On Bilabial Fricatives and Alien Tongues

It is 8:17 a.m. I’ve have been at my computer with the intention of doing writing work since 6:00 a.m. I have managed to put exactly zero words on the page. There comes a point in the procrastination process when you just have to walk away and do something productive elsewhere. I haven’t quite hit that yet, so I’m justifying my continued presence in front of the keyboard with this blog post about process.

Process is unexpected.

My friend Dan (this guy, remember? He’s cool.)  recently shared a piece of advice he’d been given for writing, which is to think of all the awesome things you wish would happen, put them in chronological order, and then use that in place of an outline. I think it’s a sound principle, especially for writing science fiction and fantasy. Most of my favorite bits in my own writing comes from the sheer joy of committing wonderful nonsense of the page. But sometimes…sometimes the universe gives you the gift of unfettered inspiration.

A little known fact about John: he can’t produce a rolled “R” to save his life. It’s not exactly a prereq for communicating in English, so the subject doesn’t come up often, and I occasionally forget. Goofing around with language sounds, like ya do, I sometimes pull out the rolled Rs. And John, bless, always makes a fresh attempt to roll his Rs.

One of John’s defining qualities is persistence. Did you see his Prince Gumball hair for Halloween?

Prince Gumball Hair

We’re talking 10-12 hours of painstaking carving, coating, sanding, and painting to produce that. Some might call that a little crazy for a hairpiece that’s going to be worn for about three hours once in his life, but that’s how John rolls. When he sets his mind to a task, he sticks to it until he either gets it right or until I talk him down. This quality is one of the reasons he and I make a good team–I have a bad habit of rage-quitting difficult boss battles or calling slapdash joinery good enough and nothing would ever be finished or high quality around here if not for his boundless patience with the finicky and ridiculous.

When you take that dedication and apply it to the task of learning to produce rolled r’s, what you end up with is forty minutes of the two of us sitting on the carpet making ridiculous noises at each other trying to identify what’s going on in my mouth compared to his in order to troubleshoot whatever mechanical issues make it so impossible for him to produce this sound. Geek moment: there are two Rs in Spanish: the alveolar trill (the rolled R most people think of, which can sound like purring if you draw it out) and the alveolar tap (which is similar to the T in water). We were working on the trill, which is what English speakers tend to have a harder time with. In order to get there, we were making a pretty wild range of spitting, consonant-ish sounds.

It occurs to me that communicating exactly how funny this was is impossible given that maybe two of the people who read this blog are comfortable with the IPA and phonology in general, so “And then he held a prolonged bilabial fricative!” loses its comic edge. The point is that, as I listened to John buzzing and spitting in his attempts to trill, I realized that I was listening to the perfect range of sounds for the alien language I’m writing into the current section of my space fantasy.

And sometimes, that is how process works.


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