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!

29 Responses to “A (hidden) grammar”

  1. Papers Says:

    Reminds me of Borges’s “Tlon, Uqbar, and Tertius,” wherein a fictional language was invited along with a fictional country, all of which became so popular that they outweighed “real” languages and history in school. Great post. :)

  2. Zom Says:

    “Alienation might actually be part of immersion” is a pretty interesting idea. I have to own up to being put off by fictional languages every time they rear their heads in comic books. Unless dialogue’s meaning is this close to transparent, I just can’t be arsed to do the work they require of me, mainly because I know that some fucker on the Internet will have done it by the time I’ve made that cup of tea and sat down in front of the computer. That said, the difficulty I face can and sometimes does add to the reading experience which is fascinating because the kind of feelings the employment of fictional languages frequently evoke are ones which writers normally shy away from – frustration, incomprehension, irritation. Yeah those sorts of feelings can promote a sense of the exotic and/or the Other, and I imagine for those that actually do the work they also afford a greater sense of immersion and/or involvement thanks to the level of engagement puzzling through them demands. I imagine the visual look of these pseudo-languages also work influence how I’m feeling. Kryptonese certainly connotes stuff like grandeur and beauty and perhaps magic, but more importantly I usually find it beautiful . Hmmm… it’s difficult to unpack how that breaks down: is that simply a product of its association with Superman, or does it have something to do with the lettering itself (when skilfully employed)?


  3. Duncan Says:

    Reasons to actually look at your research material while writing about it #2048: looking at the first couple issues of Tom Strong, early this morning, the Ozu stuff is nearly all squarely contextualised and “chimiri su” is obviously “help me”, which makes my closer there a bit of a plaintive one – I have no idea if I knew these things and forgot, but it did seem a lot easier thinking about it, having done this piece. Maybe mine eyes would simply roll of the page beforehand at the mere glimpse of that typeset.

  4. Duncan Says:

    Yeah, Zom, I think Kryptonese has a certain geometric, architectural… elegance to it. Very pared, almost severe. I do really like just looking at it, but I cannae read it.

  5. James Says:

    Wait, so that actually IS an ‘S’ on Superman’s chest? That’s…


  6. Botswana Beast Says:

    I think it’s actually a full-stop, in one of the Kryptonian fonts I dl’d from the site, anyway. Some punctuation.

  7. Jack Fear Says:

    Hate to be a pedant, but: Tolkien was Catholic, not C of E. It may not make a difference to you, but it does make a difference to the works, I think.

    Carry on.

  8. Jack Fear Says:

    Also: there was a bit in 52 about the symbol on Superman’s chest – it’s not so much a Kryptonian letter as a Kryptonian symbol, like the peace sign, and like it stands for some abstract concept – “hope,” IIRC. Plus, it had another meaning when it was inverted. The resemblance to the Latin “S” was purely coincidental.

    As with many things in 52, it’s hard to say where that comes from – but it has the whiff of Morrison.

  9. Zom Says:

    Be interested to know in what way you think it makes a difference. Not sceptical, just interested.

  10. Jack Fear Says:

    And perhaps tangentially related: I’m currently re-reading Orwell’s 1984, and the Newspeak stuff is, as always, blowing my mind. Most invented languages in fiction are essentially a substitution cipher – a different way of saying the same old thing – but Orwell thinks the whole thing through to the notion of language shaping thought, and thought thereafter shaping reality, so that huge vital concepts that we take for granted become untranslatable, and so certain thoughts become literally unthinkable.

  11. Jack Fear Says:

    Zom: Too much to get into right here and now – it’s a worldview, rather than a style, really – but you can generally spot a Catholic writer a mile away. A blog post, maybe, when I’ve organized my thoughts.

  12. Zom Says:

    Most invented languages in fiction are essentially a substitution cipher – a different way of saying the same old thing

    Yes, that factors into my resistance to them, I think. They just feel like gloss – insubstantial and woolly.

  13. Botswana Beast Says:

    Jack, apologies – I’d been reading Moorcock’s Epic Pooh excoriation which describes him as “orthodox Christian” and filtered that into inaccuracy; be interested to see the lineage through TS Eliot and Graham Greene, though.

    The inverted ‘S’ shield was resurrection; I thought that was a Waid bit myself, and can’t recall what the right-way-up pictogram signified.

    I want to get deeper into the ontological ramifications, ‘language-as-virus’ in the followup; I need to really finish reading Geoff Ryman’s Child Garden, which I’ve had kicking around for ages, factor that in too.

  14. Linkblogging for 06/03/09 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] Bot’swana Beast has a post on fictional alphabets in comics [...]

  15. James Says:

    Bots, Jack: Okay, but: look at the Kryptonian ‘S’ in the chart up there! You see the resemblance, no? The ’8′ is even heavier where it follows the ‘S’ shape.

    That exact symbol has popped up in Smallville a few times, clearly intended as a portent of the eventual S-shield. Wiki even tells me that the symbol is from an ancient dialect, and that the modern symbol IS the Superman S-shield.

    But even without that bit of extra-canon noodling, the S-shield could clearly be taken to be a stylised version of that Kryptonian S, yeah? Just as it’s a stylized english S? That… that can’t be an accident. So you end up with a meta-conversation that goes:
    “Hey! How come his costume has a roman ‘S’ when he’s from outer-space and Lois Lane came up with the ‘Superman’ name anyway?”
    “Ah, you see – it’s not an ‘S’, it’s a Kryptonian symbol that Lois Lane mistook for an ‘S’. It actually means hope/house of Jor-El/period. …Also, enjoy this Kryptonian alphabet.”
    “…It is a fucking ‘S’!”

    It’s possible I’m over-thinking this, of course.

  16. Botswana Beast Says:

    Also, if you take the 8 numeral and lie it down, it’s like infinity and shit. “Neverending”, innit?

  17. The Satrap Says:

    that factors into my resistance to (invented languages), I think. They just feel like gloss – insubstantial and woolly.

    I’ve always felt that the slapdash treatment in superhero comics of such trappings of “otherness” as languages, invented or otherwise, is part and parcel of the genre’s nonchalant attitude towards that obsession of other, related nerdy fields like sci-fi or fantasy, the Setting. Careful world-building is not what superheroes deal in. In 90% of the stories the buildings in Metropolis could be made of papier mâché for all we care, and the extent of Superman’s polyglot skillz will always be dictated by the plot. That’s why e.g. the overuse of silly substitution ciphers (i.e. alphabets like the above with one-to-one correspondences to plain ASCII English) has never bothered me.

    No comparison whatsoever with Tolkien’s anal retentiveness. Incidentally, and by way of digression, the “Epic Pooh” essay should be required reading for anybody with an interest in the fantasy genre. Even if Moorcock is a tad unfair, it’s easy to argue that Tolkien’s influence on the genre has been a net negative.

  18. The Satrap Says:

    BTW, the “Boring People who Speak (Learn) Klingon” tag is from Amy’s Candyfloss post, isn’t it? Genius.

  19. Bucky Sinister Says:

    Just got done with “Epic Pooh.” Starts off very interesting, quickly turns unfair, and then degenerates completely into an endless string of quotes. Moorcock’s a good one to complain about needless repetition…

    But anyway! Fake languages! Yes! I usually can’t be arsed to decipher them, either. Even in the case of Doop, who I always thought probably had some very interesting things to say.

    But most of the time, I can’t fault comics writers for using substitution codes. Like many things in comics storytelling, it’s a handy shorthand. A cartoon, if you will, of the alien tongues that need to be depicted from time to time as part and parcel of the subject matter.

  20. Duncan Says:

    I should’ve mentioned, the Doopspeak was actually invented by the letterer; judging by the pic, I think Nate Piekos and Milligan was initially unaware that it had a correspondance to ‘our’ alphabet (iirc, moderately annoyed to find out it did,) but obviously latterly he utilised it to a suicidally anticommercial degree – I can’t imagine reading Wolverine/Doop or X-Statix v. Avengers without translating, really; is it not a very… monocular experience, like trying to do depth perception with one eye?

  21. grant Says:

    >the Doopspeak was actually invented by the letterer<

    Are you positive about that? I was sure I’d seen it on Blambot before I’d seen it in the comics… or do you mean the letterer was slipping secret messages in there using the symbol font?

  22. grant Says:

    And I am going to have my daughter and her classmates whip Moorcock to pulp with their stuffed animals, while speaking in long sentences with lots of short clauses, the kind separated by commas because they digress from the main point, meandering like the flies that gather over the bloodied body of bad, bad fantasy writers. Hi ho.

  23. The Satrap Says:

    Patchy, and epic, Pooh is actually the highlight of Moorcock’s collection of essays on the fantasy genre, “Wizardry and Wild Romance”. It goes without saying that I couldn’t finish the book.

    However, he dares to attack the foremost figure and overall most pernicious influence on the genre with oedipal intensity, and for that he gets kudos.

    These are my guns, and I’m sticking to them.

  24. Zom Says:

    “oedipal intensity”

    Love it

  25. The Satrap Says:

    I should also add that we, who gather at Mindless HQ to have a chat and a nice cuppa, probably like to think of ourselves as card-carrying members of the Sophisticated Readers Union, so of course we can notice the flaws in Tolkien’s writing without that prolific hack Moorcock telling us what’s what. In other words, the essay probably has a target audience, and it’s not here.

    I mean, there are millions of lovely, smart computer engineers out there who still think that the Lord of the Rings is the greatest book evah. Say what you want about the Harry Potter books (which I’ve snobbishly given a wide berth to, assuming that they’re crap), but on the whole their fans seem to be under no illusions about their “literary” merit.

  26. Botswana Beast Says:

    grant – pretty sure; the early Doop bubbles are just semi-related-to-the-dialogue interjections (added by Piekos, presumably) and I’m fairly certain I remember a Milligan interview around then where he said he didn’t write dialogue for the Doopster.

  27. Asif2BD Says:

    Thats really nice. Now i could also try Kryptonian.

  28. Guest Says:

    Wow, what a lot of spam! You might want to think about turning off comments after a certain age. True, that would make it hard for people like me to comment, but then again I doubt if anyone’s going to read this anyway, so….

    Quoting from the post above, re: ancient Egyptian:

    “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”?”

    That’s actually highly incorrect. You might want to look up a fellow named Jean-François Champollion. Back in the early 1800s, he used the trilingual on the Rosetta Stone to produce the first translations of Egyptian hieroglyphs. You can buy books on how to write hieroglyphs, and of necessity read and write Middle Egyptian.

    No, the hieroglyphs are NOT pictorial. Hieroglyphs comprise an alphabet (consonants only, like Hebrew), bi- and tri-literal signs, and signs called “determinatives” that indicated the general category of a word, to disambiguate homophones, of which there were many. It was possible to mark a symbol as having its pictorial meaning (put a small line under it) but even when they did that, the Egyptians often also wrote out the word phonetically. There was a *lot* of redundancy in there.

    How did they say “speaking”? I believe the proper word would be transliterated as “r’” (where that ‘ is sort of a glottal stop) and written with a lenticular shape over a forearm, and probably with a person touching his mouth as a determinative, because it’s in the category of “things done with the mouth”. “Writing” would be essentially “sesh” (unless I’m getting that crossed up with the noun for a scribe), written with a folded cloth and a wide rectangle, plus a determinative of a scribe’s tools, to indicate “things having to do with writing.” One particularly important determinative is a narrow rectangle — a roll of papyrus — with a string around the middle: the determinative for abstract words like “love” or “thought.”

    Your dad was right, by the way: they generally *do* say what’s in the picture. If there’s a picture of, say, the pharaoh leading his army into battle, the text will say something like “Pharaoh Somebody the Invincible defeated the foolish Whoevers and their lord Whatchamacallit and took ten thousand captives” or something. Usually a much more elaborate something, because modesty was not a noble virtue. (nor was truthfulness; some of Thutmose’s great conquests were recorded entirely differently by the other side, particularly the part about who won)

    So, yeah, Egyptian hieroglyphs can be transliterated very directly. And then the words can be read … if you know Middle Egyptian, anyway. (I’m learning!) This has been true for the past couple of hundred years.

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