Apr 09

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Introduction to Trarsani 1: Alphabet and Writing

Trarsani (Trarsanzik in Trarsani) is a language every exolinguist should be familiar with.  I don’t know what gave me the idea of writing a tutorial on it, nor do I remember who encouraged me to do so.  But here it begins.  For linguistics geeks, inventing languages is terribly fun, but I normally don’t go much farther than is required for a story.  As it turns out, there is a moderate amount of Trarsani in A Hierarchy of Gods, so I had to go pretty far.  Creating an alien language actually takes quite a bit of work.  I shared some general thoughts about it in another post, but I go into a lot more detail here.

You should be glad it was Trarsani that I picked.  Of the four nodal races (Kria-Ki, Trarsani, Kyattoni, and Borshcha), the Trarsani language is the most like human languages, probably because the Trarsani, aside from looking like 10-year-olds, are the most like humans.  Korishak, from a different universe, is logically fairly simple provided you are a PhD mathematician, and Kyattonix is, well, downright impossible because it’s nothing like any human has ever seen before.  Let’s pursue that claim.

Consider the three things Triknikanthy says in The Humanity Experiment when her mission is over:

“Triknikanthy ee koyesh doyett.”

“Kai foddi?”

“Tiakka! Tiakka!”

Of course I know exactly what each of these means; I wrote them.  However, I can accurately translate none of them into English.  It’s fair to say that none of them have a literal English translation.  The problem comes in three areas.  First, English, and terrestrial languages in general, are action languages that depend heavily on verbs.  There is not a single word identifiable by any stretch of the imagination as a verb in any of those three utterances.  Second, at least half of the meaning of a Kyattonix statement isn’t in the words at all, but the context in which they are said and the manner in which they are spoken.  “Triknikanthy ee koyesh doyett” can mean anything from “Triknikanthy here; I’m returning to base” (the meaning she intends) to “Gee, I’ve missed you! It’s been a long time!” to “Let’s party!”  Third, the word “doyett” is an example of a grammatical category that as near as I can tell doesn’t even exist in human linguistics.  If I had to call it something, I might pick grammatical posture or grammatical scope. There is also the notion in Kyattonix of lexical propinquinty.  See the problem?  I get it, but I have no idea how to explain it to someone else.

So it has to be Trarsani.

Most introductions to a language start with the writing system and pronunciation.  That makes sense, as you have to be able to write or read or speak or hear something.  There are exceptions, but I think they’re doing it wrong, like that book on Japanese I have that writes everything with Roman letters.  Actually, Rosetta Stone does little better.  As far as I looked it at, it does everything in Hiragana.  That might be able to let you carry on a conversation, or writing something down in a way that would get you funny looks, but if you found yourself in Osaka at midnight, surrounded by nothing but neon signs, you’d be hosed.

So here we are: the Trarsani alphabet.  You luck out again that it is really an alphabet instead of some weird system, and that since they are very “humanoid,” there are no consonants that sound like a sneeze, no vowels that sound like a whistle, and no musical notes.  Furthermore, it’s arranged more logically than ours: consonants roughly in order of where they are pronounced in the mouth, then vowels, then two special letters.


Letter Roman transliteration Pronunciation
p p as in pig
b b as in big
m m as in my
f f as in fit
v v as in van
r r as in nothing in English. See details below.
th th as in thin. Always unvocalized. Never th as in than.
t t as in Tom
d d as in dig
n n as in no
l l as in like
s s as in sit
sh sh as in sheet
z z as in zoo
zh su as in measure
k k as in kid
g g as in go
i y as in body
ee (rarely ii) ea as in ease.  See below.
a a as in cat. Never a as in father or lake
e e as in bed
u or oo oo as in moon
o o as in pone
the void character. See below.
the nomen character. See below.

Now you know the alphabet, but as the infomercials keep saying, “But wait! There’s more!”  There is quite a lot more.

Pronouncing that pesky R

And it is a pesky R.  I hired a little girl to do some vocals for a likely trailer, and she couldn’t get it right.  Nor could she get the “ai” diphthong right, either.  But let’s start here.

First off, no rolling or trill. It’s not the kind of r.  It’s close to the typical American r in ran, but not quite.  Actually, unless you study phonetics, you’re unlikely to notice the difference.  In phonetics terms, the American English r is a postalveolar approximant, often labialized.  The Trarsani r is a dentolabial approximant.  Now for everyone who is not a phoneticist, let me try to describe it.

Stick your lips out just a little like you’re getting ready to kiss your mother.  Place your lower teeth very near, but not quite touching, the back of your upper lip.  Now get your tongue completely out of the way; pull it back if you have to but keep it down..  Now, say “ran” using your lower teeth and upper lip to make the r sound.  That is a dentolabial approximant, and the way the Trarsani say it.  As I said you probably won’t notice much difference in that word.  But consider the word Trarsa.  You should notice a difference with the second r.

Pronouncing that pesky A

Like I said, it’s always like in cat, except maybe with your tongue pulled back a little farther. The real problem, and where that poor girl just couldn’t quite get it, is the diphthong.  If you’ve been around the world a few times, just apply an Australian accent to snake or face, and you’ll pretty much have it.  If you haven’t, try this.  You’re going to say “cake”, but you do it by starting out saying “cat”, and at the last split second, change the “t” to an “eek”

After a few more of these tutorials you’ll run into the ai diphthong spelled ay.  That’s a special case involving proflexive verbs.  Let’s not go there yet.  But when you get around to it, there is a subtle shift toward the ei or English ay pronunciation.  But don’t go all the way.

The I and the EE

This one’s easy.  Say, “ease.”  If you said it like most people, the ee sound at the beginning lasted about half a second.  Now say, “body.”  The ee sound from the y at the end was much shorter, wasn’t it?  That’s part of the difference; i is shorter than ee. The other is that the short i sound, when followed by another syllable, is also followed by a brief pause, so that the two together add up to about the same length of time time as the long ee.  Also, theTrarsani i sound may shift slightly toward the English i sound in sit, but that’s a regional issue, one that Ritee and Nekalee do observe somewhat, but it’s OK if you leave it at a short ee sound. There is one instance where that shift is not regional but fairly universal and taken as canon.  If the final syllable of a word contains an i sound and ends in a consonant, it is pronounced as in sit without the pause. Trarsanzik.

Ritee’s name is a perfect example of the normal i sound.  It could just as well have been written Ri’tee.  Practice it a few times.

Writing vowels

If you know anything about Biblical Hebrew, you know that there were no vowels ever written.  They were there, just filed away in people’s memory, so we’re not really sure how a lot of words were pronounced.  Less commonly known is that Hebrew is still that way.  As kids learn words, they learn what vowels are supposed to go with them.  Now for the benefit of us foreigners, they may annotate words with marks below the consonants to indicate vowel sounds.  I should brag that was able to read “שלום” without vowels on a T-shirt in the Israeli film Boy Takes Girl, but I wouldn’t count on being able to do that in the general case. I was just lucky.

Trarsani always shows the vowels, but it’s done the same way as in Hebrew, by placing them underneath the consonant that comes before them, making a syllable. Formally Hebrew is an abjad, and Trarsani is an abugida, See how they are constructed:


Word Roman transcription Translation
Nekalee The name Nekalee. Note the use of the nomen character at the beginning.
zeetai (to) walk
tooree arm

Diphthongs and semivowels

Diphthongs work similarly as in English, except that there are fewer of them in general use.  You are likely to run into only ai, ei, and oi.  Others are theoretically possible, but never seemed to gain a foothold in the language.  In most cases diphthongs are written simply by overlaying the two vowel symbols in the usual place for a vowel.  The exception is ai, which is written with the two symbols side by side in that order.  See the table below for illustrations.

Closely related to diphthongs are the semivowels, and in some ways of looking at phonetics, the two are the same thing.  We’re talking about the y and w sounds, and in English we normally think of them as consonants.  The Trarsani, on the other hand, think of them as, well, diphthongs.  They are written the same way as ai, with the characters side by side, but with the ee (y) or u (w) sound placed in front.  Semivowel forms do not overlay the characters as diphthongs usually do.  Note that other combinations are possible but they are exceedingly rare.


Written Roman transliteration
How you would write “yes”

The void character and vowel sequences

So what do you do when a word starts with a vowel?  There is no leading consonant to put the vowel marks under.  Well, that is the purpose of the void character.  It looks like an ee, but is placed on the main baseline, not underneath, and is a bit larger.  Now this leads us to vowel sequences.

The first Trarsani word that appears in A Hierarchy of Gods is aeiikee.  Note that it begins with three distinct vowel sounds.  In this case the ee sound is transliterated as ii, because otherwise it would be impossible to tell how to split up eee.  These are not diphthongs, but discrete sounds, each pronounced separately, but without a stop between them.  Vowel sequences such as this are not uncommon, and usually occur at the beginning of words.  Note the important difference between a vowel sequence and a diphthong.  The words aeea and aya should show the importance of not confusing them.


Word Roman transcription Translation
aeiikee home
aeea a type of tea made from a red tree moss
aya penis


Accents always come at the beginning of the word.  It would be easy to say that the accent is always on the first syllable if it weren’t for vowel sequences.  For a vowel sequence at the beginning of the word, the entire sequence is accented.  Think of it as a big long accent, or one on each syllable; it doesn’t matter.  Now this demands another look at aeea and aya.  The entire word aeea is stressed, as one would expect from the rule.  However, only the first syllable of aya is, because the y sound functions as an approximate consonant and breaks the vowel sequence. That’s another way to avoid confusing the words, and confusing them could be a point of embarrassment to a human and good clean humor to a Trarsani.

Non-syllabic consonants and blends

There are three cases where consonants can appear without vowels underneath them.  There are relatively few words that end in a consonant, but there there are many syllables that do.  Look at Trarsanzik.  All three syllables end with a consonant, and one of those is at the end of the word.

In rarer cases, a single consonant without a vowel may appear at the beginning of the word.  A common example is the pronoun plural prefix t’, as in t’pree (they).  Another is the noun generator n’.  The plosives (t’, k’, etc.) are pronounced as such with a full glottal stop after them, but the sonorants and fricatives (s’, n’) are usually pronounced without the stop (see the next tutorial for details) but with a lengthened consonant sound.  Think of n’aya as nnnaya. There are some northern dialects where n’ is pronounced nee.

In both these cases, the consonant is generally written smaller than the others and slightly elevated.

Then there are blends, such as, well, the bl in blend.  Some of the combinations we call blends in English, such as st appear simply by using a non-syllabic consonant as described above, such as in meesto.  However, the approximants r and l are treated differently.  When following another consonant, they are written above that consonant in an abbreviated form, such as Hindi does with the n sound.  A blended r this way is very common.


Word Roman transcription Translation
trarsanzik Trarsani, the language we are talking about
beesh face
t’pree these people here
n’aya man, male (that characterized by a penis).
mloshai (If you are a human, you must be over 18 to know this word. Aren’t you curious now?)

The nomen

The nomen character can be considered a uniquely Trarsani feature, but there was once an analog on Earth: the cartouche used to signify a royal name for a period of ancient Egyptian history.  The nomen serves a similar function, but it is not limited to royalty, likely because the Trarsani never had any concept of royalty.  Heck, they never even had social stratification.  It is positioned either directly above the first letter of a person’s name or to the left and elevated from baseline.

You are safe using the nomen for any personal name, but only personal names.  Not for cities of planets.  However, if you are a Trarsani and write a human’s name with a nomen, it might spark some curiosity.  They are increasingly likely to be omitted the less the speaker knows the person.  You may not use one if naming the space exploration coordinator whom you’ve never met, but certainly would if you are referring to your mate, your children, or close friends.

Trarsani and punctuation

The Trarsani, unlike English-speaking humans, aren’t too big on punctuation.  They are almost like some Asian languages is this regard.  Words are separated by spaces, sentences by longer spaces.  Questions and exclamations are indicated by special words at the beginning of the sentence.  The only symbol resembling punctuation is a dot (or sometimes a dash) separating a root word from the particle prefixes attached to it.  You will learn more about this in subsequent lessons.

How to name all these letters

You have to have names for characters.  If you ask your 5-year-old daughter how to spell “cat,” hopefully she’ll respond with “cee-ay-tee.”  She can do that because letters have names.  The Trarsani naming system is both simple and logical.  Any consonant is the sound of the consonant followed by ee.  Tee, kee, shee.  You get it.  Vowels are named by adding t’ to the front of the vowel’s sound.  T’ee, t’ai, t’oo, etc.  Note the difference between tee and t’ee.  With the latter, there is that full stop with a brief pause after the t.  To make it worse, practice saying, “t’ee” and “t’i.”

Now come the void and nomen characters.  They have no sounds, but some unidentified person in Trarsani history 100,000 or so years ago decided that they should follow the same naming rules.  There comes as a consequence what may be unique in the universe.  They are named using sounds that don’t otherwise exist in the language.  The null character is named hee, and the nomen ghee, where gh, for phoneticists, is the voiced velar fricative (ɣ).  Non-phoneticists, don’t worry about it.  Unless you’re actually  speaking Trarsani and have to refer to them, you’ll never need to know this.  We’ll keep calling them the void and nomen.


This has been a rather lengthy post, and even so, I feel as if I’ve sped through most of the points.  This is, after all, an introduction and not a master’s thesis.

I found it easier to write this page with all its examples by creating a Trarsani TrueType font.  You’re welcome to play with it, with the understanding that it is still a work in progress.  But here it is.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.duanevore.com/introduction-trarsani-part-1-alphabet-writing/

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