A (hidden) grammar

March 5th, 2009


Nah, mate, nah. English, eh? ING-LISH.

So, I dunno – Mindless Ones’ premier anniversaire, and I’m hauling up the back end, with my monthly contrib of – occasionally – fauxcademic insight and link agglomeration, alighting on the topic of fictional languages and odd fonts. It came to me as in a dream, which featured also a green flying potato creature, not unlike Slimer off Ghostbusters. It’s asking for trouble, frankly, the constructed language – which is probably why comics have so very many. Because comics, oh comics, they never tire of asking for a bloody nose in the name of pointless displays of virtuosity – it’s why I love ’em!

J. R. R. Tolkien, now there was a penis. A dreary, cloistered, Anglican Tory who wrote a bunch of almost uniformly mercilessly dull prose apparently – and from some perspectives, it’s hard to see otherwise – as a ‘showcase for languages’ that he’d invented. What on Earth was the point? Why have people created a Klingon language? jIyajbe’. Or Mandalorian, to round out probably the 20th century’s three premier SFF universes’ attendant oddities. To learn, or create, these worthless things – is it just a way of giving up even on the possibility of sex, forever? I can see the polemic point of Láadan at least, low profile as it is; the link there is a helpful primer in con(structed)lang(uage)s.

I have to confess here, breaking the fusillade of brute anti-intellectualism that I was quite getting into, that I hate other languages. Charlemagne’s maxim “To have another language is to possess a second soul” proves me one mono-souled motherfucker. Whether that’s an endemic part of a greater Anglo malaise, as I suspect it may be, or the problem of the gauche left-hander with non-native tongues I leave to full academe to root out. I have a battery more excuses, probably, in any case and was perfectly capable at everything else, at school. So fuck you, languages, I can work this one fine.

O right, comics. So, they trouble me in my comics – it troubled me most recently when Batroc (“ze Leapair“, as I believe they say in the character’s native French) spent half an ish of Captain America speaking French; I can sort of puzzle out some Latinate roots, assemble a modicum of sense, and thereby work out why Latin was taught (and should be again if Britannia is ever to rise once more, ask me) in schools in the distant past. But I can’t, without some stress and effort, even make much of things like this, from All-Star Superman #11:


Or more correctly, I didn’t even really realise there was much to that actually fairly significant and affecting midpanel until I started researching things like the Kryptonian Institute (as I like to call it) and suddenly it’s obvious and brilliant, because it involves superheroes. They are the alchemy of my cultural existence. So, yeah, I didn’t check the letters or anything – although I did download both the above-linked chap’s fonts, so I can now send everyone really solid advice in Kryptonese Word documents (adds gravitas, see) – but it’s pretty obvious from the shape of the word, after a bit of figuring and contextualising, though there’s no direct dialogue cue as there is – it turns out – with the rest of Superman’s Last Will and Testament in that comic; it’s pretty obvious that says “Goodbye”. Which is pretty affecting, really; all alone and far from home, the only other thing in the universe that speaks his language tells Superman “Goodbye” and it’s suddenly about the saddest thing ever. And I missed it the first eleven hundred times (oh, did you really think there wasn’t going to be any Grant Morrison in this post? Ahahaha, tough) I read the comic, just glossed over it altogether. Mind you, if they’d got Darren Doyle – or ‘Val-Zho’ as he styles himself for his e-mail address, we should all have Kryptonian a.e.’s really – to do this, he’d’ve actually transmuted it into another language altogether and it’d’ve been hermetically sealed from basically the entirety of the readership’s cognizance. I mean, I really want him to complete his project, and create a functioning Kryptonian language if only so that Superman and by extension the DC Universe can join my first three examples on the ultimate pantheon of dorkery, if only so the dead world-building exercise reaches that logical end and the Superman experience can have a deeper layer of immersion. But, in a lot of ways – I’ll go a distance for my nerdery, in fact it’s the only thing that gets me to learn science and shit now I don’t have to – this’d surely be a big ask, were it actually utilised.

Here’s the Krypto-scripts, prove me right:


Hurray! They did. Short history. Kryptonian, or Kryptonese as was, is antedated by the ‘language of the future’, Interlac from the Legion of Superheroes – there’s surprisingly little resources on this particular bit of comics minutiae, and I am, as described above, about the worst person to write a definitive piece on it, but hey ho, framebreakers ahoy chaps!


The aforementioned are all substitution ciphers of varying sorts; invented fonts, like Wingdings, primarily. I know font fetishists, former Graphic Design students all, and it’s – it’s an underrated and often ignored world, it’d be terribly remiss not to link to Todd Klein at some point here, if you are at all interested in that and comic lettering, you should read the shit out of Todd Klein’s site, because there’s a very good reason he’s won pretty much every lettering award ever.

I think the rudimentary Mister Mind & Monster Society of Evil reverse alphabet substitution cipher would be the first exemplar of this basic codebreaking stuff. I like to imagine that all being initially borne from the Second World War effort, cracking Enigma, Alan Turing, Bletchley Park, but you can probably blame Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon for much of that speculation, accurate or otherwise. There’s something of the idealised – not childhood, actually – probably boyhood, in cryptography. I can, I think, recall hazy Summer evenings making fiendish codes in the Cub Scouts and Con and Hal Iggulden’s Christmas 2006 sleeper hit, The Dangerous Book for Boys, handily recreating this prelapsarian fantasy in format and content, devotes some time and space to the practice as I knew it would – again, before checking, because prescience is among my many gifts; just not foreign language learning, it is the only gift I lack for certain.

I’m not sure whether the interim phases of superhero or even, hey, comic books between their origins and contemporary were particularly rich with oddball fonts that required you, the reader, to participate (which = a good thing, almost always, language carping aside – it was getting tiring, wasn’t it?) and write your own key as I did for the Doopster there, atop, when reading an issue of Wolverine/Doop, stranded without a print of that topmost illo, facing a comic in which half the dialogue appeared to be gibberish. So, that’s one contemporary example and as a pictoral addendum, here’s the other, a Skrull translator useful for about 9 million Marvel comics last year, ganked from someone’s DeviantArt account because it would of course have been completely stupid had the company made a key on their own site:


The latter part of this will be about mostly Alan Moore and the (at least) three invented languages from his… oeuvre, but first! A small, primal interjection, also from my childhood – it’s amazing how often reflecting on comics reclaims these memories, perhaps they are indeed terrible infantile reenactments within themselves and very, very bad for you – and more inchoate aggro from the little man who lurks within:


The Egyptians in Asterix drove – drives! – me batshit, more than anything else I can summon up here, because there was never any chance of a direct transliteration of their script which was pictoral itself. That’s some down-the-rabbithole shit, right there: how did they say “speaking”? Or “writing”? Still, it will have saved the translators a bit of time rejigging puns, etc. As a serious-faced, definition-seeking 7 y.o. reading the many books, my father was of little assistance: “They just say what’s in the picture.” O RLY??!! It says “fish-hawkheaded man-water-snake”? Thanks, dad.

But then, that first interaction with absolute textual alienation does on reflection seem more veracious than bracketing every bit of non-English with “<>” (Love & Rockets smartly inverts this formula) or denoting it with say, the Ostrogoths in Asterix had clearly Gothic font, if I remember right. Slavic languages could have one of their funny (to Western, Cyrillic-seeing eyes) backwards ‘e’s or something. Or hella convenient Universal Translators, the OG Babel Fish which latterly, as doubtless all my readers know, gave it’s name to actual web translation services.

So, yeah, alienation might actually be part of immersion – I was possibly irked by my first read of the Adam Strange guest-starring issues of Swamp Thing as collected in Reunion, but it’s certainly not my recollection of it, ultimately – Rann does feel to me in these scant pages, still, exotic, unknowable, a wonder and I think Moore’s choice to create an apparently internally logical, albeit limited vocabularywise, language for the Rannians – something which occupies approaching half the script, is very much integral to creating that feeling. For the curious minded, which I count myself among, a chap named Greg Plantamura (really?! because a Swamp Thing fansite… maybe not; the homepage is the ‘Houma‘ page after all; sometimes, not often, I love fandom – this is exemplary fandom) has provided his best effort at translating the Rannian for the two issues: #57 and 58, along with an approximately 150 word lexicon. It’s on an Angelfire site, which I find a little concerning as they’ve a tendency(?) to disappear. I haven’t actually printed it out or anything, just scanned it, but it’s a comfort to know it exists – I don’t know if I necessarily want to know, even roughly, what Adam, his wife Alanna and her father Sardac are saying now. Big Alan also chucks in a few scratchy, vulpine runes to denote the Thanagarian script of the Hawkpeople; there is a grammar for the language, but it’s more like a slang dictionary. This is why you will lose the ceaseless war between the two planets, eventually.

Luckily, in Moore’s later work, I don’t have to even worry about having my dislocation spoilt – I think Tom Strong was always regarded as the weakest and lightest of the ABC line; perhaps it was, though I think it might be my favourite; less onerous than Promethea, a sight less ostentatious than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (look, it’s beautiful, and an incredible testament to a man’s learning, but the stories? All I remember is that one splash of the Nautilus – controversial!). Anyway, perhaps being leavened of weighty high concept allowed/forced Moore into doing other things to entertain himself, such as inventing two separate languages: Ozu, as spoken by the people of Attabar Teru, where he was raised and where his wife, Dhalua, and her people come from


(thank you, Todd Klein)

and the language of daughter Tesla’s partner Val Var Garm and his volcano people. There’s actually a good deal more Ozu in the series than, erm, ‘volcano language’ – I don’t think it had a name – and certain things, like “weh-wah” are, at least contextually, fairly clear. A weh-wah is a baby, an attractively onomatopoeic duosyllable for the little shitting snotbags (awwww; I actually really love babies. But they are messy bastards.) There’s so much of Ozu I find hard to contextualise, though – salutations(?) like “Chimiri Su!”, I’m sure “Naxa Douanet” is a fairly oft-used… caution? These are almost the cliché phrases, along with “Chukulteh” or “Great Chukulteh”, who’s the people’s Quetzalcoatl-esque God. There are certain other things I’d guess about Ozu, like: this is probably some ‘noble savage’ type culture, and I betbetbet they don’t have tenses in their basic, yet eternally wise, culture. I wouldn’t either, if I’d a language of my own, because tenses are a waste of time almost entirely and if there’s one thing English Language class taught me (there is precisely one thing, and it is this:) it’s that the underclass always wins in language, always overhauls it. So as an American other (Attabar Teru is a West Indian islet) this’d be in keeping with inner-city slang and Meso-American languages. So, that’s brilliant, if true. I’d like someone to even go to the effort to prove me wrong here, but y’all be too slack. But it will be, because Promethea‘s all on the timeless time schtick too, ultimately.

Endings are only beginnings and that, eh? I’ll return to this topic later and try and puzzle out the more occluded stuff like: Keys 17, 23 and 64 from The Invisibles, the Sumerian aspects of Snow Crash and Alan Moore’s notional ‘A Grammar’ from whence this post’s title is taken, but baby steps to start. Chimiri Su, Mindless reader, whatever it means!

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