Dear friends and fans: Unstuck, we're sorry to report, is going on an eighteen-month hiatus.
We are absolutely committed to continuing with this journal -- and to coming back stronger than ever -- but for a host of reasons, it just isn't possible for us to give the project our very best at this time.
We have cancelled all existing subscriptions, and have done our best to refund any payments we've already received for Unstuck #4. Nevertheless, we're aware that there are many of you out there who have not received a refund.
Our approach to refunds is going to be 100% hassle-free. If you paid for a three-issue subscription -- whether by PayPal, by check, or in cash -- and you would prefer not to wait until 2016 and 2017 to receive your next two issues, please write us at unstuckbooks(at)gmail(dot)com. Use the subject heading "Refund request." Let us know how much we owe you, and we will do our best to honor your request by sending payment over PayPal as soon as we receive your message.
We have a number of (dapper and brilliant) lifetime subscribers, who may justifiably feel frustrated to have received just two issues of Unstuck to this point. If you're in that boat, please email us with whatever refund amount you think is fair, and we will do our best to oblige you. (Alternatively, you could wait this hiatus out, and perhaps come out a hundred books the richer!)
Some of our promised Kickstarter rewards, like the Unstuck Guide to Food and Drink, are delayed, but not terribly delayed. We still plan on fulfilling those orders over the next few months, so hold tight if you can; the books are likely to be very cool. Some of you may be expecting mysterious "donor tokens." Those are still coming as well.
We are permanently closing our Submittable portal. When we reopen for submissions in 2016, we plan to use a different and less costly system. Our distribution model is also likely to change; we expect to sell the revived Unstuck both as an e-book and as a print-on-demand selection at bookstores equipped with the Espresso Book Machine. Our hope is that by substantially reducing our up-front printing costs, we will be able to pay authors at a higher rate. (We are depressed by literary journals' recent shift to an exploitative and regressive business model that relies in part on "contest fees" and "reading fees." We've said often that we would prefer to end Unstuck than to keep it running by picking the pockets of working writers. We still feel that way.)
To wrap it up: thank you again -- to our authors, to our readers, to our many volunteers, and to the bloggers, journalists, and tweeters who have tirelessly spread the word about us --for being willing to get interested in this strange labor of love. Our hope is that Unstuck will still be publishing in some form -- possibly hologram form -- in 2080, as the rising sea swallows up the last of Miami Beach's condominium towers, and a generation of bloggers begins the important work of reappraising the music of Jason Derulo and P!nk.
Post by Sherene Aram
All formal differences between language and music are a consequence of differences in their fundamental building blocks (arbitrary pairings of sound and meaning in the case of language; pitch-classes and pitch-class combinations in the case of music). In all other respects, language and music are identical.
- “,” Jonah Katz and David Pesetsky
I want to agree with this hypothesis. I really do. My mind leaps to African click languages. I envision an alternate world in which tones, rather than sounds, carry defined meanings, where conversations are duets or symphonies. I think I’d enjoy life in a society where belting out the highest, loudest, longest note I could muster was an appropriate response to that button-pushing family member or colleague.
But I wonder – does this idea hold up in practice? To take a simple example, is the experience of reading aloud Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 the same as listening to “Turn, Turn, Turn” sung by The Byrds?
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Nope, it isn’t.
Even if you are very familiar with both the King James edition of the Bible and 1960s folk music, I’d wager that the opening notes of the song queued up an emotive memory in a way that the opening words of the text did not.
Experience tells me there is something fundamental about how music mainlines sensory data into our brains. As infants we vocalize before we verbalize. As adults, when we reminisce about a moment or an era, it is music that frames the memory, enabling it to persist across generations.
Perhaps music is a language like any other, but it is our common primal language, with the inherent capacity to sidestep our rational, meaning-seeking minds.
Michael Townsend’s recent game A Dark Room is an experiment in paced narrative and has been featured on various gaming sites, including Kotaku, GiantBomb, and BoingBoing. Unstuck talked with him about his work, and about games and narrative generally.
Interview by Allie Werner
UNSTUCK: So, what do you do when you're not making games?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: I'm a professional software engineer. I work on web applications, mostly. I spend the rest of my time playing games (both digital and cardboard) and writing games, though I can be convinced to go out to the pub on occasion.
UNSTUCK: What are you playing right now, cardboard and otherwise?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Lately, I'm playing a lot of Wildstar. Also burning through the new Telltale series as they arrive. In the cardboard realm, we either play a whole lot of Cosmic Encounter or a whole lot of Magic: The Gathering.
UNSTUCK: What made you decide to make a text-based game?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Honestly? Limited resources. I've started work on many games, and all of them end up sad little half-finished things. Folders on my hard drive that make me feel bad, but that I can't bring myself to delete. Generally, that's because I don't really like drawing. I'm not good at it, and it's really hard. Then I played Candy Box, and knew I would actually finish one of those.
UNSTUCK: So working with text allowed you focus on gameplay and storytelling without having to worry about graphics.
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Exactly.
UNSTUCK: It's interesting you mention Candy Box. I found Candy Box after playing A Dark Room while I was looking for similar games. But while A Dark Room really grabbed me from beginning to end, I'm not sure if I'll ever finish Candy Box.
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Well, A Dark Room wouldn't exist had aniwey not built Candy Box. Candy Box is longer, and it doesn't really have a cohesive narrative. It uses different styles of mechanics to hook you, and different mechanics work for different people. The main focus of the project was to take the framework defined by Candy Box and apply narrative to it.
UNSTUCK: So how did you go about developing the narrative for A Dark Room? What's distinctive about writing a game as opposed to writing static story? How do you plot things out?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: I haven't written a static story since high school, really, but I wrote A Dark Room pretty much the same way I always wrote back then. It's mostly improvisation within a loosely defined world. I might have a major plot point or two pinned down at the beginning, but I really do just make it up as I go along. Writing for games isn't really all that different, but you have to deliver the plot in a very different way.
UNSTUCK: How so?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: You need to take player agency into account. A game doesn't satisfy unless the player feels like they have some control over the outcome of the game. In a narrative game, the outcome is generally narrative (rather than score, victory, etc...), and so the player needs to feel like the narrative involved them. The best games do this through trickery.
UNSTUCK: That's something I think about quite a lot in regards to games. How games attempt, successfully or unsuccessfully, to create the illusion that the player is constructing the narrative when in fact everything is pre-written.
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: It's more or less the medium's defining quality. Telltale does it brilliantly. Other games actually opt to do it for real, with varying results. The Witcher 2 famously pulled it off with gusto.
UNSTUCK: In your own game development, what do you do to try to make the reader feel personally involved in the story?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: In A Dark Room, I did a little trickery, but mostly I just didn't tell the story. I wasn't sure if it would work, but it looks like it did. Among certain crowds, at least. I told the story mostly through suggestion, and let the player build the narrative for themselves. When you feel like you've come up with the lot, you feel agency even though the writer had you by the hand the whole time through the mechanics and environment. I always find stories more engaging when there is plenty left unsaid.
UNSTUCK: I don't want to spoil the game's plot too much, but I will say that it gives the player the opportunity to move through three different kinds of gameplay as the world expands. How did you develop this expanding structure?
MICHAEL: I came up with game modes at the same time I as thinking about the plot. I knew I wanted the game to grow in scope with each shift, with the previous mode serving as the foundation for the next. Two modes were actually dropped from the game that reinforced this even more. I liked the idea of "zooming out" the mechanics because it dovetailed nicely with the way I wanted to gradually reveal the game world.
UNSTUCK: How did A Dark Room originate?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Well, A Dark Room originated about 10 minutes into Candy Box. I thought that the incremental nature of the game was brilliant, and I felt like it had great potential for delivering narrative. I didn't really sleep very well that night. By the next day, I knew what I was building. Making games is something I've been interested in for as long as I can remember. I love programming for the same reason I love games, and games are the most fun I can have with programming.
UNSTUCK: What reason is that?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Puzzles. A good game is a puzzle, just like a good problem to solve in code.
UNSTUCK: What resources would you recommend to someone interested in learning how to build games?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: Game design is the most important aspect, I think. A poorly programmed game can still be excellent if its design is good, while a badly designed game can't be saved by even the most elegant of code. Play lots of games. Play good games and bad games and think about what it is that makes them that way. When you understand why the good games are good, it's much easier to build one. Also, watch everything produced by the fine folks at Extra Credits.
Oh, and if you're more inclined toward writing than coding you might want to check out Twine. With it, you can build some cool interactive narrative experiences with no coding required.
UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: That's an embarrassing question, because the answer is nothing. I love to read when I have the time, but it's probably number three or four on my priority list. When I do read, though, it's usually non-fiction, good sci-fi, or weird Grant Morrison comics.
UNSTUCK: Do you have any other projects in the works?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: If I didn't, I'd have time to read. It's pretty different, though, and I fear that those who loved A Dark Room might hate it. But it's what I find interesting right now, so it's what's happening.
UNSTUCK: Any final thoughts?
MICHAEL TOWNSEND: If nothing else, I hope that A Dark Room has gotten a few more people interested in making their own games. You can actually build something cool pretty quickly. The world needs more people building cool things, I think. I kind of rely on it for my entertainment.
Post by Leila Mansouri
A photograph is a recording of light waves at a particular place and in a particular time. You can shorten or lengthen the exposure. You can manipulate the image after the fact. But a photograph is anchored to the space and time of its creation. Here is what the Naica Mine in Chihuahua, Mexico looks like in the present day one beckons. Look back in time at Queens, New York in the 1920s another asks.
Sometimes, though, a photograph manages to bend the time or space it captures. That’s the unsettling trick Michael Reese’s and Chino Otsuka’s photographs pull off.
In “Inches Above the Earth,” Reese takes the world around your ankles and transforms it into a vast airspace. Fighter jets zoom out of whorls of fencing. Hot air balloons drift out of rusted cans and across parking lot lakes. None of the photos are digitally manipulated. Instead, they use angles, light, and tiny, meticulously painted model aircraft to get you to reimagine the universe just above the ground. Check out the entire collection of photographs on Reese’s website. (Via Slate.)
Otsuka’s “Imagine Finding Me” series does rely on photoshop, but looking at the haunting photographs of her adult self next to her younger self, you’d never guess it. Her work layering together her “double self-portraits” is meticulous and loving. To create each, she carefully blended a snapshot of herself now into a photo was taken more than twenty years before.
The effect is one of time travel. She goes back in time to shadow, joke with, snack with, and in one case even seems to reassure her former self. Otsuka’s more recent “Memoriography” extends her work with time and remembrance – this time to the archives of the British Museum, into which she projects images and recordings of her own memories. (Via My Modern Met.)
Of course, Otsuka and Reese aren’t doing anything fundamentally different than photographers have always done. Even the earliest photographs captured the light of particular times and places in ways that made us think we saw things that we in fact didn’t. But Otsuka and Reese untether photography from the sort of time and space we’re used to in ways that ripple out from their images. Their unstuck photography is our unstuck universe.
Post by Kate Klein
It is a concert in a cinema, of music you have to see to believe.
Thomas Bonvalet, one member of the improve rock trio Powerdove, starts the Dec. 5 show by mounting the stage in his socks. Then, as the lights of the old movie theater in the basement of Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall go down, he puts on his shoes.
Heavy shoes with thick metal soles, reinforced with duct tape: Thomas wears his instrument. In fact, he is his instrument; as the first song begins, he stamps, claps, blows into a pipe, slaps his knees, looks like a holy fool, a mourner, a man in a religious fervor.
A guitarist stands by. The guitar is red, the man playing it as still as a swaying tree compared to his ecstatic band mate, and the chords coming from the guitar simple, stripped down. This is John Dietrerich, who spends most of his time playing with Deerhoof.
The heavy shoes beat a rhythm like wheels on a track.
Then the voice arrives: Annie Lewandowski, singing her minimal—almost skeletal—lyrics in her simple, clear voice:
When you’re near
I grow steady
You make me steady
We can’t see her. She is singing off stage, with her pedal effects set up to silence the instruments as soon as her voice appears.
in my dreaming
we were stealing
your sweet kisses
when you’re near
The words cut through the improvised instrumentals like a wind through a coat—but the wind is not necessarily cold.
“People say it’s sort of childlike,” Annie said of her voice a month after the concert. No vibrato, breathy—this is a sound she’s cultivated. A classically-trained pianist who teaches at Cornell, Annie has taken only enough voice to learn breath control, on purpose.
“I think there’s a kind of a jaggedness,” she said, “A harshness makes it more alive.”
In many ways, Powerdove is Annie’s voice. Started as a solo recording project, the band has gone through a few evolutions and now is a trio: Annie, Thomas, and John. Still, Annie’s voice is the definition of Powerdove: “If I’m singing,” she told me, “that’s what it is.”
And now she’s singing on the cinema stage. Eyes closed, softly, a few words at a time, her accordion almost forgotten in her hands.
In the middle, there’s John. The guitarist, the one who reminds us Powerdove is often classified as rock music, with a strong element of experiment and improvisation.
People who hear them live remark on how independent the three musicians are, playing live together, “like three different soundworlds happening at the same time,” John said.
The group maintains a long-distance alliance, with John living in New Mexico, Thomas in Spain, and Annie in upstate, New York. In 2012, they recorded an album, Do You Burn? in five intense days. They recorded again last July, for an album set to release in September.
They have to really focused when they get together, said John. “We're always on the edge, which I like, to be honest. Most of my favorite music has this sense of the unknown hiding just round the corner.”
Any live performance has an element of the unknown. Any live performance asks for a bit of improvisation, even for those, like Powerdove, who expect to improvise.
On the stage opposite Annie, Thomas changes instruments. He taps a counter service bell, plays a banjo like a drum, slaps his thigh hard enough to raise a welt.
Body drumming, Thomas told me, is his main musical activity. “Sometimes I don’t play any instruments for a month,” he said, “but I still do body drumming.”
In another song, he sets two metronomes up to tap a syncopated largo rhythm at each other, then finally, he sits still, spent, watching the metronomes keep the beat, like a kid watching ants in the grass.
Powerdove’s music leaves room for visual re-imagining. During the performance, the cinema screen is not dark for long. After one set of music, the band moves to the side and Cornell Cinema screens three Powerdove music videos, one of them an animation. The live band plays along with their own recording on film, doubling themselves, improvisation upon improvisation.
Being from three cities on two continents, Powerdove doesn’t get to play much together, and the Cornell Cinema show was especially special, Annie said afterward, because of the films, and because, coming at the end of a two week tour, it was their last performance before many months apart.
And then there was the mysterious banging which chimed in halfway through the show.
“I have a strong memory of what sounded like somebody repeatedly hitting an anvil with a sledgehammer somewhere backstage,” said John.
Annie heard it, too. “It was changing our timing on everything. There was some sort of rhythm to it.”
It was the heat turning on in the old building, an ancient radiator. I can imagine Thomas playing one in their next show.
Post by Janalyn Guo
David J. Peterson is a writer and language creator ("conlanger"). He began creating languages in 2000 while attending UC Berkeley. After getting his master's degree at UC San Diego, he went on to create languages for HBO's Game of Thrones (2011), Marvel's Thor: The Dark World (2013), Syfy's Defiance (2013), the CW's Star-Crossed (2014), and Syfy's Dominion (2014). In 2007 he helped found the Language Creation Society.
Janalyn Guo: What role did your enjoyment of literature and storytelling play in your initial interest in conlanging?
David Peterson: Whether one intends it to be or not, the lexicon of a language is the story of its speakers. Though all languages are mutually translatable, the specific set of words a language has—their etymologies, their interrelationships—is unique, and is a product of that language’s unique history. As a language creator, one has the responsibility of shaping that history. In effect, it’s like creating a character or a setting—like Macondo or Yoknapatawpha County. The difference is that rather than the people and events taking center stage with the language filling in around, the language is the main attraction—with people and places often hinted at or alluded to.
JG: How many language systems have you created so far? Which are your favorites among 1) the languages you've had a hand in creating, 2) invented languages made by other conlangers, and 3) the languages used widely today?
DP: I’ve started at least 27 language projects that have had enough thought behind them to have a name. They’re not all equal in quality or substance, though. Some have barely 100 words and their grammars are poorly contrived. All conlangers go through this, though. We get better as we go along.
(1) Irathient is probably my favorite, if I have a favorite. Either that or Kamakawi, which is my largest language outside of the ones I’ve created for shows in recent years. With Irathient, though, I just did whatever I thought would be the most fun. It was fun to create, and fun to use (though difficult).
(2) I have a lot of favorites. Some that always come to mind are Doug Ball’s Skerre, John Quijada’s Ithkuil, Matt Pearson’s Okuna, Denis Moskowitz’s Rikchik and Sylvia Sotomayor’s Kēlen. Also, even though it’s early yet, Sylvia’s new language, Sodna-leni, is brilliant. I hesitate to say that because it’s so early, but every time I look at it, I’m really blown away. Plus, Sylvia’s someone who’s only ever worked on one language her entire life; that she even sat down to create a new one is news. It’s still growing, but it keeps getting better. Her ability floors me.
(3) You said languages, not created languages, so I’m going to assume you meant all languages. Hawaiian is my favorite language, without a doubt, but I also admire the beauty of Arabic’s grammar. Having said that, though, you learn Modern Standard Arabic in school, which isn’t what people really use in day-to-day situations, so it is a bit of a construct. Even so, of all the Semitic languages, I think Arabic really hit it out of the park—and the same is true of Hawaiian and the Polynesian languages.
JG: What was particularly fun and playful about the creation of Irathient?
DP: Well, to me a noun class system is basically a game. The first time I learned about Swahili, it sounded like just about the coolest thing in the world to choose different nouns and an adjective to see how the words changed: kisu kikali (“sharp knife”), visu vikali (“sharp knives”), mgeni mkali (“sharp stranger”), wageni wakali (“sharp strangers”), etc. I wanted to replicate that with Irathient, since I hadn’t done that in a conlang, except in a few early ones that aren’t noteworthy. If you don’t have the pressure of having to make yourself understood, working with the subsystems of language is just fun!
JG: I like what you said earlier about how conlanging is like creating a system that hints at and alludes to people and places. The invented languages that you mentioned above -- Kamakawi, Skerre, Ithkuil, Okuna, Rikchik, Kēlen -- what kind of speakers do they evoke for you? Is the strong evocation of a hinted-at reality an indication of a conlanger’s skill?
DP: Well, the question is quite amusing, depending on the language you’re talking about. For example, Denis Moskowitz’s Rikchik is spoken by rikchiks: six-foot-tall green aliens with one gigantic eyeball, no mouth, and 49 tentacles. It has no sounds: it’s signed using 7 of these 49 tentacles. So the language does quite necessarily evoke its “speakers” rather strongly.
Others are different. For example, John Quijada’s Ithkuil isn’t intended for a fictional culture: it’s intended for our use. Consequently, the culture it reflects is our own: the real world. And the nature of the project is to use the language to speak as unambiguously as possible using as few linguistic tokens as possible, so it kind of eschews the vagueness of natural language. It’s an inherently different kind of project which we call an engelang (an engineered language), and consequently evaluating by the same standards one would evaluate a language like Kēlen simply wouldn’t make sense.
But as for the others, yes, in a way. That is, there are two types of skills when it comes to conlanging: the nuts and bolts of the language, and the artistry of the lexicon. Those who are good with the latter, or who have a very strong sense of their speakers, will, perforce, evoke their speakers in the words they choose. Those who are not will not. I was one who wasn’t when I started out. It took a lot of learning on my part to get to where I am. Others like Sylvia and Sally Caves, whom I haven’t yet mentioned, were naturals, and I’m always stunned by the ingenuity and vividness of their invention.
JG: At what point in one’s experimentation with conlanging is a language born?
DP: There’s no real cutoff point. The same is true of the question when are two dialects distinct enough to become separate languages: at some point, it just happens. There are certain key moments in the development of any language, though, and those usually serve as a guide. For example, there’s a point where the grammar is mostly done, aside from the grammar that may be introduced by a key lexical item here and there (e.g., a verb that takes a subordinate clause structure that hasn’t been used prior). The language may not have a large number of words, but if one can bring a language to a point where any potential sentence could be translated if there were enough lexical material, that’s a defining moment. After that, it’s usually different points in the lexicon’s size (100 words, 500 words, 1,000 words, 2,000 words, etc.). Once there’s a system in place that can handle translation, there is a language. It may need more words and may have no speakers, but the system is the language.
JG: I know that some conlangers explore the ways in which language patterns reflect thought patterns, language mirroring pure thought. How achievable do you think this is?
DP: Personally I don’t think we understand enough about thought to be able to encode it directly in language. The attempts have value, though. Anything that allows us to look at something old in a new way has the potential to trigger some sort of epiphany. I feel like we’re a long way off from being able to understand actual thought in concrete terms—and also feel the answer will probably come to us from neuroscience, if we ever get it.
JG: Do you think a computer could create a language for humans to use with each other? I’m curious about how AI might influence language creation, and vice versa.
DP: I have a different opinion about AI now from what I did when I was growing up in the 80s with all the “computers ruling society” horror/sci-fi movies. Computers are much more powerful than we imagined, but there’s no there there. A computer could certainly automate most of the tasks involved in language creation, but there’s no art there. The art would arise in its use. It would take a user to find the beauty in the artificial construct and start using it and selling it; there could be no intentionality. Of course, we’re a long way off from that. It’s not as if we don’t have the technology: there’s just no interest. There isn’t a crack team of programmers trying to create the perfect language creation algorithm, because there’s no demand and probably no money in it. There are a lot of other problems they’ll be tackling before they get to conlanging.
JG: I enjoyed your TED talk and was pretty astounded by the metaphorical quality of the Dothraki language (for example, the Dothraki origins for the words “to dream” and “tree”). Each word is like a little chest to unlock, and there’s a lovely poetics involved. What gave you the idea to mold the language in this way?
DP: First, time is important. It’s easier to do better work when you have the time to do it. After that, though, it’s kind of born of necessity and constraint. In crafting a lexicon, you start out with nothing and very slowly edge out into the vast enormity of describable experience. Ultimately, a language will need to be able to discuss everything, whether it does so with a single word or a series of words. When I come to the next word or concept I have to describe—whether it be because I need it for a script, or because that’s where I want to go next—there are a number of practical questions (should this word be a compound, a new root, a borrowing, etc.), but the most important question is: How do I want to realize these concepts for this group of speakers? And there’s no reason that the answer has to be with a completely new word form every time. If it were, then, yes, a computer could do it quite efficiently—could probably produce a million word lexicon in a matter of minutes. The result, though, wouldn’t be of any practical interest.
JG: What elements of Dothraki culture and ideals directed your creation of their language? And similarly, what Valyrian ideals directed your creation of the High Valyrian language?
DP: With Dothraki, there are a couple of cultural details we get of them which say a lot about their culture. For example, their cultural fear of the sea gives you an idea about what kind of experience they have with the land they live on, and an idea about where they will and won’t draw their metaphors from. Additionally George R. R. Martin notes several times that Dothraki do everything of importance under the open sky. This proved fruitful for me in creating the metaphorical framework I needed to discuss things that are good and bad. For example, in English we have a high-low metaphor that’s fairly common (“that’s low,” “underhanded,” “high-minded,” “on the up and up,” etc.). In Dothraki this is replaced with a metaphor contrasting things which are concealed or covered with those that are not, and this metaphor manifests itself in various ways in regular speech, as the height metaphor does in English.
The Valyrians were (and continue to be) much more difficult since we know virtually nothing about them. We know they had dragons and that they were a technological, cultural and martial power, and that their civilization was mysteriously destroyed, but we know little else. For that reason I’ve shied away from doing any heavily culture-inspired work for Valyrian. The distinction of High and Low Valyrian, though, was a nice one, as I borrowed the height metaphor into Valyrian (similar to English but contrasting with Dothraki).
JG: In an interview with Wired, you described the Dothraki vocabulary you invented as being "entirely à priori." What would be the template for an à priori language?
DP: First, I should have written “a priori” (the term is Latin, not French. My mistake!), but this term—and its sister, a posteriori—has a special meaning in conlanging. An a priori conlang is one whose lexical material is created whole cloth. An a posteriori conlang is one whose lexical material is based on another language. For example, Andrew Smith’s Brithenig is a language that presupposes Latin took over in Great Britain rather than the native Celtic languages. Consequently, instead of Welsh, Gaelic, Cornish, etc. being spoken, everyone spoke Latin. Brithenig, then, derives its vocabulary primarily from Latin, but filtered through the native languages, producing new Romance languages that quite a bit like Celtic languages. In order for the experiment to make sense, the vocabulary must be drawn from existing languages. With a project like Dothraki, though, it wouldn’t make sense for there to be words from our world in it, since the universes are distinct.
With that understanding of the terms, you can probably see that there is no possible template for an a priori language: it’s whatever the creator can imagine. A priori languages are as diverse as Dothraki and Timothy Ingen Housz’s Elephant’s Memory, which is entirely pictorial.
JG: Is it challenging to imagine past this world, to sort of unhear the sounds we associate with this universe to create these languages?
DP: Yes, this is one of the first and most important lessons every conlanger must learn. The best way to do it is simply to expose oneself to as many languages as possible. That is, one won’t know if something one’s language does is uncommon unless one learns other languages. Our first language becomes our entire world, and how could it be any other way? Learning as much as one can about other real-world languages and cultures is paramount. It frees one from the bonds of one’s mother tongue.
JG: In what ways has it been different designing languages for shows versus designing languages on your own?
DP: The major difference is the presence of deadlines. Working on your own language, you make your own deadlines, and have the freedom to make mistakes which can later be corrected. A show’s airdate, though, is an absolute deadline, and mistakes that make it into the show are there forever. That is unfortunate, since the time allotted is not sufficient. Mistakes do make their way into the show, and it’s disappointing, to say the least. If conlanging is an artform (and I’m certain it is), the best work will not be done for a production: it will be done on the creator’s own time. As for the latter, even if I stopped working for shows and movies right this moment, I’d continue to conlang for the rest of my life. I don’t know if it’s a question of motivation so much as compulsion. It’s what I do.
JG: It seems like an authentic language is often a missing dimension from certain books or movies with sci-fi, futuristic, or fantastical premises. In my mind, a unique dialect and language could be just as important as the bizarre physical forms of the invented world, as authenticating details. Are there sounds that we associate with the past, with the future, and with the strange?
DP: There are certain impressions we have (and by “we,” I refer to English speakers) when it comes to foreignness and alienness. They are impressions, though, and are entirely subjective. I’m happiest when I work on a project where the producers/directors/writers understand that it’s not “weird” sounds that make something alien or “harsh” sounds that make something foreign: it’s the character of the entire language and culture itself. Both culture and language grow organically, and it’s the natural evolution in an unnatural, alien or foreign place that will, of necessity, produce that sense of alienness or foreignness. It shouldn’t be faked.
JG: How does language creation seep into your other writing?
DP: I think much more about each word I’m using than I did before I started creating languages. It’s really changed my relationship with English, which is bizarre. And there’s no going back. Once you’ve crossed that bridge, you’re done—and it can be a blessing and a curse. For example, noting just how many linguistic possibilities there are when it comes to reifying any particular construction, I’ve started to lose my grasp on just which preposition is appropriate where. I can usually come up with an argument for any of them in English.
I wouldn’t trade it for the world, though.
JG: How might one construct an aesthetics for a written language; what might be the considerations?
DP: This question could be answered with a book. In effect, most conlangs are written languages, in that it’s rare that they’ll pick up speakers. Consequently they exist (to the extent that a language can extent) in roughly the same state as dead languages do. However perhaps you meant orthography…? If indeed you meant exclusively written languages, I encourage you to take a look at Elephant’s Memory, which I alluded to above, and Rikchik. Neither are speakable, and so are exclusively written. I tried my hand at a pictorial/iconographic [language] in 2005. I’m not too happy with it; it’s been abandoned at this point. Blissymbolics was probably the first such attempt (or intentional, serious attempt) in history. Either way, when you’re talking about any language and evaluating a language, the first step is to ascertain the goals of the creator and judge the work based on those goals. For example, with a different frame of reference, one could look at Brithenig and say it was totally unoriginal, since all of its vocabulary comes from other languages. Creating original stems, though, wasn’t the point of the project, and so one couldn’t judge the language based on that criterion—but one should for a priori languages. When it comes to a written form, there are a number of questions one has to ask before evaluating—for example, did the system evolve naturally (as did the Roman alphabet), or was it a construct (e.g. the Cherokee syllabary)? What level of technology is the society at? How was it written—using what implements? Once these questions are answered, one can evaluate the system based on its merits—and once that’s done, then based on the overall impression it gives. That would be the place to start.
JG: Maybe to tie these concepts together, I'd love it if you could translate a phrase from English into a few of your invented languages and walk our readers through some aspects of those languages.
DP: This is kind of a contrived example, but it’ll illustrate a commonly used but usually interesting concept. In English: "The father believed his daughter." In English, “believe” ultimately derives from the same word that gave us “love,” with the connection between the two concepts probably being something like the modern expression “hold dear.” Here’s how it comes out in some of the languages I’ve created.
Ave shillo ohar mae.
Father believed daughter his.
In Dothraki, the verb shillolat derives from shillat which is related to shilat, “to know.” Certain verb stems at a time in the past would double their final consonant to produce a verb of greater duration or impact than the original verb. So while shilat is “to know,” shillat is “to trust” (i.e. to know something several times over or for an extended period of time, and so it can be trusted). The suffix -o adds focus to the process, so that “to believe” is more “to come to trust over a period of time.” Consequently, the word shillolat carries with it associations with tried and tested knowledge (i.e. you believe someone because you have known them to be true several times in the past).
Kepa zȳhe tale pāsiles.
Father his daughter believed.
In High Valyrian, the word pāsagon means both “to trust” and “to believe.” I went back and forth on precisely which tense to use for the verb, because the usual past tense is the perfect. I went with the imperfect here, because the perfect gives us more of a telic reading, which would mean that the most natural interpretation would be “The father trusted his daughter.” Apart from context, using the imperfect would more easily guarantee a reading of “believe,” but it would assume some sort of ongoing context. Consequently, it wouldn’t feel as definite as the English (i.e. it would be a simple statement of fact). To get the definite reading, it would require the verb to be conjugated as pāstas, but without context, it would be more likely to be understood as “The father trusted his daughter.”
Zezik abishi zbaba zwinyazwa.
Her-he-did believe father daughter-his.
A lot of z’s in the Irathient because the father and daughter are of the first noun class reserved for Irathients. The theme consonant of the first class is z. In this case, the word for “believe” derives from the same root used for possession. In fact, used with a different auxiliary, it would mean “to hold” (i.e. if you replace zezik with zezi, it’d actually mean “The father is held by his daughter”). In Irathient, auxiliaries and verbs are combined to get unique meanings, so the words wear their etymologies on their sleeves.
Tande do tave re finjila.
Father sbj. daughter obj. believed.
Castithan rarely uses pronouns if it can be avoided—and in this case, the use of the familiar term for “father” suggests that the daughter is his own. The etymology is somewhat similar Dothraki’s, in that the word is derived from the word hinjilu, which means “to know.” In its oldest form, this word meant “to see.” In deriving finjilu, though, the honorific/augmentative prefix fa- was added, ultimately fusing with the stem and deleting the h. Thus, believing is a kind of refined form of knowing—that is knowing without the need for overt proof, on account of the circumstantial evidence.
Abor adyan difera yaya.
Father believed from-daughter his.
Sondiv is another language which derives “believe” from a possession verb. In this case, the verb idi means “to hold.” By adding the -m suffix (which shows up as -n at the end of a word) it produces a word that is metaphorically related to the original in a tangential way (other pairs of words derived in this way: sobuviv “stillness” ~ sobvumiv “safety”; irus “to touch” ~ irzon “to experience”; ison “to give” ~ ismon “to help”). The object associated with the new verb, though, can only be an idea or a belief. To make this sentence work, the verb is used intransitively, and the ablative clitic di- is used with “daughter.”
Awnoh vawna tatcha memaj.
Father his daughter believed.
Væyne Zaanics is a language I created with Nina Post for her novel The Zaanics Deceit. In the book, two families from the 14th century create a language that they pass on to their children, so even with the fictional history of the book, the language is a created language, as opposed to a natural language. All words are divided according to whether they are divine or earthly, in the old sense. Thus the word awnoh is the word for father, but its counterpart, Æyneh, is the word for God. Similarly, memaj means “believed,” but memæj would mean “knew.” The idea behind this pairing is that certain knowledge is divine; belief without knowledge is earthly.
Ka haleke fala ie laya tilea.
Did believe father the daughter of-him.
In Kamakawi, the word hale means “to think” or “to opine.” By adding the applicative suffix -ke, one can promote a prepositional argument to direct object position. This is similar to Sondiv, which requires a preposition for the thing believed if it’s animate rather than using the regular direct object morphology, except that Kamakawi does it directly (Sondiv can too, actually, but it’s more natural in Kamakawi). The verb might actually end up having additional interpretations, so context would be needed to ensure the correct reading.
* * *
Other Invented Languages Mentioned in the Interview:
Skerre by Doug Ball
Ithkuil by John Quijada
Okuna by Matt Pearson
Rikchik by Denis Moskowitz
Kēlen by Sylvia Sotomayor
Brithenig by Andrew Smith
Elephant’s Memory by Timothy Ingen Housz
Post by Pete Coco
"The mixtape," says Geoffrey O'Brien, "is the most widely practiced American artform." We have to assume he said it awhile ago -- before say, the death of the audio cassette -- but it's hard to say for sure because almost all Google-generated rabbit holes for the phrase lead to the quotation as it appear in other writing about mixtapes rather than the source itself. But whenever he said it, he's right -- even now. Especially now.
The Internet, by and large, disagrees. A rather fascinating micro-genre of essay laments the "lost art" of the mixtape. To be sure, it's part of a larger trend in which the audio cassette itself has become a peculiar vector of generational nostalgia. Try the Google search yourself. You'll find a real consistency to the results. The essay (or more often, blog post) might begin with the O'Brien quotation. In my casual sample of the author is usually male, usually focused on the earnestly intimate act of making a mixtape rather than on the experience of receiving or even listening to one. Personal anecdotes are an optional but common feature. And then, in this longtail genre's most essential feature, the author laments, explicitly or not, whatever it is he thinks it means that we no longer make mixtapes for each other. One recent example tellingly comes to us from The Federalist, a venue for some of the right's smarter culture warriors. The underlying gesture is the same as always but unusually clear in this instance: a lack of mixtapes is part of a larger cultural decline that may or may not also involve Obamacare and/or socialism.
This is ridiculous. The mixtape isn't gone. It's practically everything these days.
As a young man I was much like these nostalgists, at many points armed with no better way to tell a girl of my affections than to spend a few hours alone with my proud, meticulous notions of best practice and most of my music collection strewn out on the rug of my bedroom. Love me for my taste, the mixtaper says to the world.
The most important 90 minutes of my aesthetic youth is the mix my older sister made me in 1991, introducing me to the Lemonheads, the Pixies, Frank Black and Nirvana (and ruining Jesus Jones, EMF, and the Scorpions) all at once. That tape blueprinted my taste for the next decade and set my own course as a player in bands of my own. Better, this was a few months before Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the national airwaves, making me the first eighth grader in some doubtlessly impressive radius to be shocked to see Kurt Cobain (in particular) on MTV a few months later. It felt both like the world was taking something private from me and that I should be proud of myself. It's a strange high, that, one we make fun of now with a droll automation.
Then there was the Manic Panic punk rock girl in heavy eyeliner who made me a mix and handed it to me wedged inside a roll of toilet paper. She gave me Otis Redding and The Cure. I starting ditching driver's ed to spend more time with her.
Years later, when I was still without my license, the woman who drove me to the grocery store every week had this tape in the deck of her car that was truly precious; each song began with the same word the last one ended with -- all the way through the loop of sides A and B. As I recall, they were all topically concerned with evil. This was my first exposure to not only to Robert Johnson and Slayer but also to the realization that there was no particular reason not to love both (hey, I was young). I never even met the guy who made the tape; he was somewhere in that quantum parallel of a different Big Ten college town my friend had come to us from (via interdimensional portal, no doubt). I don't know his name but still, I admire that guy.
Finally, there is my continued suspicion that my wife married me because early in our courtship I introduced her to The Dictators -- where else? -- on a mixtape. Or at least saw something in me that fueled us forward.
So I know from mixtapes. But here's the thing: the mixtape isn't gone, the form has just become so ubiquitous that it's completely transcended the obsolescence of the audio cassette. Those of us who made mixtapes aren't special anymore. Everyone -- at least everyone on the internet -- is asking to be loved for their taste these days. We are all curators now and so are the robots. We post to social media, we send emails. We tumble and we pin. Each of us has our audience: small, maybe distracted, but also captive and thoroughly quantified. Call these the tradeoffs of progress. You don't have to pay Woolworth's for the blank tapes anymore, your mix might carry advertisements, but here we are in 2014, unbundling and rebundling music and other content for ourselves and our friends. Mixtapers weren't an old guard. We were the vanguard of something very contemporary.
Nothing has been lost here but scarcity and friction. These are not small things. I would lament them if I thought we could have them back. But instead I struggle to accept the future for what it appears to be: an inertial trip across a plane made of everything, already well underway.
Post by Ben Roberts
With this exercise, you can create your own poetry or prose using mobile apps.
1. Select three or more reading apps. For this demonstration, I have used:
* Poetry’s randomized poem generation machine;
* Connu’s Pandora-inspired short story collection;
* YouVersion’s scripture-in-translation database;
* the new Kindle-based literary journal Day One;
* the Audible app; and
* the new “read it now” feature on the Goodreads social media app.
2. Open an app, click around a bit at random (to get past the welcome screen and into the text of a book, article, poem, etc.), and copy the first block of text you find. You can copy this text by hand or type it into a Word doc.
Poetry: "From The Task, Book V: The Winter Morning Walk"
Connu: "How many heavens do you need to be happy?"
YouVersion: "Psalm 119:11 -- I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you."
Day One: "One part of our mission..."
Audible: "But still as tired of life as he sometimes felt..."
Goodreads: "From India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which..."
3. Collage the text to create new phrases. In the example below, I've created miniature first-, second-, and third-person narratives, along with a short lyric poem.
I have stored up how many heavens from the task? One of these days, June or July, our mission might not sin.
The winter morning walks against you. Do you need to be happy?
She forgot to be the task. He sometimes felt sin.
Winter morning word of life
The task in my heart
Life from India:
One part June or July
Sin against happy
Last November, we held a fee-free flash fiction contest. Amelia Gray was our final judge.
We're pleased to announce that the winners were Emily Kiernan, for her story “Palinopsia,” and Dennis James Sweeney, for “When He Comes Home from the War.” Both of the winning stories will appear in Unstuck #3. For the next two months, the winning authors will be working with us on a top-secret project, involving science and high technology, that will be unveiled at our AWP table in Seattle.
* * *
Here are Amelia Gray’s comments about her selections:
“Palinopsia,” by Emily Kiernan
"Dropped into the middle of things—or the end of things, depending on your perspective—we get these fine descriptive labyrinths at the sentence level. This is bold and surprising short work, it is arresting, and proves to me that our subject can be well known, even a little quaintly known as a piece of culture, and fine work prevails to create a thing which is wholly new."
“When He Comes Home from The War,” by Dennis James Sweeney
"This is a lovely, efficient piece and perfectly presents outright danger in the post-trauma mundane. This is a story that I could spend hours going through with students were I not legally barred from interacting with young people."
* * *
During the initial phase of this contest, a group of Unstuck editors read and discussed each story. We then selected about two dozen stories to forward to Amelia Gray, whom we invited to select one or two winners.
The initial culling process turned out to be sort of agonizing because of the high quality of the work we received. There were about 20 stories in the pile that were, at one point or another, some editor's favorite, and another hundred or so that we all enjoyed. All of that is just to say, to everyone who sent us a story: please keep writing, keep submitting, and know that there's a good chance that we are fans of your work.
* A heads-up: we will hold our third flash fiction contest this spring. (As always, the contest will be free to enter for our Twitter followers.) Roxane Gay will be our final judge. Winners will be published in Unstuck #4. We'll have details available soon.
* We will likely hold a fourth flash fiction contest in November. (That's the plan, anyway.)
* If you'll be at AWP in Seattle, note that we will hold a little contest there as well. Entry forms (including guidelines) will be available at our table on the first day of the conference. All entries must be hand-written on the contest forms. Entries will be due by closing time on Friday night of the bookfair.
Post By Natasha Patel
Like an only child who creates siblings by inventing imaginary friends, I, a nascent guitar player, have invented my own imaginary band. It’s called The Accidental Sirens. We are all women, dressed in flowery gowns and bearing wispy hair crowned by fig leaves. And on a good beat, we can be very alluring. On occasion, our musicality can overwhelm our audiences, since we don’t have complete control of our own power. But we are resilient. This is our track list for that special someone inside a smoky cabaret.
1) "The Lion, The Beast and the Beat," by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
This song is designed to tantalize and enchant, while simultaneously signaling that we are primed.
2) "Coming for You," by Von Grey.
No matter how far you run, we’re coming for you. By horse, flying carpet, or a Chevy Astro.
3) "Tales That I Tell," by He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister.
Guess who we are? Games are fun. Read between the lines and our minds.
4) "Green Garden," Laura Mvula.
For when you have us entirely figured out.
5) "Next to Me," by Emelie Sandé.
And we can brag to the mermaids, harpies, and nymphs about you.
6) "Pretty Runs Out," by Amanda Shaw.
It’s important for us to be entirely honest with you. Once we locate Persephone, our wrinkles will appear.
7) "Shooter," by Mia Borders.
What? You don’t care for honesty. While we only believe in such savagery in times of necessity, that line can be blurred.
8) "What Good Am I?" by La Luz.
Self-reflection is important after a tragedy. It also feeds our creativity and ability to write the next album.
9) "Traces of You," by Anoushka Shankar
See, we ruminate on our losses.
10) "Ragamuffin," by Selah Sue
In staying true to our roots and mission, we will find Persephone.