Friday, 31 October 2014

No Displacement Activity

This is it for a month, probably.  In less than eleven hours I'm going to start on the first draft of 'Unspeakable', ensure I write at least 1728 words and then, regardless of whether I've written that many or more the previous day, do the same the next day, and the next, and the next, right up until it's either finished (i.e. has 51840 words or more) or the month of November comes to an end.  There will also be the minimum of displacement activity.  I've noticed that there seems to be a lot of paraphenalia around NaNoWriMo which seems almost calculated to distract.  I'm aware of Scrivener for example and even that looks like a distraction.  It might make me more efficient but I would have to learn how to use it and I get the feeling my words would end up trapped inside it if I'm not careful.  I might use Lyx instead although it's not really the same, or I might just write stuff and cut and paste it together.  Apparently there's a thing called Lyx-Outline which makes it more like Scrivener.  Here we go though, don't we?  I'm not writing, I'm looking up stuff about document processing instead.  Bad, bad, naughty Mandy!

To some extent, world-building is a form of displacement activity, as is going on the internet or Facebook.  Back in the day, it was just a Pentel and an exercise book for me and very little distraction.  This morning I decided to look for an application which made this computer more like a typewriter by limiting internet access and ensuring I'd stay on-task, then realised the Wi-Fi wasn't working so I couldn't.  It took a while for the irony of my irritation to dawn on me.

What I want to do is purely write, write, write, plus plan a bit.  Anything else, like designing a cover, chatting on the NaNo fora, making endless cups of coffee or whatever, is not going to happen.

What is going to happen is my invention of a future version of English.  The plot pivots on the quote from George Santayana:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".  

This quote will be inscribed on a clay model of a pregnant sea horse in the final, end-stage version of English, in the following form:


Su will visit her great-grandfather in Cair Kent (currently known as Canterbury) and find the sea horse.

Her relative will have no idea what it means or its significance, or even which language it's in, and the same will of course apply to the naive reader, i.e. someone who hasn't read this blog entry.  This will pique her curiosity to the extent that she feels an insatiable desire to know what this unknown language is and what this inscription means.  However, and here you might want to stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers, I am about to explain what it means, and then explain where I'm coming from with that.

A close-to-literal translation gets us to "People what forget what happened are going to have to do it again".  Santayana's quote is in fact often paraphrased in various ways and this is just one more.  Most of this sentence is easy to explain and in fact is pretty close to English as she is now spoke.  English in this scenario will die out in 2899, and not of natural causes - it will be at the peak of its success, but pride comes before a fall, "and his hryre waes micel" (or byth) to quote the parable of the foolish man who built his house upon the sand.  The intervening nine centuries will change the language from its current form, and just as that quote is hard to understand for today's Anglophones, so would a quote from almost equally far in prosperity, down as far as this is above us in time, be hard for us to "grok" (as is the word "grok").

First of all, this has been mangled by the Great Vowel Shift.  Around the time of the Black Death, the pronunciation of English long vowels in particular began to drift from their previous positions.  In the improbable event of me remembering accurately, it started with the long I and long U, which were pronounced like "ee" and "oo" at the time.  They became unsteady and started to turn into today's "eye" and "ow".  This in turn left vacancies for the other vowels to occupy, which went on to pull the rest along until we were left with the way we say the vowels and diphthongs today, giving English one of its most distinctive features - weird spelling and peculiar vowels, hardly any of which are pure other than schwa.

This brings me to the backwards E.  This is a schwa, the most common vowel in the English language which however has no single written form, hence the extra letter.  It sneaks in when we don't notice, when we're not thinking about the words we're saying but in the ones we're about to say or have just said.  In this inscription, however, I've chosen to write it, and since it's such an unnoticed vowel, it can't be easily written so I've chosen to use the existential quantifier to represent it, since that is in fact an inverted E like its lowercase phonetic alphabetic equivalent.

The other vowels have generally been affected by a continuation of the Great Vowel Shift.  Going through it one word at a time:

Paipo - "people".  This is actually more like "one" or "they" in the impersonal sense, and is really a pronoun, not the word "people" as a noun.

Wo - "what".  This is the relative pronoun, currently "who" for people and "which" or "that" for inanimate objects.  Other such pronouns include "whose".  It's "what" because of the tendency of English to lose grammatical gender and of course even now "what" is used to refer to animate subjects.  Unlike the current English usage, it's invariant, so "wo" can mean "whose" or "of which" as well as "which" or "who".  The O is pronounced as in "hot" and the T is missing because it turned into a glottal stop before being dropped completely.

Fki - "forget".  This is now quite far from the word "forget".  It shifted from "forget" to "f'get", then the E shifted to I (this is a short vowel as in "it", then the G was unvoiced to K under the influence of the F, leading to a very un-English looking consonant cluster, except that there's nothing un-English about it.  Incidentally, like most verbs in End Stage English, this is a regular weak verb whose past tense is "fkitid", nothing like "forgot".  Strong verbs are dead.  They've been dying for centuries and now they're shoving the compositous inflorescences.

Epnd - "happened".  Almost all lower registers of English regardless of dialect drop aitches, and also haitches, and the same happens in other languages, so the letter H, at least at the beginning of a word, can be expected to disappear completely.  The E used to be a short A of course, and the other vowels are gone completely unless you choose to see the N, which has its own syllable, as a vowel in itself.  The -D indicates the past tense, which is generally formed by adding "-id", "-d" or "-t" to the end of the verb stem with a few exceptions.

Gən - this is pronounced "gurn".  It's one of several new auxiliary verbs, now become uninflected particles, this one expressing the future tense.  It already exists in English as "going to" or "gonna", but the final vowel has gone.  Final vowels disappear a lot in English and the same phenomenon can be seen in many other languages, such as North Indian tongues, French and German.  The next word is another example of such a word.

Gor - the O is pronounced as in "hot" again and the R is rolled as in Scots and Italian, and in fact most sensible languages.  This word used to be "got to", which became "gotta", then succumbed to the weakening and voicing which occurs in American English and also lost its final schwa.  Incidentally, both K and P, when they occur between vowels, have also become voiced but this doesn't crop up in the inscription.  "Pibə" is the colourful fruit and the stuff you put on food with salt and an "egə" is a person who listens to text messages without permission.  It means "must" or "have to".  There are other auxiliary particles such as "spaust" - "should" or "ought to" (originally "supposed to").

These two words taken together are an innovative grammatical feature of End Stage English and reveal the fact that they're no longer thought of as verbs.  They're just stuck on before verbs to indicate aspect, tense and the like.

Daw - this is the annoyingly prevalent verb "do", here refreshingly used as a lexical verb, i.e. one which actually properly means something, once again mangled by the vowel shift into a new form.  It's pronounced "Dow" and its past tense is not "did" but "dawd".

I - pronounced as in "it", which is what it actually is.  The final T again became a glottal stop before being lost completely.  From this it's easy to glean that the word "I",meaning "me", no longer has that form - it's now "mai" and is no longer capitalised.

Gain - "again", having lost its initial vowel this time.  This is a spelling pronunciation.  Older people today say "agen", but literacy has led to the pronunciation "agane" becoming popular.  This is once more pushed along by the vowel shift.  It rhymes with "mine".

The other thing of note about this inscription is that it doesn't say "repeat" but "do...again", which is part of the trend towards simplification found in most languages.  The word "repeat" would sound archaic to Aafa's twenty-ninth century ears, assuming he even knows what it means.

Ah yes, Aafa - Su's distant ancestor and one of the last people to speak English publicly, although to him it's a second language.  His partner Imm is one of the last native speakers of the English language.  I shall reveal more later.

Although I've chosen to use the vernacular for this inscription, having ploughed through 'Feersum Enjinn', 'The Book Of Dave' and 'Riddley Walker' with only a very limited degree of success, I have no intention of inflicting this garbled argot on any readers I might acquire.  I found it really trying that Messrs Banks, Self and Hoban, that well-known law firm, chose to do that, not to mention what happens in the middle of 'Cloud Atlas', which I resorted to skimming, and I'm not going to do it.  Most of the dialogue and narrative in this book will be in plain, ordinary, early twenty-first century English and not an off-putting impenetrable thicket of verbiage.

Five and a half hours to go then!  See you on the other side.