Issue 1 Invented Languages Winter 2000/01

The Alien Argot of the Avant-Garde

Christian Bök

Atlantis Productions commissioned me in 1997 to design a credible language to be spoken by the extraterrestrials on the new, sci-fi TV show, Earth: The Final Conflict (the latest series of programs imagined by Gene Roddenberry). The Hollywood producers wanted me to create an ethereal language that would be spoken by a race of "electroplasmic superorganisms"—aliens who embodied an inhuman science of enlightened tranquility. I was bemused by the fact that years of both academic experience (as a doctorate) and artistic experience (as a soundpoet) had now finally made me uniquely qualified to be a linguistic consultant in the world of science-fiction, creating a successor to Klingon.

Earth: The Final Conflict presumes that, in the near future, Earth has been visited by the Taelons, a race of celestial Buddhists, who alleviate our social misery, although their motives for saving our planet seem esoteric, if not inimical, and thus a distrustful billionaire, Jonathan Doors, forms a rebel group of humans who vow to resist the seductive despotism of these benign aliens. Shot in Toronto (a futuristic metropolis by any American standard), the show has enjoyed modest success in the States, where TV Guide has mentioned my involvement, describing me as "the noted linguist, Christian Bök" (even though this linguistic reputation has only been earned by virtue of my being "noted" in TV Guide).

Klingon represents the most successful invented language in history, since more people now speak the alien argot than speak Esperanto. Darren Wershler-Henry in his book Nicholodeon has even gone so far as to translate a poem by bp Nichol into Klingon, producing a lautgedichte as nonsensical as any Dada poem by Hugo Ball. Wershler-Henry reports that he has had to make some allowances for poetic usage: "Since Klingon contains no equivalent for the word 'car,' [...] this text reads 'primitive shuttlecraft.'" Klingon is, however, nothing more than a simple cipher for English with a reverse grammar and a Germanic emphasis. Since fans of Star Trek are unlikely to learn another language so similar to one already learned, I have tried to imagine a truly alien argot with no earthly cognate.

The Taelons speak a whispery language that often seems nonsensical when translated into English, largely because the alien argot lacks many of our own grammatical constraints: for example, there are no nominative nouns, no transitive verbs, etc.—moreover, every word is ambiguous and polysemic, with subtle nuances of meaning that often seem contradictory. The language abounds in poetic notions that are concocted and dissolved in a moment, according to aesthetic necessity. The aliens do not even believe that they use their language; instead, they say that the language uses them. It is, for them, an entity with a life of its own. It is not a tool used to express ideas; instead, they see it as an ideal virus that uses their own minds as a means for replicating itself through the act communication.

The Taelons subscribe to a Philosophie des Als Ob, in which reality is more exigent than existent: there is never only one possible state of the "as is"; there are only many potential states of the "as if." The Taelons have no cognate for the word "reality," except a gerund that roughly translates as "thinking" or "dreaming." The language does not describe a universe that exists beyond the character of language itself: there are no things that endure (no "states"); there are only traits in action (only "events")—no existing, only becoming. The aliens have no concept of representation. For them, things do not "imitate" each other; instead, they "connect" with each other. The painting of a rose does not depict a flower; instead, the aliens say that the painting strives to become a flower.

The alien argot is defined in part by the following qualities: Predicates are not composed of nouns and verbs; instead, every sentence is reducible to a word that synthesizes noun and verb into a kind of "adjectival infinitive" (not unlike a gerund in English: for example, thinking, dreaming, etc.). Such a "nounverb" is a trait in action, referring simultaneously to a quality and its conduct. The language has no notion of a complete sentence: there are only intransitives modified by various affixes that inflect some quality, according to a logic that at first seems more associative than designative.

Predicates do not index a temporal relation. Sentences, for example, have no tense, except the present tense. There is thus no way to express an action that takes place in a yesterday or a tomorrow. Instead, the aliens express the passage of time in terms that evoke a state of mind, like a mood: the future tense is expectant (the present act of hoping for an event to happen); the past tense is nostalgic (the present act of pining for an event to return). Time, for the aliens, is defined not through a "sequence" of causalities, but through "rhizomes" of coincidence.

Predicates do not index a contrary relation. There are no antonyms that designate an opposition between one concept and its other extreme: no words for non-, anti-, etc., only inflections of an idiom that translates (inadequately) as "and/or" or "eitherboth." Taelons make no distinction, for example, between subject and object, between cause and effect, etc., since they use only one word to designate both terms at the same time. There are few anthropic analogues for this principle of synthesis, except maybe for the Tao of Buddhism or the Advaita of Hinduism.

Predicates do not imply a singular relation. Whereas English presumes by default that a noun is singular, unless modified by a plural suffix, the alien argot presumes by default that a "nounverb" is multiple, unless modified by an affix that denotes a singular, the "one among many." The Taelons consider the plurality of cases before they consider the specialty of one case: the word for an event is thus always plural (unless modified) since the aliens regard each event in terms of all its cases: e.g., the "table" as it has become, as it might become, etc….

Premises such as these can provide the basis for an alien idiom with its own grammar and lexicon: for example, the sentence "We come in peace" can be translated into the phrase sinaüi ëuhur¨a (pronounced: "shee-nha-wheeee, yhoo-hurrr-rha," with the letter R trilled, and the vowels aspirated at the back of the throat). The expression translates very literally into the phrase "arriving as if fierce and/or serene." The aliens draw no distinction between antonyms; hence, their idiom for "making peace" is the same as their idiom for "making war." In both cases, the two possible meanings are always presumed to be implied in the statement itself, as if to suggest the multiplicitous possibilities of every initiated encounter.

Working on a dictionary plus a grammar text for the show, I edited all Taelon speech in English and translated dialogue into the alien argot, creating other neologisms whenever necessary (such as the "skril," a symbiotic laser; and the "synod," an alien judiciary, etc.); moreover, I wrote riddles and prayers in the language, plus an alien fable, entitled las¨amali (pronounced: "lah-shammah-lee"). Based upon the story by Aesop about the race between the turtle and the rabbit (except that the two characters, las¨a and mali, can be functionally interchanged in order to convey more than one moral point), the fable refers to the act of "transcending oneself through struggle"—an act that fuses riskiness and discipline: las¨amali. The two characters satirize a pair of pets owned by my friend Natalee Caple.

Earth: The Final Conflict aspires to be an intelligent contribution to the genre of science-fiction (although the show does liberally mix its merits with its faults—much like the premiere episodes of Star Trek). Poets wishing to learn more about the alien argot are encouraged to consult the web site at www.taelons.com, where they might find a more extensive monograph about the language, plus an exhaustive vocabulary, including examples of Taelon speech. Like the poet Jackson Mac Low (who has performed vocals for the aliens in the movie Men In Black), the avant-garde has had to make a modest living in the oddest venues—almost as if poetry itself has become so heteroclite in the modern milieu that it is now nothing more than an alien idiom that has no real home except in the world of science-fiction.

las¨amali:

omr¨uvala
las¨a qiloüi mali
viloüi z¨ava
las¨a viloüi
s¨oloüa
mali viloüi
s¨oloüa

las¨a
ëeve ne-üevama
mali
ëeve ne-üevama

las¨a ëulumi
tolova
teüe tolova
mali meneli las¨a
mali tolova

üe-üevama
teüe tolova
A Taelon Fable

once upon, what if...
nimbly, daring, gently
by comparing
nimbly, faring
as if fast
gently, faring
as if slow

nimbly
early, free of caring
gently
later, full of caring

nimbly, languishing
as though finishing
without finishing
gently, vanquishing, nimbly
thus gently, finishing

moral: to cherish
thereby to finish

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography: Book I of Information Theory, a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award (Best Poetic Debut, 1994). Bök has also written an academic treatise, entitled Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science.

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