Just a few random thoughts as I was reading over something I wrote.

Out of context, something like “he’s a speaker” makes no sense, or at least requires a bunch more imagination to make sense of it. Could be that “speaker” is a title (like, “of the house”), but barring that, it’s really quite different from something like “he’s a swimmer.” Probably because we usually expect people to speak, but not necessarily to swim (but again, that can’t be quite right, because we usually expect people to be able to run, but “she’s a runner” is fine as a way to introduce someone, but “she’s a walker” is not. Maybe because “he’s a swimmer” (and “she’s a runner”) usually means that s/he swims/runs professionally, or at least competitively. Can you say “he’s a speaker” to mean his profession is giving speeches and lectures? Seems odd at best If you add an informative adjective like “traveling” or “political” maybe it improves).

But then consider what happens with certain adjectives:

> She’s a good speaker.

Here, she’s probably an orator or speech-giver. Plausible as part of an introductory description of someone. (“You should meet Sue. She’s a great speaker.” But strange: “…She’s a speaker.”)

> She’s a native speaker.

This is interesting, because this requires a context where the addressee can figure out what language “she” is a native speaker of. In fact, in this usage, _speaker_ has an optional PP-_of_ complement (“she is a native speaker of Japanese”). Not so for “she’s a good speaker”. We don’t say (usually) that someone is “a good speaker of lectures/speeches/addresses/…”.

The polysemy of ancient and/or faerie languages

This is not what I promised in [an earlier post](http://noncompositional.com/2008/01/languages-in-fantasy/), but the topic is basically the same.

Now, I’m not widely read in (epic) fantasy novels, though it is often my preferred genre. Nonetheless, I think I can make a tentative generalization, which is that in any fantasy world where some either exotic or ancient race speaks a language unintelligible to contemporary folk, then there is somehow an inordinate amount of polysemy, connotation, or complexity to the words and sentences involved. Or, alternatively, it is approximately the same amount as in the modern language (usually “English”), but it is highlighted in such a way as to make it seem rather different from anything that might be familiar.

Just to pick a couple examples from Tad William’s book _Shadowmarch_ (which I’m currently in the middle of reading; no spoilers):

> The lady’s high house was called __Shehen__, which meant “Weeping.” Because it was a s’a-Qar word, it meant other things, too–it carried the intimation of an unexpected ending, and a suggestion of the scent of the plant that in the sunlight lands was called myrtle–but more than anything else, it meant “Weeping.”
> …all the way down to the thrice-blessed fence that the mortals called Shadowline, and that the Qar themselves called __A’shish-Yarrit Sa__, which meant “Storm of Silence,” or, with a slightly different intonation of voice or gesture of the hand, “White Thoughts.”

I suppose that the second example is supposed to be significantly different from, say, tonal languages like those found in China and Africa. In this case, we are supposed to understand that the two meanings for _A’shish-Yarrit Sa_ are somehow semantically related (in some deep way incomprehensible to mere humans). Either that, or somehow we’re dealing with a pun, or maybe just some philosophically interesting near-homophony which, perhaps, native speakers of Qar don’t even care about.

Now, this sort of thing is not in and of itself completely horrible. But for me, without an actual system apparent behind the words and their meanings, which could, with time, be discerned by the reader (and yes, this requires many more tokens in the books), it just seems…well, laughable.