the language dragons speak

“Many a mage of great power has spent his whole life to find out the name of one single thing — one single lost or hidden name. And still the lists are not finished. Nor will they be, till world’s end. Listen, and you will see why. In the world under the sun, and in the other world that has no sun, there is much that has nothing to do with men and men’s speech, and there are powers beyond our power. But magic, true magic, is worked only by those beings who speak the Hardic tongue of Earthsea, or the Old Speech from which it grew. That is the language dragons speak…”

Although the use of the Old Speech binds a man to truth, this is not so with dragons. It is their own language, and they can lie in it, twisting the true words to false ends, catching the unwary hearer in a maze of mirror-words each of which reflects the truth and none of which leads anywhere.

Yet dragons have their own wisdom; and they are an older race than man. Few men can guess what a dragon knows and how he knows it, and those few are the Dragonlords.

Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

Map of Earthsea

“It is not easy — talking to dragons.”

“The dragons! The dragons are avaricious, insatiable, treacherous; without pity, without remorse. But are they evil? Who am I, to judge the acts of dragons?… They are wiser than men are. It is with them as with dreams… We men dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do not do; they are.”

“Their blood is cold and venomous. You must not look into their eyes. They are older than
mankind… And though I came to forget or regret all I have ever done, yet would I remember that once I saw the dragons aloft on the wind at sunset above the western isles; and I would be content.”

Ursula Le Guin, The Farthest Shore

chinese ceremonies for beginners

The Russian expression без китайских церемоний (literally, without Chinese ceremonies) can be translated as “without formalities”, “simply”, “casually”, or even “bluntly”. Chinese ceremonies in question can be expanded as “tedious and unnecessary conventions; excessive display of politeness; meaningless etiquette”. In his short story Китайская церемония (1924), Mikhail Zoshchenko humorously refers to the habit of shaking hands as a Chinese ceremony, even though Chinese have nothing to do with it.

Chinese, however, see nothing wrong in being excessively polite. The more excuse mes, can I asks and pleases, the better. Instead of rather blunt 你好吗 “How are you?” (literally “You good?”), you are more likely to hear 你吃饭了没, “Have you eaten rice yet?” — because if you did, things cannot be too bad. Interestingly, the polite response to 谢谢 “thank you” is 不客气 , literally “don’t be polite”. If you are at all interested in learning Chinese, you could do worse than start with a few polite expressions.

Han characters Pinyin Meaning Etymology
trad. qǐng Please
trad. 請問 qǐngwèn Excuse me 請 / 请 “please” + 問 / 问 “ask”
simpl. 请问
trad. 抱歉 bàoqiàn (I’m) sorry 抱 “to carry” + 歉 “apology”
trad. 謝謝 xièxie Thank you; thanks
simpl. 谢谢
trad. 不客氣 bù kèqi You’re welcome 不 “not” + 客氣 / 客气 “polite”; literally “don’t be (so) polite”
simpl. 不客气
trad. 您好 nín hǎo Hello (formal, said to a single person) 您 “you” (formal) + 好 “good”
trad. 你好 nǐ hǎo Hello (informal, said to a single person) 你 “you” (informal) + 好 “good”
trad. 你們好 nǐmen hǎo Hello (said to a group of people) 你們 / 你们 “you” (plural) + 好 “good”
simpl. 你们好
trad. 你好嗎? nǐ hǎo ma? How are you? 你 “you” (informal) + 好 “good” + 嗎 / 吗 (question tag); literally “you good?”
simpl. 你好吗?
trad. 你吃飯了沒? nǐ chīfàn le méi? How are you? 你 “you” (informal) + 吃 “to eat” + 飯 / 饭 “cooked rice” + 了 (perfective aspect tag) + 沒 / 沒 “have not”; literally “have you eaten cooked rice?”
simpl. 你吃饭了没?
trad. 早安 zǎo ān Good morning 早 “early” + 安 “peace”
trad. 晚安 wǎn ān Good evening; good night 晚 “late” + 安 “peace”
trad. 再見 zàijiàn Goodbye; see you later 再 “again” + 見 / 见 “to see / to meet”
simpl. 再见

the echoes of those first syllables

They were one of the oldest of the Disc’s religious sects, although even the gods themselves were divided as to whether Listening was really a proper religion, and all that prevented their temple being wiped out by a few well-aimed avalanches was the fact that even the gods were curious as to what it was that the Listeners might Hear. If there’s one thing that really annoys a god, it’s not knowing something.

The fact is that the Listeners are trying to work out precisely what it was that the Creator said when He made the universe.

The theory is quite straightforward.

Clearly, nothing that the Creator makes could ever be destroyed, which means that the echoes of those first syllables must still be around somewhere, bouncing and rebounding off all the matter in the cosmos but still audible to a really good listener.

Eons ago the Listeners had found that ice and chance had carved this one valley into the perfect acoustic opposite of an echo valley, and had built their multi-chambered temple in the exact position that the one comfy chair always occupies in the home of a rabid hi-fi fanatic. Complex baffles caught and amplified the sound that was funnelled up the chilly valley, steering it ever inwards to the central chamber where, at any hour of the day or night, three monks always sat.


There were certain problems caused by the fact that they didn’t hear only the subtle echoes of the first words, but every other sound made on the Disc. In order to recognise the sound of the Words, they had to learn to recognise all the other noises. This called for a certain talent, and a novice was only accepted for training if he could distinguish by sound alone, at a distance of a thousand yards, which side a dropped coin landed. He wasn’t actually accepted into the order until he could tell what colour it was.

And although the Holy Listeners were so remote, many people took the extremely long and dangerous path to their temple, travelling through frozen, troll-haunted lands, fording swift icy rivers, climbing forbidding mountains, trekking across inhospitable tundra, in order to climb the narrow stairway that led into the hidden valley and seek with an open heart the secrets of being.

And the monks would cry unto them, “Keep the bloody noise down!”

words they say

Based on a True Story

“Good morning, children.”
— Gutmonin.
“Today, we are gonna talk about Hallowe’en.”
— Helluin!

Well it was clear from the very start that these children don’t want to talk. They want to shout. But I have a secret weapon: colouring pages. Hallowe’en-themed, as it were.

— Quiero una araña.
— Quiero un murciélago.
— Quiero una calabaza.
“No, no, no.”
— ¡Araña!
“Here’s the deal: you have to speak in English to me.”
— Quiero…
No quiero. This is a spider. This is a pumpkin. This is a bat. All right?”
— ¡Bat! ¡Bat!
— ¡Batman!
“Not Batman. A bat.”
— ¡Espayder!
“No ‘Espayder’. Spider. Spy-Der. Spider.”
— ¡Espayder!
— Quiero spider.
No quiero. ‘Can I have…’”
Quen ay jav
“‘…a spider’.”
— ¡Espayder!

What did I get myself into? Can anybody hear the difference between ‘a spider’ and, well, ‘espayder’?

— Quiero bat.
— Quiero espayder.
— Quiero los todos.
— Quiero pis.
“Please go.”

The colouring pages are finally distributed.

— ¿Puedo colorear?
— ¿Puedo recortar?

Mind you, only the most polite ask this. The others have already taken hold of the crayons, felt-tip pens and scissors.

There is a pair of kids who never do what I ask. Instead of colouring, they cut things out, or glue the worksheets to the walls. One of the favourite activities is to cut out something (say, a bat) and stick it to the blank A4 paper sheet. Fifteen minutes later, the result is exactly the same as the original worksheet but a lot more crumpled and covered with glue and some unidentified dirt on both sides.

The others really like colouring and showing me their work.

— Mira, que bonito. (About their own pictures.)
— Mira, que feo. (About the neighbour’s work.)
— Mira, que botas muy chulas. (Points on her welly boots.)
— Tengo mocos.

My very first day in this class, one three-year old girl was looking at me intently for about twenty minutes. Then she said, very seriously:

— Eres guapo.

Later that month, we did some sort of Hallowe’en presentation, where I was supposed to be a vampire. I was dressed in black, had a (mostly white) face paint and a grey hair wig. Most of three- and four-year-olds were scared of me, which I judged to be a success. Not this girl though. She came close and asked me:

— ¿Quién eres?
“I am, er, a vampire, don’t you see?”
— Eres guapo.

Now and then, I show them the videos. Music videos and animations. And now they make requests.

— ¡Mana Mana!

I don’t know how much English they learned from that particular song, but everybody loves it. They crowd around my laptop.

— ¡No veo!
— ¡Que no veo!
— ¡No veo!
“Guys, can you please step one step back? Then everyone could see.”
— ¡No veo!
— Álvaro me ha empujau.

Until I started to work in school, I was convinced that the most popular given names in Spain are Juan and María. Nope. I don’t even have a single María. But there are lots of Álvaros, Brunos, Martinas and Saras.

— ¡Se ha acabau!
— ¡Otra!
— ¡Otra vez!

When I introduced them to Simon’s Cat, they ignored it. At first. Then, about a month later, a request arrived.

— ¡Un gato chino!
“You what?!”
— ¡Un gato chino!
“Do you mean Simon’s Cat?”
— ¡No, un gato chino!

By now, Simon’s Cat is one of their firm favourites.

— ¡Se acabó!
— Es muy corto.
— ¡Otra!
— ¡No veo!

There is one five-year old boy who is not interested in anything the others are doing.

— Estoy aburriendo.
— Estoy aburrido.
— Quiero algo divertido.
— Quiero algo volando.

I like it when they give me clues what to do next.

“Good morning, children.”
— Gutmonin!

I point at the blackboard where I did stick seven A4 paper sheets evolving towards a flying machine.

“Today, we are going to make a paper airplane.”

I find all twelve of them standing under number 7.

— ¡Quiero eso!
— ¡Quiero un avión de papel!
“No, no, no. We all are going to learn how to make a paper airplane. Everybody take a sheet of paper…”

And so it starts.

“…and fold it like this…”
— ¿Me ayudas?
— ¿Me lo doblas?
— ¿Me lo haces?

And this is just a half of the class. There is no way I am making 25 paper airplanes in one hour.

That was a stroke of genius, I admit it freely. Seven months later, only a handful of them learned this craft. But it provided me with another weapon.

— ¡Quiero un avión de papel!
“In English, please.”
— Es que no sé como decir.
“Ask Hugo, he knows.”

A minute later:

— ¡Plan! ¡Plan!
“What plan?”
— ¡Plane!
“Plane what?”
— ¡Quiero a plane!
No quiero. ‘Can you make…’”
— ¡A plane!
— ¡A plane!
— ¡A plane!

Now the teachers tell me: you know, your planes fly really far!

Yes, I know.

Apart from teaching in a classroom, I take turns to supervise them during the recess. Or before. Or after.

“Can you please put on your coats.”
— ¡Has dicho una palabrota!
“Did I?”
— ¡Has dicho ‘puta’!

Oh my. I have to be careful with these things.

To be fair, very few of them hesitate to use swearwords, especially in my class. In the beginning, they did not realise I know all this lexicon.

— Álvaro me ha empujau.
“Oh no, not him again.”
— ¿Puedes guardarlo? (Gives me a toy.)
“Claro que sí — oops, yes of course.”
— ¿Puedes atar mis cordones?
“Sure I can. And a magic word?”
— ¡Fuerte!

They do ask lots of questions, these kids. Mostly in Spanish.

— ¿Tienes novia?
— ¿Tienes bebés?
— ¿Por qué no hablas español?
— ¿Por qué llevas coleta?
— ¿Por qué andas en chanclas?
— ¿Cuántos minutos faltan? (Till the end of the class, that is.)
Can I go to the toilet please?


By midday, they drain all my energy. But sometimes they ask or tell me something that makes it worth it.

— ¿Cómo sabes todas estas cosas?
“Because I was paying attention when in school.” (It’s a lie, I didn’t.)
— Toma, esto es para ti.
“It is beautiful, Daniela. Thank you.”
— Quiero ser tu ayudante.
“Do you really? Can you help me to tidy up then?”
— Can you make a plane for me? Please?

the moon looks down at the earth

Since the late nineteenth century, linguists have identified the phoneme as the smallest acoustic unit that makes a difference in meaning. The English word chuck comprises three phonemes: different meanings can be created by changing ch to d, or u to e, or ck to m. It is a useful concept but an imperfect one: linguists have found it surprisingly difficult to agree on an exact inventory of phonemes for English or any other language (most estimates for English are in the vicinity of forty-five). The problem is that a stream of speech is a continuum; a linguist may abstractly, and arbitrarily, break it into discrete units, but the meaningfulness of these units varies from speaker to speaker and depends on the context. Most speakers’ instincts about phonemes are biased, too, by their knowledge of the written alphabet, which codifies language in its own sometimes arbitrary ways. In any case, tonal languages, with their extra variable, contain many more phonemes than were first apparent to inexperienced linguists.

As the spoken languages of Africa elevated tonality to a crucial role, the drum language went a difficult step further. It employed tone and only tone. It was a language of a single pair of phonemes, a language composed entirely of pitch contours. The drums varied in materials and craft. Some were slit gongs, tubes of padauk wood, hollow, cut with a long and narrow mouth to make a high-sounding lip and a low-sounding lip; others had skin tops, and these were used in pairs. All that mattered was for the drums to sound two distinct notes, at an interval of about a major third.

So in mapping the spoken language to the drum language, information was lost. The drum talk was speech with a deficit. For every village and every tribe, the drum language began with the spoken word and shed the consonants and vowels. That was a lot to lose. The remaining information stream would be riddled with ambiguity. A double stroke on the high-tone lip of the drum [– –] matched the tonal pattern of the Kele word for father, sango, but naturally it could just as well be songe, the moon; koko, fowl; fele, a species of fish; or any other word of two high tones. Even the limited dictionary of the missionaries at Yakusu contained 130 such words. Having reduced spoken words, in all their sonic richness, to such a minimal code, how could the drums distinguish them? The answer lay partly in stress and timing, but these could not compensate for the lack of consonants and vowels. Thus… a drummer would invariably add “a little phrase” to each short word. Songe, the moon, is rendered as songe li tange la manga — “the moon looks down at the earth”. Koko, the fowl, is rendered koko olongo la bokiokio — “the fowl, the little one that says kiokio”. The extra drumbeats, far from being extraneous, provide context. Every ambiguous word begins in a cloud of possible alternative interpretations; then the unwanted possibilities evaporate. This takes place below the level of consciousness. Listeners are hearing only staccato drum tones, low and high, but in effect they “hear” the missing consonants and vowels, too. For that matter, they hear whole phrases, not individual words.

The stereotyped long tails flap along, their redundancy overcoming ambiguity. The drum language is creative, freely generating neologisms for innovations from the north… But drummers begin by learning the traditional fixed formulas. Indeed, the formulas of the African drummers sometimes preserve archaic words that have been forgotten in the everyday language. For the Yaunde, the elephant is always “the great awkward one”. The resemblance to Homeric formulas — not merely Zeus, but Zeus the cloud-gatherer; not just the sea, but the wine-dark sea — is no accident. In an oral culture, inspiration has to serve clarity and memory first. The Muses are the daughters of Mnemosyne.

ka bilong mi i bagarap

The sounds of a pidgin or creole are likely to be fewer and less complicated in their possible arrangements than those of the corresponding standard language. For example, Tok Pisin makes use of only five basic vowels and also has fewer consonants than English. No contrast is possible between words like it and eat, or pin and fin, or sip, ship, and chip: the necessary vowel and consonant distinctions (contrasts) are not present. Speakers of Tok Pisin distinguish a ship from a sheep by calling the first a sip and the second a sipsip.

The vocabulary of a pidgin or a creole has a great many similarities to that of the standard language with which it is associated. However, it will be much more limited, and phonological and morphological simplification often leads to words assuming somewhat different shapes. As noted above in the example of sip and sipsip, it is sometimes necessary to use this reduplicative pattern to avoid possible confusion or to express certain concepts, e.g., ‘repetition’ or ‘intensification.’ Consequently, we find pairs like talk (‘talk’) and talktalk (‘chatter’), dry (‘dry’) and drydry (‘unpalatable’), look (‘look’) and looklook (‘stare’), cry (‘cry’) and crycry (‘cry continually’), pis (‘peace’) and pispis (‘urinate’), and san (‘sun’) and sansan (‘sand’). Certain concepts require a somewhat elaborate encoding: for example, in Tok Pisin ‘hair’ is gras bilong het, ‘beard’ is gras bilong fes, ‘feathers’ is gras bilong pisin, ‘moustache’ is gras bilong maus, ‘my car’ is ka bilong me, and ‘bird’s wing’ is han bilong pisin. A pidgin or creole may draw on the vocabulary resources of more than one language. Tok Pisin draws primarily from English but also from Polynesian sources, e.g., kaikai (‘food’), and even German, because of historical reasons, e.g., rausim (‘throw out’ from the German heraus, ‘outside’). The source may not always be a ‘polite’ one, e.g., Tok Pisin bagarap (‘break down’) is from the English bugger up. So ka bilong mi i bagarap is ‘My car broke down.’

Ronald Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics

the present simple is not that simple

The only simple thing about the present simple is that we use one word (e.g. use) rather than two (e.g. has used or is using). That the verb form, except when one uses third-person singular, is the same as the infinitive, does not make it any simpler. Nor does the present simple always refer to present. To use another frequency adverb, it hardly ever specifically refers to present. (I didn’t realise that until I started to prepare my lesson on present simple last week.)

The main use of present simple is to describe habitual actions, such as daily (weekly, monthly etc.) activities. When we say “Ritchie plays guitar” that does not refer to Ritchie’s activity at this exact moment. Right now he may be fast asleep. The grammar books often contrast present simple with confusingly named present continuous (“Ritchie is playing”). Why it is called continuous? All physical processes have some continuity, i.e. take non-zero time. Still, I’d say the tense expressing habitual actions has more right to be called continuous, for they continue for longer time.

Sure enough, present simple is also used to state “general truths”, such as “the entropy of an isolated system never decreases”. By definition, general truth is generally true for the present just as it is for the past and the future.

Perhaps the only scenario when the present simple really deals with the events in present is a live commentary. We heard a lot of it during the last World Cup — insert your favourite quote here.