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[Comments] (2) Constellation Games Bonus Commentary #4: "Pey Shkoy Benefits Humans": 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 Benefits Humans".

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 unspecified "good".

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 culture.


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 programming.

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 shoe-equivalents.

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:

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 document.

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 physiology, like:

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 words!)

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 Indonesia.)

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 writing systems.


"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!)

On prepositions

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 undergrad.)

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.

(Here's a better introduction to Lojban positional arguments from this Lojban Textbook on Wikibooks.)

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.

The aftermath

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:

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.

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