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.