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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (12/4/17) 9:01pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  The Art of Language Invention, The Vision
Movies:  Dealt
TV:  <none>

The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building by David J. Peterson
David Peterson is a "conlanger", a hobbyist who uses a deep understanding of linguistics to create elaborate invented languages.  He is in fact one of the few conlangers to "go pro", creating languages for productions like Defiance, Thor: The Dark World, and (most notably) Game of Thrones.  This 2015 volume is, essentially, the book that Mr. Peterson wishes he had had when he was starting out: a thorough, well-organized guide to all the basics of language construction.

The real unexpected pleasure of this book is how it winds up being a brilliant textbook about linguistics.  For anybody who's wasted a lot of hours poking around basic linguistics, this book shows the whole edifice from a different angle.  This isn't just "I am going to cover these linguistics topics so you have a high-level understanding of linguistics", it's "I'm going to cover these linguistics topics so that you can use them when you roll up your sleeves and build a language."

And in so doing, it pays closer attention to slightly different topics than, say, your average McWhorter book or Great Courses audiocourse might cover.  It puts a heavy emphasis on covering the *variety* in natural languages.  For instance, you might not want to invent a language with an alphabet -- but that's not the only option.  You may want to use a syllabery like Japanese, or a pictographic system like Chinese, or an abjad (whch s jst cnsnnts) like Hebrew, or an abugida (kind of a syllabery that alters its symbols to reflect different vowels) like Hindi.  I never knew the term "abjad", and had no idea that abugidas even existed.  Such are the gaps left in a basic hobbyist's view of linguistics.

And so it goes through topic after topic, explaining the widely varying ways that "real" languages work so that you can have bits to build your own language from.  Here are the languages that use Object-Subject-Verb ordering.  Here are the agglutinating languages.  Here are the ones that blow off subjects and objects completely and go all-in on "ergative" and "instrumental" cases.  It shines a light into all the odd corners, building up your knowledge of how many ways languages can be Not Like English.  (Tsez, that obscure southwest-Russian language of nightmarish complexity, makes a welcome appearance.)

It also addresses language development over time.  Many books cover this in lots of ways, usually centering on long-winded explanations of the Great Vowel Shift.[1]  But again, the purpose of the book -- "you will learn how to invent your own languages" -- makes the writer present this material from a refreshing new angle.  It's more thoroughly descriptive -- "okay, here are lots of different ways that langauges shift over time" -- and then it settles into artificial examples -- "okay, I developed this language's history and made it shift like this and like that".  It gives the whole subject an intuitive, tactile feel that I never got from any other book.

And Peterson is a good writer.  He is not a masterful prose stylist, but he still has a voice that comes through in his work -- you feel like there's a person telling you this, instead of an anonymous, neutral-point-of-view Wikipedia article.  He intersperses jokes in the text, and the jokes are funny.  He fills the book with delightful bits of linguistic trivia.  But most importantly, his book is full of clear, engaging explanations.  Like, he gets across the concept of ergative versus instrumental -- a bizarre concept to any English speaker -- without breaking a sweat.  I'll grant that there are times (usually with the minutiae of some of his invented-language examples) where he got too in the weeds even for me, but for almost the whole book, he covers very erudite linguistic material with enthusiasm and clarity.

One of the most interesting bits is in the afterword.  He makes the point that many people who read The Art of Language Invention will *never* invent a language.  So, on some level, you have to wonder: what's the point of it?  He makes the point that his readers can still get value out of knowing who these "conlangers" are and what they do.  If you're creating any work of speculative fiction, you should consider employing a conlanger -- a hobbyist who's created tons of languages -- to create whatever fake language your space-alien dragon-cowboys use, because it'll be far more interesting than whatever "mxxplffsst" bilge you cough up on your own.  And there's also a feeling like the conlanger community is needlessly scattered: that maybe, in addition to writers being aware that conlangers exist, conlangers should be aware of each other, too.

It promises an interesting future for artificial language construction.  I hope we see it come to pass.  In the meantime, this book is a must-read for any linguistics nerd.


The Vision by Tom King and Gabriel Walta
This is the 2015-2016 King/Walta run of The Vision -- for those of you up on your MCU, that's the semi-organic android constructed by Ultron who rebelled and joined the good guys (spoiler alert for Age of Ultron, I guess).

This was a fascinating read.  I didn't absolutely love it, but I liked it a lot, and can totally respect someone loving it without reservation.  It's another example of what seems to be a promising subgenre in comics: taking a slight or silly comics property and taking it deadly seriously.  This is paying off huge dividends with the fascinating Hanna-Barbara runs, most notably with their heartbreaking Flintstones social satire.  Here, we have the Vision, not nearly as silly a character, but as far as I can tell, still a sort of background, second-tier property.

This story is best summarized as "the Vision tries to build himself a robot family, and that goes very, very wrong".  The story plays out like a Coen Brothers farce played back at 33rpm -- everything is slowed down to the point that what could be a black-comedic pileup of bad circumstances instead plays out as a series of heavy, emotional hammer-blows.[2]  One thing goes wrong, and another, and another, and every adjustment, every compensating motion, only makes things worse.  The plot is like quicksand.

The story has sententious narration -- you could imagine Ricky Jay deadpanning every line -- that adds to this heavy, fatalistic feel.  We meet a happy, good-natured character.  The narration tells us exactly how this person is going to die, and what their dying thoughts would be.  Again, this story is a machine that produces unhappiness, and those very specific pieces of foreshadowing redirect your attention to watching the mechanisms whereby the machine does its thing.

At its best, it's like poetry.  At its worst, it's like schlock-y teenage poetry -- in love with telling you that it knows how hard life is, and how weird it is to try to be *normal*, man -- and you half expect the book to bleat that you just don't *understand*, slam a door, stomp up to its room, and listen to the Cure at maximum volume.

But when it doesn't nudge you in the ribs with Important Thematic Content, it works very well as a story.  I care about the characters.  It's a page-turner.  And the plot proceeds by a convincing, merciless logic that would indeed do a Coen Brothers movie proud.  And it's finite: it's a tightly-constructed 12-issue run, enough to bring it to a definitive conclusion, as well as pay off all those dire predictions that its narrator set up.

It's definitely worth reading.  It's a good story, and it must be far different in tone than anything else on the shelves these days.  Just expect it to be a little self-important and a little overwrought, and you won't be disappointed.


Dealt
This is the 2017 documentary about Richard Turner, arguably the best close-up card magician of all time.

Mr. Turner prefers the phrase "card mechanic" to describe what he does: "a car mechanic can fix your car, a card mechanic can fix cards," he says by way of explanation.  He can show people exactly how he's cheating, but he does it so well that the explanation doesn't exactly help -- it only makes it far clearer that your powers of perception are woefully outmatched by a guy who can, say, deftly pick up thirty-seven cards off the top of a deck.

Mr. Turner also prefers that no one focuses on the fact that he's blind.

It's something that only slowly dawns on people who watch him perform.  His patter is perfectly arranged to prevent him from needing to see anything -- he'll smoothly tell an audience member to choose "card one, two, or three" as he deals out some variation on three-card Monty, deftly preventing the audience member from pointing and saying "that one".  So part of this documentary is just being gobsmacked that not only can he do all of these intricate, flawless card tricks, but he's doing them all without sight.

That said, the documentary really comes into its own when he talks about how Turner deals with his blindness.  I know from some experience that people can be very particular about what accommodations they will and will not make for a disability.  When my mother became profoundly deaf, she was perfectly happy to attach blinking lights to every alarm in the house and learn to operate a TDD, but learning even simple sign language was an absolute no-go.[3]

And so it is with Mr. Turner, to the extreme.  There's footage from talk shows that cranks down to extreme slow-motion the moment after a breezy hairdo brings up his blindness, just so you can get a look at the weary, angry micro-expression that flits across the magician's face.  And you see how little he's willing to "be a blind person" -- use a cane, or a guide dog, or a screen-text reader -- instead, usually relying on family members to do vision-related tasks for him.  It's like accepting (say) the cane means accepting that there's a disability, which in turn means accepting weakness and giving up a certain rugged independence.[4]

So much of the real story to Dealt is about coming around to that acceptance -- lessening the concerns about feeling weak or coming across as blind, and thereby gaining more freedom and true independence.  It feels at times like it wants to get kind of schlocky-inspirational, but the details -- of card manipulations, of living with blindness, of family life -- manage to keep it grounded.

Like I said, I felt a connection to the material, but I suppose in the end, barring catsatrophe, we all face a story like this.  With time, with age, we all end up, we all have to decide what accommodations we will make for our declining faculties.  What do we give up doing for ourselves, just to make life easier?  What do we hold on to?


For next week: I just finished watching season one of Jane the Virgin, and I've started in on reading the Book of Genesis (King James translation).  I'm finally starting in on season two of Stranger Things (so far so good), I finally watched Coco, and I'm catching up on a giant backlog of podcasts.  So: lots to write about next week.

_______
[1] Shameful confession: I keep reading about the Great Vowel Shift, and I keep forgetting all the details.  I know that the English 'pirate accent' is, perhaps coincidentally, stranded halfway through said Shift.  The rest of the details elude me.
[2] Trigger warning: a surprising number of pets get murdered in this run.
[3] She attempted lip-reading well past the point where it did any good, and most of us kids just resorted to grabbing a nearby junk-mail envelope and writing stuff down.
[4] Logical readers will argue that, say, using a screen-reader and making it so you don't have to rely on *people* to read things to you actually makes you *more* independent, but people often don't listen to that line of reasoning and oh look suddenly it's the mid-90s and here I am arguing with my mother.

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