Friday, February 20, 2009

Workshop: More thoughts

I'd like to open this post with a thank you to those who have replied to my rather vague and cryptic questions of the last post. I'm happy to hear that this workshop has helped in some respects - but while I'm a staunch supporter of consciousness-raising, I am hoping I can offer a few concrete suggestions on the projects you all have described to me. Since this is the first workshop I've offered on the topic of language design, I've been feeling my way a little, and I'm grateful for your patience.

Here is where I have arrived in my thoughts on the various projects, and my suggestions for what you might submit to me:

pyraxis: I'm happy to see you thinking through the phonology of rsakki and systematizing the names. I appreciate you posting the excerpt, also. I wonder if you could show me a short (up to 250 words) excerpt which demonstrates the rsakki interacting with non-rsakki, perhaps showing some of the ways you indicate language contrasts.

wordjinn: I'm happy to see you thinking through how to express the various nuances of the djinni speech. Since I was most intrigued by the idea of sung vs. spoken and spoken vs. telepathically communicated, I'd like to see a short (up to 250 words) sample conversation which involves some of these distinctions - hopefully also one that hints at the main conflicts of your story.

K: I'm happy to see you thinking about the relation of language and culture to your story on so many different levels. I was very intrigued by the idea of the contrast between languages that Kei has to bridge, so if you could I'd like you to try making a list of phrases that might be used for social purposes among the Eyans - trying of course to let the content of these phrases indicate people's attitudes toward various types (psychic and non-psychic) of communication. Here's an idea that might start you off: see if you can construct a compliment or two, something you'd say in admiration of someone else's restraint, for example. Or perhaps an insult that deals with insincerity of emotional projection.

David: I'm happy to see you attempting a project so thoroughly permeated by language. There are so many things I could ask about that I find it a bit daunting, but I think I'd most appreciate it if you could give me a rough timeline of language development among the arcati. Points that I'd really like to see you address would be:
1. Why language use evolved among the arcati before the inundation (why did they need to speak? Why was it adaptively successful to communicate using the auditory or visual channel that they do?
2. What form written language took before the inundation
3. From the point of view of a genetic engineer, how they planned to deal with the problem of living and communicating underwater
4. From the point of view of a genetic engineer, how they justified a complete abandonment of air-breathing capability (or not).
5. What kind of attempts were made to preserve written information through the inundation (waterproof floating libraries :-) ?)

Catreona: I'm really happy that you've found the workshop to be illuminating. I feel for you in the story dilemma that you're facing - but I feel strongly that it's important to face such issues and work through them. While your story may emerge different, you may find that it becomes stronger and more compelling for you as well as others. I don't want to put you under pressure for a final product here, because after all this is all about making the story better. If you feel you would be better served by explaining the premise problem you're facing, then feel free to do so. I'll leave it up to you - but you should know this: none of the effort spent on a story is ever wasted. I have enormous quantities of text that I've created that no one will ever see, but all those words have served to deepen my understanding of created worlds and writing, and sometimes I'll find phrases or concepts I hated to discard showing up in unexpected places in my newer work.

Thanks, everyone. I'd like to see replies from all of you by the end of Wednesday if that's not too much of an imposition. In the meantime I'll try to compose some posts that have been inspired by our discussions in this workshop.

More soon...


  1. Juliette,

    This may be somewhat offtopic for the current post, but it is relevant to the idea of writing/representational systems and to how technological/scientific concepts might be preserved and transmitted.

    First, I haven't seen any mention in your blog (admittedly, I haven't been reading it very long) of the Cyrilic alphabet. This alphabet has thirty-three characters, two of which are not letters per se but rather signs which affect the pronounciation of certain letters when paired with them. The alphabet also has ten vowels, the five of the Latin alphabet (with their Continental or pre Great Vowel Shift sounds) and five similar vowels, so:

    A (ah), Ya
    E (eh) ye
    O Yo
    U (oo) Yoo

    There is an E (ee, but the vowel that pairs with it is not precisely equal to Yee, but rather more of a cross between yee and oi. In any case, you see the pattern. The system itself is derived from the Greek alphabet. I find it attractive in its printed form, and very pretty in its written form. Russian itself is a lovely language to hear spoken. I am not familiar with other Slavic languages. This is just to mention that there are other models besides English in its latin alphabet.

    Something else I've been thinking about is other ways besides alphabetic script to convey information. You touch on this idea, if lightly, in discussing your Varen script.

    Take musical notation. I have seen medieval musical notation, and thank my lucky stars that I don't need to learn to read it. Really, though, in its own way it is no less and no more complicated than the current Western standard way of writing music. I can't remember a time when I couldn't read, and I learned to read music at about the time some children are learning to read. So, though it's a visual challenge as reading print is, still reading music is totally natural to me. I understand, though, that to some people printed music is extremely foreign and daunting. To radically simplify for any reader here who doesn't read music:

    There is a given set of signs or symbols and a given way in which they may be placed and modified. Once you learn this set and the allowed modifications, you can easily read which note(s), which octave they are to be played/sung in, their duration and other information. Printed music sometimes looks insanely complicated, but if you know how to interpret the signs and the conventions for assigning meaning to them, reading it is not difficult. Yet, it is not "writing" in common parlants.

    This leads me to something else I've been thinking about with regard to native Nova Britannian Sci/Tech, but it occurs to me that a similar concept might help David. This is the whole realm of mathematical, scientific and logic symbols. I'm not familiar with logic symbols myself, but have come across the concept and so put them in with Math and Science. Now, it is possible to convey a great deal of meaning with symbols without the use of words at all. 5+6=11 conveys info but does not use alphabetic representations. Similarly architects use blueprints, engineers use drafts and skematics. And, what got me thinking about this whole symbol and image based info conveying system, Feinman diagrams. A picture is worth a thousand words, which is why scientists often use pictures, drawings, skematic representations to convey meaning.

    It might be possible for the native Nova Britannians to have a sophisticated symbology and semi-pictorial representational system that would allow them to transmit complex information and yet have what might appear to a foreigner as a rudamentary writing system. Drawing and draftsman's skills might be highly prized and taught from an early age, whereas handwriting might be considered a secondary skill. Hence a major difference between Settlers and natives: Settlers set a great deal of store by the written (printed) word, whereas natives put far more store by images and non-alphabetic symbols.

    Indeed, color, shape and texture, or its visual representation as with differently angled lines, hatching etc., might be significant. One thinks of the keys to maps where different colors and textures convey different information to us. After several generations of cohabiting, the native and Settler systems would surely have interpenitrated, perhaps after a few hundred years they would have become immalgamated(sp?) thus creating a very rich, information-dense visual communication system. Indeed, such a system could conceivibly convey information far more efficiently than strictly verbal based systems such as the alphabetic system I'm using now.

    Hmmm... Converting such a rich system into a form accessible by the blind would present a challenge. Not an insurmountable challenge - even here and now some progress has been made in this direction. See the Art Through Touch and Sound movement. But, it would still present a challenge to a predominantly sighted, able bodied society. Hmmm...More very interesting details I've glossed over till now.

  2. In Chapter Two as presently constituted, Charlie runs into Emma onh her way indoors from having snatched a few precious moments outdoors with Bronte. The blindingly obvious question that finally occurred to me is: Why would he let her go back into that house? Why not take her and Packer (her personal care robot) and make tracks? She's of age, and so can go anywhere she wants to go. He has telekynetic powers, and so can transport her to Marrooner's Haven, or his grandmother's home in the Falibars, or anywhere else. So, why not just do it? After all, the main point is, or has always been, to get her out of an increasingly difficult, potentially abusive home situation.

    The alternatives I see are three:

    1. Bronte seizes the opportunity while Mrs. Morrow is from home and spirits Emma away. In which case, Charlie doesn't run into her when he's at the house. In fact, in this case Morrow engages Charlie to find Emma, even though Charlie is not a detective.

    2. Charlie runs into Emma as she is on her way out to meet Bronte through a side or back door and accompanies her. In this case, Charlie, Packer, Emma and Bronte have a council of war at the rendezvous point.

    3. Charlie runs into Emma as she is on her way out to meet Bronte. They briefly converse, but before she can proceed, she has that coughing fit, worse than currently envisaged, and Packer takes her back upstairs, thereby canceling the assignation and blowing any chance of escape.

    Since I posted my complaint the other night, a friend has suggested that there might be a very good reason Bronte doesn't "telelope" with Emma, a reason that is not revealed till the end of the story. This suggestion appeals to me. Such a reason would doubtless have both personal and cultural components. For instance, Emma might not want to abandon her father.

  3. Catreona,

    Cyrillic is a very interesting alphabet, but not one with which I'm terribly familiar. This should probably explain why I don't mention it much :-). I have sung music written in medieval notation, and it's perfectly doable, if a little disorienting at first. Your idea of a complex system sounds very interesting. The only difficulty with ideographic systems that portray meaning is the sheer number of different possible meanings. Capturing language sounds generally reduces the number of total symbols needed.

    As far as the story options you've shown me, the one I like the best is #1, where Bronte does elope with Emma (by whatever means) and then Charlie gets sent after them. The reason I like this one is that it appears to have the most opportunity for conflict. I've always thought Charlie and Bronte were on good terms if they weren't actually friends - so to have Charlie have a difficult choice between honoring his contractual obligation to Emma's parents and honoring his friendship with Bronte and Emma would be fascinating. That would be a neat place for the story to go.

  4. Juliette,

    Any representational system a) has to be learned and b) is just a matter of conventions. For one quick example. In the Latin alphabet, C can, depending on context, represent one of two basic sounds, each of which is also represented by other letters, namely K and S. In the Cyrilic alphabet, C represents one sound, that which users of the Latin alphabet associate with S. The Cyrilic letter C and the Latin letter S even have the exact same name. By contrast, A, K and T have similar names and represent the same sounds in both alphabets. Context tells the reader which alphabetic convention to apply when deciding how to pronounce C. And, it's not at all difficult.

    I readily admit that the skeme I suggest above could get very complex indeed. Yet, we print and recognize non alphabetic, information bearing systems all the time (Music, Math/Science, color coding in various contexts, etc.) without the use of actual pictograms. And anyway, as I understand it, the Japanese and Chinese writing systems are insanely huge and complicated, but many, many people manage to read and write using them. All of which is to say, you are *not* incorrect, but I still think a plausible, usible system could be worked out.

    As to your other point: Thank you for raising it. Indeed, the possibilities are intriguing. It means a great deal of work and recalibration of my thought process. I'm already trying to work out how to rearrange existing scenes and story elements, though, and think it should be possible. It also means making Charlie and Bronte friends already, or at least acquaintences rather than have their friendship begin after the story starts. This would make a fair amount of sense, actually, though it means trashing or at least radically reinventing some story elements. On the other hand, I had begun recently to toy with just such a trashing or radical reinvention... I also like that your idea puts Charlie front and center. Though he's the first person narrator, he has always seem like a supporting character. Of course, such things are not unknown. Look at Nick in The Great Gatsby. Still, I like the prospect of giving Charlie a greater and more direct role in the action.

    You're a very intelligent, insightful and helpful person. Thanks very much.

  5. 1. Why language use evolved among the arcati before the inundation (why did they need to speak? Why was it adaptively successful to communicate using the auditory or visual channel that they do?

    The pre-sentient arcati were an omnivorous humanoid species living in small family groups. In that era, their homeworld was largely covered in heavy forest, and the arcati were tree-dwellers. Their communication channels evolved to suit this environment and heavily forested terrain.

    When a predator was spotted, the arcati could skinflash bright warning colours to alert the rest of their family group, and then camouflage themselves by adopting the colouring of the trees and leaves around them (at this point, the predator has most likely spotted them, so running away probably helped, too).

    The scent language started out as a further disguise -- looking like a leaf doesn’t save you if the predator hunts by smell. But if you can also make yourself smell like a leaf…

    It also makes it easier for you to hunt if you smell like your prey, instead of like a predator.

    But line-of-sight is limited in heavy forest. And smell is fine if you’re close or downwind. So the vocal channel became more important simply because it carried further in the forest.

    2. What form written language took before the inundation.

    Haven’t given that much thought, beyond the idea that the colours of skinflashed emotional nuances could be indicated by the colour of the ink. Of course, then I have to choose some sort of neutral colour for the paper -- you can’t read submissive-white words on submissive-white paper.

    3. From the point of view of a genetic engineer, how they planned to deal with the problem of living and communicating underwater?

    The original idea was that the engineered arcati would be air-breathers like marine mammals, and that they would assist the un-engineered arcati in the colonisation of the oceans. There were also plans for lungfish-style gills and lungs, for those deeper dives when reaching the surface just wasn’t an option. Both engineered and un-engineered arcati could communicate vocally at the surface of the sea, or in the access chambers built into the first undersea habitats. Underwater microphones could pick up aquatic arcati vocal speech, and relay it to air-breathers.

    Big windows in the undersea habitats would allow skinflash communication to go both ways.

    Scent only works for those who can smell underwater. The scent language is limited to communication at the surface, or between aquatics.

    4. From the point of view of a genetic engineer, how they justified a complete abandonment of air-breathing capability (or not).

    Survival. The genetic engineers got all caught up in the excitement of what they could do, and didn’t bother asking the general population if they really should do it. Some sections of arcati society thought that the engineered were abominations that should be shot on sight. So having to surface for air became a liability, putting the engineered at the mercy of fanatics in boats. Being able to remain underwater became a plus for survival.

    5. What kind of attempts were made to preserve written information through the inundation (waterproof floating libraries :-) ?)

    Yes, there would have been attempts like that. But there was a war going on, a civil war fought along religious and racial/genetic lines. There would have been attempts to sabotage any attempt by the other side to preserve their “knowledge” (which was obviously heretical, anyway).

    As I write this, I’ve just had an image of a vast floating library, in flames. Burning to the waterline.

    I’m also wondering how well engraved plaques might survive underwater. And how certain characters might not want to believe what is written there…

  6. Catreona,

    Sorry it's taken me a few days to respond; my daughter's been sick and keeping me up nights.

    Yes, there are a lot of complex systems for representing meaning out there. And yes, sometimes a complex system is the most practical solution for a culture - like the Japanese, for example. I could go into why their system works well, but it would take too long here. However, using a complex ideographic system has consequences for the culture, as with Japan where children can't read the newspaper until the age of around twelve. I don't have a problem with what you've described in theory, but I've always felt that language wasn't the primary focus of your work, and for that kind of story a highly complex system might require lots of rendering work on your part as well as many words of explanation that could distract from the main story. That said, I'll let you go with your gut on how to arrange it. I like that you're playing with different ideas.

  7. David,

    I have to apologize for my silence the last couple of days; my daughter has been sick and the late nights have left me pretty low-functioning.

    Thanks for the comments that you left on my questions, and for your early response. It's great to see you thinking through some things here.

    As you go forward, I hope you will slow down a little and look at the needs of your story from a range of viewpoints. It's very exciting to be dealing with a completely alien species, and one which has such a complex history. However, for the sake of your readers I hope you can make the conveying of your story as simple as possible. It's a hard balance: complex enough to be alien and fascinating; simple enough to be engaging and comprehensible. Remember that part of what you will need to be doing at the beginning of the story is training your readers to understand the arcati ways so that they will be able to grasp what your story involves. (Because if they don't need to grasp the arcati way to understand the story, then strictly speaking you don't need the arcati way at all! Which of course we don't want.)

    I follow here with some specific comments about the points you have raised - my own impressions as a potential reader of the story.

    1. You seem to have too much competition between communications systems. I asked about evolution because evolution selects. If the arcati lived in a forested environment their primary means of distance communication was probably auditory. An animal which uses skin color changes for camouflage usually does so because it is incapable of flight (like a slow chameleon) and wants to be a part of its surroundings. An animal like a zebra is camouflaged to fit in with the primary surrounding grassland but is also prepared to run. A white-tailed deer flashes its tail as warning as it runs - but doesn't need a more complex message than that. Scent cues are useful for the communication of moods in intimacy but layer over one another in a nonsequential fashion and so are difficult for linguistic messages. Not impossible, of course (we've discussed this), but I really think a scent language would have to be the primary evolutionary strategy for a long period of time in order for it to develop linguistic characteristics.

    Written language: what you've said about colored inks is interesting, but I think prohibitive in the area of technological logistics. I could see calligraphy being done in color to suggest the mood of a piece, but the tools being used for writing would begin in a much simpler place with carvings, or impressions, or inks derived from a plentiful source. A typical arcati would not want to sit down with five separate pens and five bottles of ink unless it were for some artistic or formal purpose - that's my gut feeling.

    Concerning genetic engineering: I was hoping you'd actually try to put yourself in the head of one of the genetic engineers to try to get to the bottom of their motivations. My thoughts are these: in order for them to have popular support for a massive re-engineering of the population, there would have to be a very good reason. The most obvious one seems to be that they don't think any land will survive. A religion would have to have incredible strength for the leaders to be able to make that kind of decision willy-nilly. If they don't think any land will survive, then that puts the ones who stay on land on a serious back foot in terms of waging a holy war. It seems plausible to me that they'd think they were all going to die for their belief in the purity of their land-dwelling identity, and then later when they realized they weren't, take some time to build up ways to fight the infidels. In the meantime (i.e. while the land-dwellers are suffering), the arcati aquatic-mammal model seems like the most promising in terms of resources required, simplicity of adaptation etc. Pirates can survive on the seas in spite of entire governments out to eradicate them, and so can whales, so I don't think the land-dwellers would be able to put them in such a dire position that they'd need to engineer water-breathing capability at all. But say for the sake of argument that they did want to engineer this capability - could they? Would they have floating genetics labs as well that the land-dwellers could not destroy? Or could they move their sensitive laboratory techniques underwater in some way? Maybe they could, but even if you assume they wanted this change and they could make it, I have a hard time seeing how they could justify eliminating the existing air-breathing apparatus. It seems more likely that they would engineer a way to keep it in a vestigial way - but it would still be there. Because after all, if they're under attack by land-dwellers, then they obviously must know that there is land to be had - and they would have a significant motivation to be able to speak with their attackers and negotiate.

    I think this is a cool idea and has the potential to be a great story - I'm just trying to push you to understand some of the practical consequences of the plot elements you've created. Having an underwater species is one thing; having an underwater species that was once an air-breathing land race that evolved in forests is entirely another. When it comes right down to it, you want your reader to be caring directly about the arcati main character and her story and not worrying about logistical details - so it's good to have them all worked out. Whatever you choose will also affect the current state of arcati knowledge about the underwater world, the air, the sun, the land, etc. depending on how much time had passed. Even if it has been five hundred years, the language would retain air-breathing concepts and land language, much in the way we use expressions and words from our own distant past.

    Good luck with this!

  8. Juliette,
    Don't apologise. Your daughter's health obviously takes a much higher priority than my writing.

    Now, initial thoughts:

    I do want Talioth choking in one of the early scenes, as she tries to breathe air, and doesn't quite manage it. But this would be possible if she still has air-breathing capability, she has never used it, she panics, and the gulp of air blows through her gills instead of her lungs.

    I hoped that I'd given the impression that the competition between communication systems had been won by the vocal channel, for the reasons we've both identified. The other two channels remain as emotional indicators more than anything else, although of course camouflage can be useful in some situations.

    With the genetic engineers - I was thinking that they would be so focussed upon the technical problems (we need people who can work at a depth greater than the hold-your-breath limit, so how do we do it?) that they, well, not IGNORE, but grossly underestimate the objections of the deeply religious (who are fully prepared to die for their purity, until they realise that they can always survive on ships).