Saturday, December 22, 2012

Bird Myths, Pt. 2: African Bird Myths

       When I was writing "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars," (see the Prologue and first four chapters here), I made Capt. Robbin Nikalishin a birder. What better qualification for the man who will head up the mission that encountered the first intelligent lifeform known to humanity -- and who happened to be big birds? During the mission out, there was a lot of boring downtime and one way the crew entertained itself was by telling bird myths, each crewmember telling tales from his or her own culture. Now, this section will be cut or drastically emended if I ever get that monster ready for publication, but I did too much research and had too much fun writing it to let it all disappear, so what better place to display it than on a blog devoted partially to myth in literature?
       I'm sure there are a lot more African bird myths than these that I discovered in the course of my rather hastily done research, but these are a starter.  I'm keeping all the byplay among the crew in this section.  I think it's rather amusing and instructive about what the crew is like and what people understand about their world in the 28th century.  I think you can see, however, why I'm going to have to cut all this part out of the finished novel (supposing I ever finish it).  It simply does nothing to advance the plot.
       Note: Capt. Asante Kibwana (aka Kibby) is Capt. Nikalishin's Second in Command for the mission; he hails from Niroba in East Afrik.
Hammerhead Stork, in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Emmie Bonnet corralled Jon and Mosey and they headed off to the Galley to fetch hot gumby and muffins for the new arrivals, who were soon gorging themselves.  Then Kibby said, “I really should take the Bridge so Wally and Lea can come down.
       “Not until you give us your tales, Captain,” said Robbie.  “You said they were short.”
“They are; in fact, after this fine tale we’ve just heard, they may seem a bit anticlimactical.  The first isn’t really a story – it’s just a bit of Afriken folklore about a creature called the Lightning Bird.  It’s sometimes equated with the hammerhead stork … ”
“Oh, yeah!” exclaimed Robbie.  “There are all kinds of superstitions about that bird – harming one of them is supposed to bring bad luck and it’s considered an ill omen for it to fly over your house.  It builds these gigantic nests, and sometimes people will see a hammerhead fly in and then another animal, often a snake, comes out, so it’s gotten the reputation of being a shape-shifter, like our friend Garuda.  But in this case it’s only because other creatures often share a hammerhead’s nest.”
“Aw, Captain, you’re stealing my thunder!” said Kibby with a grin.
“Well, if it’s real birds we’re going to talk about, I’m likely to know something!  But I don’t know anything about this Lightning Bird business.”
“A folktale says that lightning is a magical bird that strikes down from the sky.  You can see where that comes from, considering how herons and storks strike down lightning-fast into the water with their beaks.  It’s said the bird only manifests its physical form to women; men see nothing but the lightning flash.  It’s been said to run up a woman’s hoe and scratch her body; certainly lightning might produce a phenomenon resembling that.  The bird is said either to enter the ground at the point of its strike or to leave its egg in the ground.  Its fat is the fuel of a lightning strike and was valued in folk medicine if you can dig it up.  Sometimes a shaman might very well have faked what he or she found at the site of the strike.”  Kibby looked apologetic.  “You understand, nobody in Afrik believes this stuff anymore, or at least nobody but the least educated and most superstitious remnant of the population.”
“Well, nobody in Ind really believes Garuda is out there flying around either,” said Nani, “but the tales are a rich part of our culture.”
“And the Mythmakers said, The closest humans can attain to deity is the symbolism of myth and art,” said Robbie.
Avi Oman added rather gravely, “And they also said, To achieve understanding of the unlike is a divine goal.  Isn’t that what we’re doing today?”
A voice came over the intercom.  Lt. Running had arranged things so the Bridge crew could observe the proceedings.  “Cmdr. Smallguard here,” said Wally.  “Captain, what’s this hammerheaded stork look like that would make people think it was the Lightning Bird?”
Robbie explained that the bird’s crest made its head appear in profile to extend on both sides of its neck, like a hammer.  “If I’d known Capt. Kibwana was going to talk about it, I’d have brought a picture.  I have a bunch of birding vids with me on this mission – you see how my tastes in entertainment run!  I’m daresay there’s a hammerhead in there somewhere.”
Ina Malope spoke up suddenly.  “In my part of Afrik we call them ‘hammerchops.’  It’s not because they chop down – it’s from the language that used to be spoken PDA by the Uropian settlers of Southern Afrik.  ‘Chop’ meant ‘head’ or something.  Isn’t that funny?”
“Um,” said Robbie, thinking that what he had read was ‘hammerkop,’ but he wasn’t certain enough of that to correct the Ensign.  “I tell you what – if I find something in my vids, I’ll display it in here for everybody to see.  Maybe I’ll put up the shoebill stork, too.  That one has a real primitive look.  What’s your second tale, Kibby?” 
 “It’s from a Shona myth … ”  Kibby glanced at Ina, who was looking suddenly distracted; Mark’s hand was slyly groping about beneath the table.  “ … about the Sunbirds, which are probably swallows.  Swallows migrate down to that part of Afrik in the spring, so they are linked with the strengthening of the sun.  The tale goes that the Mother-goddess Dzivaguru was challenged by Nosenga, the son of the sky-god, who was jealous of her wealth and wanted it for himself.  To combat him, she darkened her valley with fog and took the light away with her, so that when Nosenga arrived, he found only gloomy darkness.  He knew that she brought the sun out by luring in her pair of Sunbirds, so he devised a magical trap in which to catch them and so was able to bring back the dawn.
“But Dzivaguru wasn’t so easily defeated; she found a way to punish Nosenga and coincidentally all of humankind.  She decreed that the land would become parched; for every bad deed committed by the sons of Nosenga, she would withhold rain and send drought.  And invaders would come who would overthrow the worship of Nosenga.”
 Linna said, “That myth is another in a long string of pre-scientific explanations of natural phenomena, of why we have seasons and drought and day and night.  One greedy, fallible god being punished by another, and humans getting caught in the process.”
“With a moral twist,” added Avi.  “Be good or the goddess will send drought!”  
“Aw, well, I like it anyway,” said Robbie.  “The sun is a pair of golden swallows – who could object to that?  It’s beautiful!  Anything else, Kibby?”
“Well, only that on the continent of Afrik the stars and constellations are viewed a little differently than in Uropian-derived cultures.  The constellations have different names.  One of them is called the Flock of Birds.  It stretches from Capella in our constellation Auriga through Castor and Pollux all the way to Procyon in Canis Minor.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Robbie, “I can visualize the stars as an endless swarm of quelea birds!  Who knew?  I just thought the whole world saw the cosmos the same way!”
“And that’s it for me,” said Kibby.  “Lt. Running and I really had better go take the Bridge now.”
For sunbird myth: 
       Husain, Sharukh  and Bee Willey, “African Myths.” (I hand-copied notes on this from the Google Books version.) 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What You May Not Know about "The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head"

       I just posted a piece on the Ruminations blog called What You May Not Know about The Termite Queen.  It occurred to me that most of the posts I wrote about my first novel happened way back in 2011 and weren't viewed extensively, so there may be people out there who needd a refresher course in what that book is all about.
       The same holds true for my "Labors" series.  The discussions of these books on this blog also haven't been heavily viewed.  So I thought it was about time for a recap.
       At the end of The Termite Queen, the Champion Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head and the Remembrancer (i.e., Bard) Di'fa'kro'mi announce their intention of setting out on an adventure.  Until Kaitrin and the other Star-Beings came, the Shshi didn't know the ocean existed -- it was only a Remembrancer's tale .  The concept of an endless body of water fascinates them and so they prepare to set out on an epic journey. 
       And how better to depict an epic quest than by having the questers relive Greek myths as well as certain other ancient heroic tales?  And who better to experience these adventures but a Hercules stand-in?  And which of my termites is a perfect fit to play Hercules?  Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head, of course!  The series title "The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head" mirrors the Twelve Labors of Hercules, and several of these are re-enacted, although not all of them are suitable for termites culture.  But the primary myths that are re-experienced are the larger ones that are not really associated with Hercules, such as the topic of the first volume -- the Trojan War.
       How can one of the world's great love stories be retold within a termite culture where sex has no relevance except within the Holy Chamber of a fortress where the Mother and the King dwell?  Well, if I told you that, it would be a spoiler!  Suffice it to say that I came up with an ingenious way to make it happen!  And it should come as no surprise that a tale of war would fit well into the termite culture -- one-third of the citizens of a fortress are Warriors, after all.  And the themes of heroism and cowardice and betrayal, of friend turning against friend -- those are universal.
       The opening chapters of The War of the Stolen Mother establish the premise for the entire series.  We not only have to tie it to the end of "The Termite Queen" --  we must also dispatch Ki'shto'ba on a quest to accomplish Twelve Wonders.  And we need to identify Ki'shto'ba with Hercules by giving it the appropriate backstory.  Hercules was sired by Zeus who paid a clandestine visit to Hercules' mother in the guise of her husband.  Hercules had a twin and when they were both in the nursery, he wrestled with two serpents who were trying to kill the twin.   We can't skip those interesting facts, now can we?
       We also have to learn about certain prophecies regarding Ki'shto'ba that are spoken by one of the greatest Seers (a stand-in for the great Greek Seer Teiresias), and we have to provide the hero with its twelve  Companions for the quest.  By the time Ki'shto'ba leaves its home fortress of To'wak, it has acquired four of them.  The fifth soon appears -- one of the most important characters in the story -- Za'dut the trickster.  Terrific character -- I love it!
       Only then can we embark on the War of the Stolen Mother itself.  And how I accomplish that will not form a subject of this post.  Let me just say that even as in the Iliad itself, there is plenty of action, mass battles, heroic single combat, trickery, prophecy, betrayal, funeral games, and ultimately catastrophe -- everything you would want in an epic fantasy!  Any reader who enjoys a uniquely imaginative depiction of this sort of story would love reading this book!

       Now I'll quickly recap the rest of series, for those who never read my earlier posts.  Di'fa'kro'mi the Remembrancer, who is the narrator of these tales, originally wrote three volumes, but they turned out to be too long, so Kaitrin Oliva (and me, by proxy) converted them into six.  They divided well because they're episodic, and they have undergone a few changes of title:

Volume One: The War of the Stolen Mother  
Already published on Amazon and Smashwords.
Volume Two:  The Storm-Wing
Ki'shto'ba earns the new surname: Monster-Slayer.  It kills five monsters in this volume and meets a new Shshi people who will have a profound effect on our hero and all the Companions.  This volume is almost ready to publish; I've formatted the CreateSpace template, drawn the map, and am trying to complete the covers (having trouble with Gimp and those pesky text-boxes again).  Probably will be published sometime in January.
Volume Three: The Tale of the Valley of Thorns 
The Song of Roland and its disastrous aftermath.  Enough said.
Volume Four: Beneath the Mountain of Heavy Fear
Descent into the Underworld - oh, boy!
Volume Five and Six: The Quest for the Golden Fungus
This has to be split into two volumes -- just too long otherwise -- but I'm uncertain as to how to handle the individual volume titles.  This is how I would like to do them:
Volume Five: The Quest for the Golden Fungus: The Companions Reach the Sea (tentative subtitle -- may change)
Volume Six: The Quest for the Golden Fungus: The Revenge of the Dead Enemy
The problem here is the title length -- going to look horrible on Amazon and also on the title page.  If I drop the Quest part and use the subtitles as the main title, we lose the obvious reference to the Quest for Golden Fleece (I'm sure you guessed that was the reference!).  So I'll have to think about that some more.
And then I mean to write (someday) a seventh volume, because the end of v.6 leaves a lot of loose ends.  It will be entitled
Volume Seven: The Buried Ship at the End of the World.
Nothing to reveal on that one at the moment.

       Now all of this should make you quite eager to begin reading this series!  I promise you, if you like action and adventure, with great characters and some psychological angst thrown in as a bonus, you're going to love "The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head"!
       I guarantee it! (as the gentleman on the Men's Warehouse commercials always says!)



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Conlanging for Beginners: Some Things to Avoid

       This is an addendum to the previous post. I wanted to discuss some bad practices and give some examples from a couple of my favorite TV science fiction series, as well as from a book I'm currently reading.  I'll put my summary first this time:
  • Don't gratuitously insert strange symbols or non-standard uses of Roman characters into your language in order to make it seem more alien or fantastic.
  • Always be aware that your language is not written natively in the Roman alphabet!
  • Try to devise names that carry weight.
  • Don't use words that suggest English words, even if that meaning is appropriate to the character.
        Here is an example of the first item above.  "We were taken into the presence of Ckatr F'ik the Xppelt of Ji'ma."  Your reader will not know how to pronounce these words.  You the author  may pronounce Ckatr as "Kahter" and Xppelt as "Ekspelt," but nobody else will know that.  They may interpret the words as Chahter and Zippelt. Better to spell as phonetically as possibly for English speakers (or for whatever language is native to the people who will most likely read your book). Simply write "Kahter" (The "c" has no function, and if you put "Kater" it's going to get pronounced like the English word "cater"); and to write "Ekspelt." (And why did you double the "p" if there was no reason?  And you turned "x" into a syllable of its own.  English speakers see an "x" as a consonant and they pronounce it "ks" or possibly "z.") 
       Of course, the best thing to do is to work out your phonology first, as I said in the previous post.  Then you can be consistent in your phonetic usage.  It may not look as "alien," but it will be more convincing.
       Keep the language as simple and unadorned as possible.  Let's consider the words F'ik and Ji'ma in the paragraphs above.  What is the purpose of the apostrophes?  In one case the marking comes before the vowel and in the other, after.  An apostrophe is sometimes used as the symbol for a glottal stop.  Did you intend for a glottal stop to fall in those words?  Probably not, because many readers will not know it's a glottal stop.  Are you using it to show something is omitted, as in English "it's" or "they're"?   That would be OK, but again you need to make rules. 
       I would suspect those apostrophes were inserted as another attempt to try to make the word look more "alien." So now you decide to change the spelling to Fiik and Jiima.  In that case how do you want the words to be pronounced?  Fee-eek? Or perhaps you intend the double i to represent the "i" sound in "like."  But nobody will know that, either.
       Now, if you've looked at my conlangs, you're going to say, "But you use lots of apostrophes, and you use a lot of strange, unpronounceable characters as well!"  That's certainly true, and I've been questioned for it, but I need to clarify what I said above: if apostrophes or any other characters have a function to play in your conlang, then they're OK.  In !Ka<tá (the Bird language), I use apostrophes to separate vowels, so the reader knows to pronounce them individually and not as a diphthong. Thus, if I wanted the words "fee-eek" and "jee-eema," I would spell them "fi'ik" and "ji'ima."  A word pronounced like English "like" would be spelled "laik" because when I wrote out my phonology I settled on the spelling "ai" for that diphthong.  But if I spelled the word "la'ik" it would be pronounced "lah-eek." There would never be a word spelled "fiik" because I have never assigned a pronunciation to the vowel combination "ii."
       As for some of the other strange characters in !Ka<tá, such as !, <, ^, and ♫, they represent sounds that aren't present in English, or indeed in any Earth language.  I don't have a lot of !Ka<tá in The Termite Queen and what does occur is largely for effect, I confess.  But what you do find there is constructed on some carefully worked-out rules.  If I ever get to the point in The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars where the avians become speaking characters, I will include an appendix with a summation of those rules.  Right now you can find information here.
       Always remember that your language is not written in the English alphabet!  It has its own writing system, whether you create it or not. It could be alphabetical or it could be syllabograms or it could be ideograms, but it's not written in any form present on Earth.  An alphabet symbolizes sounds and so is the most flexible.  Syllabograms represent syllables, which would be combinations of consonants and vowels.  This sort of system produces more characters.  Logograms represent words; this requires even more characters.  Ideograms represent ideas. 
       If your language has an alphabet, you write what is called a transliteration; you make a direct correlation between the sounds represented in the alien alphabet and the same or similar sounds in English.  An alien "b" sound is represented by an English "b," and so fourth.  The sound "ks"could be transliterated as "x," but if your book were to be read by a Spanish speaker, she might interpret it as "h."  That's why I avoid "x" and use "ks," and keep "h" for the normal English aspirate represented by the letter "h."  The "j" and "g" create similar problems.  I always stick to an English sound system, so I use "j" for the initial sound of "jar" and "gem."  I never use "g" except for the initial sound of "give."   
       !Ka<tá is written in an alphabet and so I transcribe it using a transliteration scheme.  The waveforms of Shshi are comparable to syllabograms; Shshi has no vowels or consonants, which are phenomena of vocal speech.  Shshi also has no written form (in the early stages of my stories).  Putting this sort of language into Roman characters is called romanization, not transliteration.  Kaitrin transcribed the language as arbitarily assigned English syllables separated by vertical lines. 
       Now for some real-world examples of bad practice.  I'll start with the book I'm reading: Mary Doria Russell's two volumes, The Sparrow and The Children of God.  I don't know how fully the author constructed the two languages of the planet Rakhat (Ruanja and K'san), but I do know that her apostrophe use is not totally clear.  I can't tell whether she had a system or not.  One of the peoples is named the Jana'ata, which appears to use my method of separating vowels with apostrophes.  However, the name of one of the main Jana'ata characters, Supaari, doesn't contain an apostrophe between the two a's.  Does this mean that perhaps the word is pronounced "Supari"?  Or perhaps the doubled "aa" gives the vowel a different sound, making it Supawri or Supeiri.  Personally, I pronounce it "Supa'ari" when I read it, but there's no way to tell what the author intended.  Similarly, I don't know why K'san has an apostrophe. "Ksan" would be pronounced exactly the same way.
       Another thing she does is to render the Ruanja word for Jana'ata as "djanada."  My question here is why spell the sound of English "j" two different ways?  It appears to me she does that simply to make the Ruanja form appear different.
       On the whole, though, I have no quarrel with Mary Doria Russell's naming language.  It works well in context and doesn't distract.   The same cannot be said for some of the gobbledegook that turned up in the TV series, Stargate: SG1.
       Now, I'm a big fan of that series -- I viewed it a number of times because it was rerun at a time of day when I wanted to sit down and watch something while I ate supper.  I consider it a most imperfect series that was highly entertaining even so, because it constantly pokes fun at itself.  One time I saw one of those programs where the producers and directors and cast discuss a series, and the producers said one of the hardest jobs they had was to come up with the alien languages.  And it shows.  They definitely could have used the services of the Language Creation Society!
       Here are two examples: the words "Goa'uld" and "Teal'c."  The first is the parasitic race that winds itself around peoples' brainstems and takes control of them.  If you have a villainous race, you should give it a name with a punch. Goa'uld has no punch; it's hard to enunciate and gets mispronounced all the time in the series, mostly as Goold. And if the apostrophe is meant to separate vowels, then you need one between the "o" and the "a" as well.
       But "Teal'c" is even worse.  This is the name of the powerful Jaffa warrior, a sometimes sinister and always intimidating presence.  And yet he's given a name that sounds like a little bell tinkling!  It's pronounced "Teelk," which is also hard to say, so it becomes "Tilk" a lot of the time, rhyming with "milk."  And what in the world is the apostrophe doing between the "l" and the "c"? It doesn't replace a vowel -- they never say "Teelik" or such.  Talk about giving a big, strong, formidable character a weak, ridiculous name!  I can't imagine what those writers were thinking ! 
       Just imagine if Darth Vader had been named Tink Ellia!  Would that have intimidated anybody?  That sort of character needs a name with strong, dark vowels that can be bellowed!  "Teal'c" can't even be pronounced without drawing your lips back in a smile!
       Goa'uld also has a word "kree."  The online dictionary of the language cited at the end of this post gives the meaning thus: "a military order. Loosely translated as attention, listen up, concentrate. Also appears to mean attack, retreat, move out, fall back, fire, cease fire, attention, stand down, etc."  They are constantly bellowing: "Jaffa! Kree!"  I can remember one episode where somebody asks Daniel Jackson what "kree" means, and he says, "Just about anything," and that certainly seems to be the case!  Stick it in front of any other word and it seems to create the imperative form.
       You could say that Goa'uld suggests the word "ghoul."  That's what I thought when I first heard it.  But that brings me to another thing to avoid in constructing a naming language.
       Don't model your words on some English word even if you feel that meaning fits the character.  My examples here are from Farscape, a much more ambitious and well-thought-out series and one of my favorites.  The heroine is named Aeryn Sun.  Remember, she is an alien from a distant galaxy, and she's not a delicate character, especially in the beginning.  But she gets named this romantic-sounding English name (Erin), with the spelling changed to make it seem far, far away.  Of course, you don't how it's spelled when you're watching the series.  "Sun" gets pronounced different ways -- sometimes like the English word "sun" and sometimes with the vowel in "book" or as "soon." 
       Similarly, the beautiful blue priestess had the exotic name of Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan, but "Zhaan" is pronounced simply "Zan."  It was a long time before I knew how it was supposed to be spelled.  Why spell it "Zhaan" if you're not going to pronounce it "zhahn" or "zha-an"? 
       Aeryn belongs to a race called the Sebaceans.  I found this one particularly strange.  Before I knew how it was spelled, I visualized it as "Sebatian" because I couldn't imagine how any writer would want to suggest that a sebaceous gland had formed the basis for a people's name! 
       The name of "Scorpius" of course suggests scorpion, which certainly fits the character.  Rygel was obviously inspired by the constellation Rigel, which I can overlook.  But nevertheless I would prefer to see a writer of a naming language avoid suggesting English or Earth meanings in their alien words. After all, you're not in Kansas any more!
       Here are a couple of references if anyone is interested in learning more about the names and languages in Stargate: SG1 and Farscape: