Archive for July, 2017

TT: A Language of Hope

July 6, 2017

JANE: Last week, when we were talking about created languages (conlangs), we were doing so in the context of SF/F.  That got me thinking about a conlang I encountered first through SF/F, assumed was created for the purposes of fiction, and only later learned was a “real” language.

A Fascinating History

This language was Esperanto.

ALAN: Esperanto was created by L. L. Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist from Poland. He wanted to devise a language that was easy to learn and which had a regular grammar so that there would be no exceptions to the rules that the students were taught. He hoped that it would be universally adopted and that it would break down the language barriers that separated people from each other.

JANE: What I find most fascinating about Esperanto is that it was created with the idealistic hope that, if we all spoke one language, not only would the time spent in translation no longer be necessary, but misunderstanding would be eliminated.

Lovely idea, but Jim and I manage to misunderstand each other all the time, despite the fact that the only language either of us speak well is American English.  Sometimes I think that – to slightly alter a proverbial phrase – “To misunderstand is human.”

ALAN: I actually studied Esperanto for a few years. I think I first came across it in Harry Harrison’s novels (the Stainless Steel Rat and Deathworld novels use the language a lot). It sounded interesting, so I dug a bit deeper…

JANE: And was Esperanto as easy to learn as its creator hoped?

ALAN: Well, yes and no. My first wife, Rosemary, and I studied it together. She found it much harder to learn than I did because she had never studied grammar in any formal sense. So she didn’t know what the infinitive of a verb was, and she didn’t know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. Also, she had no idea how to identify the parts of speech that make up a sentence. I already knew these things – I’d studied grammatical constructions in both English and Latin lessons at school so I found Esperanto quite easy. But Rosemary struggled a bit with the grammar. And it didn’t help that, on top of that, Esperanto is an inflected language.

JANE: I think that Rosemary would be in good company, at least these days.  Many of my students had never diagrammed a sentence.  Anything more complicated than the difference between a noun and a verb confused them – not because they were stupid, but because they hadn’t been taught the terms.

Heck, these days I’d need to go look up the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb, and I’ve completely forgotten what is meant by an inflected language – if I ever knew.

ALAN: Well, let me remind you what it means…

In an inflected language words have different endings to indicate their function in the sentence. So in Latin, for example, a noun can have six different forms depending on exactly what job it is doing.

JANE: Oh!  So that’s called an inflected language?  Interesting.  I had three or four years of Latin in high school, and I don’t think either of my teachers ever used the term.  I did learn the case endings, though, and to this day I remember “orum” is something like the “genitive of possession.”

Does Esperanto have as many endings?

ALAN: No, Esperanto isn’t that bad – it only has two inflections, nominative and accusative which define whether the word is the subject or object of the sentence. So, for example:

Esperanto estas lingvo – Esperanto is a language. The word Esperanto is the subject of the sentence and is therefore in the nominative case.

Mi parolas esperanton – I speak Esperanto. Here Esperanto is the object of the sentence and so it appears in the accusative case.

JANE: The term “accusative” never made sense to me.  I always thought that it indicated an adversarial relationship.  Really, grammar doesn’t help itself by using words so oddly.

ALAN: Quite right. I never really understood the ablative case in Latin. What does a grammatical construct have to do with material that wears away in order to protect the underlying surface? The ablative tiles on the space shuttle come to mind, and there’s nothing grammatical about those! Grammar is its own worst enemy.

Anyway, Rosemary had never met these grammatical ideas before and consequently she struggled a bit. English, the only language she spoke, is almost completely uninflected. About the only trace of it that remains is who (referring to the subject) and whom (referring to the object). As an aside, the almost complete lack of inflection in English is probably the reason why so many people find the use of who and whom confusing…

JANE: I’m sure you’re right.  English is full of relics of other languages that linger to delight linguists and philologists and drive the rest of us crazy.

ALAN: My own personal experience suggests that native English speakers often find inflected languages hard to learn. Certainly I struggled a lot with the complexities of Latin grammar and I failed most of my Latin exams. Fortunately Esperanto is much easier than Latin. But I definitely found that my Latin (and English grammar) lessons were a huge help in understanding just how Esperanto was put together. Rosemary didn’t have that background knowledge, and so she had a much harder time of it than I did.

JANE: I’m not sure that inflection is the only problem with English speakers learning languages, but that’s neither here nor there.

Did you ever use your Esperanto?

ALAN: Yes I did. Harry Harrison was a guest at one of our New Zealand conventions, many years ago. Since I knew that he spoke Esperanto like a native (to quote his own joke), I wrote the invitation to him in Esperanto. I’ve no idea whether or not that influenced his decision to come, but he did come and he had a great time. He was a wonderful guest.

JANE: I bet he was completely tickled by your invitation!

ALAN: We’ve strayed a little from created languages in fiction.  As a writer, the question of whether to conlang or not to conlang must be one you’ve encountered.  Can I ask you about it next time?

JANE: Please do!

Wrist Twists Insists

July 5, 2017

Last week was rather exciting.  On the good side, we harvested our first tomatoes, some interesting carrots, and enough eggplant to make a vegetable curry.

Deep Red Carrot

A week ago – making me glad that I had already posted the WW – we also had five blackouts in one day, with the grand finale coming on Thursday morning.  Happily, because I tend to obsessively back up as I work (a relic of days when computers didn’t do so automatically), I didn’t lose any writing.  However, it did mean time when I didn’t want to work on my computer (I use a desktop), so I settled in my kitchen and drew maps.

Another interesting development is a slight twist to my wrist.  This was probably acquired when wrestling Kwahe’e the cat, who does not like getting his tri-weekly dose of subcutaneous fluids.  Not one bit…

We’re giving fluids to two cats right now, staving off the worst impact of kidney failure.  Ogapoge is fairly patient as long as I tell him a story.  He likes stories, and has had a bedtime story for quite a long time.  Jim is the usual bedtime storyteller and over the years has created a vast cast of characters, drawn from books, television shows, and from the regular inhabitants of our yard.

As soon as Ogapoge hears the familiar words, “Once upon a time, in a cold dark place, there lived a little kitten, who came from outer space,” he snuggles down and more or less resigns himself to having a needle between his shoulders for the next ten minutes or so.

A story does not work for Kwahe’e.  He needs to be sung to, and the song has to change periodically.  For a long time, a sort of “counting song” that encouraging him to “get it done in one” worked.  Then we segued into a chant, with a nice Native American-inspired refrain of “hey-yah, hey-yah, hey-yah.”  But it’s looking as if I’m going to need to come up with something else.

Anyhow, my wrist is okay once it loosens up, as long as I don’t do anything too stupid.  I can even type without any difficulty.

I’ve been writing vigorously over the past couple of weeks, averaging about thirty pages a week, more or less.  What started out in my mind as a relatively simply story is getting more complex.  Not last week, but sometime the week before, two characters decided to react completely differently than I had imagined.  This threw the entire plot into loops and whirls.

The thing is, they were good loops and whirls, so I went with them.  People always talk about writing as if it’s a calm, measured activity.  Honestly, for me it’s more like one of those giant waterslides, the type that are shaped like huge hamster tubes, where you rush along, going upside down and around, before eventually splashing down.

So, I’m off to do more of that…  The characters who were being so difficult have been left behind, but now it turns out that someone who I thought was going to be left behind is insisting on coming along, at least part of the way.

I wonder what’s going to happen next?