mess. As a matter of fact, I’m writing this post just to re-assure myself that the blog still works.
One rather unexpected silver lining was that I actually got an email in my work Inbox from one of our prominent conlang community members living in Europe asking where I was and if he could help. I emailed (from that account) to let him know I was still in the US and had been hacked. He was somewhat amused at the creative lengths to which these people will go to get money and also wished me luck in resolving this. I was impressed that he took the time to contact me. Not only are conlangers erudite, but, gosh darn it, if they aren’t awfully nice people, too.
Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to keep those passwords, et al., battened down.