Monthly Archives: June 2017

Dragons and Constructed Languages

The Dragon's Cave by Georg Janny, 1917

The Dragon’s Cave by Georg Janny, 1917

The earliest written work in any kind of the English language is Beowulf, which has a horrible, treasure-hoarding dragon in it. Because he was a philologist (expert and critic of written languages and language histories), and arguably the foremost scholar on Beowulf, J. R. R. Tolkien knew all about the dragon, and wrote a bunch of stories for his kids, which eventually mutated into a novel, The Hobbit. Beowulf‘s dragon is a creature of mindless animalistic greed and savagery, but Smaug, the dragon and central antagonist of The Hobbit, can talk. Imagine him voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. But if Bilbo Baggins can understand Smaug, and there isn’t any magic involved here, they share a common language, Fire-Drake and Hobbit. One of the reasons for J. R. R. Tolkien’s works’ staying power is that the world created for them is fully realized enough to bear up under questions like this. So, what language do Bilbo and Smaug share?

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth books, including The Hobbit, and all of the books in The Lord of the Rings, English is used as a stand-in for Westron, a hypothetical fictional language commonly spoken on Middle Earth. As a philologist, though, Tolkien created several full-fledged languages, and even language families and language histories (!!), to inhabit his fantasy universe. Elvish languages, such as Sindarin, are a language family, and have their own fictional history. In a very real way, The Lord of the Rings isn’t a fictional work with made-up languages in it, but rather Middle Earth’s fictional languages happen to be wrapped up in a pretty neat story.

The connection between dragons and artistic languages doesn’t stop there, however. You probably know at least three words in Dovahzul. Click and drag between the brackets to reveal. [ FUS RO DAH! ]

The main plot-line of the 2011 video game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim revolves around dragons. Taking a step further still from Smaug’s command of Westron, not only do these dragons talk, but their language has the power to change reality. In this game, words spoken by someone who truly understands them become focused into a Thuum, or Shout, with different effects depending on the meaning of the words, from breathing fire, to knocking enemies backwards, to turning invisible, or revealing the presence of the undead. The acquisition of words in this language is pivotal to the gameplay in Skyrim. The developers of the game created Dovahzul as a complete artistic language to serve this purpose, and all of the dragons in the game speak the language as well. Over time, the language was expanded and fleshed out by the fanbase, and now Dovahzul is a full-fledged artistic language.

Brush up on your vocabulary and grammar here!

Architecture

Don’t Get People Killed

Everybody likes buildings that don’t collapse. That’s the one thing that absolutely everyone can agree about in architecture. Whether you’re building a land diving platform in Vanuatu, or a scientific research retreat in San Diego, structural integrity is the first priority. This is a long list of the kind of thing that happens when buildings fail.

land diving platform

By Paul Stein from New Jersey, USA (The Tower) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Structural integrity FTW! (Land diving is the ancestor of bungee jumping, and has a good safety record due to smart practices in material choice and design enforced by tradition. Nifty.)

Make Sure the Building Does Its Job

Does the structure do what it was designed to? It’s nice if your building stays up, and looks good, but does it do a good job at what it was designed to do? What if you built an award-winning library, and people found it unpleasant, or even creepy to read in? That’s a problem.

Looks Good

Does your building look good, or at least get across what it’s trying to communicate? Few structures aren’t meant to communicate anything. An example would be a missile silo. The best kind of missile silo is the kind nobody knows is there.

Minuteman Missile Silo Above Ground

This is a Minuteman missile silo doing a very good job of not being noticed.

Missile silo with skylight added.

This is a Minuteman missile silo as a museum feature. With the addition of a skylight, it’s now doing a very good job of being a tourist attraction.

Now THIS is a building meant to communicate something.

Marie Antoinette's cottage

By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Marie-Antoinette’s estate at Versailles, France) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

FANCY. Oh, wait, that’s just the custom-built cottage that Marie Antoinette commissioned for the grounds of the palace at Versailles.

Versailles garden facade.

By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Chateau de Versailles, France) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There we go. That’s the real palace.

“Fancy” doesn’t quite cut it as a description. Oh Dang.

So… What Happens When Communicating Wealth Goes Wrong?

Your house gets featured on McMansionHell, an excellent blog and all-around resource for information on jaw-droppingly ill-advised buildings, and architectural theory. That’s what happens. For an even further exploration of architecture, there’s also Arch Daily Classics like these. If you really want to beef up on architecture, you can always search the library database of subjects by keyword.

subject keyword search

Keyword search by subject. Yes, this will make your life much easier.

Happy researching!

Duck Duck Goose

The ducks and geese have paired up for the spring, and you know that this means! Goose attacks are going to be pretty likely. Don’t get Tyrannosaurus rek’d by a goose. They can be very aggressive, especially when nesting.

goslings

If you can see these, the parents aren’t far behind…

An adult goose can weigh 15 lbs, so be careful.

As for the ducks, here’s a fun experiment to try. Go look at some mallard ducks. You can find them in parks with ponds, or other places near water. Usually, the males have green heads. Compare the number of males (drakes) to the females (ducks). Notice anything unusual? I’ll hide what you’ll probably find out in this bracket, in white text. Click and drag between the brackets to reveal the spoilers. [ There will probably be more drakes than ducks, by a pretty large margin. ] Weird, huh. Why do you think that is? Click and drag for the answer.

[ Females sit on the nest and are more vulnerable to predators, which probably leads to to the sex imbalance. Birds have a similar sex determination system to us mammals, so you can assume that there’s an even number of male and female ducklings hatched. ]

And that’s not all the duck weirdness going on. If you saw the ducks at just the right time, in mid-summer, you might not have noticed any drakes at all. Ducks moult completely, losing all their feathers, and, while they grow back in, they’re flightless, and very shy. Right after this, and before growing in their breeding plumage for the fall, the drakes’ feathers come in looking just like a duck. This brief, non-breeding plumage is called eclipse plumage. The only way to tell while the males are in eclipse is that male mallard ducks’ bills are yellowy or olive, not orange-y black.

drake/duck pair

This is a drake/duck pair of ducks. The drake is the one with the green head.

drake in eclipse

This is actually a drake mallard, disguised as a ladytypes duck, which are supposed to be camouflaged against predators anyway.

If you want to take your bird-observing to the next level, check out the Bird Guide from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Or, check out a handy, portable, and comprehensive identification key from the library. Ducks are really odd, actually. If you want to do more than dabble in a different sort of dabblers, read this book for a deep dive into the wood ducks, the most fabulous of all ducks. Ducks and geese hatch ready to follow the parents around, and start life out with a leap from the nest. Watch hooded merganser ducklings take the plunge.

Happy duck-watching!