Thursday November 16, 2006

The Princes of the Air by John M. Ford

Recently, I've been knee-deep in readings about case, number, and person, and that really cuts into my SF-about-linguistics reading time (though I have been slowly making my way through Babel-17). Fortunately for me, reader and commenter Russell Borogove (russell at estarcion dot com) is taking up some of the slack.  After the jump you can read an email he sent me (reprinted with his permission) about John M. Ford's The Princes of the Air.

Russell writes (with some minor formatting added):

Hey, I'm reading The Princes of the Air by (recently deceased) author John M. Ford.  In it, there's a language spoken primarily by diplomats called ELI-3:

ELI-3 was linked to sleep-pattern, to dream-pattern.  Properly used, with the rhythms perfect, it induced a mood of... acceptance... in the listener.  The same experts who had designed ELI-4 for universal human use had designed 3 for very specific human uses.

Another passage describes the effect of the language:

The ELI-3 rhythms, controlled this time, had caught sankt-Efer's attention—better than Obeck had hoped; he saw the dilation of sankt-Efer's pupils...  It's not hypnosis, Obeck had been taught, not nearly so.  It's only a persuasion technique.  Still he had hated it, as counterfeit coin of communication.

It appears that anyone who understands the universal ELI-4 can understand and be influenced by ELI-3.  ELI-4 is rendered in the book as ordinary English; ELI-3 is rendered as metered prose or poetry of a kind that in my ignorance I can only describe as Shakespearean.  Some ELI-3 examples:

If might were all we knew, in any form, what profit subtle statecraft?  There would be a number on a number, and the most in quantity defined would carry all.  But samechs* see in numbers, persons not—the flesh prefers a qualitative game.  And since our bargain's often out of joint—there must be clever souls to spear the point.

* samech: sapient mechanism, AI robot.


A starship is a most complex machine, with myriad spaces under and between; and if one searched unsure of what was sought one might explore for weeks, uncovering naught—and if it were in subtle hull's disguise, might one discard or yet destroy the prize.

Ford was a poet as well as author; on one occasion his gift for language collided with his fondness for "stuff that goes fast and blows up", yielding this:

[From Verona Total Breakdown (Liebestod), a forgotten early Infernokrusher work by Bill "Hoist This Petard" Shakespeare...]

Ro-Mo. Your windows are still mirrored; taunt me not,
But show your colors, dare to challenge me,
These lips are two shaped charges, primed and hot,
That wait the go-code for delivery.
J-Cap. The flag is to the deadly, not the loud,
Yet aim as well as posing shows in this;
The worthy throwdown's always to the proud,
And hammer down is how the hard girls kiss.
Ro-Mo. My draft is stopped; I struggle toward the clutch.
J-Cap. And would a charge of nitrous make thee run?
Ro-Mo. Too much; but what else is there but too much?
Let me take arms, and elevate the gun.
J-Cap. Small arms but hint what demolitions say.
Ro-Mo. Then, gunner, gimme one round.
J-Cap. On the way.

Russell also includes a link to a memorial thread for Ford over at Making Light, where he was apparently a frequent commenter.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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I know this post is old, but I had to comment: that poem at the end is 100% distilled awesome.

Posted by: JS Bangs at Jun 6, 2007 10:36:56 PM