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The languages of Aohutl, Parts I and II: Oa-Oa-Lahahan and Mwa (was: SF Xenolinguistics)

From:Patrick Littell <puchitao@...>
Date:Monday, June 13, 2005, 2:35
Herein follows a compleat compendium of the languages of the planet Aôhutl. 
Not having been blest with the example of living trees or any similar 
sylviform plants, its divers inhabitants were forced to develop grammars for 
their debased and pagan tongues based upon other architectural forms. In 
some cases, these involve lesser structures; in others, structures of 
greater powers than trees.


The Oa-Oa-Lahahan are not actually a species... in fact, they are not, 
precisely, organisms. Rather, they are the semi-autonomous reproductive 
systems of a sort of flowering "plant". It is widely believed they feel no 
pain, and they show no instinct of self-preservation. (They are not, after 
all, organisms; their "deaths" are a necessary part of their plants' 
reproduction cycles.) 

The Oa-Oa-Lahahan have limited intelligence and a fairly simple language. 
The largest Oa-Oa-Lahahan dictionary contains about 300 words. The 
Oa-Oa-Lahahan speak very quickly, and do not participate in "dialogue"; they 
speak all at once and at the tops of their voices.

A minimal utterance in Oa-Oa-Lahahan is two words in juxtaposition. The 
meaning of such an utterance is equational; the referents of the two words 
(which we might call "nominals" if the language had any other parts of 
speech) are held to be the same thing. The maximal utterance of 
Oa-Oa-Lahahan is simply a long string of two word equations. Although the 
other species of Aôhutl do not consider this the height of eloquence, the 
Oa-Oa-Lahahan can do a lot with a little.

Here is an example "sentence": 

oala oho! oma moho! wole oehaha! wole oehaha! wole lo! wole lo!
I = green! I = container! Brother = grasped! Brother = grasped! Brother = 
blue! Brother = blue!
I am green and my brothers are blue!

(Although the order of the original sentence basically matches that of our 
translation, note that the order is not semantically important in the 
original. It may very well be pragmatically important, but who knows, with 

We can easily give a description of Oa-Oa-Lahahan in terms of a 
tree-structured grammar (it consists of just S => C* and C => N N) but this 
is unnecessary. A much simpler structure -- a list (of pairs) -- can account 
for it. (Any structure of less power than a tree can be expressed by a tree, 
but that doesn't mean that it is a tree except in a degenerate sense.)


The Mwa are a species of sentient cephalopods distantly related to the 
common dodecapod. Although they have both intelligence and dexterity -- the 
two requirements for civilization -- they have not so far reached the 
home-building phase of development. It is likely that their ability to 
squish through any hole larger than their eye accounts for this -- it allows 
them to use almost any crack or crevace as a dwelling-place, and the fact 
that they find squishing into small holes to be vastly entertaining means 
that little time is left over for developing civilization.

Nonetheless, the Mwa have developed language. Although it is capable of 
expressing fine shades of meaning, syntactically it is not greatly more 
complicated than Oa-Oa-Lahahan. The Mwa language is a sign language in which 
each tentacle may sign independently. Sentences are transmitted "in 
parallel", so to speak, rather than in series; each tentacle signs its sign 
simultaneously. The meaning of a sign is determined by the tentacle's shape, 
while its semantic role is determined by which tentacle is used. It's 
somewhat difficult to map Mwa semantic roles onto human ones, but to give a 
rough example, signs made with the frontmost left tentacle correlate with 
the Agents or Sources in the human translations of Mwa sentences. 

A sentence is the set of signs signed at any one moment in time. Not every 
tentacle will be used in every sentence, and not every tentacle will change 
signs between sentences, but the abstraction "sentence" applies just as well 
to Mwa as to human languages. An unordered set of mappings from Role => Sign 
suffices to decribe a Mwa sentence; again, a tree can be used but its power 
is unnecessary. 

You'll note that neither the Mwa grammar nor that of Oa-Oa-Lahahan involves 
any recursion. Some sentences like "I think Myriam knows I have a crush on 
her" may be able to be translated, but neither of these languages can handle 
the infinite recursive possibilities of a human language. (Well, 
Oa-Oa-Lahahan can't even handle the Myriam sentence, but the Oa-Oa-Lahahan 
don't have thoughts of that complexity in the first place.) Put simply, 
neither can translate "The House that Jack Built" while maintaining anything 
like the structure of the original. On the other hand, any language that 
*can* will require a grammar based on either a tree or a structure of 
greater power (like a directed acyclic graph). 

Anyway, more to come ;)

Patrick Littell
PHIL205: MWF 2:00-3:00, M 6:00-9:00
Voice Mail: ext 744
Spring 05 Office Hours: M 3:00-6:00


Ray Brown <ray.brown@...>