A bit for WisCon

I’m in a better mood than I have been for a while. Though I don’t regret swearing off cons for this year, I am a little sorry not to be kicked into thinking about what I was thinking about talking about at WisCon. (And after a sentence like that, I’m sure WisCon is breathing a sigh of relief at not having to find a gracious way to bounce my submission out the door!)

I was thinking about LeGuin’s Earthsea dragonspeech, also known as the Old Tongue, and why it’s an utterly impossible language. And why I suspect LeGuin knew that when she started writing about Earthsea again after a hiatus. And how the impossibility might be reduced to a mere improbability.

But no, I can’t think about this stuff unless I’ve got to get up and actually talk about it. So instead, I’ll pass on a little bit I once talked about at a Mythcon past.

Remember how I said there were lots of interesting things about Pravic, the doubly-invented (by author and by fictional people) language of The Dispossessed? Here’s one. You can figure out the population of Anarres from it. No, I’m quite serious; stop laughing.

I’ve never been sure I got the math right on this, so somebody who knows more about math than I do (that would be “most people”), please check it. Here is my reasoning, and the number resulting from it.

I wrote that up more than a year ago, intending to get to a LeGuin signing at Book Expo America. I did make BEA, but not the signing; such is life when you’re a brand-new employee at a major ebook player when ebooks are still hot. And here I am going to miss another LeGuin appearance, at this year’s WisCon.

The things you can do with invented languages, though…


Phonaesthetics don’t get no respect.

It is, or purports to be, a linguistic discipline investigating people’s reactions to particular speech sounds, and how those reactions influence spoken language.

Difficult things to study, it turns out. A few studies of phonaesthetics are well-known for the cleverness of their design and the nebulosity of their results. My Psych 101 book contained the famous Kohler maluma-takete experiment, in which speakers practically without exception called a rounded shape a “maluma” and an angular one a “takete.” A few studies have found that people can correctly assign meanings to polar antonyms (e.g. hot-cold) in languages they do not know with accuracy decidedly exceeding chance. How do they do it, though? No way to prove it’s the sound.

Introspection doesn’t help much. We tend to have some kind of idea that some words or names are pretty and others are ugly: witness the widespread disdain for the humble word “blog.” We tend not to have any idea on what we are basing our judgments. Worse, said judgments do appear to vary a bit depending on our native language.

Matters only worsen on investigation of phonaesthetics’s actual influence on language. If it has one at all, it’s extraordinarily slight; the operation of ordinary sound laws, never mind analogy, wipes it out easily. There is indeed the phenomenon of onomatopoeia, words representing sounds or soundmakers that resemble the sound in question. Even those, though… the obviously onomatopoeic Old English gans has become the much less obvious goose, just as OE crawe has become crow. The evolution away from the more onomatopoeic forms took place through perfectly ordinary sound laws, laws phonaesthetics appears to have been powerless to forestall.

So if it has no discernable effect on language change, why should a linguist bother with it? say a lot of linguists, washing their hands. Leave that stuff to those loonies over in lit-crit.

Just in this century, however, a phenomenon has popped up that ought to offer phonaestheticians (I assume that’s the word? or is it “phonaesthetes,” perchance?) new data and new hope: invented languages, in fantasy, science fiction, and elsewhere.

Take the grandmaster of language inventors, JRR Tolkien. Euphony (not to mention its opposite, whatever that is—dysphony, maybe?) was a major concern for him. He up and said so. So if we want to find out what an English speaker thinks is euphonious, Quenya and Sindarin ought to be major sources of data. Black Speech similarly illustrates dysphony.

I grant you that most fantasists aren’t as good at this as Tolkien. (Are any?) Even so, a sufficient sample ought to provide some curious and possibly valuable insights.

A couple-three years back I gave a con talk on invented fantasy languages. I seized on Lord Dunsany as an example, because he was not any kind of a linguist, but his nomenclature (once you strip out the odd bits of Greek and pseudo-Egyptian and whatnot) hangs together remarkably well. (My point being, one need not be a trained linguist to invent decent nomenclature, so why are so few fantasists doing it?)

So I made huge lists of Dunsanean place- and person-names and just stared at them for a while. And damn if patterns didn’t emerge. One such pattern turned out to be so striking both inside and outside Dunsany that I went and named it: Dorothea’s Law of Velar Villainy. The more villainous you are, the more velars and postvelars in your name or your language. Corollary: the more villainous you are, the more likely your name or language is to contain velars or postvelars in syllable-final and word-final positions.

Velar consonants are pronounced by pulling the back of the tongue up against the velum, the soft area at the back of the mouth. The “k” in “kite” is velar. So are the “g” in “go” and the “ng” in “sing.”

In Dunsany, with only a few exceptions, every character whose name ends in a velar consonant is a villain. (The most singular exception is Sarnidac of “The Relenting of Sarnidac,” and he may well have come by his name via the scorn of his fellow villagers.) The converse does not necessarily hold, incidentally, as Dunsany’s arguably evillest villain is the horrible Emperor Thuba Mleen, in whose name nary a velar is to be found.

Now consider Black Speech again, and the Ring Verse. Positively bristling with velars, particularly syllable- and word-finally.

Now consider Klingon, invented back when the Klingons were still Trek’s baddest villains. All over velars and postvelars, you betcha.

Coincidence? Honestly, I don’t think so. For some reason, we English speakers think velars are bad and ugly and nasty-sounding. Probably why some of us don’t like the word “blog” with its big fat velar at the end.

I happen to think there’s a similar but less strong effect with labial sounds, but I haven’t quite worked out whether this is through their frequent association with and transformation to velars in human language, or via some other mechanism. LeGuin’s Pravic (from The Dispossessed) is a possible data source here, as it actually includes labiovelar consonants (kw, gw) and seems to have been designed to be dysphonious, or at least prickly.

An interesting thing about Pravic (well, there are several interesting things about Pravic, actually, but I’ll limit myself to this one) is its use of clipping for familiar nicknames (Shev for Shevek, Dap for Bedap, and so on). Very Englishy, that. Most other languages I know of tack on a diminutive or transform the name entirely (e.g. Russian Yevgeny > Zhenya).

But we English-speakers clip names all the time, quite frequently down to one syllable. So LeGuin uses the same technique (consciously or not; she might well have known what she was doing as she did it, but I can’t say), pretty much entirely with sympathetic characters, to break down reader resistance to what are otherwise decidedly un-English names.

There’s plenty of fodder here for Legitimate Academic Research, but I frankly haven’t the patience. So here are the ideas for your perusal. If you want to do the legwork of data gathering, data analysis, citation tracking, and so on—be my guest.

World Fantasy Awards: The Other Wind

It seems LeGuin’s The Other Wind is this year’s World Fantasy Award winner for best novel.

You know, normally I would be jumping for joy over a LeGuin victory—but The Other Wind frustrated me so badly that I’m no better than ambivalent.

Let’s be clear: I love LeGuin. I love the Earthsea series. I absolutely love Tehanu and Tales from Earthsea both. And there are some lovely moments in The Other Wind.

Taken as a whole, though, The Other Wind frustrated me. I discussed why in one or two (or perhaps three) messages on the-ekumen mailing list.

So I’m happy Ms. LeGuin has another award, but I wish she’d won it for a more satisfying book.

Scotch the grunch

Some interesting responses to the grunch essays. Kalilily has one which I rather suspected was coming; I hope my comment to it clears up any misunderstandings. So does Burningbird. And I’ve seen some fascinating newcomers in my referrer logs.

(Which, by the way, are astoundingly active for a blog that just moved. I try not to be audience-conscious, because it doesn’t help and can hurt, but I can’t help being surprised and humbled at the numbers, and the blogrolls I see this blog on. You guys actually read this stuff? Scary.)

Jonathon does a pithy, if somewhat passionless, summary:

I take from these unambiguous statements that Dorothea wants her relationships with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances—in real life or online—to take place free of any reference to her physical attractiveness, with the parallel desire that we all be more thoughtful, considerate, and aware in our public expression of potentially problematic gender issues.

Yes, that about covers it.

Speaking of public expression of potentially problematic gender issues, however… I got an email yesterday from someone I appear to have convinced (of something; I’m not quite sure what). He asked me what he should do to keep from grunching women he knows or meets. (By the way, I am using “grunch” both as noun and verb; as noun, it can be the act of grunching or the feeling that one gets once one has been grunched. Feel free to discuss its morphosyntax amongst yourselves.)

Specifically, he asked how to avoid the inadvertent grunch, and what to do once it’s happened. And what about women who seem to be asking to be discussed or related to in a fashion that for other women (like, say, me) is grunch-worthy? He gave the example of a woman wearing a T-shirt that said “Stop checking me out.” “Nice shirt,” he told her, with a smile. Was that wrong of him?

Look, I’m a little leery of answering questions like this. Doing so sets me up as an Authority, which I emphatically do not claim to be. I have very carefully restricted myself to talking about my lived experience, the last few days, because that’s all I can authoritatively pontificate about. I don’t talk feminist theory, sociology, or etiquette; I am ludicrously unqualified to do so.

Besides, Authorities tend to attract people trying to knock them down, chop hostile logic with them, trap them in inconsistencies in order to hoot at them and disregard everything they say. If I’d wanted that kind of thing, I’d have stuck it out in academia. Heck, I’m already starting to feel uncomfortable (not grunched—uncomfortable) with the directions Jonathon is going in; I’m wondering if I’m about to be set up as the Straw Feminist so that arrows can be shot at me.

I’ll save you some time, Jonathon: the arrows will hit, sooner or later.

Still, I am sensitive to people feeling lost. Mung knows I feel that way often enough. So I’ll say what I think, as long as we all understand that I am just one person with no special grasp of the issue, as likely as anyone else to get it wrong.

No, I don’t think my correspondent was out of line at all. I’ll leave it to speech-act theorists to explain why, but I don’t think it’s possible to wear that shirt expecting to have it taken seriously. (Perhaps a large number of women all wearing it might pull off such a meaning, but I think they’d need a pretty clear context of protest, even so.) And certainly I find a comment on the shirt rather than the woman hard to construe as a grunch.

But what about my correspondent’s larger questions? How do I not do this? What do I do if I’ve grunched someone without meaning to?

That last one is easy. If you can tell you’ve offended, even if you did so unintentionally, you apologize. Surprising how often that mitigates the offense. And if it doesn’t, it isn’t you being rude.

If you don’t understand how you offended, can you ask? Depends, in my opinion, on how well you know the woman and how serious you think your offense was. Some things are better forgotten. Immediately. Most things aren’t that bad.

How do you keep from offending? Well, look, you can’t. None of us can. Ego vobis absolvo in advance, okay? But trying not to offend is laudable. Here are some ways I would suggest of going about it.

  • Mention aspects of a woman that she has clearly chosen, and leave unsaid what is luck of the genetic or environmental draw. Has she got a nice dress on? She picked it out, bought it, and chose it to wear today. Probably safe to compliment it. Stay the heck away from the way her body looks in it. She probably knows, and may indeed have chosen the dress on that basis, but you are heading for grunch territory if you mention it.
  • Please remember that women have ears. It’s not only the woman you’re talking to (if you are talking to a woman at all) who hears you. To pick an egregious hypothetical example, talking about how hot the new executive vice president is in earshot of her female assistant is a dead-on grunch for the assistant. Misunderstandings are legion in this arena; try not to add to them.
  • Make a conscious effort to vary the ways you describe women, both physically and non-physically.

    You will probably find this surprisingly difficult. I do. Just fluff-writing, I have to pay considerable attention to how I describe female characters. It’s astoundingly easy to turn into a medieval trope. (For a real challenge, try describing a woman physically as you would a man. I do this when I write about Juskinah. The results are curious but fascinating.)

    The bonus here for those who get off on sexually-themed descriptions of women is that women are likely to be less touchy if the sex thing becomes one way to describe women, not the way.

    Plus it’s just plain good for your writing—and Mike, I’m aiming this right between your beady little eyes. Describing women sexually is hackneyed. Been done. A yawner. You want to compliment a woman? Come up with something original to say about her. “I find her fuckable” is as unoriginal as it gets, no matter what you say about why.

I don’t doubt there is more to be said here. I do doubt that I will be the one to say it, at least in the immediate future. Barring another nifty-neato essay question in my email, I’ve just about written myself out. Indeed, I will probably put myself on a strict diet of technology posts for a week or so just to refresh my mind.

Ugly is as ugly does

Andrea and Burningbird are feeling sorry for me at the moment. Poor Dorothea, who must not love herself or allow herself to be loved because she calls herself ugly. (If I’m mischaracterizing the argument here, let me know; but I don’t think I am.)

I’m genuinely shocked that neither of them, wise and insightful people that they are, realized how this perpetuates the tyranny of attractiveness, the immense public yardstick we must all be measured by. By assuming that I cannot like myself unless I believe myself to be physically attractive (to someone, at least; Andrea brings up my husband, and Bb talks about self-acceptance), they allow physical attractiveness a hegemony over self-worth.

Me, I want physical attractiveness completely off the table, and have all along. I did muddy the waters, I admit, by my unvarnished physical description of myself. What I hoped to do thereby, though, was point people at other dimensions of character, other possible descriptors. Hey, guys, the lost watch is over here in the dark, kindly stop looking under the streetlight half a block away.

I partly succeeded. Andrea handed me several graceful compliments on my writing, for which I thank her. I accept valuation of my writing, and of me based on my writing. That’s a dimension I choose to be valued by.

Yet I partly failed. What both Andrea and Bb seem to have missed, or deliberately passed over, is that I didn’t get beat with the ugly stick until relatively recently. I have been perceived by the world at large as pretty. Even, yes, sexy. I wasn’t really any happier about the physical-attractiveness standard then. (Truly. I remember an entry in my eighth-grade journal, nominally about having to go out and buy a supply of larger-size bras, in which I fervently wished that my breasts could be magically wished onto someone who would actually value them.)

I mean, I don’t even like it when my non-physical characteristics are reduced to bodily or sexual attractiveness. I didn’t let Mike off the hook when he claimed that my mind was somehow sexy, did I now? What I hear from Andrea and Bb’s well-intentioned (and appreciated) efforts to get me to admit I might be attractive amounts to “Everybody has to be pretty. If you aren’t pretty some way or other, you’re nothing.” Which is exactly, exactly, the message I objected to when it came from Mike Golby.

Other people (e.g. Halley) can fight the good fight to expand the definition of attractiveness. I’m all for that; my own parameters for physical attractiveness are so unlike the culture at large’s that I’d like the definitions changed just so I can see more people on TV and in movies that I actually want to look at.

(Not to mention listen to. Pretty has such a stranglehold on American TV that it boasts pitifully few listenable voices. Does anybody remember the character Peggy Ruth-Anne, played by Peg Phillips, from Northern Exposure? Homely as a mule, but oh, that voice! I used to keep the tail of my eye on the TV even when I wasn’t really following the show, so that if Peggy Ruth-Anne showed up I would know to start listening.)

Fundamentally, though, redefining pretty is not my fight. I want to be ugly and not have it matter. I want my sexual attractiveness to remain a private affair between myself and my sex partner, rather than being speculated upon by every person who so much as passes me on the street or wants to toss my blog a quick compliment. I want “bonita” and “fea” alike paired with “estar,” not “ser,” and even when the pairing is “estar bonita” I want the reaction to be fleeting and tacit, not character-defining and public.

I want to be like Mary Renault’s Simonides in The Praise Singer, who says:

Nowadays, friends and fellow poets will talk of my ugliness as easily as of my clothes. Mostly it is done as a kind of courtesy, meaning that I can afford it; and I take it so. Sometimes malice creeps in, but envy does not hurt a man like scorn.

That’s what I want. Permission to be plain, even in my own eyes. That, to me, is the self-acceptance that Burningbird wants to instill in me over coffee. (Hot chocolate okay, Bb? I’ve never been a coffee drinker, but I make a mean pot of Castilian hot chocolate.) Insisting that I’m pretty isn’t acceptance; it’s denial.

Now, this isn’t to say that I care for Themistocles and his ilk. (Plutarch says that Themistocles once twitted Simonides over a poem critical of Corinth, since Simonides dared to be a prominent citizen despite his ugliness. How dare an ugly man criticize a great and beautiful city?) Yet Themistocles’s insult is just as scotched if Simonides along with everyone around him doesn’t care about his ugliness, if Simonides can hold up his talent and say “This is enough,” as it is if Simonides or his helpful compatriots redefine away his ugliness.

“As easily as of my clothes.” Yes, that’s it (pace the importance of clothing in this luxury-mad culture). My physical attractiveness, or lack thereof, should be no more important, and receive no more comment, than my choice of socks. Yet it does receive comment because it is important—to Andrea, to Mike, to Bb, to Halley, to my college GM, to the bozos who exuded a sense of physical and sexual threat because they liked the way I looked in a broomstick skirt (and that, Andrea, is what was scary enough to stir my husband into threatening back, and to relegate that outfit to the closet), to everyone.

That is the cage. That is what being grunched is about. Being grunched isn’t being judged physically with disapproval. It’s being judged physically at all, particularly when such judgment is grotesquely out of place and unnecessary. That is the cage, and I want out of it. I am unutterably sick and tired of being grunched.

Go back and read what I’ve written this past week, please, and see if that isn’t what jumps out at you. It jumps out at me, but then I wrote it and I understand myself. Clearly, I haven’t been getting the message across to others as well as I’d like. I hope this entry into the discussion does a bit better.

The sickening grunch

In hopes of salvaging something useful out of yesterday’s fiasco, I’m going to talk about the cloud over “sexy.”

Should define my terms first. I am talking about the social construction of female sexual attractiveness and femininity here. I am not talking about individual women’s public expression of sexuality. That understood (it is understood, right?), let me tell a story or two about “sexy.”

Funny thing about the outfit that sicked the two street-corner bozos onto me. A few years earlier, back at Indiana, I was wearing it, walking through the parking lot of the main campus library with a group of—classmates, I think it was. Yes, we were coming from a research-methods-and-resources session. Anyway, I was talking with another young woman about Irish monastic penitentials or something like that when a couple of guys in a big ol’ car started the wolf-whistle-leer-and-comment-suggestively bit, with particular reference to my breasts.

There it was—the sickening grunch as I landed involuntarily back in my body—and not my entire body, either, but specific parts of it. The conversation was ruined. I felt uncomfortable for being targeted. My conversation partner felt uncomfortable on my behalf, and I think a little devalued as well; being targeted is no fun, but being ignored is no fun too, in its way. Sensing that devaluation, I said something about how it was only because of my clothes; if I had dressed the way my conversation partner had (sweatshirt and jeans), I would have passed unnoticed.

Which was probably true. It didn’t make either of us feel any better, I don’t think. Nor did it help us repair our shattered conversation. We weren’t two students any longer; we weren’t two minds looking for common thoughts. We were two bodies. Bodies don’t talk about Irish penitentials.

Note carefully, by the way, that I wasn’t the only woman in that incident to feel the sickening grunch. The woman I was talking with did, too. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if other women walking near us did as well, to a somewhat lesser extent; I have certainly felt grunched when women near me were the overt grunchees. Judging one woman that way turns every woman in earshot into a body.

(In passing, let me mourn the loss of what had been my favorite outfit. It’s a nice one. I was, and am, very fond of it. I’m sad that I don’t feel comfortable in it any more, that it’s languished unworn in my closet for years now. It’s just a white tank top and a handmade openwork lace blouse from Mitla, Mexico over a broomstick skirt whose dominant colors are white, purple, and the same sky-blue as the lace.)

About the same time, my role-playing group switched from a Robotech campaign to a heavily-munchkinified Dungeons and Dragons campaign. I rolled up a gnome illusionist named Fechan. I intended her to be short, squat, frumpy, grumpy—but boy howdy, could she ever sling magic.

It is said, usually by people who want an excuse to laugh at gamers, that gamers use games to try to inhabit the ideals that they themselves fall pitifully short of. Said ideals are usually thought to be shallow, Muscleboy or Superbabe. Well, there’s a grain of truth there—not a few gamers are hunting ideals. I was. I wanted Fechan to earn regard with intelligence and skill. I wanted her to be so secure in her abilities that her ugliness wasn’t even a question, never mind a problem. She was meant to be so good at what she did that sheer ability outshone everything else about her.

And then the (male, natch) GM insisted that Fechan have god-level charisma (only he didn’t like the Charisma stat, so he went ahead and called it “comeliness”).


Not even in a game, an explicitly unreal world, could I get away from the ironclad expectation that women have a place on the sexiness continuum.

I ran with it. I really did. I turned Fechan from a fairy-tale witch into a little china doll. I subverted the living daylights out of the situation, and Fechan became one of my all-time best characters. But from the day I first played her to the day I wrote my last bit of fluff about her (long after the campaign ended), the hallmark of her personality was her utter disregard for her own beauty. It was as close as that GM allowed me to get to my ideal.

This same GM was driving me and two other participants (one male, one female; the female participant was the GM’s girlfriend) somewhere early in the school year when the talk veered to new acquaintances. The other guy in the car mentioned a young Asian woman he’d just met.

“Fuckable?” asked the GM, utterly out of the blue.

“Yeah, I would say so. Not, like, gorgeous or anything, but fuckable,” said the other guy.


Multiple experiences of the sickening grunch—not just once, not just twice, but over and over again, as grunchee and as witness—is what makes it so damned hard to take when “sexy” and similar social constructions of femininity haul my body unceremoniously into the conversation when it is utterly irrelevant to what’s going on. And whether I want it to be or not. I don’t control the conversation about my body. I can’t, except perhaps by throwing temper tantrums on the scale of yesterday’s.

Not even on the Internet, where nobody’s supposed to know or care that I’m a dog. All the folks waxing rhapsodic about escaping their bodies on the ’net are men. Without exception (that I’ve found, anyway), women who write on the topic are less rhapsodic, more troubled. They know they can be grunched, driven involuntarily back into the sexual parts of their bodies from what is supposed to be a realm of the mind and spirit. What woman on the ’net hasn’t been?

Much is made of women’s hatred of their bodies, and rightly so. My own track record in this regard is not sterling, Mung knows. I don’t know that I’ve often heard it said, though, that the damage is not just due to impossible standards of attractiveness—it’s due to not being able to escape one’s body, attractive or no. Not being able to escape being judged by one’s body. Not being able to escape being aware of one’s body and how other people react to it.

Yet for me, that inability to escape my body is far more troubling than the actual judgments of others regarding it. Yeah, I’m nobody’s pinup, so what? If that fact could remain unregarded, firmly in the background of my conversations, of my blog, of my work, of my walks down the street, I’d be happy. But it can’t, because the world around me refuses to let it.

As I told Mike in email this morning, I have a couple of Peruvian coworkers who are justifiably wog-boggled by race checkoff boxes on American employment forms and whathaveyou. They just don’t think of race in those terms, and find it borderline insulting to be forced to check off a box when they feel (correctly, IMO) that the whole basis for judgment is ludicrous.

That’s where I am on “sexy,” sometimes even on “female.” I don’t like the checkboxes available; I don’t really want to be judged on that axis at all. Yet I can’t get away from it, any more than my coworkers can escape American concepts of race (since they don’t want to leave).

Makes it hard for men, I know it does. Hard for women trying to reclaim “sexy” for their own purposes, too. What is, say, Gretchen Pirillo supposed to think of me? That I’m jealous? That I hate her because she’s beautiful? I’m not, and I don’t. It’s just that how she constructs herself involuntarily (involuntarily; I want to stress that) makes me vulnerable to judgment on a standard I don’t want any part of.

I don’t have an answer to all this, and after yesterday it would be highly presumptuous of me to get all prescriptivist on folks anyway. All I’m trying to do is offer some data points to explain why I and a lot of other women have a hair trigger when it comes to the word “sexy.”