Archive for January, 2009

Deconstructing Ubese – a Star Wars conlang extrapolation

Saturday, January 31st, 2009
And now for something completely different.

I don't know about you, but I was always intrigued by the language Boushh/Leia spoke in Return of the Jedi. There were only a few examples of it in the film:
"Yatay, yatay, yotoh," supposedly meant "I have come for the bounty on this wookie."
"Yotoh, yotoh" = "$50,000, no less."
"Ey, yotoh" = C-3PO paraphrases this as "Because he's holding a thermal detenator!"
"Yatoh, cha" = C-3PO paraphrases this as "He agrees."
There is something else Boushh/Leia says after the business with Jabba is concluded but I can't really make it out. But the 'yatay yotoh' stuff is what fascinates me.

After a bit of searching I discovered that it was called Ubese. After all this research into linguistics and blogging about conlangs, I thought it would be fun to explore an unknown language, and see if I can deconstruct it, and extrapolate on it. Of course, this would have to be a very simple language; but I've posted a few times about how important I think simplicity is.

Ubese seems to be the ideal choice to examine and extrapolate on. How would you convey meaning with such seemingly limited and simple vocabulary? Such simplicity would imply, to me, that this is a very context-based language; that words mean many different things according to their context. If this is the case, repeating a word, or reduplication, alters, shifts, deepens, etc. the meaning. If this is the case, what could the sentences mean, if translated to English?

"Yatay, yatay, yotoh," supposedly meant "I have come for the bounty on this wookie." I'm guessing the literal meaning would be something closer to... "I come, bounty." In other words, there is very little literal meaning. In every sentence Boushh is talking about the bounty, and in every sentence 'yotoh' is said, so I don't think its a stretch to assume that yotoh is the word bounty, or probably, given the minimalistic nature of the language, it means just reward or money. By repeating 'yatay,' which must refer to his coming, I think this deepens the importance of his coming; either because he's coming for money, or he's come from a great distance. Being such a minimal language, no connecting words are used - you have to infer what is meant by saying yotoh/bounty. But since he's got a wookie on a leash, its not too hard to guess what bounty he is talking about.

"Yotoh, yotoh" = "$50,000, no less." This is said after Jabba offers $25,000. It makes me wonder if by repeating 'yotoh' it doubles the amount, or just means 'more!'? Here's another question: can it mean EITHER, depending on HOW you say the yotohs? For example, you might say 'yo-TOH, yo-TOH,' with the stress on the latter syllable, to change the meaning from 'bounty, bounty' to 'twice the bounty.' Or, you might say 'yo-TOH, YO-toh' to change the meaning to 'half the bounty' or even, 'the bounty has been cut in half.' But for now, lets decide that it means to double the amount.

"Ey, yotoh" = "Because he's holding a thermal detonator!" This is definitely paraphrased. But what would the literal meaning be here? The word for bounty/reward is repeated, preceded by a vowel sound. AND the really cool thing is, if you listen carefully, THIS time when he says yotoh, he stresses the FIRST syllable. How might this change the meaning? Whatever it is, its something you say when you pull out a thermal detonator. I think the 'ey' is basically a 'hey' like, "Hey look!" There's probably a technical term for this, like 'attentional exclamatory.' And I think the different stress could simply be Boushh's way of connoting that he's about to get really crazy - the same way we change the intonation or stress of a normal phrase to make it obvious we are either being funny or sarcastic. I thought about assigning this change of stress some sort of inflectional meaning, but in a language so minimalistic, it seemed more fun to make this a way for speakers to show some emotion.

"Yatoh, cha" = Boushh agrees to $35,000, and C-3PO paraphrases this as "He agrees." The yatoh is troubling, because if it was another yotoh, along with the one syllable word, it wouldn't be hard to assume that the 'cha' is some sort of affirmative word or even a suffix. But, its yatoh, NOT yotoh; so what could it mean? Without a bigger corpus to study, I'm going to assume that it is an inflection. This sentence agrees to Jabba's compromise, so I'm going to say that the 'a' changes the meaning to be 'you/your.' So by saying 'yatoh, cha,' Leia is saying 'your bounty, ok/yes."

But this raises another question: what about the other words? The meaning of 'yatay' would now be extended to mean 'I come to you.' 'Yotoh' could now be extended to mean either 'my bounty/reward' or 'his bounty' referring to Chewbacca; I'm going to go with 'his bounty.'

Phonology - Known consonants: t, ch Known semi-vowels: y Known vowels: a, ay, o
That's not going to be enough. The phonoaesthetic of this language seems, to me, to be one that wouldn't use lips much, so I'm not going to use p or b.

Yes, I know Boushh's name has a B in it, and he was supposed to be an Ubese bounty hunter, so, given that the name of the people and this Ubese character HAS A B IN IT, UBESE SHOULD HAVE A B IN IT. However, I am ignoring this. Let's face it - Lucas wasn't thinking about linguistics when he created the names, and at best he just approved whatever audio Ben Burtt created for the brief exchange. I'm just using the material that is directly apparent from ROTJ, and, to my ears, a b sound just doesn't fit in with the phonoaesthetic of this language. In fact, I want to stay away from voiced consonants altogether. This also means no front rounded vowels that might require a lot of lip action to make. So here's the phonology I came up with:
t, sh, ch, k, n, l, hh (an h sound further back in the throat), y, ee, ay, i, a, u, o (the six vowels compare with these six words: beet, bait, bit, bat, butt, boat). I kept trying to imagine other words and sounds coming out of Boushh's helmet in that synthesized, amplified, hoarse voice. I realized something that made me think I may have gotten it right: I was keeping my tongue inside my teeth and lips.The language seems like its not supposed to require much effort to pronounce or enunciate.

Morphology - We already have a basic word demonstration in our examples, so lets stay with it. One word is basically a phrase, the meaning of which can be deepened, shifted, extended, etc. if the word is reduplicated, or different stresses are used. Words will consist of open-syllables (CVCV, or just CV). I went to to try out the phonology and see what kind of words I got from one of the word generators. I'll post the entire word list it gave me here, so you can see the results: tiya, keeto, sheeli, kayyo, teechu, hhaylo, kashu, chuta, litay, naychu, sheenay, shosha, chayshay, tayyu, yaykay, chochu, sheehho, lanee, naylee, kayto, sheekay, kuti, hhahha, tayyi, luna, shushay, yohha, yakee, luhho, taynu, hheena, lalee, naku, kika, nuyee, yukay, kaysha, lochu, yoko, shayay, shuyo, yisha, tihhi, shocha, cheeni, koshay, kuhha, luno, yohho, tichay.

Remember, as you read these, that you have to use the correct vowels; some of the words look like they could be pronounced a certain way in English, i.e. kayyo looks like it could be pronounced kaiyo, with an i sound as in 'hi,' but that sound is not in the phonology - its kayyo and the ay sounds like bait or bray. Not all of them sound exactly right to me, but looking through them I could easily come up with phrases that "sounded right" to me, as though Boushh might have spoken them as well; "yakee, yakee, teechu," or "shocha kayyo tayyu." Ah, but I forgot - the 'cha.' Okay, so now we can have sentences like"keeto shuyo tee."

Let's nail down the possessive/relationship inflection rule I started to create when I was wondering about 'yotoh' vs. 'yatoh.' The first vowel sound of a word will show the inflection. Ok, so I = i, you = a, it/he/she = o, we = ay, they = u.
yitoh = my reward, yatoh = your reward, yotoh = his reward, yaytoh = our reward,
yutoh = their reward

Lastly, lets talk about grammar and syntax. Given the simplicity of the language, it doesn't initially look as though it is fully conveying Subject Verb Object, but it is. Through the morphology rules, subject is conveyed in the first word of the phrase, which is also the verb. And the next word is the object. Whichever comes first is the verb, and the second is the object. So, by this rule, if you switched the phrase 'yatay yotoh,' to 'yotoh yatay,' the meaning would then become something like 'He rewards your coming;' or lets use 'yitoh yatay.' 'I reward your coming,' makes a little more sense. If you said 'yitoh yitoh yatay' the meaning would be 'I truly/deeply/doubly reward your coming.'

But let's not leave out that little nugget 'cha' (as in 'yatoh, cha'). I think that in a language so minimalistic, there would have to be some helper words to convey meanings that the standard rules of grammar do not allow. I think the smaller one-syllable words can help us here. So, we already have 'cha' as an affirming word. Let's add: nay = negating or 'no'; tee = elevating or up; hhu = declining or down. Ooo, and I almost forgot a big one - How do we convey past, present, future tense? No marker for present tense, but ko = past tense, kay = future tense.

This is not very much, but I wanted to finish by translating a few phrases into this so far.
"Do you like to run down the hill?" Let's establish 'shishay' as 'run' and 'tiya' as 'like.' We haven't talked about how questions work in this language yet, but lets borrow a little from our own language and say that a higher pitched ending syllable denotes a questioning phrase.
'Taya shishay hhu?' A gesture pointing down the hill would be used, instead of saying it.
'I built two houses.' Let's establish 'kito' as 'build' and 'tinay' as 'house' and 'shay' as 'two.' We haven't talked about how singulars, plurals, or other numbers are conveyed in this language (this post can only be so long!) so now we have to. Alright, adding an n to the end of a word makes it plural (you can only do this to the second word in a phrase; doing it to the verb doiesn't make sense), and numbers will be added in before the word they modify.
'Kitoko shay tinayn.' Supposedly, you could also say 'Twice I built a house' by saying 'Shay kitoko tinay.' Which one should be the most correct?

There's still a looong way to go, but I like the way this is going so far...

2nd Language Creation Conference videos now part of LCS Podcast

Thursday, January 29th, 2009
Every other week we'll release another video from the 2nd Language Creation Conference.

First up:

2nd Language Creation Conference, Day 1, Talk 6 - 7 July 2007
Donald Boozer - Drushek: The Sound of No Voice Speaking

High quality video: (194 MB)
Faster, Flash based video:
Talk PPT:

The Drushek speak a language devoid of voicing and employ a gestural component to denote semantic functions and some morphemes. How does one transcribe the hisses, clicks, fricatives, and silent gestures of such a language?

Don Boozer lives in Ohio and is currently a Subject Department Librarian in Literature at Cleveland Public Library, one of the nation's largest public research libraries. He has increased the library's holdings of relevant books in the field of conlanging by purchasing copies of the Klingon translations of Gilgamesh and Shakespeare, Elgin's dictionary and grammar of Laadan, and Salo's A Gateway to Sindarin, among others. He has also presented programs on conlangs in literature and films and the basics of language creation, as well as published articles on conlangs including an upcoming one on introducing conlanging to teens. His interest in the "secret vice" stems from an early fascination with languages and scripts going all the way back to discovering On Beyond Zebra! by Dr. Seuss in his elementary school library. His on-going projects including working on languages for inhabitants of his conworld, Kryslan, which include Umod, Elasin, and Drushek and learning ancient Egyptian as part of an online study group.

Again, to subscribe if you haven't yet:

any RSS reader: (e.g. for
via email:
manually: (the latest episode will also be on the front page)

Language Creation Society podcast now live

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009
The LCS podcast is now live!

To subscribe, you have various options (they all result in the same thing):

any RSS reader: (e.g. for
via email:
manually: (the latest episode will also be on the front page)

If you have subscribed before (e.g. while we were experimenting with the RSS feed), please try it again; it should work now.

Our expected release schedule is every 2 weeks to start; this may increase as we get more contributions.

Upcoming podcasts include interviews with Donald Boozer, Sally Caves, Sonja Elen Kisa, Tony Harris, Thomas E. Payne, David Peterson, and Sylvia Sotomayor (among others).

We are actively seeking people interested in contributing, particularly:
* interviewers who can seek out and record conversations with interesting conlangers (or topics of interest to conlangers)
* Interviewers and conlangers interested in doing "making of" conversations, going into the specifics of some particular conlang-creation decision - what was chosen, what was rejected, why, and how
* people who can write and record original material of interest to conlangers - e.g. news, linguistics tidbits, brief (or extended) tutorials, etc
* music in a conlang to use in outro sequences
* original theme music to use for intro & outro sequences and branding

If that sounds like you, or you have another idea for something you'd like the community to hear, please email us at

Sai Emrys & David Peterson

Semantic "Primes" and the necessarily ineffable meaning of things

Friday, January 16th, 2009
This was written in response to a thread on CONLANG-L about semantic primes, in which the OP was asking how one might go about getting to the atomic roots of meanings. (In a long tradition of hilariously failed attempts, including such company as Leibniz...)

It seems to me that words *cannot* ever be fully defined concepts. For this reason, they cannot ever be atomic; there is always some further division of meaning that can be made, as there is always further definition that has not yet been elaborated and excised in previous cuttings.

The reason is that all concepts, indeed all communication, depend on a shared experience between the people talking.

Gödel, for example, proved that any (mathematical) system necessarily has certain axioms that cannot be proved within that system. They must simply be accepted, or not; if one does not accept them, then no fruitful discussion can be had - they're not things one can argue to be correct without going into a homunculus fallacy.

This is true of languages as well. Any "atomic" idea that one might want are necessarily not truly atomic; calling them so is, at best, an axiom that one may or may not share with others.

For this reason, any ontology of language - any list of semantic primes - is at best a list of axioms. Someone else can always come to that list and say, "I view this as actually a combination of things".

If this were not true, it wouldn't be easily possible to define the word. Definitions are, as it were, a tweezing apart of the meaning in the word.

So, IMHO, any ontology is doomed that does not acknowledge this, and does not acknowledge that:
a) choices of how to divide or define a concept are necessarily arbitrary; and
b) choices of what concepts to adopt as 'atomic' are equally arbitrary.

Being arbitrary is OK. Conlangers do that all the time; eventually one decides what goals one has, what one considers to be aesthetically pleasing, how to balance choices that require tradeoffs. These things cannot be really justified more than, at root, they feel right.

So yes, you can create a language based on semantic "primes". Indeed, I think it's a useful idea; it gives rise to elegance like Arabic's triconsontal semantic roots.

It simply will not ever be universal, and chasing universality - chasing some sort of Truth of semantic primacy - will only lead one into yet another form of qabbalah or OTO.

The world has enough of those, IMO.