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Adventures in Barsoomian Continued…

Posted on Monday, December 19, 2011 in Books, Conlanging

I went back and re-read that recent NY Times article on conlanging and realized it mentions that Paul Frommer (of Na'vi fame) has been hired “to develop a Martian language called Barsoomian for ‘John Carter,’ a science-fiction movie to arrive in March.” That gave me some hope! If that is the case, it’s even more unfortunate that they included the Martian “Decoder” and Martian Translator on the movie’s official site. Why not start promoting Barsoomian now? Build some buzz? I also had the thought that, even though Dr. Frommer is a “professional” language creator, any Barsoomian he comes up with will be no more canonical than something I or anyone else devises. The only Barsoomian canon (from my perspective) would be that devised (or sanctioned by) Edgar Rice Burroughs (or, I suppose, his estate). So, with that in mind, let’s continue on our own little adventure into the speech of the Red Planet.

Last time out, we gained some new vocabulary and could say things like Hek dar ron “The father guards his son” with articles, tense, and pronouns supplied telepathically (or by context). This time, we’ll turn to measurements and see what we can puzzle out…

According to ERB, we have on Barsoom the sofad, ad, haad, and karad measurements with the following relationships:

  • 10 sofad = 1 ad
  • 200 ad = 1 haad
  • 100 haad = 1 karad = 1 degree of Barsoomian longitude
  • 360 karad = circumference of Barsoom at the equator

So, the ad is the basic unit of measurement. This means the prefixes sof, ha, and kar must impart some meaning to the basic term ad. Judging by my previous post, it doesn’t appear that these three are numerical. It would seem strange (even for Barsoom) for sof to mean something like “1/10”. Unfortunately, sof does not appear in any other Barsoomian name. On the other hand, both ha and kar do appear: Haja (princess of Gathol), Tor Hatan (Odwar of the
91st Umak), Okar (a city), Kar Komak (odwar of Lothar), Torkar Bar (Kaolian noble). How do reconcile these different uses? My suggestion: sof means something like “small, minor, lesser” and ha “bigger, major, greater”. Kar, on the other hand, since it refers to measurement “around” the planet could mean something like “long, lengthy, extended” and by extension in the vertical plane “tall, high”. I could even go so far as to say that kar is the final comparative degree: “biggest, greatest”. You may remember we also had -dak (< jeddak) and -dara (< jeddara) as superlative markers. A better term for these two might be an augmentative (i.e., the opposite of the “-y” or “-ie” in names like “Tommy” and “Susie”). This would give us degrees of comparison (smaller, original, bigger). That means then that we have:

  • sof “small”
  • ha “bigger”
  • kar “biggest”

We could even use these in the opposite direction and get:

  • sof “small”
  • hasof “smaller”
  • karsof “smallest”

I could see Kar Komak‘s first name meaning something like “The High” (as in “your highness”). Sure, why not? We’re also saying that modifiers come after the word they modify. So…

  • Calot ha dar phai karsof jeddak “[The] larger calot guards [the] jeddak’s youngest (i.e., smallest) daughter”
  • Darseen sof banth “[A] darseen [is] smaller [than a] banth”

And finally…

  • John Carter sof Tars Tarkas than-dak “John Carter [is] smaller [than] Tars Tarkas, [but he is a] great fighter” (Once again, taking advantage of the telepathic component of Barsoomian)

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more…

Bring on the comments

  1. cyril says:

    Hey, I’m making a decipherment and development of Frommer’s Martian (he prefers Barsoomian) and I posted links to it (it includes fonts) at “PageLady Barsoomian language” if you google that, links at bottom.

    My development includes all your material, Conlanger Librarian. I made a searchable corpus of ALL the Edgar Rice Burroughs books online and am working from that – and for me, at least, it’s been tough to do, some parts in his writings get a bit too risque and cruel for my tastes. Edgar’s thoughts on philosophy also reveal that he did not read so much or think so much of it as me, so I wrote some thoughts regarding this and that and hope to present them to the betterment of ERB scholars everywere. But, when I’m done in a week or so, everyone will have it, incorporating your and LangMaker’s stuff, Frommer’s stuff, ERB’s stuff, and all the extra words I’m making.

    My method : After decipherment, I matched the English to the remaining Martian from Frommer’s work. Then I broke all the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ names and words into pieces, assigning each piece one or more semantic value, so that what he made is the more useful. Now I’m going to take the combination of your, Langmaker, Frommer, and ERB, and my work, and use it to make words to translate the entire script of the movie into Martian. (To explain how there’s just such a variety of semantic values, though, I’ll have to do a linguist handwave and make up a 5-tone system that never again shows up ; I know you used the telepathy thing).

    I’m not at all a fan of the movie or books, or fiction, but I’m doing this to promote conlanging as a crucial auxiliary to language-learning.

    My method of making new words is changing the vowels in roots as a method of variation-creation. Words with the same consonants have somewhat similar meanings, like Arabic. I also make compounds and use affixes like your ka- Quasi-Agent and sha- Opposite . I chose a nearly vowel-exclusive method (not consonants so much) because it matches Frommer’s ideas of how Martian should work. His plurals are penultimate -aa- infix, consonant voicing, and Object marker of 1v2.OBJ-1v2v3.ROOT . To keep it realistic, aside from the roots I currently have ( 1v2 1v2v3 maybe 1v2v3v4 ), I might make up some more, though splitting ERB’s 400-some words into 3 pieces each has left me with a full gamut of possible approaches to any word under the sun. The idea is that Joe Conlanger or Joe Public can say, “I want to do Martian today,” and BANG! they search Scribd, maybe even Google, find my thing, and neither of us had to take the time to make a Learn Na’vi.Org and so on.

    In my temporary presentation, I give 2 grammars : one showing all the possibilities and another my choices from them which match exactly what Frommer said as well as what I think ERB intended and I want.

    I did something similar for Okrand’s #2 big-time language, Atlantean (2001 : Atlantis The Lost Empire) and the materials are all on Scribd now, and people find them from time to time and hopefully test their teeth on Atlantean, learning more in the process even if I hope they don’t see the movie anyhow (the movies fall short in comparison to the theoretical adventures of conlanging).

    One last point : Edgar Rice Burroughs’ works are like Gulliver’s Travels (and the more obscure to English-speakers, French Gargantua) as seminal and highly influential for the history of conlanging. I see evidence that Tolkein read Edgar’s works and imitated them in many ways ; as well as very author and movie-maker you could think of. But like the Greek-compounds of Gargantua or the exotic-sounding names of Gulliver, Edgar’s works are muddled : They’re actually naming systems or “proto-conlangs” : it seems to be names and a few words, no full sentences as we know them. And this is perhaps a bit odd because Edgar definitely studied Latin and Greek, and probably German, French, maybe Spanish from certain parts of his writings – but his characters always speak “telepathic” languages or “primitive” languages that don’t require many words, or normal languages which the hero learns easy and we get only a few words from. Maybe Edgar didn’t feel comfortable or it didn’t occur to him or didn’t want to be bothered. Anyhow, every one of his series and books contains an average of 5 of these proto-conlangs (Tarzan upwards of 25 or more) but mostly they’re 1 big proto-colang (Tarzan’s Mangani is the largest in vocab and complexity) and many minor one only represented by 1 the name of the language 2 maybe a simple or weird description of it 3 a few names in the language 4 even fewer words in the language. But they’re not gibberish, they are designed. His African languages were assembled from African words in works of men like Sir. Stanely and his alien languages seem like Gulliver’s – words that sounded alien to someone knowing a few major European languages. Moon language is even tonal – 10 tones or 5 – but it doesn’t really occur outside of it being stated – the words are written without indicating tones. For sure he kept track of his words and used similar orthography for all of them (Frommer’s a e i o u aa ey ee oa oo covers them well), though he may have added to the othographic phenomic inventory over time, but maybe not.

    He would introduce a word or name, then use it throughout a book or even a series, not always explaining it again for several books, or adding new details and that. Tolkein did this, right, he had orcs and whargs and that kind of thing.
    sith – a hornet monster > Sith , the evil wizards opposing the Jedi
    jeddak / jed emperor / lord > Jedi , the priests and special ops of the Star Wars universe
    banth – Martian lions > bantha , an elephant-sized pack animal (which is the zitidar on Mars)
    The Chamber of Reptiles > The Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark
    Dejah Thoris > Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Brothers the video-game
    John Carter as human on Mars with super-powers > Superman as Kryptonian on earth
    … and so on. The green men > orcs , The Valley of Dor with its ring of impenetrable mountains > Mordor where the shadows lie. It was apparently widely-read, even if Tolkein found Edgar’s philosophical musings ignorant and over-simplistic.

    And along the way I found that Victoria Fromkin (at least) pre-dated Okrand’s 1984 Klingon with her 1972 Pakuni for The Land of the Lost – but both of them were predated by the made-up language of Edgar’s Tarzan movies, though these pulled words from Swahili and real African languages, not so much Edgar’s book languages (for some reason), the most famous of which is “umgawa” (meaning almost anything, like “smurf”).

    Did you ever hear about the mid-80s 4 languages for Dark Crystal ? I did a collection on this one, Pakuni, and Blade language that I’m going to put on my Scribd so that at last they’ll be out there and ready for action. I hope you can find them.

  2. The Conlanging Librarian says:

    I apologize for missing your comment in May! It looks like you’ve put a lot of effort into your transcripts! Thanks for keeping everyone posted. You might be interested in my more recent post on Barsoomian with links to my conversation with Fredrik Ekman.
    I don’t think Tolkien was influenced by Burroughs (and if he was, it was very little). Tolkien’s legendarium began growing early in his life and their respective writing styles were very different. Tolkien also developed his languages *first* and the stories grew out of them (see The Letter of JRR Tolkien).
    In any case, thanks for the comment and keep up the interesting work on Barsoomian!

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