Non‐linguists may not realise that one of the few attributes all human languages seem to share is a characteristic underlying grammatical structure that can be represented using “tree diagrams”. When you learn Spanish, or even something more exotic like Japanese, you might have trouble with the vowel sounds or the pronouns or the verb endings, but one of the things you don't need to relearn is the idea that sets of adjacent words go together in phrases and phrases go together in clauses and clauses go together in sentences – an overall phrasal structure that organises strings of words into a hierarchy of syntactic nodes. You know, this sort of thing:
|Noun Phrase||Verb Phrase|
Different languages then add different amounts of extra complexity on top of this underlying structure, allowing branches of the tree to be lopped off and reshuffled. For instance, if you say “Grammar lessons I always detested!” then you're throwing the spotlight on the object noun phrase “grammar lessons” by displacing it to a special position at the start of the sentence. But the structure is still there underneath – for a start, it's what stops you moving the phrase all the way out of the sentence and saying something like “Grammar lessons. Do you remember your schooldays too? I always detested!”
But is that tree‐like syntactic hierarchy a necessary feature of languages? If we ever meet aliens, can we expect this to be something our languages and theirs have in common?
Back in the nineties a language hobbyist named Jeffrey Henning invented a fictional alien language that he called “Fith”. Instead of a hierarchical tree structure, Fith used a stack‐based grammar (and if you're wondering what that means, well, his original web pages long ago went the way of all good things, but there's still a potted summary here).
Computer science types tend to be unimpressed with stack parsers, since in principle any sentence in such a grammar can always be reanalysed in terms of a tree structure. I've always thought this was rather missing the point, since the native speakers' mental grammars weren't processing it that way, but okay, let's forget stacks. It's perfectly possible for a language to have a grammar whose sentences are structurally incompatible with a representation in terms of tree structure, and here's an example to prove it.
Any time‐tourists who've been following along by visiting the settings of my various other chronlangs should note that this one is very much not for casual daytrippers. See also my pages of SF linguistics and linguistic SF; or if you're bored with my stuff, try this out‐of‐copyright classic.
(Do I need to put another of those “PLEASE NOTE: THIS BIT'S FICTION” disclaimers here? I'm rather hoping it's obvious that the idea of life on a moon of Jupiter is made up – and that background's just intended as superficially believable quasiscience, not as something I'm interested in defending as likely. But there's a sense in which the grammar of a made‐up language isn't fictional, any more than Tetris is fictional. We may only have played it as a simulation on a computer screen, but as long as it has real rules, it's a real game!)
“Europan” is an alien language known from relics found on the moons of Jupiter. The general assumption is that its vaguely cephalopodlike speakers evolved approximately half a billion years ago on Europa, which still has traces of an extinct biosphere at its Jupiter‐facing pole, but this is conjecture; it is quite conceivable (for instance) that they originated elsewhere and Europa was only a colony. The impression that their sphere of influence was limited to these satellites may be an artefact of the higher chances of relics being preserved in the outer system. It is known that there were originally multiple obelisks containing deliberately constructed archives on each of the Galilean moons, but none have been found on Io, and the three magnetic anomalies identified on Europa itself have yet to be excavated. The available data comes from one partial cache on Ganymede and two pristine obelisks on Callisto, each containing thousands of engraved platinum plaques.
The Europan writing system was purely logographic, with each glyph representing a particular word. The closest terrestrial equivalent is the Chinese system, but even that takes shortcuts by incorporating phonological hints into most of its characters via a “rebus” principle that incidentally provides modern scholars with clues to the historical pronunciation of Chinese. In the case of Europan we have no such clues to the level of the language's structure analogous to phonology; more or less all we know is that the physical medium they used for communication was electrical rather than auditory. Conversations required two individuals to be close enough to one another for their electrolocatory auras to overlap, and for the modulation produced by each separate electrical organ to be distinguished – in effect, “face to face”.
Since each tentacle was associated with one or more electrical organs, a large number of them could be in range at any time, and a similar number of individual words could be transmitted in parallel. We might have expected it to be natural for their language to treat words expressed via neighbouring organs as syntactically related, but in fact the reverse was true: related words tended to be transmitted on widely separated channels, with associated tags to indicate the relationship. There may well have been a physiological basis for this – it is possible, for instance, that the mechanism used to tag two words as related may have required the secretion of the same trigger chemical in both electrocytes, and that depleting the secretory capacity of one would also reduce that of its neighbours while leaving more distant organs unaffected.
The physical circumstances of Europan communication are also likely to be the explanation behind the fact that sentence lengths in the known corpus cut off abruptly at a maximum of thirty words.
Written Europan glyphs are in effect hexgrid braille cells made up of 24 dots, each either filled or empty, making them conveniently convertible for cataloguing purposes into six‐digit values in base 16. Where one word is syntactically dependent on another, the child has a final row of cells below the main glyph body which echoes the top line (and first digit) of the parent glyph. Then each sentence is written as a line of glyphs, or in special circumstances as a ring (which may represent a survival of an earlier standard practice, rather like the way we start our sentences with a capital letter styled to resemble the lettering of Roman inscriptions). In cases where the child/parent relationship between words is ambiguous, the parent is the candidate furthest away in the sentence‐ring.
Other than the use of whitespace between words, sentences, and paragraphs, there is no trace of punctuation; subclauses, quotations, questions, parenthetical remarks, and so on are all clearly signposted either by the dependency labelling or by extra marker words.
It is plausible that the glyphs may have originated as pictograms of some sort, but if so then just like their East Asian equivalents they subsequently developed from iconic into arbitrary symbols. It has also been suggested that the words in the “spoken” language were themselves in some sense iconic representations of sensory data, though given that the Europans' two main sensory modalities were electrolocation and sonar it is unlikely that this would make the glyphs' meanings any easier for humans to guess.
The syntactic analysis implicit in the design of the glyphs recognises just two lexical categories, which turn out to be essentially equivalent to our verbs and nouns; if there are any words that can be either (as in English “talk the talk”), they are disguised by the writing system, which represents only their independent functions. The standard glosses used in the Europan Epigraphic Catalogue conventionally distinguish verbs from nouns by writing the latter in capital letters.
The fundamental rule of Europan syntax is that each word may have any number of children, but can have no more than one parent (the arrows in structural diagrams radiate outwards from parent to children). Since words come in two types and each word can have either sort of parent, there are just four different standard types of syntactic relationship in the language. This apparent simplicity comes at the cost of making individual dictionary entries more idiosyncratic.
This construction is used to form quantifiers (“a drop of
water”, “some people”), determiners (such as
and inalienable associatives (thus for instance
sore→PROSOMA→OFFSPRING→ME, “My child has a headache”).
Other N→N constructions (such as
rubbish”) may be more like English compound nouns, in that
forming a new one is like coining a new vocabulary item rather
than applying a grammatical rule. Proper nouns are a
special case of this, commonly made up of two or more noun
glyphs strung together in a chain; repeated references to the
same name tend to truncate it to the parent glyph.
A verb may have zero, one, or more nouns attached as arguments, but all of them have the same relationship to their parent verb. In human languages, verbs may have a subject, a direct object, an indirect object, and so on; but Europan fractionates all such constructions into multiple intransitive verbs that are then chained together in V→V constructions:
“I put the food in your possession”; or in other words, “I give you some food”.
No overt distinction is made between verbs that are argumentless
because the subject is being left vague and ones that function
as standalone modifiers with no role for an argument. When
a verb has more than one argument, they don't have any inherent
order, so where temporal sequence is significant it needs to be
specified explicitly (see
Descriptors are verbs subordinated to nouns, usually
translatable in terms of an adjective or relative clause
SIBLING→speak, “a sibling, who is talking”).
Many Europan verbs are glossed in terms of predicate adjectives
clever→SIBLING, “the sibling is clever”), so when
these verbs take a noun as parent it makes sense to translate
them as attributive adjectives (
SIBLING→clever, “a clever
sibling”). The two constructions “a clever sibling”/“the
sibling is clever” may seem to say much the same thing, but
while a noun can be modified by any number of N→V descriptor
constructions, it can take part in only one V→N argument
construction, so that one stands out as the primary focus of the
A descriptor verb may have subverbs (usually
requiring the relative clause translation:
SIBLING→speak→obstruct, “a sibling, who can't
speak”). However, it cannot take an explicit
argument, perhaps because the noun to which the
descriptor is subordinated is felt to be effectively its
Not all verbs in N→V relationships function as modifiers like
INSTANCE, for instance, is one of a specialised
family of nouns that serve to “nominalise” the attached
This construction resembles the strings of verbs that can occur in English sentences (“I can't help wanting to keep trying to…”). Many terrestrial languages use “serial verb” chains heavily, dividing ideas that English expresses using a specialised word (such as “collect”) into a concatenated sequence of subcomponents (“come/grasp/go”). Europan can take this much further, since its syntax never needs to be limited to simple linear chains – just as a verb may have any number of arguments, it is also possible for a single parent verb to have multiple modifiers and subclauses attached:
“I do not believe that you are Smith or that the food belongs to
them” (E#C2576C =
SMITH being the commonest
Europan personal name element). In complex sentences, it
may not be apparent from the syntax whether a child verb is a
modifying subverb (like
false above) or a full
subordinate clause (like
equal), but in practice any
ambiguity could be resolved via further modifiers.
All the above sentences are tame by the standards of the Europan language. Some of its sentence structures are difficult even to fit onto a page as 2D diagrams, but the Europans themselves could parse them on the fly when received as batches of words “spoken” in parallel, with their interrelationships shown by the accompanying tags:
false SMITH YOU quote stand THE believe equal FOOD ME own
Europan is like terrestrial languages in that its sentences can be diagrammed as directed graphs – that is, sets of nodes linked by arrows running from “parent” to “child”. In all terrestrial languages, the graphs are simple, connected, acyclic, rooted trees. They have one and only one node without a parent: the “Sentence” node, which despite being the “root” of the tree is conventionally placed at the top. Europan doesn't recognise the same sort of syntactic category nodes, only overt verbs and nouns as in a dependency tree, but it does allow verbs (and only verbs) to be parentless. Indeed, as the two example Europan sentences given so far demonstrate, they often have just one such “source” node as the ultimate ancestor of every other, thus forming a classical “tree structure”. However, this is not invariably the case; it is also possible for there to be several parentless nodes (where the sentence is incompletely connected) or for there to be none (where a graph forms a cycle).
“Disconnected” sentences made up of adjacent but syntactically independent clauses are common, often serving to present causally unrelated events that are being considered together, as in “I continued eating as the current grew stronger” (or equally “The current grew stronger as I continued eating”). Various more complex relationships between clauses are also handled by just putting them together within a sentence:
“If you're going then I'm going.” Although diagrammed as
three separate subgraphs, this would be uttered as a single batch
of seven words, and written as something along the lines of
posit go potential go infer ME, where each instance of
go is the parent of the noun and subverb on the other side
of the sentence. Note the presence there of another kind of
parentless node: the free‐floating word
marks the sentence as conditional. Effectively, it works
like an English initial adverb (such as “effectively”), which
stands on the margins of a sentence and modifies it as a whole.
Such constructions are in principle sufficient on their own to make Europan incompatible with a description limited to conventional tree structures, but this is arguably an illusion caused by our choice of terminology; we might instead have decided to call each connected subgraph a “sentence” and used some other word (such as “utterance”) for a set of subgraphs spoken in parallel.
The more significant topological anomaly permitted in Europan syntax is the cyclic graph (or “loop sentence”). These are less common, but far from unusual in contexts such as reciprocal interactions:
This sentence could be translated relatively literally as “I give food to you who give money to me” or more idiomatically as “I sell you food”. Pop‐science accounts of the decipherment of Europan that insist on seeing every facet of their culture as deriving neatly from their biology invariably attribute this interest in symmetrical social relationships to the fact they were hermaphrodites. Be that as it may, the claim often seen in such accounts that loop sentences were used to express reflexive verbs is a misunderstanding – on the contrary, the whole category of potential loops passing through a single noun was avoided. Even in the layer‐two sentence “So does it [the set of all sets] contain itself?”, the grammar of the reflexive construction is straightforward, by Europan standards:
Europan syntax makes it impossible for multiple loops to occur within a single connected subgraph, but a sentence containing several unconnected loops is possible in principle. There are no cases in the available corpus, but this may not be significant; the clearest evidence we have that Europans found some types of loop sentences entirely natural is that cycles were used in contexts that show no obvious need for them. For instance, they occur as a way of “fine‐tuning” sequential or positional relationships:
That is, “I am southward of you, who are upstream of me”, or equally, “You are upstream and to the north of me”. Tighter loops are possible, but the only known example of a three‐verb loop is still undeciphered:
The N→N construction
E#5AB561→E#5D8CA8 may be a name, and the verb
e#f76600 is also used elsewhere in the same text,
which may be discussing either a game or a legislative
process. There is also one clear case in a philosophical
treatise of the tightest possible kind of loop, though it is
presented more as an obtrusively clever epigram than as a piece of
normal conversational Europan:
The apparent meaning is along the lines of “The less reliable the data, the less reliable the worldview; the less reliable the worldview, the less reliable the data”. It is especially notable because it casually breaks another of the rules obeyed by all human languages: the structural diagram requires two arrows between the same pair of nodes, which means it isn't a “simple” graph.
?OVERVIEW increase bad bad increase FACT
The full Europan Epigraphic Catalogue has over ten thousand entries, which for the size of the corpus is a notably small vocabulary, but still big enough that a large number of them will almost certainly never be deciphered. The following selection of important vocabulary items should be enough to give a general impression of the language. Each entry gives:
Verbs predominate over nouns in this selection not because there are more of them but because they tend to be both more linguistically interesting and easier to assign a definite meaning. Many nouns are like E#B6CB38: we know it refers to some basic means of transport, but we can't be sure whether it was the equivalent of a pony, rickshaw, or jetpack.
THE. Commonly (though much less
commonly than in English) used as a specifier, implying that the
parent noun is a particular one identifiable to all. A
descriptor attached below this word is interpreted as a
restrictive relative clause:
sibling who is dancing”. Also used as the argument of a
verb, where it can function as a third‐person pronoun
(“he/she/it/they”) or perhaps “the one(s) in question”.
CONTENT (that is, the meaning of a
message). An important technical term in the computational
semantics of the layer‐one texts, but common in layer three as
well thanks to idioms such as:
“I don't understand what you mean”, and
good. On its own this means “(is)
correct, ethical, honest, robust, reliable”. Senses like
“nice, pleasurable” require an identified point of view or an
evidential tag (see
function. This is occasionally seen
as a descriptor meaning something like “useful, in working
order”, but most of the time it fits into a serial verb chain to
carry an instrumental argument such as
“with/using one's mouth”. When used with no argument it
tends to add an implication of artificial assistance:
go→function is “travel, go in a
suffer. A disbenefactive, often
used in serial verb chains to carry the argument that we would
make the object:
benefit it may introduce an
argument that is little more than a bystander:
own, used for extrinsic possessives
such as “my food” (whereas intrinsic associatives like “my
child”, “my tentacles” use a specifier construction). It
functions as a positional verb (compare
PEBBLE. More accurately a
“smooth, rounded, nonconductive solid object”, whether that's a
bead, button, or pearl; one of a family of words that are used
rather like pronouns (or at least, like the pronouns in
languages like Swahili that have a large number of noun
“Washed by the current, it (the pebble‐like thing) bounced off my head”. There are some two dozen similar generic words for “elongated object”, “conductive object”, “hollow object”, and so on, all distinguished as casually as English distinguishes between “people”, “things”, and “stuff”.
FOOD. The word is an extremely
general term for nutrition or fuel, and different verbal
constructions are used to distinguish the kind of
you actively catch and swallow, the kind you suck through your
gills, and even (in one layer‐two text) the kind that powers a
mechanical device. The standard translation for “I am
eating” would be
great (not to be confused with
go→great means something like
“charge”), though verbs are more frequently intensified simply
by doubling them up
quote. This often effectively
tags a subclause as an informational complement, but what it's
actually doing is marking a (potential) change in
viewpoint. The default is for reported speech to be
“direct”, with the pronouns and evidential markers retained
“They said: so the food must be mine [= their own]”.
Adding an argument clarifies that it's being rephrased from
another point of view – so for instance making it
quote→ME above would have made it
“They said that the food must be mine [= the
speaker's]”. As an unattributed subverb
allows for tagging particular modifiers as indirect, so that for
warn. A modifier indicating that
an utterance is cautionary – usually free‐floating,
occasionally attached directly to a particular part of the
“Watch out for insects in the food!” (note that there's no claim that there are insects in the food). English has syntactically distinct statements, questions, commands, and exclamations, but Europan has a considerably larger and fuzzier set of sentence types (requests, invitations, instructions, conditionals…) distinguished only by modifiers of this kind.
FACE. This is more of an analogy
than a translation; it really means “tentacle configuration, as
used to signal emotions, recognise individuals, and so on” (with
various associated metaphorical senses: for instance
nearby→FACE→YOU means “in your company”).
Non‐verbal communication must have been relied on heavily in
situations where direct one‐to‐one interaction was
impractical – see also
query. A question marker, which
can float freely as a sentence‐type modifier (
query←nearby→FOOD, “I wonder whether
there's food here?”), or even be a descriptor on a noun
THAT. A sort of resumptive
pronoun. When used as a specifier, it tags its parent noun
as the topic, which can be referred back to by another (parallel
or subsequent) use of the word as an argument. Thus for
“I was given food, which was tasty” (or “I liked the food I was given”). This is the nearest Europan gets to allowing an argument to be the subject of more than one verb (“They did A and B and C”). Some layer‐three texts allow callbacks to candidates in previous sentences that weren't tagged in the first place.
before. Human languages tend to
use spatial analogies to describe time: we “look back to years
gone by”. In Europan, temporal expressions are completely
independent of the enormous family of positional
constructions – instead it's:
“I went before you (allegedly) did.” (See also
more gives “I went more than you
THIS. Europan doesn't divide up
its demonstrative pronouns the way we tend to, with a “this” for
pointing at nearby items and a “that” for more remote ones
THIS, and two common variants:
THIS→ME (“my this”) means “the one in
front of me” and
THIS→YOU (“your this”) means “the one in
front of you (so behind me)”. More rarely,
also be used to refer back anaphorically to something within the
conversation, in which case the attached pronoun is used to
distinguish “the one I mentioned” from “the one you mentioned”.
contain, used with another verb such as
contain→great is used for “is full
lose→contain covers “out of/from”.
infer. An evidential marker,
commonly used to tag a statement as based on circumstantial
instance, means “(Then) there must be food here”. While
they are never mandatory, and tend to be seen as redundant
alongside a personal pronoun (see
underlie. On its own, “be beneath
(a surface)”. When it's seen from a different argument's
point of view in a positional chain, the effective meaning is
“on (top of)”:
become. This can be used to
introduce processes where something changes state of its own
elderly→become). It may also appear in a
serial verb chain carrying an argument that in English would be
the object of a verb of creation – “speak a word”,
“carve a statue”, “tie a knot”.
go. As a verb of motion this may
translate as “come” (among other things) rather than “go”:
TENDRIL. The short tentacles
close to the mouth. It's clear enough that having
something in one's tendrils equates to being directly occupied
with it, but there are a great many other contextually
determined or metaphorical uses that are not yet fully
understood. The expression
function→TENDRIL, when used as a
modifier, may mean “carefully”, “personally”, “hungrily”,
perhaps even “sensually”!
next. Used to divide things into
subsets which act in a specified order. Where
“And then somebody else did too”. Compare
perceive, which refers to detection via
passive senses (compare
“I can see that you are imposing” (
bright can just mean
“is luminous”, but here might be translated “Something
illuminates…” or “Visibly”). As an evidential (see
testimony as direct knowledge, or can introduce the “addressee”
in a sentence like “I have told them”:
ANOTHER. A specifier, as in
PERSON→ANOTHER, “a different
person/someone else”, or a fourth person pronoun explicitly not
referring back to the established topic (cf.
ANOTHER denote a different entity each time; narratives
where the topic switches back and forth between two entities
(“she said… then he said…”) use
INSTANCE. Bundles up a descriptor
clause into a nominalised form referring to a particular event,
JUPITER, the first proper noun clearly
identified in the astrophysics texts. The full form is
E#69C8C6→E#B6BB4, with a secondary element
(also unique to this compound) which is usually dropped.
Specifiers and descriptors attach only to the primary part:
“Jupiter, which is massive, is said to rotate” (
not the same as
JUPITER←massive→JUPITER, “Jupiter and
so on (i.e. the gas giants) are massive”.
pulsate. This is used for things
that physically fluctuate in overall size or shape, expanding
and contracting on the spot (like, say, a jellyfish), or in one
case apparently applied to electrical phenomena. The
Europan vocabulary for types of motion is comparable to our
vocabulary for colours, and where we can only concatenate colour
terms in series (“blue‐green”), Europan has extra options like
tacking motion terms on in parallel:
finish. It's common in sentences
where we'd use past tense, but strictly speaking it tags an
event as completive/retrospective (and there's an equivalent
various others). Actual temporal marking often uses
notable. Seen only as a
descriptor or argumentless subverbal modifier, indicating that
the part of the sentence it's attached to is a focus of
attention and/or (like English “but”) pointing up a contrast:
speak, the word for normal one‐to‐one
communicative behaviour (“say”, “talk together”, etc.; compare
FOOD←nearby→speak, “There is
(reportedly) food here”.
GROUP, used to collect nouns into a set
which functions as a single argument and can take shared
“We danced together” (whereas attaching the pronouns as direct children of the verb might mean “I danced and you danced”). It can also attach as a pluralising specifier (
announce. For Europans,
communicating over a distance wasn't just a matter of shouting
louder; it required the message to be drastically
simplified. The closest terrestrial analogy may be the way
“talking drums” can be used to convey messages over extended
distances, leaving out the particular consonant and vowel sounds
and just transmitting the tone contours. However,
announce was also conventionally used to mean any form of
linguistic expression other than speech, so “I have written a
stimulate. On its own this means
“be interesting, draw one's attention”, but it is also the
standard verb used to express emotional reactions:
obstruct, which can be used in
positional constructions to mean something like “be in the way”,
but is mainly used as a modal verb:
translates roughly as “I can't go, and I'm not going”.
ALL, used as a specifier meaning “all
of/every” or as an independent argument meaning
“everyone/everything, the whole lot”. Used in combination
with a number, usually
one, it can have a distributive
go→ALL→one “They each
go”. With negation on the noun,
nearby→ALL→false means “Only some of
them (not all) are here”, while
false→nearby→ALL with a negated verb
(more literally “Everything is not nearby”) means “There is
witness, used for intentional, active
observation by means of sonar or electrolocation. It
occurs most often as the highest rank of evidential marker
witness←nearby→FOOD, “(I can
vouch for the fact that) there is food here”. Many Europan
idiomatic expressions apparently refer to echolocatory jamming,
subtly differentiated kinds of “chirps” and “sweeps”, and so on,
but the details are little understood.
schedule. An evidential marker
stated more directly (see
declare that can
announce a newly made policy or resolution and often substitutes
for “will” as in “I'll do it!”
stand. Of course, it doesn't
literally mean “balance on one's legs”, though it can have the
equivalent sense of “adopt a neutral stationary posture”.
In serial verb chains, it is one of the several Europan words
that might stake a claim to the meaning “be” (compare
ME, which along with (singular)
YOU makes up the complete set of true personal pronouns
available in the language, though they can also be put together
“We are going”, or to be more accurate “I and mine plus just
you, not necessarily together” (see
tends confusingly to mean “the speaker”. As a specifier,
ME functions as an inalienable‐associative marker, “my”,
used of body parts, interpersonal relationships, and the like.
equal. Where we use the one verb
“be” in multiple senses (“exist”, “have a property”, and so on),
Europan factors them out. The verb
express the idea that its subject nouns are one and the same, or
(by way of a quasi‐positional chain) that they form a set that
other things might be members of:
PARENT←equal→behave→ME, “I habitually
act as a parent, I am parental”.
BUG. Any member of a Europan phylum
analogous to terrestrial arthropods. The gloss reflects
the apparently casual way words like
SLUG were used, each one covering a diverse range of
creatures. Terms like this in human cultures tend to group
creatures by their superficial features, traditionally classing
dolphins as fish, bats as birds, and all manner of
creepy‐crawlies as bugs. The Europan system on the other
hand is a suspiciously neat fit for the tree of life described
in their zoology texts.
three. Like all Europan number
words this is an adjectivelike verb rather than a noun:
three→YEAR→ME, “My years are three in
number” (i.e. “I am three jovian orbits old”). All nouns
seem to have been regarded as countable;
FOOD→three is “three lots of food” in
whatever sense is relevant in a given context. Numbers
attached as subverbs indicate repetition, so
go→three is “go three times”.
Compound numbers involve a word glossed as
“43₁₆ (=67) people went”. However, low multiples are often
expressed by repetition –
sixteen←tally→sixteen, “20₁₆ (=32)”. Ordinal
numbers are confusingly off by one:
PERSON; usually in the sense of “a
(specific) sapient being”, but occasionally taken to exclude
children. Many expressions formed from this word with a
descriptor verb are fixed idioms equivalent to agentive nouns:
so for instance a
a “signaller” (a traditional specialist in ranged
false. As a modifying subverb
indicating that its complement/parent is “not true”, this is
effectively a negative marker:
true which is used
where we might say “indeed”.) However, this negative
construction is often avoided in favour of one applying the
SEASON. A unit of time of unclear
length (50 < x < 250 Earth days),
based on a biological rather than astronomical cycle.
Often used along with
believe, often used where we might
expect “know”; but in Europan the question of whether the
speaker vouches for a statement as true is usually split out
into evidential markers:
“The insect must know that there is food there.”
spin. A movement modifier
indicating that something is rotating around its axis of
displacement, like a spinning arrow. The system used to
specify direction of rotation depends on the convention that I
default to turning left/anticlockwise, and my addressee is
facing the other way, so “your” directions are reversed (compare
“Can you tell whether it (that long thin thing) is spinning clockwise (‘your way’) as it goes?”
move is an element in a great many
serial verb compounds equivalent to single words in English,
indicating involuntary motion (compare
massive. While this verb can
function as a descriptor to describe objects as enormously
heavy, its normal role is to introduce a gravitational field as
a cause for movement:
“Europa orbits Jupiter”.
Many things remain unclear about the Europans.
The normal assumption is that the Europans felt the answers to be somehow sensitive information. It has been widely suggested that they were in fact postbiological entities who only represented themselves as still being cephalopodlike organisms because they were censoring the part of the story where their species developed the technologies that eventually led to their tragic fall (or glorious transcendence).
A newer and more subversive variant of this theory is that the Europans were not the creators of the message but its intended recipients. The obelisk builders passed through this system just as the locals seemed sure to develop the means to emerge from their home ocean at some point within the next million years, so they left a message in a format designed (with superhuman skill and attention to detail) to be easy for them to learn, and incorporating a corpus of texts translated from the various tongues of the Europan Iron Age. Of course, if this theory is correct, the existence of unopened obelisks is evidence that the locals failed to live up to the expectations of their patrons. It also suggests that we have been misguided in our own expectation that the message would ultimately prove to have a valuable payload of technological arcana. Perhaps the real gift was the part we've mistaken for wrapping paper: the Europan language itself.