TT: Twisting Together Language and Story

ALAN: Last time you were telling me about your brain snakes – or at least the ones connected with language and culture. Speaking as a confirmed ophidiophobe, I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised by their bright colours and friendly natures, though I did find them to be most unpleasantly wriggly and hard to pin down. Fortunately, they were not at all venomous.

Doing the Conlang Conga

But you dropped a big hint that other brain snakes were lying in wait. Would you care to describe them to me so that I can avoid any ambushes that they might be planning to set?

JANE: You’re an ophidiophobe?  Interesting.  This actually ties into our discussion of language.  I’m more familiar with that particular phobia under the term “ophiophobia.”  Another interesting linguistic twist!

ALAN: Wikipedia informs me that both words are used to describe the condition, but it has nothing to say about why both words exist. Curious…

JANE: Yep…  And such curiosities are at the heart of languages and why conlanging is a lot more difficult than is often imagined.  Here’s another difficulty.   As I mentioned a few weeks ago, lately many of the more popular conlangs have been designed for visual media.  Klingon is a good example.

ALAN: And don’t forget Vulcan, also from the Star Trek universe, Dothraki as used in Game of Thrones, Na’vi in Avatar, and Parseltongue, the language of snakes, in Harry Potter. Do you speak to your brain snakes in Parseltongue?

JANE: No, but maybe I should try.

One great advantage visual media has over print media is that the conlang can be presented via subtitles.  So Klingons can speak actual Klingon, not English with a funny accent.

Writers of print media can’t use that gimmick.  They can use footnotes but even Terry Pratchett – who is my favorite user of footnotes – knows that readers will only tolerate a certain amount of this before they get frustrated.

ALAN: Perhaps I’m an untypical reader, but I love footnotes.  I always consider a Jack Vance novel to be incomplete if it doesn’t have footnotes in it. And as a bonus, Vance’s footnotes are sardonic, pointed and often even funnier than Pterry’s. And let’s not forget Susanna Clarke whose Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell has entire short stories buried in the footnotes. You can’t get more footnotey than that!

JANE: Abuse of footnotes may be a reason why I could never get into Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell… but that would be too much of a tangent for here.

When an author of print media is at work, even magical or high tech translating devices only go so far.

ALAN: You mean like Douglas Adams’ babel fish? I thought that one solved the problem beautifully!

JANE: It’s been a long time since I read the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” books, but that is basically what I mean.  Can you remind me how babel fish work?

ALAN: I can do no better than quote Douglas Adams’ own words:

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.

I think that describes it perfectly.

JANE: That is indeed a clear and concise description. However, as a translation device, it’s rather facile.  “Understanding anything said to you” only goes so far.  What happens if someone doesn’t have a frame of reference for something – for example, a Neanderthal hearing someone refer to an automobile?  What happens then?

How did Douglas Adams deal with this?  Did Arthur Dent receive full descriptions or did he just hear a nonsense word?

ALAN: I’m not sure that Adams ever thought of that aspect. Facile it may be, but his babel fish just worked.

JANE: So, Arthur Dent never encounters a concept he doesn’t immediately understand?

Curious.  It’s been a long while since I read those books. If Arthur Dent does understand everything he hears, then this isn’t translation.  It’s telepathy combined with an immediate and copious information dump.

ALAN: That’s a good way of thinking of it. It’s a long time since I read the books as well, and without a massive re-read I’m hard put to address the question directly. My google-fu hasn’t worked any too well either. But it seems that Adams had different literary uses for his translation device – he gives us a delightfully casuistical argument which demonstrates that the existence of the babel fish proves the non-existence of God.

However Adams does remark that the perfect communication between species and races provided by the babel fish has been the cause of more and bloodier wars than anything else in creation. That side effect, it seems to me, is at least a partial answer to your question.

JANE: It absolutely is…  So often war is blamed on misunderstanding, but without the white lies of diplomacy where would we be?

Nonetheless – again, maybe it’s me being plagued by brain snakes – I worry about communications issues that I’m not sure a translation device could handle.

ALAN: Why don’t you tell me about it next time…  I may not be able to tame the snakes for you, but maybe talking about it will make you feel better.

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2 Responses to “TT: Twisting Together Language and Story”

  1. Peter Says:

    For the non-notaphobes, Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History of Burgundy has an entire sub-plot (side-plot? Part of the plot that it isn’t immediately clear is part of the plot?) that takes place in the footnotes (and other marginalia).

  2. Paul Says:

    There’s a scene in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” where Klatu speaks in his native language. A friend of mine who thinks this the best SF movie ever made, awaited the DVD with its captions to see at least phonetically what was said. All the caption says is “Alien language.”

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