Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The unpronounceable alien cliché

A common fantasy and sci-fi cliché is that of an alien who has a name that cannot be pronounced by humans —even though the alien can speak English impeccably.

On screen it's a passing sentence, in print it is a cluster of consonant (e.g. Mxyzptlk from DC comics).
This is done to make the alien appear more alien, but it is a really lazy gimmick. On Star Trek the unpronounceability is used to justify why the Andorians speak Andorian, live on the moon Andoria (with capital city of Andor) in the Andorian sector. So a lazy gimmick to cover for lazy scriptwriting.

The Wikipedia article Alien language lists extensively the presence of alien languages in cinema. Here I want to reflect on the unpronounceability cliché. Namely, humanoid aliens that sound like humans, but have unpronounceable words, which they apologetically whisk away.

In fact, given that the voice of most singers on MTV are subjected to autotune, one would expect that the alien voices would be altered. There are several examples of really alien alien sounds, but few of subtle alterations to make speech not quite human. In Star Trek TNG:11001001 the Bynars have a high-pitch voice which is only matched in lameness by the dateness of the episode, while apparently the Nausicaan on TNG:Tapestry had an altered voice, but not on Enterprise episodes. The Nausicaan accent is very subtle in TNG, a bit echoy, but that's all. It is a shame that one is overdone and the other underdone. I could not find any other examples from Star Trek.

At first one might argue that it is a matter of technology. In fact, most apps and programs that alter voice simply change the whole spectrum (speed and pitch). Sounds are not simply frequency amplitude and its change over time (timbre). They have fundamentals and harmonics, and are not a single frequency but a pattern across frequency. The difference between various vowels can be broken down into formants.

There are pages and pages dedicated to formants and formant synthesis. So it is not technologically impossible to do so. So it is a shame that it not applied to better alter voices.

So what could a scientifically valid impossible sound be? Human sounds are a combination of various factors, such manner and place of articulation, voicing and so on. The IPA chart (consonants pictured below) covers the main forms of articulation. The link between acoustics and phonetics is really interesting (e.g. link), but is rather complex as it does not have a simple relationship.

In the IPA chart there are greyed out areas for impossible sounds, but most of these are impossible because they are nonsensical, not because of human physiological constrains. However, there are many sounds that humans can make that are not used in any/many languages, for example linguolabial, bidental and "super-retroflex" consonant. So there are many non-English sounds that can be made without cheating electronically.

However, there is catch called diaphonic identification that reduces the novelty. Klingon is a constructed language that features /x/ (H), /q/ (q), /q͡χ/ (Q) and /t͡ɬ/ (tlh) sounds which are not found in English, making it sound very harsh. Dothraki features /x/ and dental t d (t and d pronounced with the toungue like for th —þ and ð) and sounds harsh, but without the hard to pronounce sounds. That is because the /q͡χ/ sound is hard to distinguish from /x/ (arabic kh, ch in loch) to an untrained ear. This is a phenomenon called diaphonic identification. In Mandarin the Pinyin b, d and g (and a few more) are unaspired p, t and k, but as they sounds similar to the voiced equivalents they are mistaken by English speakers for b, d and g (which are not aspired). Consequently, there are diminishing returns when it comes to alien sounds as they will sound odd, but not as extreme as hoped.

So in conclusion, the unpronounceable alien cliché is just a piece of lazy writing that could be enriched by phonology, expect that it requires extra effort and the results are not as substantial as the effort required due to mistaking alien sounds for native ones.

❧ A wee parenthetical tangent…
The printed form, namely a strange clusters of consonants, is different matter and worth only a cursory note or two. Firstly, some consonants can act as vowels (syllabic consonants). English has syllabic consonants, such as l in animal or n in even —the last vowel isn't pronounced. Norse had syllabic r as encountered in several names (e.g. Seiðr). So a name like Mxyzptlk could be pronounced faithfully assuming it was known which letters were syllabic (M, y, tl is my guess) and what the letters meant (in this case x and y). Cthulhu is an example of unpronounceable due to spelling issues. Lovecraft wrote it is an approximation and the h is to mark a "guttural tone", which is very ambiguous, except that it hints that lh is probably not a Welsh double l (/ɬ/) or that the c is an Irish c (/c/) or a c pronounced like an s. Most people pronounce it /k̩'θu:lu:/ as a result.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Adjectives for programming languages

Unlike other programming languages, Python has an adjective.
Actually, several are used.
Pythonic is deemed to be the correct one, while pythonian means pertaining to Monty Python and pythonine means pertaining to python snakes. Curiously, there could be a further non-standard adjective, which is pythian, which means pertaining to the Oracle of Delphi, which is known as Pythia (Πυθία, multiple profetesses with same name), while Python (Πύθων) was a diving spirit used and the old name for the site —the Oracle's snake handling gave the name python to pythons, not viceversa and oddly, Delphi is a Windows Pascal compiler.

Ideomatic perl is occasionally called perly, while no other programming language has a name. What could they be if one were to make them up?
Fortran > Fortranic? (Sounds awesome)
Java > Javanese or Javian?
JavaScript > JavaScriptorial or JavaScribal?
C++ > bisplusCian?
Julia > Julian?
Ruby > Rubeous?
MATLAB > Matlaboratorial?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Is it inhumane to call aliens men?

A fairly common source of lexical awkwardness in scifi and fantasy is the inhumane disregard of the fact that appealing to the humanity of a non-human or simply referring to them as man is probably rather offensive.
The worst offender is probably Star Trek: Cpt Picard loved appealing to someone's humanity. The show may have produced the quote that "the federation is no more than a Homo sapiens only club", but that is no justification for sloppy language.

Firstly, what is a better word for humanity?
Humanity has four meanings:
  • the collective term for humans. Synonym: mankind.
  • the quality of being human. No synonym as manly means masculine.
  • the abstract noun of humane (not human). Synonyms: compassionbenevolencekindnessmagnanimity.
  • the arts. Also from humane.
So basically the use of the words humane, inhumane and humanity are signs of sloppy writing as compassionate, cruel and compassion would do nicely.

Secondly, what is the collective term for certain races?
There are very few examples to work off and they are not consistent.
The suffix -kind is an Old English suffix present in mankind, it is better than the Latin suffix -ity as the latter is added to adjectives to also make abstract nouns (mens, mentis (mind) noun > mental adj. > mentality abs. noun). Hence the fact why humanity means both mankind and mannishness.
Technically, mankind is a one off combination in the dictionary. Another one that was lost is Angelcynn (Anglekin). Note that it is from the noun angel (Angle), not the adjective ænglisc (English, pertaining to the Angles) similarly to mankind and not mannishkind. Somewhere along the way the words elvenkind and dwarvenkind appeared, which are both of which are from the adjective.
Parenthetically, the adjectives of non-human races are absent in many cases, so adding -ish or -ic makes the word sound unusual in the first place —as -ish isn't constructive, while -ic sounds odd on words that don't stem from Latin/Greek.
Tolkien made a curious distinction between elven/dwarven and elvish/dwarvish in that the former adjectives mean "pertaining to x", while the latter mean "made by x". Orcish doesn't have a similar division (Orcadian is someone from Orkney). Orckind has more google hits than orcishkind and follows the pattern of mankind. Similarly, goblinkind and trollkind are less convoluted than having to make up an adjective: goblin is from Old French (gobelinic?), while troll is a Swedish recent loanword (trollisk?).
What about Latinate words? Gnomes > gnomic and dragons > draconic. Gnomekind vs. gnomickind?
The former sounds better again due to the lack of the c'k cluster. The alternative, following humanity is gnomicity and draconity, but they do sound like the quality of being a gnome/dragon.
On the flipside, when there is a consonant clash like elfkind or dwarfkind the adjective sounds better Similarly Scottishkind sounds better than Scottkind and felinekind sounds better than catkind —although felinekind and felininty might have some ablaut change kicking in (/fi:lɑjn/ > /fəlɪnəti:/).
So in conclusion, there does not seem to be a strict rule to adding -kind.

Secondly, is a man human only? And what about the suffix -man?
Well, yes and no. The word man generally refers to male humans only, but derived terms generally don't.
The word man itself is weird in that it used to mean both genders, with woman and hipman as the gender specific ones. That is why the word mankind is the collective noun for all humans.
Irrespective of etymology, nowadays there are many case where the -man suffix is replaced with person, when a woman has that task, e.g. chairperson. However it sounds so weird that probably taking the etymological standpoint for the suffix -man is the best bet. Vulcan crewperson sounds like one is trying hard to be polically correct, while Vulcan crewman sounds fine.
In Star Trek The Original Series Spock calls himself, and is called, a man on many occasions… but then again he is a Vulcan who speaks Vulcan and is from Vulcan, a planet orbiting the star Vulcan (40 Eridani).
In Star wars Legacy John Ostrander adds colour to the dialogue by adding Huttese or Mandalorian swearwords or terms of endearment. One cool thing is the use of the word sentient instead of man or person and it works really well. By extension, sentiency would be the collective term for all sentients.

In conclusion, sentient and compassion work really well to replace the words man and humanity, while the suffix kind does not have any clear rules.

Saturday, 18 May 2013


It is here!
This product is not the same as its previous dozen predecessors.
…It is the Ultimate version.
The word ultimate is generally solely used for exaggerations: it means that there is nothing after it, so if a new product truly is ultimate it would mean either the manufacturers will go bust or there will be a catastrophic societal collapse where the manufacturing technologies will be lost. However, doomsday never comes, instead the version afterwards gets a new name… this would make it a “postultimate” version, which is quite paradoxical.
However, it is fully understandable concept and it turns out to be great for making ridiculously nerdy hyperbolae. Eg. "That new Justin Beber album is the postultimate in awesomeness." See?

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Unstoppable force?

In a very cerebral book I came across the "irresistible force paradox" (wiki: link) —okay, it was a Superman graphic novel, but still.
The paradox asks what would happen if an unstoppable force encounters an unmovable object.
Classically, the problem has no solution as the definition of each object violates the definition of the other.
Whereas, Kal-El's answer was they surrender, a rather witty, but nonsensical answer.
Another solution I can think up is that the unstoppable force are neutrinos, which don't interact much with matter, making them pretty unstoppable "force", but changing what the force is made of is cheating.
Maths has improved since classical times, we now have words for any big number (million, billion or even trimilliquinquigentisedecillion, i.e. 10^3519) and we now know that Euclid's did not get all his axioms right.  One such mathematical improvement is transfinite numbers. The underlying concept of Cantor's transfinite numbers is pretty powerful, namely infinite values can come in different sizes, with some infinities bigger than others.
So the above problem in this light is obvious, namely that as no finite force can stop the unmovable object, whereas no finite force can move the unstoppable force: the one that will win is the bigger transfinite value. Those silly Greeks, ae?

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Classical flying Spaghetti monster

So, how what do you call someone scared of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

The Greek wikipedia gives the flying spaghetti monster as Ιπτάμενο Μακαρονοτέρας (iptamevo makaroteras). By the process of elimination, the first word is flying*. The second word is rather interesting: makaro sounds like maccaroni, while the second part is τέρας, τέρεος (Ionic)/τέρατος (Koine), monster like in teratoma (a really weird ovarian cancer with many different tissue types, including hair and bone). So in Greek the Spaghetti monster is actually a macaroni monster.
So the fear of the Spaghetti Monster is macaroteratophobia.

Spaghetti-monstrous sounds nice, but what could the Greek adjective be?
Interestingly, τέρας has two meanings one means a marvel, the other a monster —which makes sense as everyone marvels at a monster, albeit in horror and not in awe. So in Greek, the spaghetti monster is also a marvel!
Searching τέρας on the OED gives many medical terms such as hemitery, terata, teratology and teratogenesis, which have to do with misshapen organisms. It also contains the adjective teretical (adj, Relating to marvels or prodigies) and the noun teratism (n. love of the marvellous or prodigious, or monstrosity). Amusingly, the word teretical sounds like the word heretical, which is unrelated, which make sense as all religions other than pastafarianism are heretical and not the other way round —in light of the above, another way of saying pastafarianism could be macaroteratism.
I think macaroteretical sounds rather nice, even though Spaghetti-monstrous is more intuitive.

Another amusing thing is that macaronic means jumbled, mingled and macaronic Latin is a the jumbled Latin (Monty Python's "Romanes eunt domus" scene). It is an odd coincidence, though, given that the flying spaghetting monster is not made up at all…

*) Google confirms. It is one of those words that differs in modern Greek from classical Greek. Attic masculine present participles end in -ων, but modern Greek has different endings, so that makes sense. ίπταμαι turns out to be a "late" spelling of πέτομαι via ἵπταμαι (Perseus) —I think late here means Koine, so not late at all.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

millionennium and the ennium suffix

Yahoo Answers is probably the only think Yahoo! has going for itself, yet the system is far from perfect. Many answers are wrong or retarded, but once the time has finished the Q/A are fixed and no new answers can be added. I stumbled across one that was wrong and here is the correct answer.

I was curious to see if a word for a set number of years beyond millennium existed, but it doesn't.
However, it does not mean new words cannot be made: the Latin word for year, annus, possess a suffix form -ennium for exactly this purpose. Actually, in Italian -enne is a commonly used as a suffix (on Italian numbers) to say "years old", eg. an undicenne is a 11-yo.
  • Year
  • biennium
  • triennium
  • quadriennium
  • lustrum
  • decade
  • century
  • millenium
  • "decamillennium"
  • "centimillennium"
  • "millionennium"
  • "billionennium"
  • etc.
The catch is that all the -illion numbers do not exist in Latin and that their usage only was standardised recently whereas before there were two conflicting systems, called the long and short scale. We now solely use the latter, whereas remnants of the former are still present in some languages, in Italian, for example, billion is called miliardo (trillion is trilione). The word million is actually of Late Latin/early Italian origin and is the word thousand (mille) with the augmentative suffix -one (in Anglish they came up with the cool sounding "micklered", instead of calquing and getting "overthousand"), whereas the Romans and other folk simply would say a thousand thousand. It is rather weird to think that people used get along just fine without having the need to deal with large numbers... or possibly their denial of such need is the reason why the Roman empire's economy was a disaster.