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Ilish   Advanced
From the Encyclopedia Fithica

One of the more unusual species of creatures on Fithia (from Terran standards) is the il, a deep-sea-dwelling, omnivorous "fish" with its own capability for language (the intelligence of ils is somewhere between that of Terran canines and three-year old humans). The ilian languages (known as the Ilish language family) may have originally evolved from the unusual reproductive cycle of the il.

The female of the species ejects its fertilized eggs over the face of the male il; these eggs completely cover the sonar-emitting and -receiving "eyes" of the male il, eventually rendering the male il "blind" (unable to use sonar) as the eggs take root and develop. The eggs derive sustenance from the male by literally sucking its eyes out. For the three months of incubation and the month of regeneration of the sonar tissue, the male il depends upon the female il to tell it the location of prey, predators and obstacles. Without language, the male il would starve and the propagation of the species would cease.

The female il communicates with the male by sending the male il electric shocks. Each electric signal acts as a word, with collections of signals forming sentences. The male il can respond in kind, interrogating the female by generating its own electric signals. These signals show arbitrary symbolism; they are not inherited but vary, with the precise schemes differing among il living in different regions of Fith's oceans. Both the male and female il teach their language to their offspring, as the young il (called ilts) are blind for several months after detaching themselves from their father.

Fithian scientists have removed the ilts from their biological parents (speaking one dialect or language) to an adoptive couple speaking a different dialect or language, and in all cases where the ilts have survived, the ilts have learned the language of their adopted parents rather than the language of their biological parents; this is a sure sign that the ilian communication system is in fact language based. (Unfortunately, in early experiments, the adopted ilts were devoured by the adopting parents; only when all of the original offspring of the adopted parents were removed would the il content themselves to raise the adopted ilts.)

Because only one il can talk to another at a time, they sometimes form speaking-chains, with the first il (typically the mother), sending a signal to the second il, which relays it to the third, and so forth.

One last interesting fact about the ilian languages: each language has an elaborate system consisting of thousands of pronouns, with no nouns at all. Each pronoun system in the different ilian languages arbitrarily represents common coordinates on a three-dimensional spatial system, where the speaker (actually, the emitting il) is the origin of the coordinating system. Thus there are arbitrary signals for concepts such as the following:

(0,0,0) - speaker ("I, me")

(1,1,1) - that thing removed one unit from the speaker upwards, one unit to the left, one forward

(-1,-1,-1) - that thing removed one unit from the speaker downwards, one unit to the right, one backward

(0,0,1), (0,1,0), (0,1,1), etc.

The units are logarithmic, so coordinates that represent ever further distances away include ever larger areas, going up to eleven units away in some dialects, legend has it (which would be 12,167 coordinate cells).

For the nearer coordinates, there is no relationship between the amplitude of the electric signals and the coordinate system; it is as arbitrary as any sound-sense correspondence in the pronoun system of a human language. Pronouns for coordinates more than two away in any distance are formed from compounds.

Interestingly, as an il swims, the location of an object is moving relative to the il, so the object's pronoun label is changing as well. To translate "I see some edible plankton right there; would you like to eat it?" requires knowing the position of the plankton relative to the speaker (to translate "right there" into the appropriate pronoun), the position of the listener ("you") and the position of the plankton by the time the utterance is being completed ("it"). If the listener goes to talk about "it", even if "it" has not moved, he or she would still use a different pronoun to refer to "it", since he or she has to make the reference using his or her coordinate system. So the shifting referents of pronouns as two il communicate are too complicated for humans or even Fithians to process in real time.

A pronoun is "inflected" (the beginning of the electric signal is subtly altered) as one of three pronoun classes: positive (beneficial), negative (a threat) or neutral (not known to be either positive or negative). So a pronoun would be roughly translated as "something [good or bad or neutral] at [distance]."

The pronoun system is further overlaid by three tiers. The first tier is as just described, but the second tier implies indirect knowledge; e.g., "I-think-it-is-there-at-(1,2,3)". The indirect tier is used when extrapolating an object's position (for example, if obscured by an intervening object, say a large school of fish) and is therefore always used by blind ils, who automatically and quite sophisticatedly extrapolate the position of objects based on their past known movements, the speed of currents, etc. The third tier is used to refer to something that had been there; for instance, the sentence "Remember the moby [English translation for a specific predator] we saw yesterday?" would be more literally expressed as "Remember the moby-like it [giving pronoun of the past coordinates it was seen at] we saw yesterday-ly [adv.]?"

In the ilian languages, all abstract nouns are actually translated as what we would call adjectives, so "some edible plankton right there" would be translated "edible-plankton-like [adj.] it [pronoun]". Pronouns in ilian languages can therefore be modified by adjectives (unlike in human languages). The word "some" would be handled differently; it would be translated with other pronouns to fully cover the coordinates where the plankton can be found; therefore, "it" might be translated as three pronouns covering coordinates (2,2,2), (2,2,3) and (2,3,2) for instance. For truly large objects, sometimes just the coordinates of the edges are referred to: "[1,5,5] and [1,3,3]" (for a two-dimensional object or a thin three-dimensional object).

In summary, an Ilish pronoun refers to the following semantic components: attitude (beneficial, threatening, neutral), location (x, y and z coordinates) and context (seen at that location now, expected to be at that location now, at that location in the past).

The ilian languages have over 50 adjectives describing relative and object velocity and acceleration. Imagine if U.S. motorists had simple words for "55 miles per hour", "decelerating at x ft/sec^2", "accelerating at x ft/sec^2" and so forth. The il use these words as readily as we use color words. (They of course have no words for color, not perceiving light, but instead have words to describe the texture of echoed sonar signals-try translating those into English!)

The il have a large variety of adjectives to describe animals and plants. The adjectives are used to describe pronouns, as if in English you could not talk about barnyard animals like cows, horses and sheep, but only about "the bovine it, the equine it and the ovine it".

The il count using a trinary number system. They have words for zero, one, two and three, which then are combined for larger numbers. For instance, five = 12 (one two), since the first digit represents one occurrence of 3, and six = 20 (two zero).

0 - 0
1 - 1
2 - 2
3 - 10 (also represented as a distinct word)
4 - 11
5 - 12
6 - 20
7 - 21
8 - 22
9 - 100
10 - 101

The il use the word meaning 9 the way English speakers use "hundred" to refer to a large number. So an il that said it saw 9 of something means that it saw a lot of them.

Numbers are always used as adjectives or adverbs. "Can you count to 9?" would be "Can you count 9-ly?" and "I saw 9 of them" would be more literally "I saw 9 its."

The il like to talk! Well, to be as objective as possible, the female il like to electrically shock the male il. It is often difficult to tell if any meaningful communication is always intended by this...

The il use language not only to communicate facts that assist with the necessities of living, but also appear to have discussions and tell stories. Most discussions involve wish fulfillment ("I would really like to see lots of edible-sea-creatures right there, wouldn't you? or would you rather see edible-sea-ferns?"). The stories, on the other hand, are tedious recollections (tedious to Fithians and humans) of a whole day of meals, from the initial identification of each likely meal and its subsequent movements (if plankton, moved by the currents, or if an animate sea creature, any evasive maneuvers it may have taken), to its digestion by the ominvorous il and the path its detritus took to reach the ocean floor.

So even though the il do speak languages, no other sentient creatures really want to learn to speak with them.

Respectfully yours,

Jeffrey Henning
Genesis Linguist

[Acknowledgments - thanks to Frank Mayer for his suggestions on how to improve this write up of the ilian languages.]

Feedback from C4progress:
“Thanks for your Ilish reference: it has a number of features I found interesting. Like the use of the coordinate system for pronouns, though it occurred to me that I would use a polar (spherical) rather than a Cartesian grid coordinate system were I an eel (though maybe not an il); making it logarithmic is a nice touch, but also it might be nice to use a 4-coordinate system, incorporating time as the fourth dimension. Also, since it is based on shocks, the natural symbols to use would be * and !, maybe with some ', ", :, or the like. (I'm not criticizing, just tossing out ideas.) I was also glad to see your use of base 3, a much underappreciated base with great potential, in my opinion. But as I use it the basic digits are not 0, 1, 2, but -, 0, +, because what base 3 basically enables you to do is to direct you by saying like "look left (-), now look towards the right hand edge of that view (+), now focus in on the center of that frame (0)" and so on, dividing each successive field into thirds.”

The Babel Text
This is the start of a verbatim paraphrase of the Babel Text as it would need to be translated into an Ilish language.

1. And ilish beneficial-something-in-entire-field-of-vision-past could communicate together.

2. As ilish beneficial-something-in-entire-field-of-vision-past and I drifted eastward, ilish beneficial-something-in-entire-field-of-vision-past and I found a food-rich, sea-floorish something-below-us-past and hovered above something-below-us-past.

3. Ilish beneficial-something-in-entire-field-of-vision-past and I linked-in-a-communications-chain-and-communicated, "Come, (imperative) eat of sea-floorish something-below-us-now."

4. Then Ilish beneficial-something-in-entire-field-of-vision-past and I communicated-across-a-communications-chain, "Come, (imperative) remain here and eat always of sea-floorish something-below-us-now and let ilish-excrementish beneficial-something-below-us-future settle to the sea-floorish something-below-us-future. Ilish beneficial-something-in-entire-field-of-vision-past and I will never leave here, so that all the ilish beneficial-something-outside-entire-field-of-vision-now will come here and so that ilish-beneficial-something-

Conlang Profiles at © 1996-2005 Jeffrey Henning.

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