Semi Articulate

Wouldn’t you know? There’s rhyme and reason to this phonetics lark after all. Not a kind I’m a natural at, but eminently sensible. The key, as always, is in giving things names. Even and especially those things whose existence we’ve taken for granted while using them to name everything else along the way. I don’t think too highly of the particular choices at work in the field’s notoriously cryptic symbols, but just because I wasn’t on the committee doesn’t mean there’s no good to them. In fact I ought to get to the bottom of the complete set.

You see, I’ve actually been on the brink of phonetics all along.

Once upon a time, in the hazy disconnected funk of the last century, before even this story’s ancient genesis, I cobbled up a little speech synthesiser. Give it a listen, I dare! This was 1999, and what else were you going to use your computer for when kicked off the family modem? Civilisation, usually, but sometimes I did projects like this. That one little demo sounds like I was onto something. I remember showing it off, well pleased with my invention, until people asked to make it say something else. Bugger.

The particular wheel I’d reinvented was concatenative synthesis, a fact I only checked up on years later. I’d figured out a basic set of sounds, and wrote out and sampled myself saying a list of words which contained the lot. Then I snipped the recordings right down to their individual units, named them by my system, and saved the lot to a trio of folders from which my synthesiser script stacked them end to end when asked to play. The result was pretty choppy. That’s because the art of gathering sounds was more nuanced than I thought. I hadn’t taken stress into account at all, or intonation. But the part of my system which stayed in mind is still present in my work. The bit where I identified and named those sounds.

My little proto-phonetic system was so simple that I’m still proud. It works like this. Capital letters represent their “name”, so [A] rhymes with hay, and [E] rhymes with tree. (I’m borrowing the phonetic habit of wrapping square brackets around my old symbols, I didn’t consider such matters of style at the time.) Lowercase letters represent the “sound”, rather like phonics, so [k] rhymes with cat, not hay, and [p] rhymes with plop, not tree. I think I just called the capitals the “names” and the smalls the “sounds”, but I’d been taught the difference when I learned to read so it was hardly a giant leap. Indeed, I was initially so naïve as to ignore the difference between consonants and vowels entirely. So capital [B], [C], [D] and so on existed too, although the lot of them were of course just [bE], [sE], [dE] and so forth. I culled them soon enough, along with such phonetic absurdities as the letters C, K, and Q all representing the same thing. (Interesting to me, the one I kicked the others for was [k], the same choice as made in phonetics.) There was one more group of sounds besides these two. I’d also figured that “th” and “sh”, and indeed “ch” and “ng” (think the end of “ting”) weren’t just awkward spellings but true, separate sounds. So I included a third list, that I merely titled “specials”. I recorded samples for those, and wrote them with parentheses: [(th), (sh), (ch)] and so on.

So in my old system, “speech synthesis” is written: [spE(ch) sin(th)esis]. Almost readable. But how about this: Project Andala is written [projekt andala]. Very almost identical. In fact, so much Anatara is exactly that way. Because this is how I seem to approach sound naturally.

It may be my way, but it’s not phonetics. Yet it was a start.

Something I’ve learned since is that there’s more to vowels than I thought. I’d made just the two versions of each. [A] is in say, [a] is in sad; [E] as in knee, [e] as in head; [I] as in bye, [i] as in sit; [O] as in hope, [o] as in hop; and [U] as in huge, [u] as in hug. But [U] was an awkward exception. Does it sound like “you” or “ew!” How about “oo”? I added [(oo)] to the specials list and left [U] as it was, but I could tell there was something awry. Indeed, the multitude of vowels is something I’ve come to appreciate since my first stab at collecting them. As vowels are every bit as important as all those consonants we bung between them, one kind so very often after the other.

In fact, vowels are the main sounds that we make. If you play around with a waveform editor, as I did in the process of making my synth half a lifetime ago, you’ll see the graphic truth. Consonants are the busy little valleys, full of whispers, between the mighty vowel hills. Speech is their sequence. And what a complex sound it is.

Fortunate for us, our brains are well tuned for it. Like the maddening complexity of what our eyes do and do not see, sound is handled as an unconscious process for us by the superhuman genius with which we share our heads. What we can “hear”, rather than wiggling charts of noise, is what the book I’m reading describes just perfectly as “gestures of speech”. In fact, let me quote the opening of its first chapter:

We will begin by describing how speech sounds are made. Most of them are the result of movements of the tongue and the lips. We can think of these movements as gestures forming particular sounds. We can convey information by gestures of our hands that people can see, but in making speech that people can hear, humans have found a marvelously efficient way to impart information. The gestures of the tongue and lips are made audible so that they can be heard and recognized.

Peter Ladefoged in A Course in Phonetics

Now that’s just a superb way of putting it! Speech is a uniquely fast and precise way to articulate ourselves. But fundamentally it is just the same as waving our arms or making gestures with our faces, as exploited by sign languages the world over to great effect. The core of it is recognition. We understand what others are saying, right back when we begin, by expressing it with our own mouths. We hear when someone has their tongue to their teeth, or when they pop their lips. The gestures themselves are at once universal and yet quite meaningless. Language is how we’ve come to put them together, to make meaning from our shared fluency in sound.

The way I was going to make my matrix for Aznush, and so also Anatara, was as a grid of vowels and consonants. It still is, but now I’m learning that there are more of these sounds than my own ancient alphabet described. From the lexis I’ve already contrived, I can tell I need a few. Not least if Azutara is indeed to be the subject of its own writing system! I’m forever into minimalism — keep it simple, stupid! — until the moment I actually get to work. Languages, notoriously, are anything but logical, optimised, minimal sets. They are organic. So it’s only right that I should learn on my feet, as we all do while acquiring, living and making them for ourselves.

The Spoken Matrix

It’s not with natural confidence that I insist on language-making for my story. But that I must. It’s a thing. I never have picked up another one besides my native tongue. Languages are such complex things, absurd the moment you stop to look at them as an object, and not a means. Perhaps that’s a sign you never should! Perhaps. Certainly, while I studied German at high school, it felt to me that this was the scale of thing that only children ever know.

Anatara, the prime language of interest given the characters in this story, is written, like ours, in someone else’s writing. I’ve established that this is the Azu syllabary. Note it needs a name. Aznush is my favourite so far. But when I wrote that, I hadn’t the foggiest notion of phonetics, or how this would work in practice. So, I’ve been reading.

One real life syllabary I really like is the Kana in Japan. Whether in its Hiragana or Katakana visual forms, as they both read the same, the Kana makes a natural grid of consonants and vowels: the Gojūon, “the fifty sounds”. Where every consonant and vowel meet, there is a Kana. Well, for all the combinations still used in Japanese. A writing system developed in historical isolation from our own, still relying on the same vowels and consonants. They’re very almost universal, this world at least!

Some genius came up with another way to order the fifty Kana, a thousand years ago or more. Instead of a simple grid of sounds, they can be arranged into a Buddhist poem, using every one of them, just once. The poem’s called Iroha:


A translation:

Although its scent still lingers on
the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory
of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side
of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away
intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.

Not bad for an alphabet! Indeed, the word “iroha”, from the poem’s opening line, means the same in Japan as when we say “the ABCs”, and the letters are used to label seats in theatres there to this day. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be pulling artful tricks like this when making up my language, but the sky’s the limit when you have the logic and the skill.

But what I will make is a matrix. Like the Gojūon, I am working on a vowel and consonant system to begin with. And I’ve got a twist. Not every word in Japanese or my creation is simple consonant-vowel consonant-vowel, stacked end on end. Japanese has other marks to silence and emphasise the basic kana. I’d rather bake such a thing into the design. I’m not sure how, entirely, but I do have one sneaky idea. It has some playful implications too, that I could use in the story.

How about mirror image writing? If I make a matrix of characters which read as consonant-vowel pairs, I could flip it over and have them read out the corresponding vowel-consonant instead. This is my idea for now, and it gives me space to do something else later if it turns out quite unneeded. I like the idea of symmetric readability —being able to read aloud a line of text in either direction — quite enough in its own right. Because it makes every piece of writing ambiguous. Not least when you switch directions anyway, like an ox ploughing a field. A boustrophedon. An idea I may well seize, another pleasing alternative, I think, being writing in a spiral. All these forms could have their place, just as we use different styles.

Skill would be required to tell quite where to begin reading any text. You’d have to read ahead, just a little, to ever know. And even then, the author might still be playing tricks on you! Not least the like of he behind iroha.

What if you failed, while reading aloud? Quite the faux pas, and one worthy of jokes about the fact. Not least when one people is using another’s writing. I could use this, all right.

The truth is I’ve still a lot to learn. I only have the dimmest notion of what much of this stuff is, let alone how it comes together and works. So I’m looking into it. I’m a couple of dense packed and thoroughly intriguing chapters into A Course in Phonetics by Peter Ladefoged. It’s been half a lifetime since I felt so inundated as early in a book. High school German no less! Ah, language. But there’s really no point in writing of that I do not know.

Watch out for the good stuff. You’ve been warned.

Symbols and Sounds

Lessons in differential history continue as I make my way through Guns, Germs and Steel. I’m fresh out of the part on the invention of writing. Yes, this is crucial stuff for me.

So far, I’ve established that there is at least one kind of writing on Andala. Tani just so happens to be her village’s teacher. As Marie describes the experience of learning alongside Tani’s little sister:

Aia let me play with her writing squares, which I found more intricately detailed than I imagined.

"ra" she said as I picked one up, and "ni" as I pointed to another.
“Spell my name, Aia. Spell Marie.”
Little Aia grabbed two squares and righted them, then read them out to me. "Ai-a!" She said with pride.
“Oh, okay, well done.” In just that moment, she had taught me these weren’t letters but sounds. Each square was a syllable. Or at least what the Ana considered one to be. I figured she’d need another pair for me. “Now spell my name, Ma-Ree, Marie!”
She grabbed three more squares, and slid them around the first half of her name.
“No. That can’t be it.”
Aia grabbed my finger and brought it down the line she’d made. Reading aloud, "ta-kai-yeen".
“Ah, I should have guessed!”

That’s a syllabary. A writing system similar to an alphabet, but with more symbols as it chooses the next larger unit for its sounds. The Ana use the Azu script, developed by their neighbours for themselves. Anatara is a little awkward when put into written words, as it doesn’t work quite the same way as Azu; a clumsiness Marie hints at above. Nothing quite as bad, I imagine, as the English language’s maddening flights from all reason in the Roman writing you and I share here; but not quite as clean as the Azu’s own tongue for which it evolved.

Speaking of which, I’ve found myself questioning my assumptions given where I’ve just been. So writes Jared Diamond:

To us today, it is tempting to ask why societies with early writing systems accepted the ambiguities that restricted writing to a few functions and a few scribes. But even to pose that question is to illustrate the gap between ancient perspectives and our own expectations of mass literacy. The intended restricted uses of early writing provided a positive disincentive for devising less ambiguous writing systems. The kings and priests of ancient Sumer wanted writing to be used by professional scribes to record numbers of sheep owed in taxes, not by the masses to write poetry and hatch plots. As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss put it, ancient writing’s main function was “to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.” Personal uses of writing by nonprofessionals came only much later, as writing systems grew simpler and more expressive.

Guns, Germs and Steel, p.235

Sumerian cuneiform was indeed born a dirty mess. Writing, the handful of times we invented it from scratch here on Earth, was not a thunderbolt of inspiration, fully formed in one shot. It evolved. I knew this, but I overlooked it in the interest of clean and shiny simplicity and design. That’s what happens when you read more about Sumerian than you read the stuff for yourself, with the old master as a guide.

You can either invent writing the long and messy way, for yourself, or you can steal it. Actually, it’s not always just that. Sometimes, if you hear someone else has a way to scribble down their language, you rush to its conclusion and invent your own way. Diamond describes this as carbon copying versus diffusion. A good example of the latter is Cherokee. Its inventor, an ingenious fellow by the name of Sequoyah, borrowed some printed English that he couldn’t read, and devised his own syllabary around symbols from our alphabet. He didn’t invent writing, but he didn’t just copy the Romans as we did, either. He didn’t know that the characters he saw worked the way they did as he invented his alternate system, closer to the what the Minoans used than us. Funny what’s possible, when you know it can be done.

Perhaps Andala’s true first writing is dead and buried come Marie’s day. And so the Azu script is a descendant, more like Sequoyah’s, created anew without the telltale cruft?

The Andala that I’m writing, come the time of our discovery, is one in transition from illiteracy into its modern age. We weren’t a necessary trigger, but happened to arrive coincidentally to see it. Or the way it could have been.

I’m not about to kluge up the pretty little writing system I’ve long had squiggling through my mind in the interest of looking the original. Not yet. But this research is leading me to consider the whole geography and history of Andala in new light. The Azu are my world’s oldest people, its first empire and the most populous. Azuya, their continent along with the Ana, is clearly my Old World. What went on there, long before Proteus showed up? And what have I already created, in my unwitting assumptions, that could well be for the better in any case? This is what I’m working on. While I can.


Although I’ve twice expressed my disagreement with Francis Fukuyama’s proposed End of History, I shan’t deny that the English language is coming to dominate the world. It’s not that everyone speaks it everywhere, as any dedicated traveller soon enough discovers, but that those with power and influence do. Like every lingua franca before it, English is the tool of trade and the resulting élite. It reaches further now than ever before, and ultimately may indeed become the supreme second language of the world. But that day is still to come, if it does.

My stake, in this book, is that English is indeed the primary language of the Earth come that point in time. But it is far from the only one we the people speak. Whatever metaphoric good would a world state be without a hint of Babel? English is the fallback, the safest means of interchange; much as it is now, only more so. The Anatara word for English – humanitara – is essentially accurate. “Humanese.”

Andala has more than one language of its own, of course. And with my fondness for symmetry, Anatara is its analogue for English; the second language among the privileged that world over. That rural Ana happen to speak the language of their kings and foreign princes is, as English, an amusing little accident of history brought about far above them.

Speaking of native English, I’ve already exposed my own Anglocentricity by my choice of human characters so far. The Kinnerin family, of Alpha, hails from my own town of Edinburgh. And half the crew of Proteus is from this isle; namely Marie Chen of Tottenham and Robin Henderson of Leith. There’s something to be said for writing what you know. Not least when you’ve a far flung universe like mine to throw them in.

But even if English is the language of the global presidency, that’s not to say the native Anglosphere lies within it.

I’m well minded to keep the Earth of centuries from now quite complex. One good means to this is an independent streak among the English language nations. The United States is already pencilled in as something of a singleton. And for all the awkwardness of playing part of Europe this country shows, I can easier imagine England, alike, outside the eventual United Nations as I’ve described. It’s my own Scotland that I can see as a part of the muddled beast, and so it shall be as this tale’s concerned; whether or not set upon on its own course next year.

All this said, my story’s not about the politics. Surely not up front. The best you’ll find, if I succeed, is the sense of a broader landscape beyond the events described. Make your own inference. I just like to get things right, and you can only do that by the feel of them, not the indistinct fear of their absence.

A Hex Upon Thee

Yes, it’s all been Proteus, lately. Goodness, if that little ploy hasn’t grown to almost fifty chapters already, of a thousand words apiece. Not quite what I had in mind. But I shan’t repeat myself. It’s all good practice.

Instead, some inside details.

First up is quite what I meant in the latest opening:

Our welcome in Ayanakert was good and warm. Tani, our steadfast advocate then and since, caught Akanai’s agile fancy with her grandstand tales and infectious keen. The pair of them shared an instinctive curiosity, in fact, unable to leave a stone unturned once spotted. Not all Andalans, or Ana, are like this; as I’d seen for myself with Tani’s parents. So they have a name for it. Essin. Despite her rural accent and antiquated ways, the king’s household recognised Tani as Essaieen the moment she got him started. I could see it in their cringing eyes. Each spurred on the other.

This is Marie’s first mention of an idea I conjured up a while ago in Dimensions of Identity. I can’t think of a pithy introduction beyond what I wrote then and since. The concept of Essin and its identity as Essaieen is as big a deal to the Ana as good and evil is to us, or indeed possibly even gender. My intuition’s antennae are a-tingle with the possibilities, even if what I’m writing here this moment sounds too nebulous to be of much note. Let’s just say I’m working on this. And that such experiments may very well be what Proteus is for.

Then there are the statues:

"This is Anatai-kalikaleh. Akanai’s aka.” Said Tani of a statue, the first of a crescent in the hall. They were lifesized and really quite exquisitely detailed.
“His mother.” I explained. “She ruled Andala too?”
"Mm." Said Tani, who began to name all of them. "Ankelika-kalikaleh. Anaster-kalikaleh. Kanekina-kalikaleh. And…” She paused to look back at Akanai, who waved her on. "Ayana-kalikaleh." Said Tani, in hushed reverence at the smallest statue of the line. Little Tani almost towered over it in comparison. “They’re all women.” Observed Kingston.
“Aye, and they’ve all got the same fashion sense too.” Robin naturally dwelled on the figures lack of clothes.
“Is Akanai the first male to rule Andala?” Mina asked Tani. “The first man?”
"Mm." She nodded. “Do not hold it up against him.”

They are of course Andala’s rulers, in reverse order back to the first. Kingston raises a good, if obvious, point. Akanai is none other than the first king of the unified tribes. Every chief before him was a queen. Not that we should hold this against him. These are modern times.

As for the statues themselves, I do have something like cult images in mind. What’s good for Sumer is often good for Andala. I’m not sure as yet quite how Akanai fits into his people’s religion, and whether his ancestors are considered godesses as such, or not. But I’m thinking about it, and so a hook left here and there is welcome enough to me.

What’s the deal with those funny numbers?

"Nai-nai-nai-nai?" Asked Akanai. Then his automated translation in our ears. “65,535?” It said, quixotically.
“Marie know number-speak yet?” Asked Tani, who I had not taught our own system.
“Bigger.” I grinned.
"Kaia!" She told him. More.
"Anka-ko-nai!?" Asked Akanai, with a raised brow. “4,294,967,295!?”
“That’s pretty damn specific.” Grumbled Kingston.
“That’s some power ae two. Near enough.” Noted Robin.

Near enough. But the base is 16. Namely hex. Nai-nai-nai-nai is the Anatara equivalent of 0xffff, or 65,535 to those of us who don’t think in bits. Take a guess at what anka-ko might then mean, given Akanai’s second stab amounts to 0xffffffff. Evidently, they have their own kind of scientific notation. Another convenient, if not too egregious, shortcut.

My notes say the actual answer to his question is 14 billion humans on Earth by 2169. And another 2 billion between Aria and Gaia, apparently, which sounds a bit high. Let’s just say Marie was right. Consistency being what matters when you are, of course, making it all up as you go along.

And finally the finale:

I showed Tani my ten digits plus three from my friend, knowing she had no idea what our numbers meant. My translator whispered its guess to me when Mina said, but I wanted to make a point.

"That many ahreni. That’s how long we took to get here from our home."

She and Akanai looked at us, and eachother, understanding what I’d said but finding it a little hard to believe. Then Akanai muttered something and Tani laughed.

"You are old!" She giggled.
“Tell me aboot it.” Sighed Robin.
“Yes. I suppose we are.” I said. “But don’t hold it against us.”

Mina’s answer is correct. Proteus took six years, or the better part of thirteen ahreni to discover and reach Andala. But I like my tricks, and Tani’s reaction might not be to quite what Marie had in mind.