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This page contains notes about the language of the Eloi in The Time Machine, an 1895 speculative fiction novel by H. G. Wells. Because this novel has entered the public domain in USA, Canada, and Australia, and will soon enter the public domain (now!) in Europe, TTM is fair game for sequels, prequels, and alternate-point-of-view parodies by fans. Characterizing the language of the Eloi allows for consistency among fan works set in this novel's setting, at least in those that reject Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships.
A time traveller from late nineteenth-century England travels to England in AD 802701 and meets the Eloi, a race appearing to have descended from upper-class humans who live above ground in what at first appears to be a utopia. When he more briefly meets the Morlocks, another race appearing to have descended from lower-class humans who live below ground and raise the Eloi for food, he realizes the true crapsaccharine nature of England in this time.
The Eloi of the novel do not speak Modern English, the language of Great Britain and the United States of America around the twentieth century AD. TTM was adapted into two films which postulate that Modern English has survived for eight hundred millennia, possibly to help move the plot forward without making the film as long as Dances with Wolves.
The 2002 film takes even more liberties with the story. The Eloi on the American continent look like modern humans of a mixed skin color, due to millennia of interbreeding, and live in cliff dwellings. They have their own language constructed by John Logan, but a few of them speak Modern English, which they call "the stone language" after its use in surviving stone artifacts, as a liturgical language of sorts. There is even a surviving holographic librarian AI to help preserve the exact pronunciation of twenty-first-century American English. This might be acceptable for a work set in the year 2701, not 802701. For instance, genes that control skin color are far younger than that. My pet theory on this film is that a defect in the time machine's chronometer caused an incorrect time readout, and that the year was not in fact 802701.
In fact, I wouldn't recommend trying to extrapolate the lexicon from any known language beyond the mama, papa, and huh? level. Drift, caused by children's imperfect learning of their elders' language, has made one language split into French, German, Hindi, Russian, and Welsh over the course of roughly six millennia. Even columnists for general-interest comedy sites such as Cracked have recognized the process of language change. And without writing to "fossilize" it and slow it down, change happens even faster. The novel The Wee Time Traveler assumes that the era of TTM is only 20,000 years into the future, but that's still more than enough to make descendants of Afroasiatic and Indo-European languages unrecognizable. Even 10,000 years of language change is enough to make the comparative method fail.
Not only that, but we have no idea what language families' speakers will colonize Britain over the next few hundred millennia. Case in point: the Americas. Bands of Yeniseian-speaking Siberians migrated across the Bering land bridge thousands of years ago. Their speech eventually became the Na-Dene languages; these were the first to call themselves "Indians", from Mescalero Inde meaning "people". Other groups following the herds across Beringia in search of poop spoke languages that became Eskimo-Aleut and the various "Amerind" families. Between roughly AD 1600 and 1900, these were largely replaced by speakers of the Indo-European languages English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.
Hints from the novel
The Traveller was not a linguist by profession; instead, his studies focused on physical optics. This means he did not know the more precise terms that linguists use to describe grammar. So we have to reconstruct the characteristics of the Eloi language from the more vague layman's language that his first-person narrative used and make judgment calls on the reliability of his narrative:
Chapter 4, in a scene immediately after the Traveller lands his craft in 802701, gives a few vague hints about the phonology:
speaking in soft cooing notes to each other
"Soft" suggests the absence of complex clusters as might be heard in Germanic, Slavic, Caucasian, and especially Salishan languages, such as English "strengths", German Angstschweiß (fear sweat), Russian взгляд (vzglyad, glance), or Georgian gvbrdɣvnis (he's plucking us), and possibly a lack of the aspiration that English and other Germanic languages put on fortis stops. "Cooing" suggests that the the vowels are more tense or more "pure" as in Spanish or Italian, as opposed to the lax [ɪ] [ʊ] [æ] [ɐ] common in English and other Germanic languages, and/or that a sound classifiable as /u/ (however it is realized) is more common than it is in popular European languages.
a strange and very sweet and liquid tongue
"Strange" implies sounds not common in western European languages. In linguistics, "liquid consonant" refers to a lateral approximant (L sound) or a rhotic (R sound). More broadly, "liquid" implies a metaphor of flowing freely like water, yet not a gas. This suggests that approximants are common and that voiceless stops are tenuis (not aspirated), not necessarily that a language has an abundance of distinct rhotic and lateral phonemes like Iwaidjian (rarum 11).
They had to chatter and explain the business at great length to each other, and my first attempts to make the exquisite little sounds of their language caused an immense amount of amusement.
By "exquisite," the Time Traveller may have meant "beautiful" and/or "delicate." Languages whose phonology sounds "beautiful" and/or "delicate" to an anglophone ear may include the conlang Toki Pona and natural languages with a (C)V syllable structure such as Hawaiian and its neighbors, and possibly to a lesser extent Italian and Japanese, which have more clusters that are still far simpler than those of Germanic or Slavic.
The presumably childlike vocal tracts of the natives provide a few more hints to the phonology. For example, late-learned sounds such as dental fricatives ("th"), English "r", and Spanish "r" are unlikely. Yuri de Groot of the CONLANG list reports that consonant clusters are hard for small children to pronounce.
The only actual samples of the Eloi language that we ever get are Weena's name (or perhaps an interjection that the Traveller mistook for Weena's name) and the name of the Eloi species itself. But technically, as the end of chapter 2 explains, the Traveller dictated chapters 3–11 orally to the narrator of the outer frame story, so the transcriptions in the novel might not reflect the Traveller's precise pronunciation.
Chapter 4 also confirms a few of the parts of speech:
and presently I had a score of noun substantives at least at my command; and then I got to demonstrative pronouns, and even the verb "to eat."
The demonstratives are forms of "this", "that", "other", "none", and the like. Not all these necessarily translate to single, unique Eloi words. There is not enough information in the novel to reconstruct the set of demonstratives precisely, though the Time Traveller's use of the plural "demonstrative pronouns" suggests at least a distinction between "this" and "that."
Chapter 5 lays what might be the cornerstone of Eloi grammar:
I made what progress I could in the language, and in addition I pushed my explorations here and there. Either I missed some subtle point or their language was excessively simple—almost exclusively composed of concrete substantives and verbs. There seemed to be few, if any, abstract terms, or little use of figurative language. Their sentences were usually simple and of two words, and I failed to convey or understand any but the simplest propositions.
The "sentences" observed by the Traveller may in fact be clauses. Prosodic features, such as rhythm and pitch contours, vary from language to language. Even within modern English, the high rising terminal intonations in the "Valley Girl" speech of the U.S. West Coast sound like questions to speakers of the general American dialect. Compare the characteristic writing style of author Ernest Hemingway, which involves short, flat clauses concatenated to form an argument. One might take an educated guess that Eloi works more like this than like the Dickensian literary English with which the Traveller likely grew up. The phenomenon of slower speech and simplification when speaking to a foreigner could amplify this prosodic confusion, and some of the pragmatics might still have escaped a Traveller who had learned basic conversational Eloi.
The "simple and of two words" comment points to telegraphic speech. The Traveller might not have recognized the chaining of such telegraphic clauses into serial verb constructions that express complex propositions with compound predicates. In an SVC language, verb phrases and prepositional phrases are in the same class, and there is little or no distinction between a verb, a preposition, and a case clitic. Chinese and numerous West African languages use this to a far greater extent than the second-millennium European languages with which the Traveller might have been familiar. An SVC language taken to 11 is a monovalent language, in which all verbs are intransitive; clauses with many pronouns often end up as a single subject and verb when translated to monovalent.
On the other hand, monovalency may not be needed so long as the language is not purely isolating. Free from the simplifying pressure of second language learners, human language tends to grow a mohawk: something decorative but not needed for communication. Children learning the polysynthetic language Kanien'kéha (Mohawk) first learn a more or less isolating language partly mutually intelligible with adult speech, where each word consists of the stressed syllable followed by the final syllable, and some meanings for which adults use verb affixes are instead expressed analytically. Children learn Mohawk subject prefixes around age three, by which point verb conjugation is about as complex as that of English. But that's likely the limit of what morphology is likely to survive through generations of people whose bodies and minds stop maturing at age five. Still, incorporation of a subject pronoun into the verb is enough to explain predominantly two-word utterances without a change as radical as monovalency.
Comparison with Morlock language
In chapter 6, the Traveller attempts unsuccessfully to communicate with the Morlocks in the Eloi language:
I tried to call to them, but the language they had was apparently different from that of the Over-world people
The Traveller hypothesizes that his difficulty results from poor mutual intelligibility of the Eloi and Morlock languages. Another possibility is that the languages are related, but the open class words in each are the other's avoidance speech. Yet another is that Eloi language is constructed by the Morlocks. (Does the novel imply whether Eloi in other ranches speak the same language?)
Chapter 9 hints at some overlap between the Eloi and Morlock phonemic ranges:
as I fumbled with my pocket, a struggle began in the darkness about my knees, perfectly silent on [Weena's] part and with the same peculiar cooing sounds from the Morlocks.
"Peculiar cooing sounds" may describe an attempt to speak Eloi, possibly mocking, or similar phonology within a Sprachbund.
- Jacopo della Quercia. 6 Time Travel Realities Doc Brown Didn't Warn Us About. Cracked. 2010-06-18. Accessed 2011-10-03.
- See the official press notes.
- Eloi language on Langmaker
- Kathleen McAuliffe. "They Don't Make Homo Sapiens Like They Used To". Discover, 2009-02-09. Accessed 2014-09-15.
- Justin Crockett. "5 Eerily Specific Things Every Human Does Exactly the Same". Cracked, 2014-11-18. Accessed 2014-11-18.
- Chris Bucholz. "7 Commonly Corrected Grammar Errors (That Aren't Mistakes)". Cracked, 2012-04-24. Accessed 2012-04-24.
- For example, obligatory manner prefixes arose in Ngan'gityemerri during the twentieth century CE in The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter, ISBN 9780716744733, pp. 217–222.
- Jlawler. "Comment to Would a “Proto-World” language have any long-lasting effect on today's languages?". Linguistics Stack Exchange, 2013-04-17. Accessed 2014-02-02.
- Inde (Apache) Literature
- Mohammed Shariff. "6 Mind-Blowing Ways Poop Created the Modern World". Cracked, 2012-03-11. Accessed 2012-03-13.
- The Traveller had just started to learn the language when he determined Weena's name. Given that "Weena" is the only character named in the inner narrative, it's not clear whether the Eloi regularly use names at all. All the Tropes has a few tropes that don't quite fit this situation: Verbal Tic Name, because the typical Eloi vocabulary is too large; Named by Democracy, because the Traveller alone isn't a democracy; Appropriated Appellation, because the name isn't intended as derogatory; and Only Known by their Nickname, because no evidence suggests that any Eloi has a longer name. Perhaps the closest is an in-universe Lady Mondegreen. But consider the case of Tsäd the dog, or the real-life example of Prawo Jazdy the traffic offender, which All the Tropes mentions at "Blind Idiot" Translation: Real Life.
- Mike Clark. "When statements? Sound like questions?" DoWriteRight. November 18, 2007. Accessed June 10, 2016.
- Joel Stickley wrote an impersonation of Ernest Hemingway's style
- Joel Stickley also wrote an impersonation of Charles Dickens's style
- Marianne Mithun. "The acquisition of polysynthesis". J. Child Lang. 16 (1989), 285-312. Accessed 2014-11-22.