Tuesday, July 26, 2011

TTYU Retro: Sneak Peek at Khachee

This post originally appeared last November at Ann Wilkes' Science Fiction and other ODDysseys. Thanks again to Ann for hosting me.

Sneak Peek at Khachee

Khachee is the language featured in my latest Analog Science Fiction and Fact story, "At Cross Purposes". Let me start by saying that I never design an alien language to require a lesson before reading - so if you don't read this, you should be just fine enjoying the story! However, you can expect a bit of insider knowledge to come from this introduction.

Because the aliens in "At Cross Purposes" have a playful side and are easily excited, I designed them on the basis of river otters. This meant I could use all kinds of river-otter-like similes and metaphors in the story, having them compare things to water, to fish, to boats, etc. I also looked for inspiration about river otters' social structure and the sounds they made. These provided major influences for the aliens' language and behavior.

First were the sounds of their language. 

I found recordings of river otter sounds - this one among others - and tried to see if I could imagine extracting consonant-vowel patterns out of it. What I got from all the whistling and clucking was that vowels would be long, that consonants would have a striking quality, and that there would be a tendency to duplicate things. Based on this, the first word I created was the name of the species: Cochee-coco. It has a meaning, which I'll discuss further below.

To make the consonants of Khachee stand out, I decided the language would have a more extensive system of voiceless affricates than English does. Affricates are sounds like "ch." These sounds begin as stops (p/t/k), and then release into fricatives (f/s) at the same location:

  • t->sh = ch

  • t->s= ts

Thus, in addition to "ch," I decided that Khachee would use "ts," "pf," and "kh." To make the contrast with English clear, I decided Khachee wouldn't use plain fricatives at all. A Khachee mispronunciation of the name "Doris" would therefore be "Dorits."

The other thing I picked out from otter life is that they have a small number of young in a litter - usually one to three.

I had independently come up with the idea of a society where people were always born as twins, and therefore this fit well with what I had in mind to do. Cochee-coco are always born in pairs, and while each has a name, they go by the name of the pair. The main characters of "At Cross Purposes" are a brother Chkaa, and a sister Tsee, who go by "ChkaaTsee."

This brings me to the two organizing principles of Cochee-coco social life: Purpose, and Apfaa. Purpose is something that every individual has, and it's one of their reasons for being. It's even incorporated into their names (ChkaaTsee's second name is "Great Tree Purpose"). For this reason, when I named the species, I decided not to have them call themselves "the people" (a common strategy I have used before). The direct translation of Cochee-coco is "Pursue Purpose, pursue-pursue." The name of their language, Khachee, translates as "speak Purpose." Morphologically, it breaks down as follows:

  • chee=purpose
  • co=pursue
  • kha=speak

Obviously, Purpose is something they get very excited about! However, because Purpose involves the individual's pursuit of that which is beautiful, perfect and inspiring, it is a chaotic force in their society which tends to drive individuals apart. A society based on Purpose wouldn't work without something else to temper it. I therefore set up the opposing force, "apfaa," to rein Purpose in. I actually spent a long time trying to find just the right English word for this, but finally gave up and decided to create one. It's the expression of the twin relationship, established at birth and continued throughout life, and it includes both attraction and repulsion between pair members: "the duality that holds agreement in one hand and conflict in the other."

The presence of these two forces is really important to the language, because Tsee, the alien point-of-view character, constantly judges situations and events around her in terms of either Purpose or apfaa. Apfaa is in fact the basis of the most distinctive feature of Khachee: turn-taking rules. 

English is spoken by individuals. When we speak in conversation, we say what we want to say; then, as we listen to what the other person is saying, we keep our ears alert for natural breaking points. These breaking points are opportunities for us to seize our own turn again. If you've ever felt someone has interrupted you, usually it's because a person began speaking in a place that you didn't recognize as a natural turn-taking break. There's wide variation in what counts as a proper breaking point for turn-taking, even within the usage of English.

Khachee is not spoken by individuals; it's spoken by pairs. Any member of a pair can initiate a statement, question, etc., but the turn is not complete until it has been "chimed" by the other member of the pair. The person "chiming" is responsible for commenting on the quality of the information provided by the initiator. The chimer will indicate whether what has been said is true, or an opinion, or something they overheard, something they want, something they think is horrible, etc. Starting to speak before the second member of the pair has had a chance to chime counts as an interruption. When a Khachee speaker listens to a human speaking, she will tend to assume that the speaker is not finished. This can - and does - lead to awkwardness!

The effect of the Khachee turn-taking strategy for the story's purposes - when it's rendered in English - is a distinctive intonational pattern. This pattern resembles call-and-response, something like what you might have heard in church contexts. I deliberately had to stop myself from including the phrase, "Testify, sister!" because it would have evoked the church context too directly. The turn-taking strategy also influences the way that Khachee speakers organize their own thoughts. They'll tend to express judgments of their own thoughts, acting internally as a pair-member for themselves.

Here are some examples.

A pair turn

Tsee: We won't leave you to speak alone, but will return you to your people.

Chkaa: Truth!

An individual's thought

Pointed at us are weapons, deduced - these aliens are as wary as the Rodhrrrdkhi, suspected.

The last thing I'll mention here is the question of pronouns. When I first imagined the Cochee-coco and their focus on pairs, I toyed with the idea of not using the pronoun "I" at all, but having members of the pair think of themselves as "this half" and "that half." When I tried it, I discovered it was disastrous from a story perspective: it became difficult to track who the alien protagonist was. Pronouns are extremely resistant to change, so watch out for them! In the end, I decided to use a different, more subtle strategy - a strategy of avoidance. Tsee will typically talk about "we," the pair, and won't refer to herself as "I" unless she has to draw a deliberate comparison between her own actions and those of her brother.


  1. Wow, that's really impressive. I don't think I'd even attempt creating a new language. Choosing otters is a great idea. They're easy to project personalities onto. (at least it feels that way when I see them at the aquarium)

  2. Thanks, Ben! Creating languages isn't for everyone, but not everyone has to do this much work even if they do choose to create a language. I like using Earth animal species because they give me good social models to map into more advanced societies.

  3. Ooh, I think I remember this post. Thanks for the fascinating look into how you created the language and culture!