Eloi language

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This article contains original research, observations, conjecture, and synthesis. Feel free to leave a comment if you disagree with something.

In this page, I jot down some 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. 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.


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 a 2002 film. The Eloi look like modern humans of a "mixed" skin color and live in cliff dwellings. They have their own language, but a few of them speak Modern English, which they call "the stone language" after its use in surviving stone artifacts. 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. 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.

Hints from the novel

The Traveller was not a linguist by profession; instead, he majored in 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
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 other natural languages with a (C)V syllable structure such as Hawaiian, and possibly to a lesser extent Italian and Japanese, which have more clusters.

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.

The only actual samples of the Eloi language that we ever get are 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.

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 "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.

Henrik Theiling's constructed language Tesяfkǝm (pronounced roughly TEH-saff-kerm) and Pete Bleackley's iljena take this to its logical extreme: they're monovalent. A monovalent language has one verb for each role in an action, and a sentence is composed of intransitive clauses with one verb and one noun argument. For example, in a monovalent isolating language, "Colin threw the ball" would gloss as "Colin threw; ball flew", and "he threw the ball" would become "he threw; ball flew". But if "threw" could also be inferred from context, the sentence would become the appropriately telegraphic "ball flew". So instead of being pro-drop, a language exploiting this would be clause-drop.

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 rising intonations in "Valley Girl" speech sound like questions to speakers of the general American dialect.[1] 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 popular around the Traveller's home time. 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 limited basic conversational Eloi.

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