Tag Archives: Linguistics

Book Review: “Aliens and Alien Societies”

21 Mar

I just finished reading Stanley Schmidt’s book Aliens and Alien Societies: A Writer’s Guide to Creating Extraterrestrial Life Forms,  published by Writer’s Digest Books in 1995.

While the book is older, the basic concepts are valid. I wondered at first about the soundness of his overviews in the areas of biochemistry and astronomy. Then I read his chapter on language. Since my personal background is in linguistics (a master’s degree from USC), I felt competent to judge the accuracy and breadth of that overview. “Alien Language” is probably as good an introduction to the problems of human-alien communication as one can do in 15 pages. While I wish Schmidt had referenced Suzette Hayden Elgin’s Native Tongue trilogy or included examples from some of the very strangely structured Australian aboriginal and Amerindian languages, I have to give him kudos for covering the basics a sci-fi writer would need to know to not totally butcher the language issue.

I also give Schmidt bonus points for explaining why a “universal translator” is an impossibility in first contact situations.

One of my favorite features of this book is Schmidt’s use of published short stories and novels as examples to prove various points he makes. Since the book was published almost 20 years ago, many of the short stories are now available online for free, and I enjoy reading them. Here is a link to one of my favorites, “Microbe” by Joan Slonczewski: http://www.davidmswitzer.com/slonczewski/microbe2.html

In the final chapter, “A Xenologist’s Bookshelf,” Schmidt lists references that may prove helpful to aspiring science fiction writers. I will check out one that should help me calculate the “goldilocks” zone for planets circling different star types because I’m not sure I did it right for my current work-in-progress.

Because of the book’s age and the fact that the science is 20 years out of date, I don’t think I would pay the $15 Amazon suggests for a hard copy or the $10 for an e-book. I found my copy at McKay’s used bookstore for $2, and consider it a deal. If you could find this book used or at a library, I recommend picking it up, as it is definitely worth reading.

Ahbee’s Notebook, excerpt

13 Nov

Language notes [Imperials]:

The language has clicks, trills, and harmony. Speakers speak/whistle in different keys for different types of situations (different key for battle than for home use than for study than for royal court).

The language is tonal with rising & falling inflections.

Due to the species’ mouth parts (no mobile lips), the language has no labials or nasals.

It has high, mid, and low whistles. It has the sounds /s/, /t/, /k/, /q/, /?/; plus alveolar clicks /x/, a dental click /tch/, a lateral click /tk/, a palatal click /tq/.

For electro-sensing-related words, speakers use a sound between /l-r/ in which the tongue is rolled back to expose the electro-receptor glands.

The command form of verbs also incorporates a uvular trill /R/ made with the throat walls. Humans describe it as a “command purr”.

Emphasis and emotion are also conveyed by clashing wing casings and snapping body parts in various ways.

Language is sort of “sung” in keys that indicate formality and emotion.

This language can be complicated for humans to learn because hearing takes up a bigger percentage of these aliens’ brains than hearing does in humans.

Their written language is more simplified than ours, though. It’s sort of written like a music score. The “key” it’s in is denoted by a geometric shape at the beginning of passages.

In transliteration to the English alphabet, three vowels in a row (iii) indicate a rising tone, two vowels in a row (ii) a steady tone, and one vowel (i) a falling tone.