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.

For the language used in the 2002 film, see wikipedia:Eloi language.

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.

Background

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.

English

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,[1] possibly to help move the plot forward without making the film as long as Dances with Wolves.

In the 1960 film, for example, the Eloi speak simple English. Recorded news broadcasts stored in kinetic powered "talking rings" help to preserve the Modern English pronunciation.

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,[2] and live in cliff dwellings. They have their own language constructed by John Logan,[3] 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.

In fact, I wouldn't recommend trying to extrapolate too much from any known language. Drift, caused by children's imperfect learning of their elders' language, has made one language split into German, French, Russian, and Welsh over the course of roughly six millennia. And without writing to "fossilize" it and slow it down, drift happens even faster.[4] Moreover, 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. Other groups following the herds across Beringia 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:

Phonology

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).

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.

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[5]) 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.

Grammar

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.[6] Compare the characteristic writing style of author Ernest Hemingway, which involves short, flat clauses concatenated to form an argument.[7] 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.[8] 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.

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.

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.

References

  1. Jacopo della Quercia. 6 Time Travel Realities Doc Brown Didn't Warn Us About. Cracked. 2010-06-18. Accessed 2011-10-03.
  2. See the official press notes.
  3. Eloi language on Langmaker
  4. 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.
  5. 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. TV 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; and Appropriated Appellation. Perhaps the closest is a Lady Mondegreen In Universe. But consider the case of Tsäd the dog, or the real-life example of Prawo Jazdy the traffic offender, which TV Tropes mentions at Blind Idiot Translation.
  6. Mike Clark. "When statements? Sound like questions?" DoWriteRight. November 18, 2007.
  7. Joel Stickley wrote an impersonation of Ernest Hemingway's style
  8. Joel Stickley also wrote an impersonation of Charles Dickens's style

External links