The trajectory that a life takes as it hurtles through time can only be observed when enough of it has passed to create a recognizable path. For most people that path meanders a bit in the beginning, the overall path not apparent until much later when earlier experiences prove their worth. Today’s guest exemplifies what I mean. Nathan Lowell Presents…
It’s the punchline of a joke used to poke fun at people like me who got a liberal arts degree. Me? I have a B.A. in Russian, of all things. I spent my last semester at a summer program where we students spoke nothing but Russian for eight weeks, so I was fairly fluent by the time I graduated. Now, twenty-some years later, I can barely remember the whole Russian alphabet.
Then there’s Chinese. After college, I moved to Taiwan and learned Mandarin while teaching English to support myself. I remember a taxi ride I took a week or so before returning to the USA in which I had carried on a conversation in Chinese with the driver the entire 20-minute trip. When I got out of the cab, I realized with some sadness that going home would be like erasing all traces of the language from my mind.
Well, maybe not all traces. It’s been 25 years since I left Taiwan, and I remember more Chinese than Russian. In fact, I’m going to be using Chinese in an upcoming novel, but not in the way you might think. You see, it has to do with dolphins.
Not long after I came home from Taiwan, my dad asked why I thought Chinese was easier to learn than Russian was. I told him that Chinese is almost completely without grammar, whereas Russian was all about grammar. When you have years of formal training in music plus a natural ear for languages, Chinese is just a matter of learning vocabulary. The written part is what’s difficult, though there is a method to its madness.
Chinese characters are made up of pieces called radicals. Each radical has a basic meaning, and when combined, they form words. Take for instance the word for good, hao. It’s made up of the radical for woman and the radical for child. When someone has a woman and a child, it’s good. Now, it’s not always easy to make sense of Chinese characters and their radicals. The word for nose is made from the radical for oneself plus the radical for field plus the radical meaning to join hands.
What does this have to do with dolphins? Well, I learned from my research that dolphins communicate at least in part by using sound (emitted through their blowholes). Bottlenose dolphins can produce sounds from about 0.2 to 150 kHz, though most of their communications are at the lower end. That’s a pretty wide range! What if we used the concept of Chinese radicals to build words using sound instead of lines to communicate with dolphins?
That may not be practical in real life, but in fiction, with enough actual science to back it up, almost anything is possible! And finally, I have a way to put those years of language study to actual use.
K.C. May writes fantasy and science fiction. Her Kinshield Legacy books have been in the top 100 in Fantasy on Amazon and her science fiction novel–Venom of Vipers–has been called an “interesting and bizarre twist in a futuristic thriller.” You can find out more about K.C. May on her website or by following her on Twitter.