Monday, June 10, 2013

A Digression on Language

The most commonly accepted theory, at present, is that languages develop with a certain type of mouth in mind.

This is obviously the case with languages such as English, with its many subtle uses of the lips and teeth; or Hmakk, which has an M in its very name. Languages such as these are difficult to speak with a beak or insectile mouthparts. Presumably, they developed in parts of the world where most people had lips, just as Kakaran originated in mountain clifftops inhabited solely by avians.

Over time, however, the various races of the world have wandered and mingled together. It is rare now to find even the smallest of villages inhabited exclusively by mammals, or avians, or reptiles. Even if they begin with different languages, those who share a common home usually come to share a common tongue. In many places, the speaking of English without lips, or Kakaran without a beak, has become only another kind of accent. Most avians cannot pronounce the lip-borne consonants so familiar to me - P, B, F, M, V - and I doubt I will ever manage the clacks and harsh demi-vowels of avian languages such as Hreet. However, despite our imperfect pronunciations, we rarely have difficulty understanding one another.

Those of the exoskeletal persuasion are somewhat more deeply separated. Many of them do not even breathe through their mouths. They have developed instead languages of chitinous clicks and hisses, or elaborate sign languages for multiple limbs. Many of these are more difficult for a person with only two soft-skinned arms to mimic. Still, we usually manage. Universal languages such as Sikelak help to fill in the most difficult gaps.

In addition, love is - and has always been - a great bridger of gaps. The marriages between vertebrates and invertebrates have created many surprising combinations. I have met many insects and arachnids who possessed, somewhere behind their scissoring mouthparts, the anatomy necessary to speak English clearer than my own. In the other direction are people such as the Hsshra tribe of the High Fields: silent, long-legged humans who breathe through elegant spiracles between their ribs.

Still, the villagers we met beyond the valley must have the most unusual language I've ever encountered.

We left the valley the night after the encounter with the saber-dingoes. We had no desire to sleep there; it would have surprised none of us if the pack had returned to attack us in our sleep. There was little we could do to keep them from tracking our scents, but we hoped that the cliffs would provide enough of an obstacle to dissuade them from following us. The climb was rather unnerving in the dark, but - largely thanks to Garnet's and Karlishek's night vision - we managed to fumble our way to the top with no more than a couple of scraped knees and elbows.

We were about to make camp at the top of the cliff when Garnet spotted a light on the horizon.

As exhausted as we were, the possibility of civilization - and of sleeping indoors, out of the chilly night wind, for the first time in weeks - was enough to get us walking again. No one said it, but I think we were all glad to put a little more distance between us and the saber-dingoes' valley as well.

As is so often the case in the Golden Desert, the light proved to be much farther away than it appeared. It must have been nearly midnight by the time we reached it. As we walked closer, we found that it was not a single light, but many - the glow of a small village full of dimly lit windows. The houses were low half-spheres of stone and clay. Only about half of them were lit, though, and we heard none of the chatter and bustle of an active village. We assumed the inhabitants were asleep for the night.

We walked into the middle of the village to find ourselves in the middle of market day - or, more correctly, market night.

The villagers were about Garnet's height, shorter than the rest of us. They were more or less humanoid. Their bodies were covered in downy white fur, except for their hands, feet, and faces; the overall effect faintly resembled mice or baboons, though their eyes were as wide as those of owls. They wore only simple skirts of pale brown cloth. If they were male and female, I never noticed any way to tell the difference.

Their most noticeable features by far, however, were the patterns on their faces. Streaks and blotches of bright colors shifted constantly across their skin, pinks and golds and emerald greens, like an endless fireworks display on every cheek and forehead. The colors glowed in the dark. There are many animals, such as angler-fish and torch-mice, that have luminescent patches on their bodies; most of them, however, can achieve only one or two colors each, like the repeated plucking of a single note. Each villager's face was a full symphony of light.

It was a silent one, though. In the entire marketplace, the only sounds were soft padding of feet in sand, the rattling of wagons, and the clinks and thumps of containers being moved. Not one of the people spoke. In the dark, with the rippling glow of all those silent faces, the effect was as eery as it was beautiful.

We had been staring for what I hope was only a few seconds when one of the villagers approached us. The body language was the same on both sides - smiling, non-threatening friendliness - but when we tried greetings in several languages, the uncomprehending smile on the villager's face didn't change. A few flashes of pink and blue passed over the smile and then went still.

It took us some time to realize that that had been the villager's greeting, or perhaps a question. The shifting colors were their language.

Eventually, we managed to convey by gesture that we had been walking in the Desert for a long time and were very tired. The villagers - we had drawn something of a crowd by then - gave us a sympathetic chorus of blue and lavender. The one who had first greeted us followed that with a flickering orange light in a green semicircle, like the cooking fires inside the dome-shaped houses, and led us to one of the larger ones. The ceiling was not quite high enough for us to stand up. Inside, we were greeted by another adult - the first one's spouse? - and a trio of tiny children as fluffy as owlets. Light flashed across their small faces as well, but they seemed to have difficulty doing more than two colors at once. Perhaps they were only just learning to speak. The whole family welcomed us in with many hugs and blue-pink greetings, and we soon found ourselves sitting on dusty cushions around a stone table, sharing slices of unfamiliar but tasty green vegetables. I looked in my bag and found a couple of slightly dusty candies from Thrass Kaffa; Mirenza rummaged through her pockets and found a motley assortment of nuts and dried fruit. All of these were enthusiastically received, especially by the children.

The name of the village, we were told, was an orange flash peppered with green spots. Our hosts' names were Expanding Blue Concentric Circles and Wavy Red Streaks On Yellow. They didn't introduce their children by name; perhaps, in a society where a person's name is an entire visual performance, children are given time to design their own. We introduced ourselves as well, but they had no more way to repeat our names than we had to repeat theirs.

The conversation around the table was quite lively. In fact, there were two conversations going on simultaneously, but since one was silent and the other was invisible, they didn't seem to interfere with each other.

Though nocturnal, the villagers must have been at least somewhat familiar with other sleep schedules - or perhaps they just accepted that we were tired, no matter the time of day. In any case, Blue Circles went out after dinner (for them, I suppose it was something like lunch) and returned with four extra blankets to spread across the sandy floor. We thanked our hosts profusely, hoping that our smiles and surreptitious yawns would convey the meaning our words couldn't. I dropped off to sleep quite quickly. All night, though, I had the strange feeling that the colored afterimages on my eyelids were trying to speak to me.

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