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November 10, 2006

Atoic agram, “I killed a dragon.”
Posted by Teresa at 04:01 PM * 63 comments

All hail Tuomo Sipola, a constructed-languages enthusiast, who is putting together the Common Fantasy Tongue.

You know that sense of amusement where you never laugh out loud, but you continuously feel slightly buzzed, as though amazement now came in a time-release capsule version? Common Fantasy Tongue does that to me, especially the phonology.

I found it via Langmaker’s list of constructed languages, which is full of yummy things.

Addendum: The comment thread is complaining that Tuomo Sipola has failed to provide translations of two essential sentences that are dear to mad linguists everywhere: Oh my god, there’s an axe in my head!, and I can eat glass; it doesn’t hurt me.

Comments on Atoic agram, "I killed a dragon.":
#1 ::: kid bitzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2006, 04:33 PM:

"You know that sense of amusement where you never laugh out loud, but you continuously feel slightly buzzed, as though amazement now came in a time-release capsule version?"

Yes--exactly how I felt reading Tristram Shandy.

A pleasant sense of tickling, titillating provocation that never quite results in an outburst of mirth; like when you are about to sneeze but never do.

Perhaps it should be called Sterneutation.

#2 ::: anaea ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2006, 05:47 PM:

I have papers on Carnap and Quine to write. I should not be poking at this and chalking it up as reasearch for the job market to justify it.

This is going to make my weekend at work fun. Thanks!

#3 ::: Anna in Portland (was Cairo) ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2006, 05:58 PM:

Thanks for discovering this. I wonder if the folks at Language Log know about it.

#4 ::: Jacob Shelton ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2006, 06:55 PM:

What I really appreciate is that Common Fantasy Tongue is not, apparently, the first language created by Tuomo Sipola...means experience. I like that.

#5 ::: RuTemple ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2006, 07:33 PM:

A couple of years ago at a reading at the Clean and Well Lighted Place for Books near SF's Opera House, Ursula K. LeGuin asked the audience for a show of hands as to who had created worlds at any point in their life; and a second show of hands for anyone who had made up a language - certainly a smaller show of hands, but delightful to see how many there were in the air.

And yes this brings forth in me that same thrill of amusement/delight/buzz/amazement we do need to find a word for. Enthusiasm comes close, since there is a bit of a breath of sacred spirit blowing at these times, and through these works to and through us.

Thanks so much for the link!

#6 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2006, 07:50 PM:

Apparently a lot of people have been delighted by it. Geocities has shut it down for exceeding data transfer limit.

MKK

#7 ::: Mrs. Coulter ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2006, 09:27 PM:

This reminds me that I really must go do my Russian homework...

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 12:21 AM:

No, it's still accessible. Maybe it just went down for a while after it got BoingBoinged. It's certainly back now.

#9 ::: Mac ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 02:38 AM:

Oh! How completely lovely in a sort of effervescently bemusing way. Thank you, Teresa--that's made my evening.

#10 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 04:29 AM:

I'm disappointed that he doesn't seem to explain the now-silent fossilized glottal stops in the t'raditional or'thography.

#11 ::: Mikael Johansson ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 05:06 AM:

Oooooooooooh! Conlanging on Making Light!

#12 ::: JohnD ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 08:25 AM:

Aw, I was hoping for a semantic treatment of otherwise superfluous apostrophes. Otherwise, tons of fun!

#13 ::: Tim Hall ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 09:13 AM:

I was into conlangs a few years ago before I discovered blogging and PBeMs as better ways to waste my time.


My attempts from many years ago are still online, and can be found here, here and here.

#14 ::: Marie Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 09:36 AM:

What, he never worked out how to say, "Oh my god, there's an axe in my head"?

#15 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 11:52 AM:

This is cool stuff, but it has little irritations for a linguist. The apostrophes are just one. (Argh.) The one I noticed first is that he doesn't really seem to grasp that the dual is a completely separate grammatical number, not a special case of the plural.

I should take this stuff up. Like I need a new hobby. Mepf. But it sure looks like fun fun fun!

#16 ::: Sean H ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 06:24 PM:

he doesn't really seem to grasp that the dual is a completely separate grammatical number, not a special case of the plural

Excuse my ignorance, but... it is? Why?

#17 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 07:08 PM:

I suspect that someone with a name like that (see also the obvious non-English names for singular-dual-plural) might know a bit about duals, in a practical if not linguistic sense. Some of the Indo-European (or whatever the current name is) languages have duals, in limited ways, usually for hands, feet, eyes, and ears.

#18 ::: Tom Recht ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 07:29 PM:

The guy is Finnish, but that doesn't give him any particular insight into the dual number as Finnish doesn't have it. (Or gender, either, even in pronouns.) As for the dual being a special case of the plural or not - I'd say that's up to him as demiurge, no?

#19 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 07:31 PM:

What, he never worked out how to say, "Oh my god, there's an axe in my head"?

And I don't see "I can eat glass, it doesn't hurt me," either. Clearly not a fully functional language yet.

#20 ::: Gary Townsend ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 08:49 PM:

It's been a long time since I futzed around with that sort of thing! I must say, however, that I never quite got into that much detail. I simply worked out what was necessary for whatever story I was writing at the time.

Thanks for the link!

#21 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 09:33 PM:

#18: Well, yeah, but it bugs me. Don't call it dual if it's really just a special plural form. Hmmph.

#16: English, and most languages you're likely to know, have two grammatical numbers: singular and plural. Some have none, like Japanese: one rabbit, two rabbit, seven hundred rabbit. That doesn't mean they "don't have plural," it means they don't have either singular or plural.

By the same token, languages that have more than two numbers don't divide the plural; they actually think of the numbers separately. Dual is just as different from plural as it is from singular. (Some languages even have trial (that's tree-uhl).) Indo-European apparently had a dual (it was a tone language too). Only a few remnants survive. The cases following the numbers two, three, and four in Russian, for example, are remnants of the dual.

#22 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 10:34 PM:

Xopher #21: Some pedants at one time wanted to sneak the dual into English, for example by calling a conversation with only two participants a 'duologue' rather than a 'dialogue'. I rather like the word, I must say, but I think the idea was rather weird.

#23 ::: Sean H ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 06:13 AM:

#21: Thanks, another little gem of knowledge. I'd originally thought you were making a blanket statement about language; you can see how I was confused.

The lack of plural and singular in Japanese confused me at first, but after a while I actually found it quite practical. As opposed to the rest of the language, which I very quickly came to hate like nothing else. I've got a grudge against Japanese - eventually I'm going to have to learn it just so I can stop being ashamed of that black mark on my academic record.

#24 ::: Stephen Sample ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:28 PM:

If I recall my relevant linguistics classes (Old English and Morphology) correctly, English used to have a dual, but it got assimilated into the plural in the process of cobbling a new language out of the pieces of several other ones.

In most cases, that meant that the dual form just got dropped, but a few former dual forms (oxen, for example) actually got adopted as the new plural form. Oxen is a plural today, of course, but the +(e)n suffix was originally a dual marker.

#25 ::: Tom Recht ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 04:24 PM:

Xopher: the dual in Hebrew (though it's unproductive) can be thought of as a special case of the plural: adjectives accompanying dual nouns are themselves in the plural form, not the dual; and the dual ending looks like a slight elaboration on the plural one, just as in Tuomo's invented language. So I don't find it implausible at all.

#26 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 10:31 AM:

Xopher, I remember that Homeric Greek had a dual, but that's about all I remember about it. I shall look around and see if I can come up with more on that.

#27 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 10:48 AM:

I'm disappointed that he doesn't seem to explain the now-silent fossilized glottal stops in the t'raditional or'thography.

There are three possible explanations:
1. They are to be ignored. Thus Gna'ash is pronounced Gnash.
2. They represent a pause. Thus Gna'ash is pronounced Gna-ash.
3. They represent a peculiar sort of half-swallowing noise. Thus Gna'ash is Gnaglunkash.

Travellers with insecurely mounted tonsils should restrict themselves to the first two pronounciations.

(Diana Wynne Jones, as any fule kno)

#28 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 11:28 AM:

Oh, the Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Brother, reading that was partly there but for the grace of God go I, and partly, oh God, where were You when I committed that?

#29 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 12:24 PM:

wrt #s 21 and 23: don't forget the count words in Japanese (and various other languages)-- even if the base noun doesn't change whether your rabbit population is one, two, or farther down the Fibonacci sequence, numeral/ordinal-specific phrases have to refer to them as something like "N furball rabbit" in a distinct phrase from "N timber tree" or "N flat-top table". Not all that different from English-language "leaves of paper" or "grains of wheat" for uncountables, but with a huge range of counters that has to be applied to practically every damn noun in the language.

#30 ::: ctate ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 01:44 PM:

What, he never worked out how to say, "Oh my god, there's an axe in my head"?
And I don't see "I can eat glass, it doesn't hurt me," either. Clearly not a fully functional language yet.

Surely the canonical sentence, required in the phrasebook of every traveler of good breeding, is "My postillion has been struck by lightning."

#31 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 02:19 PM:

#21 re duals:

Tongan was kind of interesting to learn, because it has a dual form for pronouns only - Tongan fortunately has no conjugation of verbs with number or person - and it also sensibly makes a distinction between "us" inclusive of you and "us" exclusive of you.

The result is that Tongan has unique words for each of the following, all of which map to English "us":

me + you (singular)
me + him but not you
me + you + him/them
me + them but not you

It left me wondering why we make do with one word + clumsy circumlocution for these very different meanings.

#29 re counting:

Tongan (and I believe other Polynesian languages) also use counting particles for every thing, like Japanese again with the requisite odd categorization of all creation - is it mostly flat? is it a lump? is it long-and-skinny? &c. They're also syllabic and grammar is constructed via particles. Being a complete non-linguist, it has made me wonder if the roots of Japanese emerged from the same area of Indonesia and same proto-language group whence the Polynesians and their languages emerged.

All of which makes me think again - how come whenever a hapless English-speaker from our world is plunged into another world, they find the language miraculously easy to learn? No fantasy counterexamples come to my mind. Given the typical difficulty of learning languages from a different group than ones own, learning a language from totally divergent roots should be hellishly difficult, and the same should be true for the diligent Fae trying to master English from an average child/teen's instruction.

#32 ::: Jim Henry ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 04:06 PM:

I agree the phonology is nice; the morphology is well defined but doesn't seem interestingly unusual. The syntax is hardly defined and I don't get any clear sense of its semantics. There are many more interesting and fully developed constructed languages out there; Ebisedian, for instance, and Teonaht, and Kelen.

Clifton Royston in #31:

...how come whenever a hapless English-speaker from our world is plunged into another world, they find the language miraculously easy to learn? No fantasy counterexamples come to my mind.

Right now I can't remember any stories where someone comes from our world into a fantasy world and actually has to learn the language, whether easily or with difficulty; in those I can recall now, either the inhabitants of the other world already speak some form of English or the visitors from our world start speaking the local language by magic.

I recently re-read Lawrence Watt-Evans The Unwilling Warlord (since his current serial in progress The Vondish Ambassador is a sequel of sorts to it), and was favorably impressed by the way he handles language barriers and language learning. (The main character is abducted from Ethshar to a tiny kingdom from which his grandmother ran away as a young woman; this kingdom and its neighbors all speak languages different enough from Ethsharitic to cause problems for our hero.)

#33 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 04:30 PM:

Jim Henry, in the Tarzan books, all the characters learn each others' languages in a matter of days by pointing to various objects and grunting their names.

Then they start talking about whether it's dishonorable to resist the temptation provided by a willing woman who may or may not be promised to another, all these objects apparently having been lying on the ground near where they first met. See that thing there? That's temptation! See that other thing (not as pretty, but much better)? That's honor!

If you'd argue that Tarzan isn't really fantasy...well, I think you should reconsider, but also I should be amazed if John Carter of Mars is any better (and if you don't think THAT's fantasy I'd be very curious to hear what you think qualifies). (The 'you' in this paragraph is not intended to indicate Jim Henry, but a generic person who holds these odd views.)

#34 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 04:31 PM:

(Side note: I never read the John Carter of Mars series. I was disgusted by Burroughs long before I finished the Tarzan series.)

#35 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 05:00 PM:

fidelio @ 26

Ah, the Greek dual, bane of second-year students everywhere.

All through your first year, the professor tells you that nouns come in singular and plural varieties, "and there's also the dual, but don't bother learning that, you almost never see it."

Except that second-year Greek always starts out with Xenophon's Anabasis, which features a dual in the first [various expletives] sentence.

Yep. Still bitter about that one. If there are any classicists listening, that's a cruel, cruel joke.

#36 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 05:16 PM:

Peter Erwin: And I don't see "I can eat glass, it doesn't hurt me," either. Clearly not a fully functional language yet.

Also, if "When is the nearest chocolate?" was there, I missed it.

#37 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 05:23 PM:

And they never have problems with the grammar either, eh, Xopher? As for John Carter of Mars, I thought it was simply weird SF by someone who didn't bother with that pesky research stuff. Meanwhile, George Bush of Texas, now that's fantasy.

#38 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 06:29 PM:

Serge, no, they just speak perfect English after that, as if they were not only native speakers of the same language, but next-door neighbors and old friends. Never a miscommunication in Burroughs, no siree bob.

#39 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 06:48 PM:

Xopher, re: Tarzan... a friend once suggested the intended reading was that Tarzan prevailed, not just because he was white, but because he was also the son of an English aristocrat (the best of the breed). Aristocrats are aristocrats by their innate (genetic) virtue. It is right they should lead us.

#40 ::: ctate ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 07:37 PM:

Right now I can't remember any stories where someone comes from our world into a fantasy world and actually has to learn the language, whether easily or with difficulty

Run, do not walk, to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume II-B, and (re)read Jack Vance's "The Moon Moth." One of the best SF stories ever written, and cultural-linguistic challenges are at the heart of it.

Someone [hint!] needs to reprint Walter Earl Meyers's excellent book Aliens and Linguists. It's a volume of literary criticism about the sins (and occasional triumphs) of F&SF in this particular arena. Quite readable, and occasionally very funny indeed.

#41 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 09:08 PM:

Also try Janet Kagan's Hellspark. The aliens speak - well, they don't speak, actually, and that's an important part of the story.

#42 ::: greythistle ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 09:26 PM:

Xopher @21:
English had dual forms for pronouns, once upon a time: wit = we two, nominative, and git = the two of you, nominative. Verb forms as attested match the plural, though. IIRC, Old Norse-Icelandic had dual pronominals, too. Or is this the sort of thing you meant by "special plural form"? (Care to gloss that phrase?)

#43 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 09:44 PM:

The Darkover series mentions multiple regional languages based on Spanish and/or Gaelic, as well as the difficulty encountered by (apparently English-monolingual) Terrans in learning them; most of the examples pertain to exact gradations of intimacy and companionship.

Also, ISTR an anthology of SF/F written by scientists (including linguists), in which one story was about a poetic prodigy who learned how to interpret a hitherto unintelligible language, whose words rotated through a wheel of wildly different pronunciations depending on social context. Can't recall much else about the antho, though one of its first few stories was written by Mario Pei about being flung back to Charlemagne's court and cautiously explaining that he was from Armorica.

#44 ::: ctate ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 10:10 PM:

English had dual forms for pronouns, once upon a time: wit = we two, nominative, and git = the two of you, nominative. Verb forms as attested match the plural, though. IIRC, Old Norse-Icelandic had dual pronominals, too. Or is this the sort of thing you meant by "special plural form"? (Care to gloss that phrase?)

IIRC, the Pacific/Malay version of Pidgin English has two different first-person-plural pronouns: "youme," which includes the person being addressed, and "we," which means "my friends and I but *not* the person being addressed."

(In a story snippet quoted in Aliens and Linguists, an earthman is grappling with learning the aliens' language, and has just discovered that sometimes a noun has different forms for EVERY different number of them together. He boggles.)

#45 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 10:13 PM:

Xopher #34: Then you will never suffer from Dejah Thoris deja vu.

#46 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 10:16 PM:

Rob Rusick #39: That's a very plausible reading of Tarzan.

#47 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2006, 11:05 AM:

Xopher, I don't recall for certain how John Carter learned to speak Martian, and my copies of the books are elsewhere, but if memory serves telepathy was involved.

(I own and have read the first three books of the Mars series, and would have no objection to reading a fourth if I ever encountered it. On the other hand, I gave up on the Tarzan series very early in book two. Just a data point.)

#48 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2006, 11:33 AM:

Too bad that Jon Favreau's movie adaptation of A Princess of Mars fell thru.

#49 ::: Tuomo Sipola ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2007, 03:56 PM:

Thank you, Teresa, for posting about the language. I'm really happy that someone finds it attractive. It has been a while since I last time (3-4 years, actually) did anything with the language (with any conlangs, sadly). Looking back at it is an adventure for me, too. It's also fun to see the link go through the different blogs.

For all the nitpickers:

Oh my god, there's an axe in my head!
Tagehat, si ara o picilon uhot!
god, is axe in head-dat my

I can eat glass; it doesn’t hurt me.
Nenos-galam puldan loc num am grirdoc.
glass eat can-I because not suffer-I (of it)

Nenos-gala is 'water-dirt' ie. glass.

So there you go, enjoy my language now that it is more complete ;)

#50 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 23, 2007, 05:31 AM:

The current version of Legion of Super-Heroes hasn't reintroduced Matter-Eater Lad. I think that when and if he returns, he ought to be wearing a t-shirt that says, "I can eat glass, it doesn't hurt me." (Perhaps in Interlac lettering.)

#51 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 07:37 PM:

I'm just here to put an axe in the head of "answers yahoo." Oops, he's gone!

#52 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 07:37 PM:

I'm just here to put an axe in the head of a spammer (whose Word Of Power name I used in a previous version of this comment; sorry about that). Oops, he's gone!

#53 ::: D. Potter ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 07:38 PM:

I see what you mean by ghosts.

I am currently being puzzled that Latin evolved organically because it is so compact.

Too bad the site linked to here was on Geocities.

#54 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 07:48 PM:

what's an atoic agram?

#55 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 07:52 PM:

It's a price, Eric. Dragon scales cost a toic (a small coin in the Sea Realms) a gram (a small measure used outside the United States).

#56 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 10:10 PM:

I'm still waiting for "My hovercraft is full of eels".

#57 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 10:23 PM:

Ginger, wait no longer.

#58 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 10:33 PM:

I hadn't seen that sketch in so long!

There's an unnoted mistake in the phrase book. It says, "My nipples explode with delight," but everyone knows nipples go spung.

#59 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 10:38 PM:

Mon aéroglisseur est plein d'anguilles.

#60 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 11:50 PM:

Xopher @56: In the Common Fantasy Tongue, the lingua franca of the original post? As we all know, it isn't complete until we have "My hovercraft is full of eels" in it. I mean, even my FG knows how to say "Moje sudno na povitrianij podušci napovnene vuhrami", although she still wonders why it's important. (Note to self: add all the Monty Python to her Netflix queueueueueue.)

#61 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: July 20, 2011, 12:16 AM:

I took four years of French in high school. My wife, who is of mostly UK ancestry, was not really thrilled the first time I wandered around the house muttering "Toute la Gaule est divisée en quatre parties," not to mention "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes quattuor." Obviously her childhood held no Goscinny and Uderzo in it.

#62 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: July 20, 2011, 12:16 PM:

Life in the future: Re-reading this thread, I was inspired to try out the links in the original post. One of them goes to Geocities, which of course is not there any more, but is still accessible via that useful device, The Wayback Machine. It turns out to begin with a notice (that is, a notice that was part of the page itself) explaining that it's a sequel to an earlier page that is not there any more, but is still accessible via that useful device, The Wayback Machine. I have not yet dared to find out if this rabbit hole goes any deeper.

#63 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: July 20, 2011, 12:33 PM:

Bruce @ 60... No Goscinny or Uderzo? Quelle horreur, par Toutatis!

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