A Linguistic Kessel Run

Mark Liberman has a post up at Language Log discussing Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, and in particular his “upper case phoneme”.

I’m a fan of Ian M. Banks’ Culture novels, but I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that they might be improved in their approach to matters linguistic. As an example, on p. 470 of his recently-released novel Matter, we learn that “Marain, the Culture’s language, had a phoneme to denote upper case”.

Linguists would usually call a unit that denotes something a morpheme (or perhaps a word), not a phoneme, even if it was only one phoneme long. (In fact, we sometimes find meaningful units whose effect on pronunciation is just a single feature.)

In addition, it’s odd to find a morpheme that signals something essentially in the realm of writing, like alphabetic case; and also to find that Marain still uses upper case in (some of) the same ways that English does.

I’d like to suggest, respectfully, that Liberman is being way too nice. The quoted passage from the book makes it pretty clear that what Banks means: the Marain language has the ability to indicate aurally that something is a proper name or otherwise an Important Word. But Banks calling this an “upper-case phoneme” is a basic mistake on two levels. First, he seems to have confused phonemes and morphemes, and second, he has confused a property of written language with spoken language. Liberman suggests a few interpretations of “upper-case phoneme” that would be linguistically defensible, but they’re increasingly implausible. No, what we have here is the linguistic equivalent of making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs: an absurdity brought on by the fact that the writer didn’t know what he was talking about.

Of course, none of this really matters, and my irritation is, I’m sure, tiny compared to the irritation of a physicist trying to watch Star Trek. But it would be nice if people using linguistic vocabulary would at least try to get it right.


  1. Isn’t this the difficulty for the writer? “Jack of All Trades, and Master of None” is what it reminds me of. I have a wonderful story to tell, I have created a lovely and complex world, with deep and mysterious characters… but I don’t know everything I need to know to bring it alive.

    Science fiction is especially cruel to the writer in this regard – how many of us are actual scientists in the fields we write about? I know lots of physicists and they will all say, when asked about a principle slightly out of their field of expertise, that they don’t know “very much” about that subject. Yet as writers, we must get it “right” when we put fingers to keyboard.

    Hence, the acknowledgement section – to thank those intrepid souls who returned our phone calls and spent 30 minutes explaining exactly how 8Gs will affect the astronaut, and how the muscles of her face will stretch. All so we sound intelligent when we write that paragraph.

  2. My favorite bit of Star Wars historical revisionism is that the Kessel Run is actually taking a path through a well-fortified star system that most smuggler’s have to avoid (read swing-wide), but he’s fast enough to shorten the run and fly closer to the Kessel garrisons because he’s fast enough to evade their efforts to catch him.

    But then this is why I’m not a fan of so called “hard sci-fi”. As long as the author is talented enough to sustain a reasonable level of disbelief, I’m fine. Most of the authors that become obsessed with reality (as depicted in their stories) do so at the detriment to drama or their character’s apparent liveliness.

    From my time among Constructed Language enthusiasts, I was surprised how often they were able to find an obscure natural language that had some feature they would like to include in their work that otherwise seemed nonsensical.

  3. Yeah, that’s the rub, and I do sympathize with the poor writer that has to satisfy so many demanding scientists. I always take refuge in vagueness when this comes up: don’t use the word “parsec” or “phoneme” unless you really know what it means.

    David: There’s actually a name for that habit. It’s ANADEW (A Natlang Already Does, Except Weirder).

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