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Dec 16

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – A Review

Posted on Sunday, December 16, 2012 in Film, Rant, Review



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.

Nov 1

Spellbound by Blake Charlton: A Review

Posted on Thursday, November 1, 2012 in Books, Review

Cover of Spellbound by Blake Charlton

I have finally had a chance to read the sequel to Spellwright by Blake Charlton entitled Spellbound. Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide Buy online from an indie bookstore Find at a library near you The plot takes place ten years after the events in the first volume, and Nicodemus Weal is on the run. The book introduces a new character, however, and she makes her appearance right from the beginning. The first line of the book, I’ll admit, had me hooked:

Francesca did not realize she had used an indefinite pronoun until it began to kill her patient.

That imaginative wordplay and ingenious (yes, I’ll say it… ingenious) magic system of Charlton’s is back and better than ever:

Francesca used [the runes] in her left forearm to write a few silvery sentences that glowed on her skin. With her right hand, she pulled the spell free. It folded into a short, precise blade.

Spellbound also introduces a new order of magic-users: the hierophants or “wind mages” which use wind and cloth to wield their power. They cast spells slowly (beat by beat of their heart), and Charlton gives an intriguing description of the inner workings of one of their windcatchers:

Inside the windcatcher, hundreds of radial sails were arranged like windmill blades and rotated around a central point. Somehow a hierophant was suspended within the windcatcher. The many sails focused the energy of their rotation into the hierophant’s heart and accelerated its spellwriting. Each augmented heartbeat produced a hundred thousand times more runes that it otherwise would./ This was the hierophantic key to power. Their language was produced only in the heart muscle, was limited to cloth, and melted into a wind when cast. However, they had harnessed nature’s power, transformed the wind into words. From a school of kite-flying hermits on the slopes of Mount Spires, they had grown into the linguistic backbone of a powerful kingdom.

We also get to see much more of kobold culture. The kobolds, with “their midnight skin and blond hair”, can only cast spells in the darkness.

The lycanthropes are a new race of beings, and they prowl the savannah. There is an interesting twist to their role in the story, as well as an unexpected turn of events having to do with the Savannah Walker as well as a ghost that makes a debut.

Although the plot can get overly complicated sometimes, Charlton does a good job of pulling the reader along. His magic system, though, is what I most enjoyed from these two books (and expect from the promised third volume, Spellbreaker). With sentences like “An unseen wartext blasted the ghost’s right arm into a cloud of golden text”, how can anyone who loves language and how it works not be intrigued with making invisible words tangible and full of power.

In closing, I had the great good fortune to see Blake Charlton give a talk at the American Library Association Annual Conference last summer in Anaheim, CA. He was extremely entertaining but also poignant at times talking about growing up with dyslexia and “riding the short bus.” He would go on to medical school and prove everyone wrong that thought he wouldn’t amount to much. I also had the chance later that same day to talk briefly to him at his book signing, tell him I was shocked when he replied to a tweet, and he mentioned that he most enjoyed writing Francesca’s character in the Spellbound novel. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why and his enjoyment shines through the prose.

Looking forward to reading Spellbreaker!

May 7

Spellwright: A Conlanger’s Review

Posted on Monday, May 7, 2012 in Books, Review

I just finished Spellwright by Blake Charlton (Tor, 2010) Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide Buy online from an indie bookstore Find at a library near you. The story follows the adventures of Nicodemus Weal, a “spellwright” who can’t spell. The most fascinating thing about the world that Blake Charlton has created is his novel system of magic where spells are formed within one’s body or peeled from the pages of a book. The master wizard, Agwu Shannon, is a great well-rounded character and could probably have sustained a book of his own. There are lots of other secondary characters and intriguing plots. But, since this is a conlanging blog, let’s see how Charlton handles language.

The first thing to know about language in the world of Nicodemus Weal is that language is Power…literally. The magical languages include Common, Numinous, Magnus, Wrixlan, Pithan, and the all-mighty Language Prime. One could think of these magical languages almost as computer code or prose. One who knows one of these languages can form the sentences, phrases, and paragraphs within their bodies and construct wonder-working spells. But be careful of misspellings! They can kill you. That is Nicodemus’ problem. He is a cacographer or one who is magically dyslexic, inadvertently misspelling even the simplest of spells.

To followup on the idea of writing instructions out of magical languages: In one section, a “bookworm” (a monstrous creature that eats magical texts or “malicious language that invades manuscripts. They eat all the prose and use it to make copies of themselves”) is caught and its text is parsed to figure out where it was supposed to return (i.e., it’s been programmed and its captors are going to re-program it). The book even describes “textual intelligence” as a required string of instructions: “if this happens, then do that; if that does not happen, then do this…”

The way Charlton described the magical languages is very evocative:

  • “A sudden, golden jet of Numinous prose exploded…
  • “…a bookshelf burst into a molten ball of silvery Magnus.”
  • and maybe the best: After a struggle, someone’s face is “crushed by blunt words”

And since these languages all have writing systems to go with them, this could be a hey-day for some inventive con-scripter!

Humans are the primary beings in this world, but there are a Chthonic non-human people who dwelt in the land prior to humans’ arrival. We get one word of their language: tulki = masculine form of “interpreter”.

Charlton also has some fun with the word ghostwriting which is the spell a spellwright can use to exist after death.

Finally, we get the name of a few spells: madide, latere, sceaduganga. The last one, as I read, triggered some sort of Old English ancestral memory or something. So, I set off to check my available online Old English dictionaries. Sure enough, sceadu-genga occurs in Line 703 of Beowulf: Cóm on wanre niht / scríðan sceadugenga “In the colourless night, came / slinking the shadow-wanderer. (Click here for a good online Beowulf in Old and Modern English). The spell does indeed allow one to walk in the shadows or, in other words, to become invisible.

So, Spellwright is worth the read. A fascinating magical system, playful use of language, and interesting characters. It does drag a bit in spots being a little overly-reliant on exposition, but the action and overall story make up for these shortcomings. In fact, I thought (after reading it) maybe we should refer to ourselves as langwrights instead of conlangers. Just an idea.

Nov 25

Maphead: A Mini-Review

Posted on Friday, November 25, 2011 in Books, Review

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide Buy online from an indie bookstore Find at a library near you by Ken Jennings is a very enjoyable read that might get you to take a second look at maps.

For conlangers and conworlders, there is one entire chapter (“Legend”) that deals with imaginary worlds, from Austin Tappan Wright‘s Islandia to the works of Brandon Sanderson (a college friend of Jennings). Maphead is written in a friendly, very-accessible tone and looks at everything geographical from GPS games (like Geocaching) to discussions of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “On Exactitude in Science” and its relation to Google Earth.

Some may recognize Ken Jennings from his record-breaking 2004 performance on the TV game show Jeopardy as well as his previous book, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs. Maphead is a fascinating, humorous, down-to-earth (pun intended) book and should be on the reading list for all those with even a passing interest in cartography and geography.

Nov 19

Shapes for Sounds (and an upcoming review)

Posted on Saturday, November 19, 2011 in Books, Review

Howdy, loyal readers! (We need an English dual plural for that word “readers” in that sentence.) It’s been some time since I updated the blog and The Conlanger’s Library. Our hosting service changed the access method for the Library, and I haven’t had the time to explore the new method (Thanks for the suggestions though, David!) of updating the pages. I’m going to do it, especially since we can include the links to Amazon now (again). I’ll get around to it. Promise.

In the meantime, I do have a new book to share. Also, on the books front, be sure to check out the Fiat Lingua online journal in December for my extensive review of the new book from Oxford University Press, From Elvish to Klingon.

The one I’d like to share today is Shapes for Sounds (cowhouse) Buy The Book Now at The Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide Buy online from an indie bookstore Find at a library near you by Timothy Donaldson. Donaldson is obviously a student of Edward Tufte‘s work and Shapes for Sounds is an exquisite piece of work because of it. The book traces the development of every letter of the Roman alphabet in beautiful charts, one for each letter. There are also extensive textual parts to the book explaining the differences among the various historical fonts like carolingian, uncial, insular, blackletter, etc., etc., etc. Irish ogham even makes an appearance! The (cowhouse) in the title comes from the original names of the first two letters: aleph “cow” and beth “house”. For conlangers, Shapes for Sounds is full of inspiration for con-scripts as well as an enjoyable book to peruse just for the graphics.

There are several reviews online for Shapes for Sounds including this one and this one that have some great images from inside it. So check for it at your local library or local bookstore. It’s well worth the hunt.

(Added 11/25/2011) P.S. Donaldson’s book has one section directly relevant to conlangers and con-scripters. He has created three “conjectural” alphabets (Appendices 26, 27, and 28), actually three alternative miniscule (i.e., lower-case letters), based on three different majuscules (i.e., upper-case) of existing typefaces. The development of each of these alternative miniscules is included in each letter’s individual chart. They’re a very intriguing alternative view of what the Roman miniscules could have been like.

Mar 2

The Stone Dance of Ice and Fire: A Double Review

Posted on Wednesday, March 2, 2011 in Books, Conlanging, World-building

I’ve recently been reading two fantasy series that, on reflection, have both parallels as well as sharp contrasts. The two series are:

  • A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
  • The Stone Dance of the Chameleon by Ricardo Pinto

I’ve read all four extant volumes of Martin's (unfinished) series (beginning with A Game of Thrones) and the first volume of Pinto's work (The Chosen) and just picked up the second.

What I found interesting right away is that both are concerned with what Martin calls "the game of thrones," the intrigue and political maneuvering (not to mention bloodshed) that goes with the choosing of who will have power in a certain time and place. I like both series, so let's take a look at them.

A Song of Ice and Fire is definitely a ripping yarn full of fully-rounded characters, lavish set pieces, and enough detail to provide a reader with page-turning enjoyment. Martin's strength is, without a doubt, his ability to engage the reader emotionally, to make him or her care about the fictional characters. This is one of the reasons, in my opinion, that fans are so passionate about Martin "finishing" the series. They care what happens to Arya, Brandon, Jaime, Cersei, and the rest of them. Did Sandor Clegane survive? Does Daenerys get to ride her dragons? What becomes of Brienne the Beautiful? I’d like to know, too.

On the other hand, as a world-builder, Martin is a little less successful. One person I know described Westeros as the perfect stereotype of what a fantasy world should be. Granted, the idea of winter lasting years is an intriguing fantastical feature, but the idea of why this happens is always nagging at me. No satisfactory (or any) explanation is ever given. It just is. Also, Martin insists on providing measurements for at least two edifices that would be better served by just saying they’re really, really big. First, The Wall is always 700 feet tall. Second, one of the pyramids that Daenerys rules over is 800 feet tall. For comparison, the Arc de Triomphe is 164 feet tall, the Great Pyramid of Giza is 481 feet tall, and Hoover Dam is 726.4 feet tall. Just imagine the sheer volume of structure like the Wall that is 700 feet tall and miles and miles long. From the description in the book, it would appear that The Wall has been extremely tall for ages and ages, and the pyramid Daenerys sits on is even taller than the Hoover Dam? I like my fantasy’s fantastical, but sometimes less detail is more.

Another nitpicky pet peeve (Yes, I realize I'm being nitpicky) is Martin's insistence on detailing many of the meals people eat. For example, "They broke their fast on black bread and boiled goose eggs and fish fried with onions and bacon…" Lampreys seem to be popular fare in Westeros as well. Dany nibbles "tree eggs, locust pie, and green noodles…" In some ways, it appears Martin wants to avoid the clichéd non-descript stew of some fantasy worlds, but, from my perspective, veers a little too far in the opposite direction.

Finally, since this is a conlanging blog, we come to language. Martin himself freely admits that "I suck at foreign languages. Always have. Always will." (Of course, now we can thank David Peterson for breathing life into Dothraki.) So, we really can't fault Martin for not creating an entire Dothraki or Valyrian language and including it in Appendices. He acknowledges that particular shortcoming. However, my beef with him is his sometimes completely random-seeming choice of names for characters and places, even within the same family: Cersei and Jaime; Robert, Stannis, and Renly, etc. Martin also has an annoying habit of combining a first-rate fantasy name with an English-sounding one: Davos Seaworth, Balon Greyjoy, Robert Baratheon, etc. The "almost" names and titles are somewhat annoying as well: Eddard = Edward, Joffrey = Jeffrey, Ser = Sir, Maester = Master, Denys = Dennis, Walder = Walter, Yohn = John, etc. He has somewhat better imagination with the Targaryens and when he gets out of Westeros (although his non-Westerosi names can appear a little unpronounceable): Xaro Xhoan Daxos (I ended up pronouncing x as [S] and xh as [Z] in my head), Jaqen H’ghar, the Dothraki names and words, Illyrio Mopatis, Mirri Maz Duur, etc. Those names sound and look consistently exotic and fantasical.

In the end, I don't have HBO making a TV series of anything I've ever written, and Martin's books have sold millions of copies; so who am I to pass judgement on the above shortcomings. I will say that for all their high-quality entertainment value, A Song of Ice and Fire does exhibit a lot of the tropes of fantasy literature (See the TV Tropes entry for the series here). I'm just sayin&#39.

Martin's series is interesting to see in juxtaposition with Pinto's The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. Where Martin's Seven Kingdoms and beyond are in many ways very familiar with their kings, knights, lords, and ladies, Pinto paints a thoroughly-detailed completely new creation for us: The Three Lands. This is not a thinly-veiled medieval European setting, but a world full of unfamiliar places and cultures where the simple act of forgetting to don one's mask can result in the deaths of scores of people. While Pinto cannot match Martin for sheer page-turning lively action, he does outmatch him for sheer ingenuity and attention to detail in world-building. Where Martin's sers ride horses, Pinto's Chosen mount saurian aquars and ride along horned huimurs. Where cloth-of-gold is popular in Westeros, it's usually cut into a tunic, doublet, or elaborate gown. In the paradisal seclusion of Pinto's Osrakum, the Chosen dress in elaborate court-robes, stilt-like shoes, and utilize slaves whose eyes have been replaced by precious stones. Pinto's website testifies to his detailed world-building when you see images from his notes with captions like "Detail from Notebook 18, Page 22". He even gives credit to someone in the acknowledgments for helping him with "the equations to calculate the lengths and directions of shadows." Whew!

Of course, all this planning and detail sometimes get in the way of telling a good story. Carnelian, the viewpoint character of the novels, is often staring, marveling, being overwhelmed, and having other superlative experiences while we're provided with a litany of detailed descriptions of the wonders Pinto has devised for us. It (usually) stops just short of being tiresome, and then the story resumes.

In one way, Martin and Pinto do have something in common in some of their naming practices: the "almost" names. For Pinto, they're based on gemstones or other precious materials: Osidian = obsidian, Jaspar = jasper, Aurum = gold (Latin), Opalid = opal, Molochite = malachite, etc. I believe I read that Pinto had at first almost used names in Quya but later decided against it.

Quya? What is this Quya? Here is where Pinto and Martin firmly part company. Pinto has an entire language and writing system for his world although, sadly, this does not show up very much in the books themselves. For those interested, he has extensive notes and a grammar on his website. According to the Acknowledgments, he had help with the language from David Adger. The writing system obviously has a debt to pay to the Mayan glyphs but has a beauty all its own and provides chapter heading glyphs from the first two books. There is only one extended text example, so it's a shame we don't see more of the language in the books themselves given Pinto's love of dazzling the reader with details.

Both series have something to offer and are well worth reading. If you like fast-paced storytelling, well-rounded characters, and cliffhanger endings, you can’t go wrong with A Song of Ice and Fire. If you like a more leisurely reading experience, very interesting characters, first-class worldbuilding (with (online) Appendices), try The Stone Dance of the Chameleon. See you in Westeros and Osrakum!

Nov 30

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: A Conlanger’s Review

Posted on Tuesday, November 30, 2010 in Books, Natural Languages, Nonfiction

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle recounts the experiences and research of author Daniel Everett with the Pirahã. Their language, also known as Pirahã, is notorious in linguistics circles for numerous traits uncovered by Everett. The New Yorker published an extensive article about Everett and his work in 2007 that does a good job of introducing readers to the controversy. Being neither a professional linguist nor having a particular linguistic axe to grind, I can’t contribute anything to that debate (nor would I want to wade into those waters); however, I can share some thoughts on the book and its story from a layperson’s perspective as well as provide some interesting conlinguistic titbits that the book has to offer.

The book’s title comes from a common "Good night" phrase that the Pirahã say and is good advice for a culture living deep in the Amazon jungle. The native culture in which Everett and his family find themselves is vividly portrayed (and not sugar-coated). The book’s first section, roughly two-thirds, recounts the story of Everett and his family among the Pirahã; the last third goes into more depth on the Pirahã language itself. Both sections are fascinating and include glimpses of the missionary zeal of Everett and his wife, unsettling cultural practices of the Pirahã, humorous cross-cultural incidents, and much more.

As usual, in book reviews here at The Conlanging Librarian, let’s examine some interesting linguistic twists that an enterprising conlanger might take advantage of from Pirahã. We’ll avoid the ones that many people may already know, including the language’s lack of recursion (see here). The first concept that struck me was the idea of kagi. Let’s take some examples from the text to see this in action first:

  • “rice and beans” could be termed "rice with kagi"
  • Dan arrives in the village with his children: "Dan arrived with kagi"
  • Dan arrives in the vilage with his wife: "Dan arrived with kagi"
  • A person goes to hunt with his dogs: "He went hunting with kagi"

Everett ends up translating the term kagi as "expected associate" with the expectation being culturally determined. A man's wife is expected to be associated with him. One expects a person to go hunting with his dogs. And so on.

The terms bigí and xoí are also associated with a culturally-determined meaning. The Pirahã believe in a layered universe. The bigí is the boundary between those layers. The xoí is the entire biosphere between bigí. To go into the jungle is to go deeper into the xoí. To remain motionless in a boat is to stay still in the xoí. If something falls from the sky, it may be said to come from the upper bigí. This way of dividing up the universe is similar in some ways to the way Deutscher described splitting up the visible spectrum in his book. Deutscher’s book also mentions fixed directional systems, and the Pirahã also use an upriver-downriver fixed point system instead of our left-right orientation. I still find this an interesting set of concepts to play with in a conlang.

Everett also contends that the Pirahã do not have a number system. According to him, they use a system of relative volume: hoi can appear to mean "two" but, in reality, can mean simply that two small fish or one medium fish are relatively smaller that a hoi fish. Everett recounts the trials of attempting to teach a number of Pirahãs to count in Portuguese, with very little success. He even goes so far as to say that there are not even words for quanitifers like "all, each, every, and so on." Instead, there are "quantifierlike" words (or affixes) that translate as "the bulk of" (Lit., the bigness of) the people went swimming and other relative terms. There are other words that mean the whole or part of something (usually something eaten). This way of looking at amounts, numbers, portions, etc., is fertile ground on which to play once again.

Finally (but no means the last intriguing concept in the book), Everett talks about the tribe's use of the term xibipíío which, loosely translated, means something like "the act of just entering or leaving perception, that is, a being on the boundaries of experience". "The match began to flicker. The men commented, 'The match is xibipíío-ing' . . . A flickering flame is a flame that repeatedly comes and goes out of experience or perception." However, the word can also be used for someone disappearing in a canoe around the bend in a river or for an airplane that just comes into view over the trees. The word has much wider connotations that an English-speaker saying something appears or disappears.

I have no idea what Everett thinks of conlangers or the art of language creation or if he is even aware of us. The final section of the book is entitled "Why Care About Other Cultures and Languages?" and lays out a good rationale for why this is important. In the end, there really is no comparison between language creation and preserving endangered languages. As M.S. Soderquist said on CONLANG-L: Creating a new hobby language doesn’t affect natural languages any more than playing Monopoly affects the economy. Conlangers can get their inspirations from any source, and Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle is a treasure trove of novel ideas as well as a a glimpse into another world and another culture and another way of seeing the world.

Nov 20

Dreaming In Chinese: A Review

Posted on Saturday, November 20, 2010 in Books

Cover of Dreaming in Chinese

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language by Deborah Fallows is a highly enjoyable read for those interested in learning about the language spoken by over 1.2 billion people (depending on how you define "Chinese"). There are a number of favorable reviews of Fallows' book online (including here, here, and here). Personally, I disagree with the CS Monitor's review in wanting "a more cohesive narrative arc". I don’t think that was the point. I saw this as “a Sunday newspaper column” collection and enjoyed them for the taste of Chinese culture and language that they provided; a table full of dim sum, if you will.

So, what does Dreaming in Chinese have to offer the average conlanger? Many will no doubt already be familiar with Chinese, but Fallows provides a good cultural-context overview for artlangers to consider. One example is the "overuse" by Americans of "Please", "Thank you", and other politeness words and phrases being seen as superfluous in that it puts distance between two speakers. This is in the "When rude is polite" chapter introduced by the phrase Bú yào " Don't want, don't need". Sounds like Klingon, but for entirely different "cultural" reasons.

One thing that everyone seems to know about Chinese is its use of tones and its limited syllables. Fallows does a great job of highlighting this in her chapter entitled "Language play as a national sport" (introduced by the words Shī, shí, shî, shì "Lion, ten, to make, to be"). The author brings up Chao Yuen Ren who wrote a story entitled "The Lion-eating Poet in the Stone Den" composed of 92 characters, all of various tones of the syllable shi. Tones are used by a little over 41% of the languages in the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), whereas over at the Conlang Atlas (CALS), only a little over 24% use tones. This would appear to be a largely untapped feature for conlangs, although 30 conlangs at CALS do exhibit a (self-reported) "complex" tone system.

One conlang-specific item I was unaware of in relation to China was the extent to which Esperanto has been studied there. In her chapter entitled "A billion people; countless dialects", Fallows talks about Esperanto once being suggested as a common national language although it "was quickly abandoned as a far-out idea". The author's first family visit to China was as part of the World Esperanto Congress in Beijing in 1986.

Overall, Fallows does an excellent job of fulfilling her stated purpose with the book: to tell "the story of what I learned about the Chinese language, and what the language taught me about China." One is not going to learn all the idiosyncracies or fine grammatical points about Chinese, but if you’re looking for a user-friendly introduction to the fascinating language and culture of the Middle Kingdom, Dreaming in Chinese is highly recommended.

Dec 31

Avatar: A Review

Posted on Thursday, December 31, 2009 in Film

This post isn’t entirely conlang-related, but I’ve finally seen Avatar and have a few thoughts I’d like to share.

First, of course, is the conlang. It was great to see Dr. Frommer listed right near the top of the closing credits as “Na’vi language creator”. The language itself was incorporated fairly well into the plot, although it would have been nice to see a little more of Jake’s learning curve. The only thing we see is Neytiri correcting Jake’s pronunciation of nari “eye”. At 162 minutes, I suppose something had to be cut. I did think it was appropriate that Jake hadn’t achieved enough fluency for his speeches, asking both Tsu’tey and Neytiri to translate for him. Well played there. Overall, the actors did an acceptable job with fluid pronunciations and making the language appear “natural.” Congrats to Dr. Frommer for bringing conlanging back into focus for the general public. Although the native language was incorporated well and sounded genuine, the Na’vi’s use of English was a little too fluent and widespread for my taste. Their rejection of what the Earthlings have to offer would lead me to believe that they would not bother to continue to practice their English skills so assiduously.

One final conlang comment: The Na’vi greeting of Oel ngati kameie “I see you” was a little troubling. I saw the movie with my college-freshman daughter, and afterward she said the only thing she could think of when they said that was “Peek-a-boo, I see you.” While I understand the spiritual implications, Na’vi-wise, of the greeting, maybe there could have been a better English translation used: “I hold you in my eyes”? “I see you with my heart”??

Now, for some more kudos. The look of the film was visually stunning, but I think the massive hype inflated my expectations just a bit. I will agree, however, that Pandora is quite the bioluminescent, floating-mountain, hexapod-filled wonderland. Cameron did a great job of incorporating the 3-D into the film. This was no Monster Chiller Horror Theatre or Jaws 3-D. The 3-D effects, in short order, simply became the look of the film – not an effect. Some of the coolest shots in retrospect were in the cockpit of the aircraft with their heads-up displays. There were some shots that were bows to 3-D, but overall it was not “in your face.”

As for acting, Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch easily deserves an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Lang absolutely nailed his role. As much as I abhorred his drive to eradicate the Na’vi, he’s the guy I’d want on my side in a fight. Lang provides a very interesting perspective on his role in a recent Los Angeles Times article.

Now for some constructive criticism, as if James Cameron needs constructive criticism from the Conlanging Librarian: Avatar has grossed (as of Dec. 31, 2009) $268,886,074. In any case, here goes…

Cameron is not a subtle screenwriter, and by “not a subtle screenwriter” I mean he writes foreshadowing and metaphor with a sledgehammer. Both my daughter and I could see the ending coming several miles (or clicks) away. Furthermore, I could almost hear James Cameron’s voice whispering in my ear: “PSST, DID I MENTION THE NA’VI REPRESENT NATIVE AMERICANS!!” From the paint on their faces, to their war cries, to their horse-like mounts, the metaphor was barely a metaphor. Egads! My daughter and I agreed that Cameron could have at least given them different mounts than horses (okay, horses with tendrils and six-legs but still “horses”). How about a big ostrich-like lizard-bird. Say, a flightless version of the banshees or great leonopteryx (ikran and toruk to use their Na’vi terms); maybe call it a atxkxe-ikran “land banshee”. I would also rather have seen the Na’vi patterned after a more “exotic” indigenous population (at least to mainstream North American audiences) such as those in Polynesia or Central/South America.

Overall, I’m definitely glad that I saw it, was impressed with the visuals, and was happy to see conlanging making a dent in the media. The story, as has been pointed out elsewhere, was basically “Indigo Pocahontas Dancing with Wolves in Space”. I wasn’t blown away, but I’d definitely suggest people go and see it. It’s an important film, both technically and conlang-wise.

I have a feeling we’re going to be hearing more about Pandora and the other moons of Polyphemus.