Thursday, 17 December 2009

The City & The City

I've just finished China Miéville's new novel, The City & The City. It's not as good as Perdido Street Station or The Scar, but it's very enjoyable. I'm impressed at how he manages to make the central conceit last for a whole novel without it seeming silly.

There are a few paragraphs of linguistic interest which I quote for your amusement. It concerns the two languages, Illitan and Besź.

If you do not know much about them, Illitan and Besź sound very different. They are written, of course, in distinct alphabets. Besź is in Besź: thirty-four letters, left to right, all sounds rendered clear and phonetic, consonants, vowels and demivowels decorated with diacritics - it looks, one often hears, like Cyrillic (though that is a comparison likely to annoy a citizen of Besźel, true or not). Illitan uses Roman script. That is recent.

Read the travelogues of the last-but-one century and those older, and the strange and beautiful right-to-left Illitan calligraphy - and its jarring phonetics - is constantly remarked on. At some point everyone has heard Sterne, from his travelogue: "In the Land of Alphabets Arabic caught Dame Sanskrit's eye (drunk he was despite Muhamed's injunction, else her age would have dissuaded). Nine months later a disowned child was put out. The feral babe is Illitan, Hermes-Aphrodite not without beauty. He has something of both his parents in his form, but the voice of those who raised him - the birds."

The script was lost in 1923, overnight, a culmination of Ya Ilsa's relorms: it was Atatürk who imitated him, not, as is usually claimed, the other way around. Even in Ul Qoma, no one can read Illitan script now but archivist and activists.

Anway whether in its original or later written form, Illitan bears no resemblance to Besź. Nor does it sound similar. But these distintion are not as deep as they appear. Despite careful cultural differentiation, in the shape of their grammars and the relations of their phonemes (in not the base sounds themselves), the languages are closely related - they share a common ancestor, after all. It feels almost seditious to say so. Still.

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