The personal blog of the cultural ambassador to the newly discovered planet of the Ant-people (the Myrmeiods).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I’ll begin this time with a few notes on communication-it will make other things more clear later. Myrmeoids' brains process both sound and sight differently than ours do--it's not that these senses are weak, it's that they are less meaningful to them than touch and scent/taste. Not only are they unable to produce spoken language (they have no voices), they cannot even learn to understand our speech--the sound forms no pattern for them. To communicate, they dab scent on each other’s antennae. Where the scent is dabbed along an antenna is a "morpheme," their equivalent of a phoneme; our language is made of sound patterns, theirs is made of patterns of different kinds of touches. The scent makes the touches easier for them to understand, but they can learn to talk without scent--a bit like we can learn to read lips.

To talk with them, I use my two fingers to touch. My fingers are about the same length and shape as their antennae (though much thicker). When I transliterate words or names in their languages, I use a method that is standard among those of us who work with Myrmeoids. the correct length, though obviously much thicker, and have the right number of joints. Since each antenna has three receptive points, and both talking-antennae can dab scent at once, they have an anatomical maximum of twenty-one morphemes, each of which has been arbitrarily assigned one of the twenty-one consonants in our alphabet. To make their words pronounceable vocally, the convention is to insert a vowel after each consonant, in alphabetical order. Of course, we could just use one vowel over and over, but that would be boring. Changes in speed, which matter in some of their languages but not others, are indicated by apostrophes and dashes. The reason morphemes cannot be assigned to vowels directly is that there is no way to ensure that the resulting letter-strings would be pronounceable. This system can’t work in reverse, however, because many human languages lose meaning if vowels are not recorded (or: mny hmn lnggs ls mnng f vwls r nt rcrdd. S wht mn?). Instead, to convert human languages to Myrmeoid languages, the number of symbols is first reduced to twenty-one by combining similar letters before transliteration.

So, my hosts here are the La’heli family. There are rather a lot of them, though by their own standards they are, if anything, a small family. Myrmeoid families are communal, with fifteen or twenty adults tending the children and the family business together. The La’helis own about twelve acres, a good spread for people the size of a small lobster, where they raise a sort of a crab-apple from which they make wine and brandy, and also urdles. Urdles are rather like big, fat snakes as much as six feet long, and they are raised for both eggs and meat. How they slaughter animals so much bigger than they are, I do not know, but I will apparently find out in a week or so, as several urdles are scheduled to be “harvested.” The farm also has a vegetable patch for the family’s own use, and several acres of forest backing up to forested portions of neighboring farms. I have been told not to walk in the forest unaccompanied, as large animals sometimes move through there on the way between game preserves. Being told I need such small guardians was strange, until I realized that at least they know what is dangerous and what isn’t.

I get along well with the La’helis, and spend a lot of time with some of them, but so far, only one has become a true friend; Danekinohu, a being of indeterminate sex whom I nonetheless tend to think of as male. I call him Dan, for short, in my journal. You may notice that most of the names and words I use are fairly short (two to four morphems long) and include apostrophes and dashes. Dan's name is different, because he is ethnically different from the other La’heli’s; they are what are called “country people,” descendants of the indigenous peoples of this continent, while Dan is an Imperial, an ethnicity that is still in some ways dominant, even though the empire itself has long since broken up. An analogy might be an Anglo in one of the former British colonies on Earth. Most farmers around here are country people, and Dan, like most Imperials in the region, is a city boy by birth. But he is a mechanic by training, and was asked to join the family in order to build and maintain the cider presses and the distillery. He is intensely curious; he joined the farm precisely because he was raised in the city, and he befriended me precisely because I am an alien. Anything new or complicated is a great game to him. He is intelligent enough to lean anything his curiosity prompts him to study (he is already fluent in a sort of transliterated English—if I can order him books printed in Braille when the spraft comes again, I will). If I can get him away from the presses next week, I will try to get him to take me walking in the woods.

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