Friday, May 22, 2015

The Tree Language - Some Problems

I know I said that we'd get to numbers today, plus perhaps if I hadn't run out of steam some other interesting classes of words such as colours. However, it's getting to the point where in explaining this, my first conlang to you, I can see some of the problems with it.

Cultural Appropriation

The first problem being of course, cultural appropriation. Perhaps it's because I began work on the Tree Language about five years ago, and our younger selves never know as much as our present selves; or maybe it's due to the fact that fantasy, as a literary, is rampant with exoticism and cultural appropriation. Either way, I worried about using Ogham as a model writing system since I didn't want to seem like I was ripping off the grandfather of fantasy, Tolkien, but I had no problem ripping off an entire culture by appropriating a Hopi symbol and modifying it to suit my own needs.

There's also something really hypocritical about whining about how I shouldn't use the Deep Forest symbol, since that musical group also appropriated the art of other people, but then I turn around and essentially do the same myself.

I could say something along the lines of how this is 'homage'; that because Trees, in Omorbia, are the oldest and wisest beings, it's actually a compliment to use a Hopi symbol in constructing their language. But isn't this just another lame excuse? I'm the first person to jump up and say that George R.R. Martin and the Star Trek universe are guilty of stereotyping POC as 'barbarians' through the Dothraki and Klingons respectively, but just because the stereotyping is of a supposed 'good' trait (i.e. wisdom, mysticism, etc) doesn't make it any less harmful. Every human is capable of experiencing the full range of human emotion and human experience. And so we shouldn't limit certain groups to only a set of characteristics, whether good or bad.

It's the problem and the challenge with speculative genres. I want to create a world from the ground up, with its own cultures, creatures, legends and traditions. But my work will always be coloured by my experience here on Earth. However dumb or ignorant those influences are, I cannot avoid them or repress them. All I can do is notice them and try to do better in the future.

So what would you do in my situations? Toss out the Tree writing system? Toss out those letters that were modified from the Hopi symbol? I haven't had time to sit down and think about what I should do next. I've used Japanese, Mandarin, and East Cree as some of the models that I've worked with in terms of syllable structure, tonal structure, and verbal structure respectively. But does the writing system go beyond using models into something more nefarious? What is the ethical thing to do? What do you think?

In Translation

Another problem that crops up has to do with the sounds of Tree Language. So far, I've explained that the Tree Language has 22 different sounds, many of which are vowels. It marks differences between vowels that a speaker (and reader) of English never would. And then there's the problem of tones. So far, in this explanation of the language, I've used a certain symbology to denote the five tones. For instance:

Extra Low: ˩fy
Low: ˨yɔ
Mid: ˧ʝa
High: ˦ʃɑ
Extra High: ˥θo

But that's a bit too linguist for the everyday reader. Then I found it, the alternate way to denote the tones, above the vowel of the syllable in question (font enlarged so you can see the differences):

Extra Low: fy̏
Low: yɔ̀
Mid: ʝā
High: ʃɑ́
Extra High: θő

So far, so good. Much more elegant, and it'll make my text more readable. But then there's the problem of the numerous similar vowels. Here they are:

y
Y
æ
a
ɞ
ʊ
u
o
ɔ
ɑ

There's also θ and ð, which both sound to native English speakers like "th". But that's easy. The Tree Language doesn't have a 'd' sound, nor an 'h' sound, and so θ can be denoted in my story, a primarily English text, as 'th', and ð can be denoted as 'dh'.

'f' and 'v' are both easy, as their sounds and English letters both correspond to the IPA notation. ʃ is and will be continued to be denoted in the Mage's Apprentice as 'sh' corresponding to its sound. 'ʒ' sounds like English 'g' as in 'age', and since there are no 'g' letters in Tree, that's what 'ʒ' will be in the stories.

'ʝ' is a 'y' sound, and so we come to another set of problems. It sounds very similar to 'j' as well as 'ʎ'. But these are (c/v) sounds, and so will never end a syllable and so never have a tonal marker on them. So they are free for other marks..

To make it easy for English readers, I'll mark them all as 'y' instead of the sound confusion that would come along with 'j'. 'ʝ' will be 'y', 'j' will be 'ÿ' and 'ʎ' will be 'y᷉ '. This won't interfere with the vowels since those marked 'y' and 'Y' are actually closer to an 'e' or 'i' sound.

'w' is straightforward and will not change. Same goes for 'l'. Small mercies. 'ɹ' will be 'r'.

Vowels:

Now we come to the difficult bit. Here are the groups of sounds that are similar (in IPA with corresponding English vowel sound):

E
y
Y
ɞ

A
æ
a
ɑ

O
ʊ
o
ɔ

U
u

'u' is easy. It'll be 'u'. But each of the other three have three similar sounds each. In this case, I'll use the same method to differentiate as I did with the consonant/vowel 'y'. So this is how it will look:

E
y = e
Y = ë
ɞ = e᷉

A
æ = ä
a = a
ɑ = a᷉

O
ʊ = ö
o = o
ɔ = o᷉

There. That solves it. And it will keep me from constantly changing my symbols to capture the differentiated vowel sounds.

Now all I have to do is change all of the Tree Language in the Mage's Apprentice to better capture this system!

The Tree Language So Far:

Introduction
Phonetics
Phonology
Writing System
Word Building
Grammar 1
Grammar 2