Friday, September 30, 2016

The Perfect Languages of Elves

Elven Language

Elves are immortal, genius bourgeoisie with access to staggering amounts of linguistic and historical education.

They also get bored easily.

Because of these two things, True Elves do not bother establishing a fixed language.   Most of the time, when an elf writes something down, he's going to do circuitously.  The actual message will be obscured in substitutions and metaphor.

Why write something simply when you could obscure it?  Everyone you care about (i.e. other elves) are all clever enough to read it.

And so most elven languages aren't languages.  The elf will write their message in whatever language they prefer: dwarvish, orcish, celestial, French.  And then they will encode it with as many references, metaphors, and sly nods as they can.

This makes things fun to read.

Of course, for other species, it makes things nearly impossible to read.  It's a bit like trying to read Shakespeare without a guide, or to understand all the subtleties of Nabokov or Milton without a full education in the literature that those authors reference.

Elves are fond of saying that a human must read a hundred books before they can fully understand a sentence in Elvish.  This is crass arrogance, of course, but it is also true, sadly.  And attempting to learn a highly self-referential language when all the explanations are similarly recursive is a goddamn daunting task.  Without an elf to teach you, it is nearly impossible to learn to read Elvish.  It defies naive translation.

When a human says that they read Elvish, they usually mean "I've spent my entire life reading summaries of famous Elven literature (a corpus of several thousand books, at a minimum) and can translate a page of Elven writing per day as long as the elf that wrote it wasn't too familiar with pre-Hadean poetry."

It's difficult to explain how brilliant elves are compared to us.  They can translate through several levels of languages and metaphor with nauseating ease.  And they can do it while playing an instrument and drinking wine.

Does this (by itself) make them any harder to kill?  Perhaps not, but for many, it is sufficient reason to want to kill them in the first place.

Elven Cipher

Of course, sometimes an elf just needs to write down a message quickly and efficiently.  For this purpose, there are a number of related ciphers that elves use to accomplish this, all of which revolve around the game goal: making the encoded message (and all language is a code) as dense as possible.

Shit, this digression is large enough that it probably deserves it's own heading.

Digression: Information Density of Language

How short can we make a book before we lose any of the meaning?  If we removed the 'e' at the end of every instance of 'language', there wouldn't be any ambiguity.  (Just an annoying misspelling.)  Likewise, we don't lose any meaning to compression if we change all instances of 'you' into 'u'.

What if we replaced each word with a number?  We could have a master dictionary that correlates each word with a number.

Surely that would compress the book even further.  We could use hexidecimal or Base32 for each character, in order to fit the most information into each space.  If we limited ourselves to numbers only, we'd be wasting perfectly good space.

What if we ordered the number-dictionary so that the most common words were given shorter numbers.  Surely, we would save more space if the words 'a' and 'the' were numbers '1' and '2', rather than '382' and '28190'.

We could even have an appendix at the end for common phrases.  After all, 'I think that' is a lot longer than '69402'.

Elven Cipher, Again

And so that's the problem that elven ciphers were created to solve.  Their goal was perfect information density.

It should surprise no one that the elves believe in linguistic superiority.  If there are shitty languages, (and people should have no trouble thinking of things that fail at being effective languages) then it obviously follows that there must be better languages, and even a best language (if not eternally, then at least for a given place and time).  It falls to the elves, then, to develop this piece of perfection in language (as in all things).

And sometimes, you'll find examples of the perfect language: the elven prime cipher.  You may see this language amid the micro-engravings on the diamonds in your staff of the magi, or perhaps visible on the surface of the sun (when viewed through an appropriate telescope).

The prime cipher is a hell of a thing to see.  It's dense the way that a bar code is dense.  Swarms of dots and halfmoons and violin scrolls, all tangled in a thicket of lines of varying thicknesses.

(Digression for the pedants: yes, while something resembling a QR code might be technically more information dense, the human (and elven) brain has an easier time recognizing lines, edges, and simple shapes.  By leveraging the preexisting heuristics of the brain, elven language-architects were able to cram more shapes and lines into smaller spaces without losing any legibility--something that matrix-clouds of binary code cannot do.)

The density possible with the perfect cipher is absolutely incredible.  A cuboid ink-net the size of your thumbnail could hold a sonnet, a trade agreement, or a record of past sexual encounters.

Let us not forget that elves also possess (a) incredible manual precision, and (b) stupendous eyesight.  This is how they manage to make their books so small.  An entire spellbook could be encoded on the surface of an acorn, a haze of lines as fine and as ordered as a fingerprint.  What looks like a single, extremely complex Chinese ideogram could contain detailed invasion plans, something that would take a full page of English to accomplish.

Redundant Calligraphy

But the most perfectly dense language is also going to be the most vulnerable to error and decay.  If you go into the bathroom and see a message on the wall with part of it scribbled out (such as 'FO* * **OD TIME CALL'), you can probably puzzle out what the original message was thanks to context and redundancy.

But in a language optimized for perfect information density, there is no context or redundancy.  It'll all been reduced down to its most minimal form.  Ideally, just a number that references something else.  And if that number is changed by a single digit, then it's entire meaning changes.

And so the elves had to introduce some redundancy into their ciphers, because the most perfect language is not the most robust language.

This took the form of calligraphy.  Lines were extended and merged.  They served the same function as a checksum--the little artistic flourishes that confirmed the reader's interpretation without necessarily yielding any new information themselves.

The rules governing the extension, fusion, and splitting of the calligraphic flourishes are also well-established.  It is possible to extend them indefinitely according to certain rules.

One of the games that Elven children play, when they are first learning to write, is to extend the flourishes beyond a word as far as possible.  Some mixtures of flourishes decay, some stabilize, and some blossom into networks of repeated motives.  And it's tough to tell from the starting conditions what a particular collection of flourishes will do.

For example, if the cipher-word word for "greed" is extended indefinitely, it creates an ever-expanding, non-repeating tree of calligraphic limbs.  (Elf kids think this is poetic.  It becomes eye-rollingly trite by the time they've reached adulthood.)


  1. Yet again I am stealing your ideas for my homebrew. Excellent, and thank you!

  2. "What's this beautiful pattern that takes up most of the west wall?"
    "That's the word greed written very large. Except for that brick."
    "What's on that brick?"
    "I'm skimming here, but it looks like... all of human history"

  3. Cool idea for the writing. It fits your elves very well.

    By the way, off optic, but: Are you going to write a post about Kesselgrave? I'm really looking forward to hearing more about his deal.

    1. Oh, man. Kesselgrave. Drunk, sad-sack superman. One of my favorite random encounters.

      I don't think I will. I like him as an unfinished remnant. He's a vestige of the pre-history world. His lack of goals is tragic, and so is his lack of history. If I fill that in, he becomes a lot less compelling, I think.

  4. Have you read The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper? You might dig it. Its narrator speaks a manufactured, coded language of pun, metaphor, simile, allusion, and oblique reference. The book's one of the weirdest novel-puzzles I've ever read.