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'
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
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 ;)
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