You can skip the text in blue, if you are not entertained by philosophy. You can skip all the text if you are not entertained by linguistics, or only read the text in blue if you find linguistics dry, but philosophy exciting. Just to spice things up, though, there is sex in the philosophy, and there are elves in the linguistics.
Let us suppose, for the sake of the argument, that a healthy man is somewhat different in appearance than a healthy woman. Let us also postulate that an objective standard of physical beauty, while possibly incorporating other factors, has a positive correlation to the health of the specimen.
It is my belief and contention that beauty contains both objective and subjective components. Briefly, some elements of beauty are designed to only resonate or appeal to some personalities. A botanist and a physicist when comparing flowers and equations will each find beauty that the other misses. I suppose this might be called objective-subjective beauty, as it is beauty which is actually there, but which can only be perceived from a specific mindset.
Even so, while a lover might see in his beloved objective beauty that others will miss, nevertheless none will doubt that some of the beauty he sees is entirely fabricated by his emotions and hormones.
That is a rabbit-trail, however. My contention here is that if you strip away cultural and personal preferences such as ideal age and skin/eye/hair color, there will remain a common index of physical beauty which suggests a very real objective standard. A given woman really does fall somewhere on the scale of one-to-ten, setting a vindictive, angry, deformed, obese witch with half a face at one, and Eve herself at ten. If our hypothetical sample woman is an objective five, then the fact that she is only twenty in a culture that worships youth may increase her perceived rank to a seven, and a man with a crush on her might see her as a nine, but she is really a five.
I am not, here, contending that a person’s worth has any relation whatsoever to their physical beauty. Only that physical beauty exists, is comparable, and correlates with the overall health of the specimen.
Now, if physical beauty is a real thing, and if physical beauty has a positive correlation to the health of the specimen, and a healthy man is noticeably visually different than a healthy woman all else being equal, it follows that the standard of beauty for men and the standard of beauty for women are different.
And if the standard of beauty for men and for women are two different things, then unless we hold that men and women must be identical to have equal worth (the false hidden premise of both the feminist and the chauvinist), we must hold that it is not sexist to have a different word for each standard of beauty. Indeed, if it is sexist to have a different word for each standard of beauty, then it is also sexist to have different terminology for the reproductive organs of each sex, even though each sex has (and is, in fact, distinguished by) different reproductive organs.
Now for the linguistics, though I cannot promise that philosophy will not intrude from time to time. In fact, let’s color this next bit darker blue to represent that we haven’t got to the elves yet (though we are largely done with the sex. Was it as good for you as it was for me?)
There is a constructed language known as Lojban. Unlike Sindarin, which was invented out of sheer necessity (it is a scientific fact that if Tolkien did not invent a language every ten minutes, he would explode), or Klingon, which was invented as a standard of nerdiness among geeks, or Esperanto, which was invented as a sort of psuedo-Gnostic Messiah, Lojban was invented for a relatively practical purpose: to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (I may have spelled that wrong, and I don’t much care). The S/W Hypothesis is that thinking is constrained by language — that people are unable to really think about concepts unless one or more languages they speak contain words and grammatical constructs capable of containing these concepts.
To that end, Lojban is designed to be relatively easy to pick up, to be rooted in formal predicate logic, to have roots that are made for on-the-fly combination the better to invent new concepts as you go, and to be as culturally neutral as possible. The idea is to trick people with different native tongues (at least thirty or forty a language) to learn Lojban and teach it to their babies, and then follow the kids around as they grow up to see if a neutral but super-flexible made-up mother tongue reliable produces culturally abnormal mental patterns.
The Lojban group, even though it contains a number of dedicated Esperantists, is much less pretentious than the Esperanto bunch. Probably because they consider their conlang as more of a toy than a linguistic avatar of peace, hope, and undefrosting ice caps. Also, because you can’t be a dedicated logician and remain sane without reflexively taking delight in absurdity (one of the first works of literature to be translated into Lojban was Alice in Wonderland. Maybe even the first.)
That said, one of the keepers of Lojbanic lore, in a discussion on the Lojbanic word for beauty (which escapes me at the moment), is on the record as saying that the concept of having different words for male beauty and female beauty is sexist. Which, as I have just shown, is not true.
You see, the Logical Language group took great care to make Lojban culturally neutral, but their quest was never quite achievable, since any standard of neutrality that lacks a super-human standard-giver is intrinsically subjective and therefore culturally dependent.
Put more bluntly, Lojban was made culturally neutral by people whose concept of cultural neutrality came largely from left-wing universities and reflects said value sets. As someone on the extreme edge of a wing that hangs to the right (but is arguably not quite the same wing that most right-wingers occupy), I am forced by my basic presuppositions, my first principles, to find their neutrality highly culturally biased. Come to think of it, I can freely admit that mine are culturally biased as well, though I believe them to be biased towards the truth.
There are many places for biases to creep in. Choosing predicate logic as a foundation for grammar is a bias. Working to make that grammar incapable of ambiguity is a bias. Making the words flexible, like play-dough legos, is a bias, though those last two are admirable biases because they map to the purpose of the language — the idea is to test whether languages influence thinking, and the method is to build a language that aims to force precise structure on a potentially infinite range of concepts.
The Lojban structure that replaces verbs, the selbri, is a word that defines a relationship between arguments that are to be sent in a specific order. For instance, zdani doesn’t mean “is a house,” or “houses.” It means “x1 is a nest/house/lair/den/[home] of/for x2.” The selbri expects that you slot in the arguments in the order: that which is the nest/house/lair/den/[home] goes in the x1 slot, that which is housed by x1 goes in the x2 slot. .i ta zdani mi. That is my house. Or .i ta mi zdani. The placement of the selbri is unimportant provided it is not the first word. (I think… my study of Lojban covers a handful of days, and is hardly authoritative).
The order of the arguments is completely arbitrary, and a selbri can have up to five arguments. That seems like a fine place for cultural biases to creep in, influencing the answers to the questions “which arguments should this selbri take”, as well as “which order should they come in”. Not to mention the question of which words one should use as root words, and which words should be play-do-legoed out of the root words. (For instance, masculine and feminine beauty must be play-do-legoed, which doesn’t offend me one bit, but does flow out of the assumption that having different words for different standards of beauty is sexist. On the other hand, it tends to suggest that beauty is a more fundamental concept than male-beauty or female-beauty, a premise I agree with, so, no biggie.)
Now, as an author, participating in NaNoWriMo, writing the ultimate in stereotypical fantasy epics (a ripoff to make Paolini look truly original, justified by the assumption that the desire for originality has prevented most or all authors from actually writing this story), it is incumbent on me to invent a language for the elves. I briefly considered using Lojban, since it is open source, and even though I don’t intend to participate in the Logical Language Group’s grand experiment, I am favorably disposed towards it. In fact, I imagine that if Lojban actually manages to accumulate a few thousand native speakers, it stands a far better chance of serving as a useful international auxiliary language than Esperanto, simply because it is founded on formal logic rather than psuedo-Marxist utopianism.
But Lojban, although kind of pretty in a Russian-with-a-French-accent sort of way, is ill-suited to my purposes. Lojban must strive for neutrality. Elvish must strive to reflect elven thought-processes. And it is an axiom that even if the elves in a stereotypical epic fantasy have fallen in morality and general goodness beneath mere mortals, they still must have once stood above humans in every way (except perhaps tenacity and creativity).
And since it is my damn novel, that means that even though the Elves and I have parted philosophical ways, their language has to be built around my fundamental beliefs and axioms.
Lojban’s goal of being easy to learn and to shape, however, has given me several ideas for making Elvish easy to manage and to invent on the fly (since I really need only the words that will be used in the novel. And any words necessary for any Elvish prayers I want to learn… there’s a reason why Elvish already has a word for “videogame”…)
For your entertainment, then, a basic introduction to Elvish grammar:
- Elvish words are constructed from qaélu, which almost (but not quite) means ‘consonant.’ Vowels can serve as qaélu. When a vowel begins a word, it is qaélu, as a word must always begin with a qaélu. Otherwise, a vowel serving as qaélu is marked with an acute accent (like the ‘e’ in qaélu). Theoretically, the qaélu are the word — vowels can be inserted anywhere so long as the word begins with a qaélu, ends with a vowel (qaélu allowed if the word is a particle, otherwise not), and contains at least one cluster of qaélu unseperated by any vowel. E.g. qéila is technically the same word as qaélu. In practice, there is a standard pronunciation for each word, with variations from region to region.
- The vowels are A,E,I,O,U, and Y, with Y pronounced as the short I in “in”, and the others pronounced as in Spanish or romanized Japanese (father, bed, elite, tone, flute). Y is never qaélu.
- The consonants are mostly the same. G is always hard, C is always pronounced as an unvoiced “Sh”, J is the voiced version of “Sh” (as in measure), a sort of France-ish J, Th is always unvoiced (thought), Dh is the voiced version (this), X is the Greek chi (or the “ch” in the Scottish “Loch”), Q is the voiced version of the Elvish X (in practice, it’s a rolled glottal R, like a France-ish R, only rolled).
- Dipthongs are: you just run the vowels together into one sound (so l+a+i, lai, is pronounced as the English word “Lie”). A vowel serving as qaélu is not really a vowel, and is not permitted therefore to form dipthongs. To keep it separated from non-qaélu plebiscites, if it is preceded or followed by a vowel within the same word, it is separated from said vowel(s) by a light breath, much like a soft, understated ‘h’ (so, qaélu is pronounced “rah-hell-ooh”, but with a glottal ‘r’.)
That gives you all you need for pronunciation. Now grammar.
Elvish doesn’t divide neatly into nouns, adjectives, and verbs. The first word of the sentence is the predicate (the verb if something is doing something, the adjective if something is some color, etcetera). The rest of the words are marked by 2-qaélu particles that define their role.
For instance, ‘té’ marks something that does or is, whereas ‘thé’ (‘th’ and ‘dh’ are single letters in Elvish) marks something that has done to it or is.
Let us take the personal pronoun kí (I/me/we/us) and the word vethlektha (videogame, not liable to be used in my novel) for an example.
Vethlektha té kí. It either means I am a videogame (unlikely), or I videogame (that is, play a videogame. Far more likely). Vethlektha thé kí, on the other hand, would mean that I am a videogame or that I am videogamed (someone or something is videogaming me. Sounds weird. Maybe my roomie is making me play Halo? Or Halo is making me play Halo?)
If we take these as statements of what something is (I am a videogame), the difference between them is the implication that in the case of té, my videogameness is innate (I am a videogame because that is my nature), whereas in the case of thé, my videogameness is imputed (something is making or has made me a videogame. Or will make me a videogame, as tense is not inherent in the word, but is slapped on with another particle which is usually left out because it is usually unnecessary).
Obviously, my Elvish depends a great deal on context to understand. But, in trial runs so far, no sentence has ever proven ambiguous — the context has made only one interpretation possible.
One of the side-effects is that in Elvish there is no clear distinction between doing and being. Doesn’t quite fit my philosophy (I may invent a particle that can force that out of ambiguity in the future), but it seems to me to be appropriate for a race that lives for hundreds of years. And since humans in the real world are technically immortal, it may be that my philosophy is flawed in this respect…
Um, what else…
Words can be stacked. The final word of the stack is the meaning, with the previous words modifying it (Vethlektha té kí vethlektha. The “me” type of videogame is a videogame. My videogame is a videogame. My videogames are videogames. Videogames about me are videogames. Or some such). Since this can be done with the predicate as well as the arguments, and since the arguments are preceded by the particles rather than being followed by them, a particle is needed to mark the predicate as well. The predicate-marking particles mark the beginning of the sentence, and therefore represent what sort of sentence it is (and consist of a single vowel-qaélu). For instance, ‘E’ is a statement, ‘A’ is a true/false question, ‘I’ is a command.
E vethlektha. ([something/someone] is a videogame/is videogaming.)
A vethlektha. (Is [something/someone] a videogame/videogaming?)
I vethlektha thé kí. I vethlektha té kúe. (Make me videogame/Turn me into a videogame. Go play a videogame/Go become a videogame.)
Obviously, in the first two examples, the speaker is relying on the listener knowing who or what the speaker is calling a videogame or claims is gaming. In Elvish, it is expected that one will leave out words providing the audience already knows what belongs in their place. (For instance, the first sentence is a crystal-clear response to the question “A vethlektha té kúo,” “Are you gaming?”)
Anyways, other than that all there is is that non-particle root words consist of three qaélu, and derived words have four (if derived from a particle and a root) or more (if derived from two or more roots), and must be pronounced with a qaélu at the beginning, two or more qaélu clustered together at some point, and a trailing non-qaélu vowel. Particles, conversely, cannot contain clusters, unless it is a single qaélu-vowel trailing, names do not have a trailing vowel, and like so. Everything else, until I encounter a situation that this stuff doesn’t cover, is inventing words and particles as I need them.
I cimpo té Thlaro thé kí.