How does a language die? (Heaven’s Vault)

With guest co-host Pip Warr!

Hello, bonjour, hola, dia duit, eguerdi on… Language is important. You’re using it right now. In adventure game Heaven’s Vault you’re a cosmic archeologist trying to decipher the meaning of long-forgotten hieroglyphs scattered throughout a colourful nebula. But the languages of our own world are not immortal. We speak to linguist May Helena Plumb about one such family of endangered languages called Zapotec, spoken mostly in Oaxaca, Mexico. She tells us why it’s important to make sure these endangered tongues stay spoken, written, and respected.

Click “more” for links and transcription…


Follow May Helen Plumb on Twitter

Follow Philippa Warr on Twitter

Some basic wiki info on Zapotec languages

Some examples of Isthmus Zapotec (video)

A Zapotec to Spanish dictionary from before 1893

Meso-American glyphs, including ancient Zapotec

The history of the Ampersand

Designing a language – a talk by Inkle writer Jon Ingold (video)

Pip’s review of Heaven’s Vault (PC Gamer)

Thank yous:

Interview music is Garden of Untamed Roses Act II by Lloyd Rogers, from Pixabay

SFX, dialogue and music from Heaven’s Vault promotional trailers.

Additional dialogue from Byte Me Podcast’s playthrough

Episode Transcription:


Aliya Elasra (soundbite): Mud covered the ground and rock…

May Helena Plumb, linguist: So you might have something that was recognizable as a face or as an animal.

Aliya (soundbite): And everywhere I looked things were growing from the mud…

May Helena Plumb: These were carved in stone.

Aliya (soundbite): And some of those things had legs!

May Helena Plumb: You can see it coming out of a system of drawing, but then as you attach more specific meaning to specific symbols, they become more abstract.

Brendan Caldwell: Hello, welcome to Hey Lesson, the podcast where we underhandedly teach you things through the lens of popular video games. I am your host, Brendan Caldwell. And today we will be talking about Heaven’s Vault, an adventure game that sees you traveling through a starry Nebula in search of a dead language. Uh, you find samples of ancient script on stone and in old books, and you have to decipher its meaning, but how does a language die? And what makes a language endangered? Those are our big questions this week. Keep listening to hear from a linguist who will help us answer them and tell us all about the Zapotec languages of meso America. But before any of that, let me introduce my guest this week. It is writer and one-time games journalist, Philippa Warr.

Philippa Warr: Just that one time. Hello.

Brendan: Hello, Philippa. How are you doing?

Pip: Hello, I’m well, thank you. How are you?

Brendan: I’m doing good. I’m calling you “Philippa” as if I don’t call you “Pip” in every other thing.

Pip: I know!

Brendan: People may know we’ve worked together, we’ve done some journalism, journalizing together. Uh, but you’re now doing bits and pieces of writing for all sorts of games and stuff.

Pip: Um, I’ve done some work on a couple of unannounced projects. And the one that is out in the wild is A Monster’s Expedition, um, which people seem to like. It’s a puzzle game and I did the writing.

Brendan: Uh, we’re not going to talk about A Monster’s Expedition, uh, that can go at the back of the pod. I’m sorry. We’re here to talk about Heaven’s Vault. Uh, you have played a lot of this game. It’s definitely the most niche game that we’ve covered on Hey Lesson so far. So could you break it down for anyone who hasn’t heard of it or never even seen a screenshot of it?

Pip: It is an adventure archeology game where you spend a lot of your time digging into the language, that has been left behind by this older civilization, called Ancient.

Brendan: Is it like a point and click adventure game?

Pip: It’s um, it’s a walk around, 3D-ish game, but with nodes of interaction. The, uh, language side of things brings up a kind of drag and drop interface where you’re faced with the glyph system, like lines of text, essentially. And then you need to drop words into place and figure out what the translation might be.

Brendan: Like, putting blocks of words together.

Pip: It’s kind of like, you know, that fridge magnet poetry that was en vogue when we were both at university? It’s a bit like that kind of an interface, you know?

Brendan: Okay. I understand.

Pip: But instead of it being an ode to oranges in the fridge or, you know, a takedown of your housemate, it’s more of a text in a different language that you’re trying to decipher. And then you apply, you would apply the magnet words… I’ve really messed this up as a description.

Brendan: No, it works. I think people, everybody who’s had fridge magnets will understand. But like who’s doing the fridge-magnet-moving-around in the game? We need to know about like the characters.

Pip: You are playing as Aliya Elasra, I think her name is, and she has a robot companion called Six and they are essentially hopping around this, um, galaxy, space, picking up these fragments for translation. And you, as Aliya are pulling the words that you’ve already established into your dictionary.

Brendan: I realize I’m asking all these questions as if I don’t already know the answers but…

Pip: What is game!?

Brendan: Tell the listener, what does this language actually look like?

Pip: It is… it’s quite curly. Would you say that?

Brendan: Yes! I would. It’s a curly language.

Pip: It feels to me like it’s on that cusp between something that’s pictographic, um, and something that is abstract. Uh, so by that I mean that the symbols that you find for, for example, a “person”, they do have a kind of remnant of stickfigure-ness to them. Um, I think the one for, for “woman” or “man” is like a little circle on top of, uh, an upside-down Y shape.

Brendan: Yeah. It looks almost like a little stick head on a body.

Pip: Yeah. So it feels like it’s at that point in language or in some languages where the things that were just straight-up pictures of what you wanted to represent is transitioning more into something that gets abstracted because it takes on other meanings or is sort of started to fit into a wider system of tenses or of compound concepts and things.

Brendan: So the language, it’s not just a gimmick or anything either. It’s a whole real language that has been made for this game. It’s like Klingon or Elvish. It’s something that you could learn.

Pip: Yeah. It’s like… it’s a constructed thing, obviously. So it doesn’t have some of the trappings of language, like the playfulness that you get with a, I guess, a living language I’m probably using slightly wrong terminology, but yeah. So I remember I was at a talk that Jon Ingold gave…

Brendan: He’s the one of the writers of the game, or…

Pip: I can’t remember how they divide that stuff up because it’s such a small studio, but I think he does the writing side more. But yeah, so he was doing a talk at Rezzed a couple of years ago. And one of the things that he did was, uh, as part of the talk he showed that there was so much depth to the language that they created… that he was able to put up a couple of slides with the Ancient translations of the first lines of A Tale Of Two Cities and Pride And Prejudice … and Get Lucky by Daft Punk.

Brendan: So it’s a versatile enough language then. It’s not used by anybody in its world. It’s sort of a long-lost thing. It’s a civilization that didn’t really, it doesn’t really exist anymore in that world that you’re exploring in the game.

Pip: Yeah.

Brendan: But there are languages today which are not lost, but are under threat. So to learn about one of those and a little bit about how language changes over time we spoke to May Helena Plumb. She is a linguist at the University of Texas in Austin studying Zapotec, an endangered family of languages currently spoken in the South of Mexico among some other places. So here’s what she had to say about that.

[Interview begins]

Aliyah (soundbite): Stories don’t have tidy beginnings. The past is always present.

Brendan: Could you please introduce yourself to our listeners?

May Helena Plumb: Yeah. My name is May Helena Plumb. I’m a PhD candidate at the university of Texas at Austin in the linguistics doctoral program there. And I have for the past seven years or so, worked with Zapotec languages, which are spoken in Southern Mexico.

Brendan: What is Zapotec? Is that one language or is it a variety of languages?

May Helena Plumb: So Zapotec, when linguists use that word they’re referring to a language family. So it’s similar if you think about the romance languages, which are like Spanish and French and Romanian and all the languages that came from Latin. Romance is a language family. And so Zapotec is similarly a language family where all of them came from one language thousands of years ago. So it’s a similar amount of differentiation between the languages. If you think about say Spanish and Romanian, which is a pretty big difference.

Brendan: And where exactly are those spoken? Can you give us an idea as well of roughly how many speakers there are?

May Helena Plumb: The Zapotec languages are primarily spoken in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, which is down on the Southern end of Mexico, pretty close to Guatemala. Um, there are also a lot of Zapotec people in other places like the United States. Um, there’s a lot of Oaxacan immigrants in the Los Angeles, California area, for example. I want to make sure to note that Zapotec is one of several indigenous language families from Oaxaca. There are also Mixe–Zoquean languages. There are Chinantec languages. There are Triqui languages. There are all of these other groups of languages in Oaxaca. It’s a very linguistically diverse area. Thinking about Zapotec specifically, there are several hundred thousand speakers of Zapotec languages, but there’s a lot of diversity within this language family. My primary focus is on a specific variety called Tlacochahuaya Zapotec, which originates in one town. And there are about 2000 people in the town and not all of them speak Zapotec. So you can think about Zapotec languages as having hundreds of thousands of speakers. Or you can think about these individual varieties of Zapotec that have a couple of hundred speakers or a couple of thousand speakers. So there’s a couple of different ways to look at how many speakers there are.

Aliyah (soundbite): No one knows how far the rivers go. No one’s ever mapped them. Not even the robots..

Brendan: Can you give us an idea of the language itself? In the Zapotec language that you know, what would be an everyday greeting?

May Helena Plumb: So I want to say my pronunciation is woefully inadequate. Um, despite having worked with this language for many years, but a common greeting for good morning, would be: “za’k rsily”. So it is a tonal language. A lot of people, the tonal language they’ll be most familiar with is Mandarin Chinese. What tonal means is that the pitch of the word you say impacts what the word means. Zapotec’s tones interact with another kind of different thing, which is what we call the phonation. And what phonation basically means is: what are your vocal chords doing while you say a word? And if I say a vowel sound like “ah” I can say “ah” normally or I can also say “ah-ah” with a little bit of a stop in between. And that’s my vocal chords closing really quickly. I can also say, “uhhhhhhhh”, which some people might identify as “vocal fry”, people call it, but linguists call it “creaky voice”.

Brendan: Like when a Californian speaks and has like a very long-drawn…

May Helena Plumb: Yeah. Like that. People use creaky voice all over the world in all sorts of places. But in Zapotec, you actually, you need to control it a little bit because it matters whether it’s a creaky vowel or a plain vowel.

Brendan: So that greeting that you give to me, the good morning, relies very heavily, not just on the word that you’re saying, but on how you’re saying it.

May Helena Plumb: Yeah. Pitch and the phonation of the word impacts how you interpret it. And we do this in English too. So in English we use intonation to say something as a question, if I ask “what’s your name?” my pitch goes up at the end of the sentence. But in Zapotec, it’s on the level of a word rather than the level of a sentence.

Aliyah (soundbite): I’m an archeologist. I dig stuff up

Brendan: The game that we are talking about, Heaven’s vault, uh, there’s this writing system and it’s called Ancient. Because Zapotec has come from its own family of meso-American languages, is there a writing system that you can match to that language or those languages?

May Helena Plumb: So I think of Zapotec writing as having three stages. The earliest evidence of Zapotec writing is around 500 years BC. And that writing system was based around some symbols that people might recognize as looking similar to Mayan hieroglyphs, if you have ever seen those. Um, but in the system, each symbol represented a word or a part of a word. Um, we call this logographic and that’s in contrast to, um, when we write English with the Latin alphabet, each symbol represents a sound, right? So the first Zapotec writing system that we have evidence of was logographic, um, and it probably had some phonetic elements as well.

Brendan: So those hieroglyphs, that logographic language, it would look like pictures, like a picture of a face or a snake or whatever? And it would have a specific meaning tied to that?

May Helena Plumb: Yeah. So they usually were kind of composed of a couple of different elements. So you might have something that was recognizable as a face or as an animal, and you might have some dots and some other types of lines, these were carved in stone. You can see it coming out of a system of drawing things, but then, as you attach more specific meaning to specific symbols, they become more abstract.

Aliyah (soundbite): History is a science… it’s the reconstruction of the past.

Brendan: Sorry, you were also saying that there are three stages and that’s the first stage. So what are the next stages?

May Helena Plumb: Yeah. So when the colonizers arrived in Mexico, they were writing with the Latin alphabet. The Zapotec people kind of embraced that and said, okay, we will use this technology. And they did a lot of writing during the colonial period of Mexico. Most of the extant documents that we have are either these religious documents that were kind of produced, um, under the direction of the Catholic church. And then there’s this other set of documents that were written by Zapotec people and for Zapotec people as part of the kind of local administrative business of towns. A lot of things like bills of sale for pieces of land, also primarily for wills that documented what possessions people had and who they were giving them to.

Aliyah (soundbite): Wooden beams, mud, brick walls, shutters, enough for two families to argue over.

May Helena Plumb: Which is pretty rare, for indigenous languages to have such a large, such a substantial record of what the language was like in the 1600s, 1700s. And Zapotec history is often ignored in the study of the larger Mexican history. These documents kind of give a very personal eye into what their life was like, what their community structure was like in this period of time. So it’s a very interesting set of documents. And as I said, it uses the alphabetic system. That’s the Latin alphabet like we use for English, although slightly differently, because Zapotec has a different setup.

Brendan: Yeah. Because… how do you use the Latin alphabet to write down the tones that they have to use?

May Helena Plumb: Right. And, uh, in this case they did not, mostly. The Latin alphabet has a couple of issues when it comes to writing Zapotec. It has no very good way of writing phonation. It has no very good way of writing tone. The Zapotec languages that I work with have six vowels, five of which are like the vowels of Spanish. There’s an “ah, eh, oh, ee, oo” and then there’s a six vowel – “uhh”. And they didn’t really know how to write that with the five vowels that Spanish has. So that’s kind of a guess.

Brendan: They would’ve just had to use another vowel in its place?

May Helena Plumb: Yeah. So whichever vowel sounded most like it to them. They made it work and they wrote documents that other people could read. They took this technology that they were given that was convenient for them to use. And they molded it into a form that actually was useful for them. And that they could understand.

Aliyah (soundbite): Every ancient inscription I decipher is a piece of the puzzle.

Brendan: In the video game that we’re talking about, Ancient, that’s long gone. Zapotec is still alive, but how is it looking for that family of languages in terms of the numbers of speakers?

May Helena Plumb: So in general, the number of speakers is probably going down. I guess I don’t know that for certain, but in many ways it’s not the number of speakers that’s important to the robustness or the vitality of a language. What we think about most is what are the circumstances in which that language is spoken and how are speakers of that language treated? And for the case of Zapotec languages, that’s not a very happy picture. Zapotec language and zapotec people have been facing oppression for a long time. Indigenous people in Mexico, like indigenous people in a lot of other parts of the world, are not treated very well. They often face really harsh discrimination for any way that they present themselves as indigenous. There’s a lot of different ways this manifests in the case of language, specifically in very recent history, in the past couple of decades, it was the case in Oaxaca that you could not speak a Zapotec language or any indigenous language at school, you had to speak Spanish. And if you spoke an indigenous language, you would be punished. Which is a really stark reality for a young child – to go to school and in their town, in their indigenous town, surrounded by other indigenous people, and be told that it is forbidden for them to speak the language that their parents speak to them. And because of this, in order to protect their children, a lot of parents stopped speaking Zapotec to them because they wanted their children to have an education. And the system forced them to only have an education in Spanish and specifically to never have an education in Zapotec. Um, and so that has led to a dramatic decrease in the number of young children who are learning Zapotec as they grow up. In the town that I work in, for example, um, the youngest fluent Zapotec speaker is in his forties. Many people in their sixties and seventies speak Zapotec on a daily basis in this town I work in, but most of the children do not. Um, and one of my, one of my teachers and one of my good friends in that town, he has two little children to whom he is speaking Zapotec now, because he is really interested in having this language continued to be spoken in his town.

Aliyah (soundbite): The ghosts were still here. Cooking, cleaning. Doing whatever ghosts do…

Brendan: Is it considered an endangered language? We sometimes hear language as being called “endangered” or “in danger”.

May Helena Plumb: Yes. I consider Zapotec languages to be endangered. And I think the word “endangered”, uh, there’s a lot of discussion about it in the linguistics community in terms of how useful a word it is. And I don’t need to get into all that discussion….

Brendan: Linguists like talking about how useful a word is, right.

May Helena Plumb: We do. We like talking about how useful a word is. Um, one way you might think about it is that any indigenous language in Meso-America is oppressed. And because of that, I tend to think that every indigenous language of Latin America is endangered. Zapotec languages fit into a very classic model of language endangerment. Most people speak Zapotec in the house or maybe in the market, but not in school or in government or in all these other places where Zapotec used to be spoken. Zapotec used to be the language of government in Zapotec towns, and that is slowly shifting. Um, so it’s endangered in all of those ways.

Aliyah (soundbite): The house was empty… but it hadn’t been abandoned

Brendan: I’m from Ireland. And I know a lot of people look at the Irish language, uh, and they see it as very difficult for them to learn. Is there any truth to the idea that the difficulty of a language contributes to its decline, or is it just a matter of educating and teaching it in the right way?

May Helena Plumb: I think that most of the time when people find learning a language very, very difficult it’s because it maybe has a structure that is very different from any of the languages that they know. Another factor is how many robust teaching materials have been created for that language? Um, language difficulty… comes from a lot of different factors, but in general, any human language – children learn how to speak it very easily if it’s spoken to them when they are learning language. That’s true for Irish, it’s true for Zapotec languages. It’s true for English. Children pick it up like a sponge. There’s no real way to say that one language is more difficult [than] another, if any child can learn it so easily. Learning languages as an adult is a very different endeavor, but I do feel pretty strongly that any language could be easily learned by an adult given the right types of resources.

Aliyah (soundbite): The air smelled earthy and sweet.

Brendan: When it comes to learning, uh, Ancient, the language of the video game. Some players might have some trouble. As a linguist, can you give us any tips for learning an ancient language, as opposed to a modern one?

May Helena Plumb: Really look at the translation, maybe, that you have, keep your mind open about what the language might include. We tend to think like, you know, okay, this sentence mean that “the cat chased the mouse”. And so there must be a “cat” and a “chase” and a “mouse”. But that “chase” might be more complicated. Does that “chase” maybe mean “hunt” or does it mean “to chase playfully”? There’s always going to be these complexities underlying this simple translation that yo’re given.

Aliyah (soundbite): And every new discovery… can change the story entirely…

Brendan: What can the world do to avoid endangered languages like Zapotec languages or other Meso-American languages from declining any further? From becoming like that ancient language in Heaven’s Vault?

May Helena Plumb: So just two things that your average non-linguist, non-indigenous person can do. One is to try, try and reflect a little bit on how you use language and what role language plays in your life. In your school growing up, or in the school that is near to you. How are people treated if they don’t speak the kind of majority standard language? What biases might you have against people who speak slightly differently than you do? If you speak English, what biases might you have against certain accents? Everyone has an accent, but only some accents get kind of picked out and teased. For example, the other thing you can do that I think is really important is to try and listen to indigenous people. Um, whatever indigenous people live around you locally, um, or indigenous people around the world about their experiences. That’s one of the biggest things you can do as a starting step to learn how to go further.

Aliyah (soundbite): But will the story I put together be the truth?

Brendan: Finally, why is it important that we keep an endangered language alive?

May Helena Plumb: Is important to keep indigenous languages alive, because that is what indigenous people want. The Zapotec people that I work with, they want to speak this language that has been spoken for generations and generations of their family. They want to talk about their work, their agriculture, their art, their history in the language that was born from that work. It is our duty to help people realize those goals. And linguists have a lot of interest in kind of having a record and knowledge of all the world’s languages so that we can best understand how languages are spoken. And that is important. But the most important thing is to allow people to have the self-agency to speak the language. They want to speak, to preserve their multilingualism, to retain the knowledge that their ancestors had about the world that might be captured through the language, through the names for indigenous plant species. For example, people want to do that. And that’s, for me, the most powerful reason to keep fighting for indigenous languages.

Brendan: May Helena Plumb, thank you very much for speaking to us.

May Helena Plumb: Thank you so much for inviting me.

Aliyah (soundbite): History belongs to everyone. It’s how we know who we are.

[Interview ends]

Brendan: That was May Helena Plumb from the University of Texas in Austin. If you want to hear the full interview we did with her, you can become a supporter on Patreon for $2. You get access to all the unabridged interviews that we do with our experts. In the show, they’re only about 15 minutes long, but subscribers get the long version. So if you want to know, for example, why some languages develop a tone system of speech and others don’t, you can sign up and hear that. Also, it just helps us to keep making episodes like this. So go to, or follow the links in the show notes below to help us help us out. Pip.

Pip: Hello.

Brendan: Hi. Neither you nor I are Zapotec. So we can’t really elucidate anything in that regard, but did this chat with May make you feel optimistic or pessimistic about endangered languages in general, or did it make you feel a more complex feeling of the two?

Pip: There’s a part of me that will always be sad at the prospect of losing something, especially if it’s not part of the dominant, like monoculture that we’ve ended up with through globalization and through empire and all kinds of other crap. Um, I think that the really important thing that May expressed [is] it matters to keep endangered languages alive because it matters to the people that are still alive and speaking them, which I think sometimes gets lost in the discussion. Like I studied linguistics at university for a year, actually. So my knowledge is basic and probably like a good 15 years out of date, if any, if any knowledge has persisted. But I kind of remember the way that endangered languages were spoken about being kind of more as a sad thing in the abstract, you know, like as a kind of, well, it is a loss and we should have these things, but more in the way that maybe a museum curator would talk about them. Do you know what I mean?

Brendan: Yeah. Forgetting that there are people out there who actually speak this day-to-day.

Pip: Yeah. Like, it felt really encouraging that May was foregrounding that – the value of people who want to speak these languages and carry on speaking them, rather than, like, as a kind of curio that we should keep going, just because.

Brendan: We’re going to, we’re going to steer a little closer to the game part. Because this is what we do on Hey Lesson. May and I spoke about logographic languages, finding ruins of the ancient Zapotec civilization, uh, and they were hieroglyphs as opposed to something that you’d be able to pronounce. You said like Heaven’s Vault’s language, it falls somewhere between the two.

Pip: It feels more to me like Latin or something, or maybe it’s probably better to refer to ancient Egyptian, like where, you know, you could probably decipher meaning because people have figured that out. And in the game it’s engineered for you to figure some of that stuff out, as systems of pictographic representation evolved for us people used them for different purposes. They, I believe get more abstract even just if they’re being written more often, I assume people get a bit lazier with them or like things get stylized or, you know, like the ampersand, for example. Like, it’s weird and it’s abstract and it’s been abstracted from what it was originally.

Brendan: Do you mean, do you mean in English or… in Ancient?

Pip: I mean in English. Um, but I’m, I —

Brendan: You might have to break this down for me because I don’t think I’ve heard about the ampersand. For any listeners who aren’t caught up on their lingo-lingo, the ampersand is the little symbol that you put in between words to say “and”. You know, like “B & Q” is B ampersand Q or whatever. But did it… did it not start out like that?

Pip: Yeah, so basically it’s a ligature apparently. Uh, so basically it’s just the E and the T are combined like “et” being the Latin word for “and”… but if you look at lots of ampersands in modern typographic, do you think that you would discern the E and the T?

Brendan: I’m… I’m currently writing a couple of Es and Ts in cursive next to each other to see where it…, where it comes from, but I’m not…

Pip: So really curly. Let me send you something….

Brendan: I can’t even draw an ampersand. I’m trying, and I’ve written an 8 and a pound sign…

Pip: I’m going to, I’m going to just drop you a… where shall I put this? You’ll see some images that maybe make that connection a bit clearer.

[Pip sends Brendan an article with pictures]

Brendan: Ah, okay.

Pip: Do you see what I mean?

Brendan: Yeah. I’ll put this in the links of the show so anyone can see exactly how the symbol of the ampersand came to be morphed over time.

Pip: Brendy. I can’t even remember how I go onto this. I think the point that I was making was that the further you get away from the thing, the more it gets stylized, or like the more you use the thing, or the more handwriting just comes into it…

Brendan: So that is how Ancient seems to be now? It’s in the stylized zone of it’s pictures.

Pip: Yeah. To me, it feels like it’s not quite at the fully abstract stage. So for example, anything to do with water has those flowing lines, like the slightly wiggly lines that often denote water for us as well. And things to do with crops or plants or whatever have something that looks maybe a bit like corn growing, you know, like that sort of upright stalk arrangement with a couple of leaves off the side. But then it’s not purely, you know, just a list of nouns that can be represented. Like you’ve got these… I can’t even remember what they’re called. Linguistics is so long ago. Like, diacritical marks maybe, or, you know, you’ve got a thing that looks a bit like a speechmark, and that maybe implies something… There’s, like, a dot thing. And does that mean that two concepts are connected?

Brendan: We might be entering some, like, spoiler territory here. So, uh, we are, we are going to go into that because, uh, all of my questions are going into that, but I’m just giving people a warning that this is an adventure game. It’s all about discovery and working things out for yourself. So if you don’t want any spoilers about what the language means or what individual symbols might mean, or how words might work, then feel free to skip the rest of the episode and just come back when you’ve played it, we’ll still be here.

Pip: We’re here forever.

Brendan: We’re stuck in the episode. May was saying that as an adult, uh, if you’re given the right resources and records, you can learn any language.How did you go about learning Ancient? Apart from the game, like, shifting and nudging things into your eye space.

Pip: At first I relied on their game interface, because for example, if you come across a combination of symbols that is maybe similar to something that you’ve already found, then it will offer you options that are best guesses at that point. But it will also show you related words that you do already know if that’s how you want to play. But I definitely am the sort of person who immediately gets out a notebook and I start writing these things down and looking for ways that different combinations of glyphs seem to be showing patterns.

Brendan: I did the same thing. Like I’ve got a notebook, a little dictionary of terms and stuff like that. I’m just looking for a good example of, yeah. Like the word for “life”. There are two little symbols, one seems to mean like “fire” or “harm”. Uh, and then a little, we have symbol as if to say “water”. So it’s like, “firewater”, uh, normally, you know, that should mean “whiskey” but I think in Ancient it means “life”. What was the most interesting feature of the language for you?

Pip: So there are no spaces in Ancient in this game. It’s just a continuous script. And so that means that part of the puzzle… You’re, you’re not just looking at words and trying to map things onto them. You are looking at longer sentences often that are broken fragments of larger ideas. And you’re trying to figure out where the breaks are. The example that I gave when I reviewed the game was like in English, you could just have the word “TOGETHER” written in capital letters. And if you were using continuous script, you wouldn’t know if that was supposed to be read as “together” or “to get her” because both are equally possible. So you then need to start looking at context or you’d need to start, like, thinking about how else that might appear.

Brendan: My records ARE here in my little book. Do you have any favorite words or phrases of your own?

Pip: Oh Lord. See, I tried to find my old notebook. Um, and it is, uh, I believe I have thrown it away in a fit of Marie Kondo-esque “does this bring me joy”… And like, why is joy such an important emotion? Like where did we get to that from anyway?

Brendan: How about if we… if we play a little game right, where I’m going to read out a compound word to you using like the individual symbol meanings, and then you have to try and guess the, like, together-meaning. So, for example, if I say it to you: “person-who-lies”….?

Pip: I was going to say, um, “advertiser” but they didn’t have those… I was going to say “liar”?

Brendan: I’ve got it down as “traitor”.

Pip: Oh, okay, yeah.

Brendan: There’s a question mark beside it, which is, which is the system I use to say, “maybe”. Let’s see another one: “to death-know”.

Pip: No. As in K-N-O-W or…

Brendan: To know death.

Pip: I mean, is that “sleep”? I have a very macabre approach to sleep…

Brendan: It’s not “sleep” under my notes. It says here “to fear”.

Pip: I’m doing so badly in your system.

Brendan: My… my system hasn’t been peer reviewed.

Pip: I really love the compound nature of, um, of the words. Actually. That’s something that I do really, really love.

Brendan: Before we wrap up. Did the game make you reflect on language itself as this bigger thing that exists in the world? Or was it more of just a sort of fun game, like an adventure?

Pip: I think in terms of the game, it was a type of puzzle that I hadn’t seen before. And it felt like it was a lot more related to actual language or language experiences than other games that I mostly played at that point, [in which] translation was essentially that, you know, you would maybe level up a skill and more of it would appear in English. Like what happens in No Man’s Sky. I think. So you find more and more information of “essentially this word means this”. And so the more you talk to these alien creatures, the more of the, the, um, language is already translated into whatever language you’re playing in. So it definitely, it just felt so satisfying and organic. Whether I was reflecting on language itself in those moments, I think it’s more that it was a lens for some of the thoughts that I have anyway, because I think as a fellow writer person, there is an interest in language and how one manipulates it and how it develops anyway. And I think I had maybe slightly more of the tools for… seeing where maybe Inkle had developed ideas from. So, yeah, it was more that it was so satisfying and delightful to see them come together in a form that I enjoyed playing around with.

Brendan: When I first saw the game, uh, I went to meet the developers at Inkle. They gave me their business cards. And on every one of their business cards they had written their occupation, and it had like a big translation of it in this Ancient script. In these squiggles basically. For example, a really long word that said “person-who-writes-things-with-robots” and that literally meant programmer.

Pip: Oh, wow. That’s great.

Brendan: Uh, all right. That’s all we have time for I’m afraid. You have been listening to Hey Lesson with me, Brendan, and our guest this week, Philippa Warr. Pip, thank you very much for joining us and lending us your… your word-thoughts.

Pip: Oh, my word-thoughts. Yes. It has been a pleasure. What would you be? “Audio-person”? That’s the… podcaster?

Brendan: I don’t know what it would be in Ancient… something like “person-who-speaks-without-mouth”?

Pip: “Sound-maker”? Like, but more of an artisan… than, than just a generator?

Brendan: “Far-away-mouth-person”?

Pip: “Robot-man-sound”? Maybe people can send you suggestions for that one.

Brendan: If people have enjoyed your thinking and wanted to hear more from you Pip, where might they find that?

Pip: Oh, probably Twitter’s the best, uh, best bet. It’s @Philippawarr.

Brendan: Sweet. Um, if you have enjoyed this episode, please consider supporting us. We are virtual buskers over here. So if you like what we do, please become a regular donor on Patreon. You get extra goodies, including access to the full interviews with scientists, doctors, linguists, everyone we interviewed, like I said, uh, but you also can get a monthly bonus episode. You get behind the scenes videos, or even a shout-out on the podcast. Most importantly, you can proudly say that you’re the reason we don’t have any ads or sponsors. Have you noticed that Pip? Did you notice there hasn’t been a single ad?

Pip: I have. Yeah. It’s great.

Brendan: We rely solely on the support of our listeners and donors. So if you like us, please take a look at the links in the description below to see how you can throw some money in our hat. If you have any suggestions, feedback, or any questions or chatter at all – But yeah, until next time, goodbye Pip.

Pip: Bye!

Brendan: And goodbye to our lessoners.