Uhjayi is a work of fiction, the native tongue of the inlanlu tahori, a species of tribal shapeshifters on a world known as Alasa Ka. Their universe is half-science and half-fantasy: magic and natural selection shape evolution, and a person must use both logic and spirit to thrive. Uhjayi itself is a conlang – a constructed language made to simulate the form of communication an alien culture might possibly use, given that one of their skins is remarkably similar to the one we humans wear all our lives.
Inspired by Pimsleur‘s audio learning method, which heavily emphasizes conversational language and repetition, I began exploring Uhjayi with the same pattern that Pimsleur uses. While these lessons are both written and audio, the audios are only about five minutes in length, much shorter than Pimsleur’s 30-minute average.
Join me in exploring an alien language and uncovering the nuances of culture that only fluency can reveal.
Unsurprisingly, tahori have a variety of words involving change, the most obvious being their own species name. Ho is the root that means change, which at its basest level means one thing ceasing to be A and starting to be B. There is no implication of the time it takes to change or the permanence or impermanence of the change, only that something changes. Hori, the verb “to change,” is such a broad sweeping verb as to be almost useless, even for tahori who are very fond of wide meanings. Ta-, then, is a prefix that indicates the outer covering of a living thing: skin, hide, fur, pelt, even scaled or feathered skins. (Anatomically, this frequently includes the outermost layer of fat and sometimes even surface musculature, plus claws, teeth, lips, eyes, ears, etc.)
You may notice that tahori have named themselves with a verb. This is largely due to the fact that they never stop changing, so they felt it fitting to be verbs instead of static nouns. Tahoku, a skin-change, is the word they use to mark their transitions between taku, their three “skins” or distinct body-shapes.
There are plenty of other words that branch from the root ho. Nenhoku, for example, a person-change; a change in personality and/or behaviors stark enough that the person may as well be someone else. Relatedly, nenhori is to change one’s own character, usually used in positive terms of self-improvement, often associated with the acquisition of new skillsets. Shuth-hori is the verb for seasons changing. Tihch-hori (day) and rhahori (night) are the verbs for the day becoming night and vice versa, so tihch-hoku is sunset and rhahoku is sunrise.
Zech-hoku is a change in a battle or other physical conflict, a turning of the tide. Mulhoku is the moment when understanding dawns, or when it leaves and is replaced by confusion. Gumhori is the change of an individual into a parent. Rahori is the changing of a mood, with rahoku being the emotional shift itself. And so it goes.
Inlanlu tahori are deeply social creatures, and their emotions are powerful and play a large role in forming and maintaining their vital social bonds, so the concept of love is multifaceted and explicit.
A quick note before we get into the fun stuff: you’ll see four common modifiers throughout this post. -ku is a suffix that turns a root into a noun; -ri is a suffix that turns a root into a verb. -sho is a suffix that turns a root into an active person (e.g. trainer), and -sug is a suffix that turns a root into a passive person (e.g. trainee). A speaker can refer to itself with either form, depending on whom they consider to have the “active” and “passive” roles.
We have two “love” words for romantic relationships as human know them:
Root: rhom. Noun is rhomku, the relationship of lovers/consorts. Verb is rhomri, “to court” or “to consort with” in a romantic and/or sexual fashion. Person-words are rhomsho, a consort/lover (can add -am to make rhomsho-am for “girlfriend” or -chu for boyfriend, but tahori don’t use gender modifiers like that; humans would), and rhomsug (one’s consort).
Root: san. Noun is sanku, the relationship of mates. Verb is sanri, to declare mateship with (humans would say “to marry”) or to be mated to. Person-words are sansho and sansug (likewise, can add -am to feminize or -chu to masculinize, e.g. sansugchu).
And we have four “love” words for emotional love/affection/attachment:
Root: lin, the form of affection one feels towards a person who is deeply admirable and respected and well-liked, but too distant to love with any emotional intimacy. Can be nouned (linku, the emotion of respect-love) or verbed (linri, to respect-love). Humans understand this kind of love to be similar to unexcessive hero-worship, or the kind of semi-impersonal love they might feel towards great figures in history, politics, science, or art. Person-words are linsho and linsug, though linsho is almost never used, as the object of respect-love is usually of far greater importance than one of many people who linri it.
Root: dol, platonic or familial love; it is strong and intimate, non-exclusive, and frequently felt widely, towards packmates, blood-family, and friends. Can be nouned (dolku, the emotion of platonic love) or verbed (dolri, to platonically love). Humans know this when they tell their friends or extended family “I love you.” Tahori say “duku undolri” (yourself I-love). Person-words are dolsho and dolsug; a variation on “I love you” is “dolsug a-un,” or “my love” (love of mine).
Root: adh, deep adoration and 100% emotional devotion; it is felt between mates, between parent and child, and sometimes between extremely close friends. Can be nouned (adhku, the emotion of perfect love) or verbed (adhri, to deeply love). Humans think of this kind of love as “true love,” but it lacks the sexual aspect that humans associate with “true love.” This is the only form of emotional love that is almost always mutual and rarely spoken if it isn’t. Person-words are adhsho and adhsug.
Root: si, sexual desire/lust; felt between consorts and mates, or felt one-sidedly towards a physically attractive individual. Can be nouned (siku, the emotion/feeling of desire) or verbed (siri, to lust or be attracted to). There is no shame or social pressure associated with this word; it’s usually used as a matter-of-fact statement or as a compliment to someone who is a sisug (the object of desire). Humans put a lot more baggage into this concept than tahori do.
There you have it! Six words of love. Nen-na dudolri? (Who do you love?)
The word zinena-un is actually two words: zinen a-un. (Pronounce zee-NAYN-ah-OON.) It has, however, become such a common and meaningful phrase that it is now frequently considered a word unto itself. Let’s examine its constituent parts.
Nen is a person (a thinking, living creature). The prefix zi- indicates “that” or “this”, instead of “the” or “a” (which has no prefix and is the default/understood form of most nouns). Un means I or me, and a- is a prefix that indicates possession. Literally translated, zinena-un is “this person belonging to me.”
Historically, the declaration of zinena-un was made in verb form: Zinen unari. (lit. “that-person I own”, roughly “I claim that person as mine.” Ari as a verb, roughly translated as “claims,” “owns,” or “take possession of,” has the pronoun of self as the subject, which is the reverse of what we’d say in English: “That belongs to me.”) Over time, the word zinena-un began to hold such weight in tahori culture that the verb was no longer necessary, much as we in English might stop saying “I own this!” and simply state “Mine.”
Having never had slaves or servants in their cultural history, tahori have a very special emphasis on the statement that a given person is “theirs.” To claim a person is to declare a relationship, with or without that person’s prior knowledge or any established or expected mutual agreement. It establishes a social structure between the tahori and zinen, that person, and as intensely social people, that is very important to inlanlu tahori.
Declaring someone zinena-un has saved many lives; the statement of social bond indicates that a tahori will defend their person, violently if necessary. The word is rarely used in situations with romantic or sexual implications; stronger and more explicit words are used for courtship and one’s chosen mate. In terms of physical and emotional protection, however, zinena-un indicates a tahori’s willingness to intervene and to side with their person.
“Do you know this person?”
“This person is mine.”
The Uhjayi root gek is an old and oft-used one; its general meaning derives from the sound produced when a prey animal is seized in inlanlu jaws and shaken, with the intent of breaking its bones. There is a strong connotation of helplessness and involuntary victimhood to the word; the very sound evokes the kind of sound a dying creature might emit in the teeth of a predator.
The closest single-word English translation is “mangle.”
Gek has a full range of uses: As a noun, gek-ku, it is the event of the attack or the incident that causes the mangling. As a verb, gekri, its most original use, it is to make the attack: Ungekri, I mangle, is a hunting phrase and can be used with or without a specified object. Indeed, it is so commonplace that its objectless form has become synonymous with I hunt.
Tahori, however, are not invulnerable to the world, and so they have adapted this root to include the feeling of being picked up by the fangs of circumstance and shaken to the point of breaking, or perhaps just past. Ungekra, simply translated, means I feel mangled, with heavy undertones of non-consent and battering. It is almost never used in regards to a physical attack by another person, and only rarely in regards to a physical accident or injury; the implications are emotional and mental. Tahori are pragmatic; it’s redundant to speak of feeling mangled when physical evidence of the mangling is present and perceptible.