Saturday October 30, 2004

Toktru, Masen?

In John Barnes' Jak Jinnaka series, which currently includes three novels starting with The Duke of Uranium, the characters speak a future variety of English that's peppered with unfamiliar words. (You can read the first chapter here.) The meaning of these words is almost always recoverable from context, so Barnes could have just made them all up out of whole cloth, but many of them are actually borrowings from various other languages or clever coinages. Here's some of the new words I've noticed:

masen: Right? Don't you think? (Marks tag questions.)
Ex: "There's usually a couple like that every year, masen?" (p. 19)

This one comes from Japanese. It's the present tense negative verbal inflection (or possibly auxiliary verb—traditional grammatical terminology doesn't always fit Japanese very well) in the normal polite mode. It's surprising that Barnes uses this morpheme the way he does, since Japanese already has a sentence-final particle that marks this kind of sentence: ne. I wonder why he didn't use that instead (assuming he knows about it)—the meaning of sentence like "It's pretty hot, ne?" seems pretty transparent to me, but then, I've been studying Japanese...

toktru: Truly, true, really.
Ex: "It's not such a big deal anymore. Toktru it's not." (p. 25)

At first I thought this wasn't a borrowing, since it's pretty clearly derived from the English words talk and true. The spelling of tok- rung a bell, though, so I went and found an online dictionary for Tok Pisin, a creole language spoken in Papua New Guinea that's partly based on English. Tok tru apparently means "truth" or "speak the truth" in Tok Pisin. Kudos to Barnes for borrowing from a non-obvious language.

tove: Friend.
Ex: "He was Jak's toktru tove, and had always been..." (p. 10)

No prizes for guessing that this comes from the Russian tovarich meaning "comrade". It's probably not a reference to "Jabberwocky".

zybot: One of a number of conspiracies that attempts to engineer society to suit its social/political/economic theories.
Ex: "He realized that social engineering zybots were much more interesting in fiction than they were in school" (p. 68)

This word at first looks like it might be somehow related to robot, but it's not. It's derived from zaibatsu, a Japanese word referring to large business conglomerates that existed before WWII. See the Wikipedia article for more details, and check out Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix for more science-fictional zaibatsus.

malph: Bad guy, malefactor.
Ex: "One malph out of the melee, anyway." (p. 53)

This one's pretty straightforward English-based skiffy-speak, I wanted to mention it in order to dispell any notion that Barnes might be referencing Happy Days.

heet: Person, guy.
Ex: "A smart heet like me could make sergeant pretty quick..." (p. 16)

I suspect that this is also a borrowing from Japanese, specifically of the word hito, "person". This might be wrong, though, because of the following word...

pokheet: Police officer.
Ex: "...or being a pokheet—hassling teenagers to keep them from doing stuff that looks like harmless fun to me." (p. 21)

If heet means "person", then pok- must somehow mean "police", but I'm not sure where it comes from. I doubt it's from the English word pokey, although I guess that's possible. It's not from the Japanese word for "police officer", keisatsu, and this makes me suspect that heet might not be from Japanese either.

pock: Crater.
Ex: "[Earth is] a giant collection of pocks in superhigh grav." (p. 20)

At first I thought this might be a word like "jerk" or Heinlein's immortal "groundhog", but later mentions of "beaches around those pocks" and of "pock clusters" exploded that theory. It turns out to be the perfectly ordinary English word pock. [Minor spoilers] Some time before Barnes' story, Earth was attacked with relativistic projectiles (fifty a day for more than fifty years) by an invading alien species, and everywhere above latitude 21° S is covered with craters.

singing-on: Exactly, very.
Ex: " was perfectly chosen and singing-on right for her." (p. 23)

This is probably just the English words singing and on, but it's interesting because, although the way Barnes uses it has nothing to do with the meaning of those words, it makes perfect sense to me. Is this a reference to a song or an aphorism that I'm not consciously remembering?

gwont: Old person.
Ex: "...even if he wasn't a bad old gwont on the personal level." (p. 4)

This one might come from the (originally Greek) prefix geronto-, but I'm not certain. Any other ideas?

dak: Understand.
Ex: "Teacher Fwidya said you couldn't not dak the idea, because it was so central to the way everyone thought about the world..." (p. 3)
Ex: "...we know that the whole solar system daks the Wager..." (p. 4)
speck: See, know, understand.
Ex: "Jak specked it was a sinecure for teachers who really enjoyed hassling younger people with statements of the obvious." (p. 3)
Ex: "...the genies had never specked the singing-on ratio between control muscles and main muscle masses for that breed..." (p. 4)

I've listed these together because they're very close in meaning. Dak seems to be used with a meaning more like "understand completely", and I wonder if it's a modification of Heinlein's grok—Barnes, like John Varley, seems to have thoroughly absorbed Heinlein's works. Speck seems to have a wider range of meaning, and is probably cognate with the Indo-European root spek meaning "observe". (It reminds me of Burgess' viddy.)

gweetz: Idiot, jerk.
Ex: "Jak had, and he felt like a complete gweetz."
feets: Legal rights, legal majority.
Ex: "Twelve more minutes of gen school. Then, at long last, they'd get their feets..."
Ex: "Humans got feelings from evolution, and we're free and wild and have our feets."
demmy/mekko: Girl(friend)/boy(friend).
Ex: "She's not my demmy and I'm not her mekko and we won't be again. All over."

The meanings of all these words are clear from their context, but I don't have any clues as to their origin. It's possible gweetz is somehow related to gwont, but that's just a guess based on the first two letters. Any bright ideas?

Aside: I've read the first two books in this series, and although they're fun and enjoyable adventure stories in a lot of ways, there's a kernel of ugliness in Barnes' fictional universe and characters that I find disturbing. Especially in the second book, Jak begins to find that the people he trusts and the social system he lives under aren't as nice as they seemed at first. This could certainly make for interesting character growth, but Barnes can't seem to decide between writing old-school adventure SF in the mold of Heinlein's juveniles and slipping in sexual violence and torture. It's a problem I have with several of his books, including Finity (slightly ugly), Mother of Storms (even uglier), and Kaleidoscope Century (relentlessly repellant). This habit apparently led some wag on Usenet to propose Pete's Law: "Avoid Barnes books if they involve sodomy." The Jak Jinnaka books haven't quite triggered the Law yet, and I intend to read at least the third one, but I'm worried.

[Now playing: "Grow Up and Blow Away" by Metric]

[Update: Oh, fer chrissake—"John Barnes' Jak Jinnaka novels, which currently include three novels..."? Does anyone proofread these posts before they go up?]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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» Toktru, masen? from The View from the Foothills
The Tensor has some interesting conjectures on the futuristic English used in John Barnes' Jak Jinnaka novels (The Duke of Uranium et al) which I've reviewed here in the past. Interestingly, he has the same reaction to Barnes' work that... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 1, 2004 9:27:37 PM


I'm sorry, but I couldn't even make it through the chapter you linked to -- it reminded me of the archaic sf (or rather scientifiction) of the '20s, with its labored presentation of background info:

"You always tell us that the Aerie is at the L4 point, two months ahead of Earth in its orbit, and the hive is at the L5 point, two months behind. Right?"

Yes, and is it not amazing, citizen, that our planicars speed soundlessly six meters above the ground, obviating the necessity of those noisy, gasoline-using automobiles that were so detrimental to the environment in the previous century? Now let us walk to the Citizens' Center, where as you know...

I don't have any good guesses for the words you list (except that some of them sure sound made up), but I tend to get impatient with random use of foreign words to give a futuristic flavor in sf. I mean, people aren't going to be using today's English with a few foreign words thrown in, they're going to be using a different form of the language, so in a sense you're translating from that -- if you're not going to write all the dialog in a carefully worked out future English, you might as well just use today's variety. To me, it's sort of like those movies where a scene is set in, say, Germany and you have actors playing Germans talking English with heavy German accents. It's just kind of silly.

Posted by: language hat at Oct 30, 2004 9:54:53 AM

In his defense, I think Barnes has cranked up the old-fashioned SF knob on purpose as a deliberate style choice, but you'll only like it if that's the kind of thing you like.

You're right that the language spoken in the far future—I vaguely recall that Barnes' novels are set more than a thousand years from now—isn't going to be English at all, but how to convey that to an English-speaking audience is a hard problem. There's an argument to be made that it should be treated like a translation from a real foreign-language text, and rendered into colloquial English. That runs the risk of having all the characters sound like transplanted contemporary people.

I've seen parts of a few WWII-era British movies in which the Germans (with the swastikas on their uniforms camouflaged) spoke to each other in chummy public school accents, and I found it distracting. Germans are supposed to sound like Germans, dammit! ("Raus, raus! Schell, schell! Halt!") I wonder if anyone has ever made a movie in which, for example, German characters speak unaccented English in the scenes that are supposedly translated from German, but then speak with German accents when they're supposedly speaking English. That would be entirely consistent, and probably very annoying.

Posted by: The Tensor at Oct 30, 2004 12:47:59 PM

Yeah, I find the use of Oxbridge accents to convey "evil foreigners" annoying too. I guess the only thing that would satisfy me is to have the Germans speaking actual German, with subtitles as needed. Impractical for Hollywood, I know. Maybe that's why I go to fewer and fewer movies, and the last two I saw were French and Mongolian...

Posted by: language hat at Oct 30, 2004 1:33:09 PM

This brings to mind my young neice, who grew up watching Disney videos. She came to associate the British accent with villains, since so many of Disney's heavies have cultured English accents. So much so that as a tot, she was unreasonably fearful of a family friend who had, through no fault of her own, the dreaded accent. (I should stress, I suppose, that this friend was a lovely woman with no villainous tendancies that I am aware of.)

Posted by: Pious Agnostic at Oct 30, 2004 3:02:51 PM

Well, I recently watched the pilot to the old Wonder Woman TV show (because, yes, I am that big a comics geek) set during WWII, and in it the Germans--played by Kenneth Mars (the police inspector in Young Frankenstein) and Henry Gibson *did* speak in German, with subtitles...until a few sentences into the conversation Mars suggests the switch to English because somebody might be listening. Then they spoke German-accented English for the rest of the show. I thought that for a cop-out, it was rather clever.

Posted by: Joshua at Nov 1, 2004 11:29:31 AM

"Singing-on" may be a shortening of "singing on key," which would accord with the sense of "being right."

It doesn't seem to have the same meaning, but "dak" makes me think of "sweedack," which was used in John Brunner's "Shockwave Rider." That's French-Canadian slang for "I agree." Then again, "grok" meant "drink."

Posted by: wheels at Nov 3, 2004 8:41:36 AM

> Speck seems to have a wider range of meaning, and is probably cognate with the Indo-European root spek meaning "observe".

No doubt, but I though it was just a nice mangling of English "suspect", no?

Posted by: Stephen Mulraney at Nov 7, 2004 6:49:39 PM

Re: "speck" from "suspect":

Hmm. I also wondered if it might come from "expect", but neither "suspect" nor "expect" would really work in sentence above that begins "...the genies had never specked...".

Posted by: The Tensor at Nov 7, 2004 6:56:13 PM

I did my favourite thing when running into odd words and Googled for 'gwont'. I've found it on a lot of German-language webpages, but Google can't translate it. I can't figure from the position if it's a noun or not, either -- I do Romance, I do Celtic, I don't do Teutonic.

Hey, do you have a syndication URL I can add on in LiveJournal, perchance?

Posted by: Corgi at Nov 7, 2004 9:41:08 PM

Hmm, there seem to be a lot of Austrian (at) and Swiss (ch) sites in that search. I wonder if it's non-standard German.

(From the syndicate link on the home page:

Posted by: The Tensor at Nov 7, 2004 10:14:14 PM

No mystery: it's a dialect form of gewohnt, past participle of wohnen 'live, dwell.' It's very common for the vowel to get dropped from the ge- prefix.

(Dammit, I wish italics were allowed in these comments.)

Posted by: language hat at Nov 9, 2004 6:30:51 AM

> neither "suspect" nor "expect" would really work in sentence above that begins "...the genies had never specked...".

Yes, you're right. I'd misread the sentence as "the genies had never specked THAT blah blah VERB"

(Probably I halluncinated a verb becuase the sentense didn't make much sense to me). Still, I don't see why I couldn't be a version of "[sus|ex]pect" with a slightly different meaning. But perhaps it's just a false friend...

Posted by: Stephen Mulraney at Nov 11, 2004 8:46:26 AM

Perhaps "specked" comes from "inspect."

Posted by: wheels at Nov 18, 2004 2:39:31 PM

My personal suspicion is that it's a respelling of "spec" as in the contraction of "specify" or "specification."

Posted by: fourwillows at Feb 3, 2005 5:36:37 PM

"Tove" could also conceivably be derived from the Hebrew word "tov", meaning "good". I suspect some of the other odd words (e.g. the two starting with "gw-") might come from oddball languages; I know "gw-" is used in some Native American languages (e.g. Haida Gwai). "Tok" may come from New Guinea's Tok Pisin, or from any of several other languages that are based on English and have names that include words derived from Creole (e.g. Kwiol) or Pidgin (e.g. Pisin). In any case, the work "tok" is likely still derived from English, though possibly at one remove.

Posted by: Jonathan Gladstone at Feb 22, 2005 6:32:08 AM

Actually I thought he just didn't know "masen" was the ending of "wakarimasen" (and didn't realise that if you're doing slang you probably say "wakkannai" anyways) because it reminded me more of "you know" then "ne".

And I know someone who actually used "Shta" for "understood" in a story because she didn't realise that "wakarimashita" was a polite form and that "shita" was just the ending.

Posted by: Azalais Malfoy at Aug 5, 2005 12:14:47 AM

I'd like to state that in Canadian English we say "...,eh?" to convey the whole masen/ne/you know/do you follow me?/do you agree? thing.

Posted by: Darth Zombie at Aug 30, 2005 1:01:49 PM

Mec: Comme en métropople un type, un gars. Est extrèmement employé en Nouvelle-Calédonie. Elargi aussi aux animaux ( C'est mon chien Massis qui va les trouver (…) il a un flair extraordinaire le mec!(Berger B. 1989, p. 33).

So it is (New-Caledonian?) French for "guy".

I guess that "demmy" is "demoiselle" or "madame".

Posted by: Whatever at Nov 4, 2005 1:19:01 AM

pock: Crater.
Ex: "[Earth is] a giant collection of pocks in superhigh grav." (p. 20)

It turns out to be the perfectly ordinary English word pock
Yes. Here's a half question: Isn't it the same word found in "small-pox" and "chicken pox," both of which render the face pockmarked?

Posted by: Rethabile Masilo at Nov 18, 2005 10:18:30 PM

May be gweetz is somehow related to gwont, but that's just a guess based on the first two letters. Do you have an idea about it any way?

Posted by: Keith at Dec 29, 2005 4:36:56 AM

for what it's worth, 'demmmy' could be derived
from 'demoiselle' and 'mekky' from the french
'mec' meaning 'guy' or 'dude'.

Posted by: george_shem at Jan 22, 2007 1:30:19 PM

I always thought that masen was a contraction of "know what I'm saying", in the same vein as "gnaamean" in Ebonics.

Posted by: Matt Smit at Jul 7, 2007 10:42:58 AM

Interesting analyse of the English, I would call it "slang" or kind of pidgin or whatsoever.

Posted by: Peter274 at Aug 17, 2008 8:23:08 AM

Pretty sure "dak" comes from French "d'accord," which basically translates as "OK" (granting of consent). Kids (and some adults) say "d'acco-d'ac" the way we would say "okey-doke." Teens just say "d'ac."

Posted by: Karl Loeffler at Jul 2, 2009 10:47:57 AM