Tag Archive | conlanging

Conservation of Shadows

I’m still reading collections of short fiction, and the latest one I finished was Yoon Ha Lee’s Conservation of Shadows. I bought Lee’s first novel, Ninefox Gambit, from Small World Books in Venice a few years ago and really liked it. I’ve also read the next book in the Machineries of Empire trilogy, Raven Stratagem, and I regret that I’ve yet to read the third book, Revenant Gun. But the first two installments were enough to make me a Yoon Ha Lee fan, so when I saw Conservation of Shadows on Isabelle’s bookshelf, I knew I wanted to read it.

The short story collection is introduced by Aliette de Bodard, another SFF author I’m a fan of despite having only read a short story or two of hers. (I keep meaning to read some of her longer work. Also, fun fact: I have a trunked novel from before I’d heard of de Bodard in which the main character’s young cousin is named Aliette. I found the name in a French baby names book.)

Conservation of Shadows begins with “Ghostweight,” whose worldbuilding reminded me a bit of the Machineries of Empire trilogy. I read this story slowly. Recently I described Theodora Goss’s In the Forest of Forgetting as not being cerebral or demanding (which was not in any way intended as a slight). Well, I find at least some of Yoon Ha Lee’s stories if not cerebral then certainly demanding. “Ghostweight” was one of those. But the payoff. The ending blew me away. Was every story in the collection going to be this breathtakingly good?!

Then I read the second story, “The Shadow Postulates,” and loved it. I decided after that one that I needed to buy my own copy of the book.

I enjoyed the desert wasteland setting motif in “The Bones of Giants” (is this a motif? I’m trying and failing to put my finger on something I feel this story has in common with some other settings, such as the one in Moira Young’s Dust Lands trilogy). I liked that the protagonists of “Swanwatch” and “The Unstrung Zither” were musician-composers, since I often can’t help writing about music myself. Lee seems to have a thing for guns, and also math (of course), but also language! There were so many references to structural properties of language that were done so well that I kept wondering if Lee had a degree in linguistics as well as in mathematics. Or at the very least some kind of background. In reading interviews, I discovered he has a past as a conlanger, so that explains a lot. I have this urge to say more about the linguistics in Conservation of Shadows; we’ll see if that happen.

I appreciated all the Asian-inspired worldbulding, from the obvious, foregrounded, and central to the more subtle and understated. While I could recognize fictional cognates of Korea, China, and Japan, I learned more about Lee’s inspiration (one naval battle in particular) by reading the story notes, which I also found delightful. In another interview, Lee said he always enjoyed learning more about the author and the story from such notes, so he decided to include his own. This reader liked flipping to the end of the book to read the notes after each story!

Finally, I savored Lee’s excellent writing, which inspired me as I read since I’m currently novel drafting harder than I have in a long time (yay, confinement?) and everything I’m spewing onto the digital page feels like it’s horrible written. So it’s good to read some actual quality writing to remind myself what it looks like, take note of how it’s done, and reassure myself that I will fix the terrible writing in revisions.

Lunar French

In my 2015 year in review, I mentioned that I had helped create a dialect of Lunar French for a conceptual artist. At the time, I promised to write more about it. Now I’m finally getting around to it.

Thanks to our proximity to Hollywood, the UCLA Linguistics Department occasionally receives requests from folks in the entertainment industry to create languages for film or TV. (“Simple but not imbecile” dialect for a Clan of the Cave Bear TV show, anyone?) Last fall, Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Glenn Kaino connected with a phonetics professor in our department, who passed his request on to me and my friend and fellow grad student Isabelle.

Glenn was planning an installation involving a crescent moon automaton that would sing “The Internationale,” the famous socialist anthem, in a kind of French spoken by the descendants of lunar colonists. After discussing the project with him, Isabelle and I agreed to devise the Lunar French dialect.

The premise was that the French had colonized the moon around the same time they were colonizing North America and Africa, so Isabelle and I decided to base the French of the original lunar colonists on that of Jean-Antoine de Baïf, a 16th century French poet. De Baïf was useful to us because he wrote his poetry in an idiosyncratic phonetic orthography that allowed us to determine the 16th century pronunciation of French words (at least as de Baïf pronounced them). We relied primarily on his psalter, a versified French translation of the psalms.

De Baïf’s orthography is pretty strange-looking, though, and although there was a key that gave correspondences between his symbols and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), it was still sometimes difficult to determine what modern French word de Baïf’s 16th century pronunciation represented. Thus we started out proceeding in a rather inefficient manner. I would think of a psalm I had memorized (if only partially). Say, Psalm 121. We would look it up in the online version of de Baïf’s psalter:

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 12.54.39 PM

I would look for keywords like “Lord,” “eyes,” and “hills” in his versified translation. Then we would note both the French word (“Seigneur,” “yeux,” “monts”) and its pronunciation according to de Baïf’s orthography.

After a lot of this, we discovered that one only had to hover over the first letter of each line to see it rendered in modern French orthography.

Using de Baïf as a reference, we turned the 19th century French text of “The Internationale” into 16th century French. The original refrain of “The Internationale” is the following:

C’est la lutte finale
Groupons-nous et demain
Sera le genre humain

The 16th century version is not too different, except that all the consonants that are silent in modern French are pronounced.

Next we had to decide how the lunar colonists’ French would change over the three centuries between their arrival on the moon and the writing of “The Internationale.” Since the text of the song was fixed, we implemented only phonetic changes, not syntactic ones. Glenn was interested in the effect of technology on Lunar French, so we merged /f/ and /s/ into /f/ on the grounds that the two sounds would be hard to distinguish through whatever spacesuit microphones the colonists were speaking through. A possibly bizarre line of reasoning led us to make word-final /s/s [θ]s, however ([θ] = “th” in “thin”).

We also denasalized nasal vowels but retained the nasal consonants that made those vowels nasalize in Earth French. We simplified certain consonant clusters. We collapsed the vowels /o/ and /ɔ/ into /o/.

In the end, the refrain looked like this (spelled like normal French with IPA inserted to show where Lunar French is different):

[fɛt] la lutte finale
G[upon] nou[z] e[t] dem[ɛn]
[f]era le g[an]re hum[ɛn]

Then, since we knew we would be teaching the Lunar French version of “The Internationale” to a non-linguist (but French-speaking) singer, we converted the text to a pseudo-orthography Isabelle designed. It’s meant to permit someone who already speaks French to pronounce Lunar French. In the pseudo-orthography, the refrain looks like this:

Fète la lutte finale
Goupaune nouz éte demène
Fera le janere humène

In preparation for teaching the song, Isabelle and I recorded ourselves both reading and singing the Lunar French text. In my case, this meant learning the tune of “The Internationale” (apparently nearly all French people, including Isabelle, have heard it before). (Let me just say, once you’ve learned the melody, it’s an insidious earworm. It’s been stuck in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this post.) We shut ourselves up in the phonetics lab sound booth and did many, many takes, because we kept dissolving into laughter at the weirdness of the changed French.

In November, we went to Glenn’s studio in Hollywood to teach the Lunar French “Internationale” to the lead singer of the band YACHT, who was going to be the voice of the moon automaton. We got to see the moon sculpture too, with its tracking eye and its Pierrot figure with the face of postcolonial philosopher Frantz Fanon.

In December, Glenn’s piece, entitled The Internationale, was exhibited at Art Basel Miami Beach. You can see a video of the automaton and hear the song in Lunar French here.

Over the holidays, Glenn asked Isabelle and me to convert the first ten pages of Frantz Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) into Lunar French. I’d never read Fanon before, so I was glad to have the opportunity, though it’s hard to concentrate on content and implementing phonetic changes at the same time.

In January, Glenn’s piece, now entitled L’ènetènafionale, went to the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth as part of his new show there. You can read more about that exhibit here.

Lunar French is definitely the most unusual use to which I’ve ever put my linguistics knowledge, and it’s been a lot of fun. Inventing a dialect of an existing language is less work than creating an entirely new language, which I have in fact tried to do for a certain fantasy world… But the conlanging post will have to be for another time!