Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

The trouble of being a linguistics student is that you can never escape your work. Language is all around us, and you never know when some tiny pronunciation change, speech error, or other bit of language is going to stop you in your tracks and put you back into Linguist mode. Mind you, I really don’t mind being in linguist mode, so it’s really only troublesome when you have to explain your sudden linguistic elation to your friends who have no clue what you’re talking about.

I’ve been slowly making my way through the several-thousand-page series of Star Wars: New Jedi Order books. They’re certainly an entertaining read, and a great way to relax after analyzing language for a decent part of the day. The other day, I was reading Star by Star, one of the books in the New Jedi Order, and had one of those “linguist moments”.

Throughout the Star Wars extended universe, there is frequent mention of the Ysalamiri lizard. This lizard is unique in that, in the Star Wars galaxy, it can completely negate the effects of the Force in a small bubble around it. Its presence is frequently used as a plot device, but they never once show up in the movies.

My problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce their name, and none of my usual sources had a pronunciation guide. There are two options, based on the spelling and my particular reading of the word:

1) yi-sal-a-mee-ree (IPA below)

Yis

2) i-sal-a-mee-ree (IPA below)

is

Because the letter “Y” can be either a vowel sound (“fishy”) or a consonant/semivowel (“yet”), we can’t be sure just from looking at the word which one we’re talking about.

However, as I was reading through the book, I had a sudden “Aha!” moment and all became clear.

I’ve talked about the alternation between “a” and “an” before, and it’s a very cool phonological quirk of English (a quirk caused by rules governing the sound system). The rule states that “a” becomes “an” before a spoken vowel. So you have “a key”, “an object”, and, because it starts with a glide, not a vowel, “a university”.

I stumbled across this passage in “Star by Star”:

… Jaina glimpsed a lizardlike shape clinging to the back of the tree… “An ysalamiri,” Jaina said loudly.

“An ysalamiri”! Because this rule is pretty consistent throughout the language (and adding an “N” isn’t a typo likely to survive editing), we can now safely assume that “ysalamiri” is pronounced with a vowel at the beginning of the word (option two, i-sal-a-mee-ree). We can’t be sure whether that vowel is the same as in “beat” or in “bit”, but hey, every little bit helps.

So, much like the Force, Linguistics is everywhere, in all endeavors, academic and recreational, big and small. Now, I just need to learn to use Linguistics to lift an X-Wing. Maybe I could turn a lightsaber hilt into a voice recorder…


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