We're going out in style. This final commentary is a collaboration with Adam Parrish, anointed successor to Marc Okrand, and we've both got a lot to say about Dr. Tetsuo Milk's first popular work, "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans". My commentary, directly below, focuses on the Ip Shkoy themselves and how Tetsuo's pamphlet fits with his character arc. Adam's commentary focuses on the Pey Shkoy language, how he designed it, and how it works from a linguistic perspective.
My writing group met on Monday evening; we had dinner afterwards, and
the topic of the Constellation Games bonus material came
up. The relationship between the bonus stories and the writing group
is a little weird. The point of the writing group is to make
stories saleable, and the bonus material was pre-sold, so after getting
some good advice for "Dana no Chousen" and a "looks fine" for "Found
Objects" I didn't even workshop "The Time Somn Died" or "Pey Shkoy
And when talking with the group over dinner I got an impression
I've also gotten elsewhere, that people don't really know what to do
with "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans". That it's a worldbuilding document thrown in for
completionists, like the Star Trek Technical Manual. I feel like I'm starting this commentary from a position of weakness, needing to justify the existence of "Humans" in the first place.
Looking through "Humans" now I think I repeated the mistake I made in the first draft of Constellation Games. I focused too much on creating a realistic in-world artifact, and not enough on the sleight-of-hand necessary to make a constructed narrative look like an in-world artifact. I even did this deliberately, because I had a fixed idea that all the "bonus stories" would be from the POV of the novel's women characters.
Unlike Ariel's boring first-draft blog, though, "Humans" is at least fun to read on its own. And although it doesn't tell a story, it comes from a story I could have told: the story of why Tetsuo left his wife and children on the space station to come to Earth.
Tetsuo really loves the Ip Shkoy. His love is not
returned—if he lived in Ip Shkoy times they'd treat him as a
second-class citizen—but we can't always choose our obsessions. Tetsuo didn't fit in at home, so he joined the contact mission the way an
aimless American might join the Peace Corps, hoping to "do" some
In terms of finding "good" to "do", Tetsuo hit
the jackpot. Not only is his the very rare contact mission that finds
a live civilization, but the new species they discover is
physiologically similar to his own. They can pronounce the same sounds
and operate the same computers. (As Adam points out below, the whole narrative of Constellation Games is based on this anthropic coincidence.) Even better, Tetsuo's one of a handful of experts on the Ip Shkoy, a culture that looks to be kinda translatable to the dominant culture on this planet.
Except this culture is doomed, just like the Ip Shkoy were doomed,
just like all cultures based on the manipulation of scarcity are doomed. After leaving home
Tetsuo met Somn, the first woman he's ever wanted to have children
with, but while that was happening he saw the first wave of contact
experts come to Earth and point out "hey, you guys are kinda doomed,"
and that didn't seem to help at all.
So Tetsuo leaves, again. He goes to Earth and makes a
plea on behalf of the Ip Shkoy, the same plea Ariel makes to the
future on behalf of humanity: play our games and read our
stories. Humanity doesn't need lectures from the Constellation, any
more than an alcoholic needs a temperance sermon. Humanity
needs a sponsor: strength from someone else trying to beat the
rap. And that's why Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans. Tetsuo's writing a work of
science nonfiction, using space aliens to hold up a mirror to human
Ever since Kate first raised the idea of bonus material, I wanted
to collaborate with Adam on something. Since Adam and I have both
written interactive fiction, my original idea was a project Adam called "the textuo
adventure": an educational game written by
Tetsuo to teach you, the visitor from Ring
City, how to get through US Customs and Immigration without causing a
diplomatic incident. I would write the prose and Adam would do the
This didn't happen because the worldbuilding problems from
"The Time Somn Died" come back and they're five times worse. Although
"Somn" is written from a Constellation POV, there's no infrafictional audience, and the actual intended audience (you folks)
is human. In the textuo adventure, the infrafictional audience would be
Constellation, meaning that you, the actual audience, would be put into ET
The main idea I had for conveying this feeling was to
implement NPCs not only for the people present in the room with you,
but for the organizations and overlays they belong to. So if a BEA
agent was in the room, the BEA itself would also be in the room, and
you could talk to the BEA through its human agent. This idea was inspired
by Curic's "K'chua!" interaction with the customs official, and I like it
a lot, but it would mean creating tons of NPCs for a supposedly simple
game with only three or four characters.
While I agonized over this we did the cover design, and I asked
Adam to come up with some Pey Shkoy characters for the fictional computer. That's
when I remembered that if there's one thing Adam loves more than
programming interactive fiction, it's making up fake languages. So I
replaced the IF project with something simpler (for me): I asked Adam
to turn the fragments of Pey Shkoy found in the novel into a coherent
language. I gave him permission to add any weird features he wanted to
the language, and I specifically asked him to do things with Pey Shkoy
that are not done in any human language.
Adam delivered! But I'll let him explain exactly what he delivered,
after I go through "Humans" and write a couple miscellaneous comments:
- The original title was "Pey Shkoy For Humans", but when Adam translated that title into Pey Shkoy he got "uiksel pey shkoy a hiyuban", which literally means "benefit (from) Pey Shkoy (accrues to) humans", or "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans". That seemed very Tetsuo-esque on its own, so I changed the title.
- Ever since I invented the Ip Shkoy for Constellation Games
I had the idea that historical Alien societies were dominated by their
women. I didn't want to make a huge deal of this, so in the novel I
only used it in subtle ways. We learn about two famous Ip Shkoy women
(Af be Hui and Ev luie Aka) and one nonentity man (Dieue). In
*'s porno scene, the woman is literally on top. Even in modern
times, Somn is physically larger than Tetsuo and I generally portrayed
her as tougher.
But enough of subtlety! For "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans" I wanted to
really bring this out, to show the weirdness of Tetsuo's nostalgia for
the old days. So I wrote all this Ip Shkoy sexism into the first draft
of "Humans", including the totally onerous gendered registers, and then
brought it up to my editor, who... hadn't noticed. Despite my OBVIOUS
HINTS, she thought of the Ip Shkoy as an egalitarian or even
male-dominated culture. So, enough of subtlety again! Tetsuo
wrote a section about how horrible things were back in the
The one countervailing detail to all this is Ariel's conception of young Af be
Hui as a "booth babe" whose job was to wear a "sexy outfit". This is
Ariel projecting his own culture onto the Ip Shkoy. Af be Hui was the
equivalent of a Best Buy sales associate, and what he considers a "sexy outfit", Aliens would consider an "outfit". As Somn demonstrates in Chapter
14, even Alien spacesuits are sexy.
- When reading the
tor.com review of Spock's World, probably my favorite
Star Trek tie-in novel, I realized/decided that the Ip Shkoy
had been inspired by Diane Duane's depictions of the early Vulcans as
bloodthirsty creeps. (Or something like that--haven't read the book
for a while.)
- The timeline of this pamphlet is six months to a year after
Constellation Games. I don't think this matters much, but there
you go. That ties into my next comment:
- Despite his general hatred of fake replicas, Tetsuo was willing to
settle for fake replicas of the childrens' computers, so that his kids
wouldn't get electrocuted by shoddy Ip Shkoy electronics. The
paragraph that mentions this also implies that he has seen his
children by this point.
- Tetsuo's sample American names are all women he knows from
Constellation Games. The one you might not remember is Linda,
who is Ariel's mom.
- "Take me to the top level of your hierarchy" is of course how
someone from the Constellation would interpret the stereotypical alien
greeting, "Take me to your leader."
- And we end on a Monty Python reference. Classy!
A final note from me: if you have the Constellation Games trade
paperback, you'll see some Chospe writing on the back cover, near the
UPC code. This isn't Pey Shkoy; it's transliterated English. If you
transliterate the text according to the rules laid out in "Pey Shkoy
Benefits Humans", you'll get a silly joke. I will eventually post the
transliteration in an update, but give it a try on your own.
Now, I'll hand over the mic to Adam Parrish, who will commentate
the process of turning the individual Pey Shkoy words in the novel
into a coherent, maximally weird language.
Hi, I'm Adam. I'm a computer programmer, sci-fi fan and amateur
(con-)linguist. Leonard approached me a little over a year ago to help him
create a few phrases in Pey Shkoy. I had already read a draft of the novel by
then, and I adored it—so of course I agreed. Who could turn down the
opportunity to put words into the mouth of a character like Tetsuo Milk?
Eventually, Leonard decided that a few phrases weren't enough, and that he'd
like to produce an entire Pey Shkoy guide and phrasebook as a bonus reward for
early Constellation Games adopters. My role was to supply the language
design; Leonard did the hard work of rephrasing this as Tetsuo-ese.
After a few collaborative work sessions and a few months of elbow grease, we
were able to put together the document that many of you now have in your
possession: Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans.
My goal in this commentary is to show how our collaborative process worked,
and to show a few details about the language that didn't make it into the final
Adventures in alien physiology
The very first part of the process was to figure out what Pey Shkoy sounds
like. Is the Alien vocal tract even vaguely similar to the human vocal tract?
The only reference to the way that Alien speech sounds like in the book is when
Ariel describes Tetsuo as "twist[ing] some vowels into balloon animals," which
is a vivid description but doesn't help much from a linguistic point of view. I
ended up having some unusual e-mail conversations with Leonard about Alien
Me: do aliens have lips? a lot of words in the corpus have "p," "v," "f,"
"b"---which I assume would only be used to describe sounds made by blocking
the airflow coming from the mouth entirely with something other than the
tongue. so, by lips I mean: fleshy bits at the front of the mouth that can
connect to form a seal.
Leonard: Yeah, they got lips.
I spent a good deal of time imagining how Aliens might produce and perceive
vowels. I considered a system wherein Aliens (being lizard-like in some
respects), have two syringes at the base
of their bronchioles that produce tones at different frequencies, the interval
between which determining the identity of the vowel. Leonard's response to this
idea was "I don't understand any of this, but you're awesome."
I interpreted this lack of enthusiasm as a sign that I might be overthinking things.
Eventually I just decided to go with the flow and accept that Alien
languages and human languages are (by some bizarre cosmic coincidence)
remarkably similar, owing to the two species' similarities in physiology and
cognition. (Arguably, it's this coincidence that makes the novel's story, or
at least the strong relationship between Ariel and Tetsuo, even possible. Let's
call it the anthropic principle
of sci-fi linguistics.) Accepting this fact made designing the rest of the
language much easier, since I could rely on tried-and-true human linguistics to
do my job.
With this in mind, I was able to make the assumption that the letters used in
the transcriptions of Pey Shkoy words found in Constellation Games must
represent analogous human language sounds. I tried to come up with the simplest
possible phonemic system for Pey Shkoy that could account for everything
present in the "corpus"—by which I mean the Pey Shkoy phrases and names that occur in the novel. (If you're wondering why Pey Shkoy doesn't have a
bilabial nasal, this is the reason: "m" doesn't occur in any canonical Pey Shkoy
Here's the phonemic system I came up with: Pey Shkoy has five vowels and
eighteen consonants. There appears to be a voiced/voiceless distinction with
stops and fricatives (p, t, k vs. b, d, g, etc.). Pey Shkoy doesn't have any
allophony or morphophonemic processes significant enough to be reflected in
orthography. (This is because, intrafictionally, Pey Shkoy is a highly
regularized and simplified language used mainly in government documents,
education, and commerce, along the lines of Bahasa
The only really unusual sound in Pey Shkoy is the "dental chafe,"
represented by the character '. I had originally suggested to Leonard
that the language have what human linguists call a "bidental percussive," or
the sound of hitting your teeth together. I explained this to Leonard:
Me: the bidental percussive is the sound your mouth makes when you bang your
teeth together. it's a perfectly valid way of making sound with your mouth,
but for whatever reason it's not used by any human language. I thought it
might be a fun addition to pey shkoy for that reason.
Leonard: This is a good idea but it should be modified as Aliens don't have
teeth. How about a sound for scraping the oral ridges against each
... which was fine with me.
With the questions of physiology and phonology handled, I was ready to
design the writing system. The writing system is a syllabary along the lines of
katakana, in which every syllabic nucleus has its own symbol and syllabic
onsets/codas are indicated with diacritics. The Chospe glyphs you see in the
guide are in the "idealized" form you might see in a textbook, or in a typeface
designed to ease OCR. The cover of Constellation Games shows what the
forms might look like with a bit more typographic imagination.
I had a lot of fun designing the glyphs. The idea was to create something
that is plausible as an everyday writing system, but that nevertheless feels a
little bit alien and off-kilter. The idea that Chospe letterforms were
"burn[ed] into thin sheets of cma" occurred to Leonard after he saw my initial
draft of the writing system, and I think it's a pretty cool idea.
Shortly after I finished designing the writing system, Leonard asked me if
it had a name, and I suggested "Dr. Nif's Litigation-Free Language Symbols."
Leonard tugged on this idea a bit and came up with the (hilarious, and now
canonical) idea that the Ip Shkoy used the writing system of a conquered people
because no one was willing to pay anyone else's license fees for existing
"Register" is the technical term for how language is spoken in specific
contexts—for example, "formal" language and "informal" language.
Pey Shkoy's register system is unusual in that it only affects the words
that speakers use, not the grammar or phonology. In this way, Pey Shkoy's
system of gendered registers is more similar to the concept of a mother-in-law
language, an elaborate system of taboo words and lexical replacement found
most famously in Australian Aboriginal languages like Dyirbal.
My original idea was that Pey Shkoy would have two registers, formal and
informal. Leonard liked the idea of registers with distinct lexicons, but
suggested that they be based on the more sophisticated gender constraints you
see in the final version. This lines up well with the existing facts about Ip
Shkoy society. I designed the language in the Dasupey register, and only later
came up with translations for the other registers as needed.
(As a side note: "How was your inspection of the sewer system?/It was grate!" is my now my favorite joke ever. Thanks, Tetsuo!)
Tetsuo's explanation of how Pey Shkoy's prepositions work is fine as
simplified explanation for the layman, [gee, thanks—LR] but I wanted to go into a bit more
detail about the linguistics behind the system. (Experts will forgive me if I
get some of the terminology wrong in this section. It's been a long time since
Talking about Pey Shkoy's "prepositions" is a simplified way of getting at
the real story, which is that Pey Shkoy doesn't exhibit any systematic
relationships, across verbs, between grammatical roles and thematic
relations. I've been toying with this idea for a long
time, and Pey Shkoy seemed like as good a time as any to try to put it into an
actual constructed language.
Relations and roles
So what are thematic relations and grammatical roles? Let's look at the
sentence I like cheese. The verb "to like" requires
two nouns—the person doing the liking (the experiencer), and the
thing that that person likes (the theme). (We might say that "to like"
has two semantic "arguments," in the same way that a function in a programming
language might have two arguments.) In English, we make the experiencer
the grammatical subject of the sentence, and the theme the
grammatical object of the sentence: I (subject) like cheese
(object). Experiencer and theme are terms for thematic
relations; subject and object are the grammatical roles.
Now, not all languages use the same grammatical
roles to express these same thematic relations. The Spanish equivalent of the sentence above is Me gusta el queso. When you use the verb gustar, the experiencer is the indirect object of the verb, and the theme is the subject: Me (indirect object) gusta el queso (subject). (Note that even though "queso" follows the verb, it's still grammatically the subject of the sentence---the subject/verb agreement on
"gusta" is third person, not first person.)
Usually, languages tend to use the same grammatical role to express
verb arguments with similar semantics, across all verbs. For example, in
English, agents are usually subjects of verbs, and patients are
usually objects (which is why we say I hugged John and I cooked
fish, not, e.g., John hugged to me or It cooked me to fish).
There's tremendous variation among human languages in how they map thematic
relations to grammatical roles. One of the most difficult tasks in learning a
language is figuring out the patterns (and exceptions) in these mappings.
If you're feeling particularly Sapir-Whorfian, you might make psychological
conclusions about the speakers of a language based on the way that the language
maps thematic relations to grammatical roles. Take the two sentences "John
despises circus clowns" and "John stabs circus clowns." John's
thematic relation to the verbs is very different in these two sentences (an
experiencer in the former; an agent in the latter); yet English
expresses both relations with the same grammatical role. Does this mean that
English speakers are more prone than speakers of other languages to turn their
dislikes into violence? That's for the philosophers and pop-sci journalists to
determine, I guess.
Lojban and Pey Shkoy compared
Artificial languages take different approaches to the relationship of
thematic relation to grammatical role. Lojban, in particular, takes an extreme approach wherein every verb has a number of positional arguments (again, like a function in a programming language), whose meanings you have to learn along with the verb. The Lojban verb tavla (glossed as "talk"), for example, is listed like so in the dictionary:
tavla: x1 talks/speaks to x2 about subject x3 in language x4
The x terms refer to where the corresponding argument is placed in
relationship to the verb. The x1 position occurs directly before the
verb; the others (x2, x3, etc.) occur after the verb, in
order. To illustrate, here's tavla used in a sentence:
Lojban: mi tavla do la lojban. la gliban.
Word-for-word: I(x1) talk you(x2) lojban(x3) English(x4)
English: I talk to you about Lojban in English.
better introduction to Lojban positional arguments from this Lojban Textbook on
Lojban makes an effort to make the positional arguments correspond more or
less with existing expectations about the semantics of the verb. It makes sense
for the speaker to be the first positional argument, the interlocutor to be the
second position argument, and so forth—since that corresponds, in the
estimation of the designers of Lojban at least, to how most humans think.
In Pey Shkoy, however, no effort has been made to align argument
order with human social or cognitive expectations. The relationship between the
order of the verb's arguments and the meaning of that order is, in fact, always
arbitrary. As a quick example, the closest verb to "talk" in Pey Shkoy is
chan. Here's the dictionary entry:
_chan_ be the audience, speak on a topic
∅: those addressed
a: the topic of the speech
be: the speaker
This dictionary entry gives the basic meaning of the verb, along with a
description of which semantic role goes with which preposition. Here's an
example sentence (Pey Shkoy is verb-initial):
Pey Shkoy: chan upa a shtay be adam
Word-for-word: speak I/me prep-a tongue prep-be adam
English: Adam speaks to me about a tongue.
Another entry in the Pey Shkoy dictionary:
_iaf_ be located at, stand
∅: the thing in a place
ioh: the place
... and in a sentence:
Pey Shkoy: iaf upa ioh shiw
Word-for-word: stand I/me prep-ioh cma
English: I am at a tree (cma).
(Reminder: cma is a Purchtrin word, not a Pey Shkoy word.) As you can
see, the roles in the verb chan are nothing like the roles in the verb
iaf. (In fact, the verbs use almost entirely different subsets of the
five possible prepositions.) It's like this across the board: every verb uses
the prepositions in its own unique way.
Whenever I needed to invent a new verb in Pey Shkoy, I looked up similar
verbs in the Lojban dictionary, FrameNet (an
excellent resource for English verbs and their associated thematic
roles), and even poked around Wiktionary to make sure I wasn't getting
stuck in an English-centric mindset. Once I figured out what the "arguments" of
the verb were, I assigned them to prepositions, either by a chance procedure
(rolling dice), or by intuition.
The main effect of this scrambled relationship of grammatical role to
thematic relation is that Pey Shkoy—even for me, the guy who made it
up—is really difficult to think in. Existing cognitive frames were
turned topsy-turvy; sentences never quite fit together in comfortable ways.
It's one of the features of Pey Shkoy that makes it feel, well,
alien. (Or should I say... Alien.) [[Takes off sunglasses]—LR]
Other grammar notes
A few other quick notes on Pey Shkoy grammar:
- Pey Shkoy is verb-initial (as noted above). The verb always comes at the beginning of the sentence or clause.
- Pey Shkoy really has only three parts of speech: verbs, nouns, and particles. Particles include the five prepositions (∅, a, be, ioh, ksey) and a handful of determiners (like eshi "this"). Most nouns in Pey Shkoy are formed from verbs through a series of nominalization affixes (e.g., peiu "cut" becomes peiuu "knife"), but a small number are atomically nominal, such as shtay "tongue."
- Pey Shkoy doesn't have conjunctions of any kind, opting instead for verbs with coordinating meanings that take clauses as arguments, such as ektie "do something until."
- Pey Shkoy has a large category of verb suffixes that carry a wide range of meanings, including modality, mirativity, manner, degree, etc. A few of my favorites: -tiuk "sexually"; -shoy "in a manner that contravenes the expectations of the speaker"; -ktok "tragically."
- Pey Shkoy doesn't have a closed set of pronouns. Speakers instead use (sometimes elaborate) circumlocutions, such as chanan uippee eteii "my esteemed audience" (for plural "you") or up yatata "this individual" (for "me"). There are, however, verbs that translate as "to belong to me" and "to belong to you": uip and tep, respectively.
Ironically, the part of Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans that took the
longest—the translations—takes up the least amount of space in the
actual document. I offer here in the commentary a few interlinear
translations, showing the underlying grammatical structure of the Pey Shkoy
phrases. (Some of these are from the phrasebook, some were intended as book
cover copy, and some are from Tetsuo's Twitter feed.)
"Warning: This device will catch on fire if you look at it funny." [A classic example of shveil.—LR]
Pey Shkoy: siukuy kefef be eshi chawa ioh chkekeshoy
Word-for-word: happen-warning ignite-NOM prep(be) this device-this prep(ioh)
Literally: this device's igniting happens (WARNING!)
under-the-circumstances-of being unexpectedly-observed
"You look even more beautiful in ultraviolet light."
Pey Shkoy: siu uineetiukpefkiur ksey uippee shiefiui ioh ufuoo ioh shpape
Word-for-word: happen attractive-NOM-sexually-looks-surpassing prep(ksey)
belong.to.me-NOM-NOM quiet.speech.interloc-NOM prep(ioh)
light-NOM prep(ioh) violet-NOM
Literally: your seeming more sexually attractive happens (when) you
(my quiet speech interlocutor) [are] being lit ultraviolet
"You get to keep your blade."
Pey Shkoy: iten tepeploh a peiuu
Word-for-word: permit belong.to.you-NOM-continuing prep(a) knife
Literally: (it) permits the continuing belonging-to-you of the blade
"Eat before using."
Pey Shkoy: tepep foii a voiee be alauu
Word-for-word: belonging-to-you.NOM before.NOM x1 eat.NOM x2 use.NOM
Literally: your beforing eating (this) to using (this)
Back to Leonard
Thanks, Adam. With this, I declare the Constellation Games commentary series complete! I have a little more to say about the series itself, and a couple overall notes on the novel writing process, but that stuff is so self-indulgent I think I'm just going to post it as a separate entry, not as part of this educational series.
Image credits: U.S. War Department, Huw Williams, Chris Sobolowski, Wikimedia Commons user NJGJ,
A.E. Shipley, Wikimedia Commons user dozenist, Wikimedia Commons user Robbiemuffin, NASA.
← "Dana no Chousen"