Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Language of Cat's Cradle


I recently finished Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, a novel about religion, science, and global annihilation.  A fun read for the whole family, which will not be spoiled in any way by my post today because I am going to talk about the fictional language haphazardly presented throughout the book.  You see, the narrator of Cat’s Cradle has converted to a religion (Bokononism) that originated from the fictional Caribbean island of San Larenzo and sprinkles the narrative with terms coined from its founder, Bokonon.  These seem at first like nonce words (foma, karass, granfalloon) but it is implied that they come from the creole language spoken on San Lorenzo.  Today, I’ll be sharing the process by which I figured out some of these words and how you can help.



To clarify a little for the reader, creole (not Creole, that’s something completely different) is a special category of languages that arise in certain contact situations.  Most of the known creoles arose in the Atlantic Slave Trade and European colonization of the Western Hemisphere.  Creoles are special because they seem to share certain grammatical characteristics with each other (characteristics not necessarily present in any of their source languages) and because of the sudden nature of their formation. 

Returning to Cat’s Cradle, the narrator gives only a handful of clues to the phonological and grammatical features of San Lorenzan, but it’s clear that it is influenced enough by English that some speakers of English (the narrator included) can understand it.  An example San Lorenzan is given in chapter 49:


Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store,

Ko jy tsvantoor bat voo yore.

Put-shinik on lo shee zo brath,

Kam oon teetron on lo nath,

Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store,

Ko jy tsvantoor bat voo yore.

This is a rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” a song familiar to everyone but for the omission of “up above the world so high/like a diamond in the sky.” This has been replaced by “shining in the sky so bright/like a tea tray in the night” lines originating from Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame.  This verse, along with the phrase hun-yera mora-toorz ('hundred martyrs'), is the most we get of a Rosetta Stone for San Lorenzan, but it’s enough for the linguist to get enough of an idea about the San Lorenzan creole to begin figuring out the source for Bokononist terms.  Below is a table documenting the phonological analysis of the words in this song (mouseover the red superscript numbers for more details):

San Lorenzan Am. English P-rules
written phonetic written phonetic
tsvent-kiul tsvenkjəl twinkle ˈtwɪŋkəl tw > tsv,1 ɪ > e2 ŋk > nk,3 kəl > kjəl4
lett-pool leppul little ˈlɪɾəl ɾəl > ppʊl5
store stor star stɑr ɑ > o6
tsvantoor tsvantur wonder ˈwʌndər w > tsv,7 ʌ > a,8 ntV > ndV,9 ər > ʊr10
bat bat what w(h)ʌt wh > b11
yore jor are ɑr #or > #jor12
put-shinik putʃinik shining ˈʃainɪŋ ainV > inV,13 ɪŋ(g)# > ik#14
shee ʃi sky/ciel ?15
brath braθ bright braɪt aɪ > a,16 t# > θ#17
teetron ti tron tea tray ti treɪ eɪ > on18
nath naθ night naɪt
ko ko comment komɑ̃
ji ʒi je ʒə ə# > i#19
lo lo la la a > o
vu vu vous vu

The first column lists each word in the song, the second my best guess at a rough phonetic transcription.  The third column lists what seems to be the source term and the fourth a phonetic transcription of that term.  The final column lists the derivational rules (or the relationship between the sounds of the source language and those of the creole) that the San Lorenzan term establishes. Presumably, these rules should be applied consistently across the entire lexicon. 

For example, tsvent-kiul, comes from English twinkle.  We should expect from this that other instances of English /tw/ become [tsv] in San Lorenzan cognates.  We also learn from tsvantoor that instances of English /w/ become [tsv] so San Lorenzan exhibits a phonological merger between /tw/ and /w/, making word pairs like twin/win and twit/wit homophonous.  We also learn from tsvent-kiul that English short /ɪ/ becomes a mid vowel (which for simplicity we’ll just transcribe as [e]).  Because what becomes bat, it’s likely that San Lorenzan got its lexicon from a variety of English that maintained the distinction between which and witch, something most American speakers have lost. 

My interpretation that ⟨nt-k⟩ represents [nk] warrants some explanation: In American English (of which the author and narrator are native speakers), a word that ends in /nt/ is not normally pronounced with an actual [t].  Instead, it manifests as glottalization in various forms, which we could put simply as [], although it may be pronounced as a nasalized vowel followed by a glottal stop (e.g. want > [wʌ̃ʔ]).  To such a speaker, hearing a nasal that does not assimilate to a following velar might sound like there is an interfering /t/.  This is a stretch, but it makes a little more sense than assuming a rule that a /t/ is inserted between /n/ and /k/. 

Important for the understanding of Bokononist terms is the realization that some San Lorenzan words come from French.  Ji likely comes from French je, as there doesn’t seem to be a smooth way of getting from English /aɪ/ to [dʒi] or [ʒi] (the story of /aɪ/  looks really complicated, especially if we are going to consider shee to be from sky, which I am uncertain of).  Similarly, voo surely comes from French vouz.

The understanding of San Lorenzan’s French influence can also help get at the origin of the word lo, which means 'the.'  An important part of creole languages is how they lose the morphological complexity of their source languages so that things like grammatical gender and number are lost; this can also result in a sort of crystallization of formerly morphological markers into what amounts to the basic root of a word (for example, Haitian Creole zwazo, 'bird', comes from French oiseaux, a word preceded by words ending in /z/ so often that the /z/ was tagged onto the beginning.  If that sounds dumb, don't worry, it's a pretty irregular kind of change) .  Presumably, then, there is one word in San Lorenzan that means 'the' but it’s not clear which of French’s three the’s – la, le, and les— is the source; determining the determiner helps us determine which derivational rule formed the San Lorenzan determiner.  There are three possibilities:
  • a > o
  • ə > o
  • e > o
 If je > ji is any guide, then le is not a likely source of lo.  We can also see from star > store and are > yore that something similar to a > o is already in effect.  The only indication of something similar to e > o is tea tray/teetron, though how that [n] got there is a mystery to me (crystallization of an overgeneralized liason rule?).  So I’d say, tentatively for now, that the source term is la.

Bokononist terms
I won't bother listing all the Bokononist terms, that's been done elsewhere.  Below are a handful that I thought were the most important and, for our etymological purposes today, interesting.

Foma – harmless untruths
Karass – A group of people whose lives are cosmically intertwined
granfalloon – a false karass
duprass – a karass of two.
wampeter – the theme around a karass

The first term, foma, probably comes from faux mots ('false words').  That’s simple enough.  And granfalloon probably comes from grande faux lien ('great false link') with [nd] becoming [n] and [ljɛ]̃ changing to [lun].  Things start to get tricky, with duprass possibly coming from French deux près ('two near'); if this is so, then we can feel more confident that French la is the source of San Lorenzan lo.  However, it makes tea tray > teetron less likely.

I'm still confused by karass and wampeter, though.  What could the source words be?  Plug in your thoughts in the comments section.  Maybe we can get to the bottom of this.


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