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“Mostly Empty Space”

We hear it all the time: “Atoms are mostly empty space.” Sometimes, that factoid is even quantified: “Atoms are X % empty space.” And as part of my ongoing mission to exorcise nagging questions spawned by third-grade science books, I want to find out what X actually is. How much of an atom is actually empty space?

Well, atoms are just a nucleus of protons (and sometimes neutrons), with electrons sort of vaguely existing in their vicinity. They don’t really orbit. Because quantum mechanics is weird and terrifying, you can think of an electron as being smeared out in a haze of existence around the nucleus. There’s a probability cloud surrounding the nucleus, and at each point within that cloud, the density of the cloud determines how likely the electron is to be hanging out there. Depending on the electron’s energy level in the atom, the probability cloud might be spherical or it might be dumbbell-shaped or it might be a bit like an onion. But the probability cloud is always blurry.

Which means that, in record time, we’ve hit a damn stumbling block. Here’s an irrelevant-looking picture:

(Generated via fooplot.com)

That’s the graph of the function exp(-x^2), which doesn’t have a lot to do with electrons or atoms, but is a simple analogy for the probability density in a spherical electron cloud. How wide would you say that bump is? 2 units? 4 units? Just like with swear words, no matter where the fuck you draw the line, somebody’s going to disagree with you. But sooner or later, you’ve gotta buckle down and decide that A is over the line and B isn’t. Luckily, science is built to be sensible and rigorous, so as long as we pick a defined point where the bump (or electron cloud) ends, and as long as we all work from the same definition (or tell each other if our definitions are different), we can at least have concrete numbers to work from.

So, to answer the question “How much of an atom is empty space?” I’m going to use the covalent radius for the atoms in question. This is the radius of the atom as deduced from how far it sits from other atoms when it forms covalent molecular bonds. There are other definitions that come closer to our intuitive idea of radius (van der Waals radius, for instance) but covalent radii are easier to measure, and are often known with higher precision.

So now we have a way to look up one parameter: the radius of an atom, and therefore, its volume. The smallest and least massive atom is hydrogen, with a radius of about 25 picometers (0.025 nanometers, or 20,000 times smaller than a bacterium). Hydrogen is a nice atom. It has one proton and one electron. That’s it. And the probability cloud for its single electron is a pleasant spherical shape (at least in the ground state). The largest atom is cesium, with a radius of 260 picometers (0.26 nanometers, about 2,000 times smaller than a bacterium). And the most massive naturally-occurring atom is (arguably) uranium, with a radius of 175 picometers. It’ll make sense why I included two different “largest” atoms in a moment.

To figure out what fraction of an atom is empty space, we need to know how much of it is not empty space. (The missile knows where it is because the missile knows where it isn’t…) Since I spent the start of this post talking about electrons (and since the answer is nice and simple), let’s ask the question: what’s the volume of an electron?

Well, as far as physics can tell (as of January 2021), the answer is zero. The electron has no substructure that we know of—it has no internal parts. There’s just this infinitesimal speck that has all the properties of an electron, and that’s as much as we know about them. Quantum physics and experimental evidence suggest an electron cannot be larger than 10-18 meters—if it were, that’d cause observable effects. So, for our purposes, electrons are so small they’re not worth including.

That only leaves the nucleus. And hoo boy, if you thought the weird fuzziness of the electron cloud was frustrating, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Let’s start with hydrogen, since it’s nice and simple. One zero-volume electron just sort of weirdly hanging out, in an unpleasant blurry (but spherically-symmetric) fashion in the vicinity of a single proton. Unlike the electron, the proton does have a measurable radius. It’s still a fuzzy, blurry, jittery thing that you can never quite pin down, but if you shoot, say, electrons at it and see how they bounce off, you can get an idea, and from that data, decide that the most sensible radius for a proton is 0.877 femtometers. That’s 0.000877 picometers, or 0.877 billionths of a nanometer. If a proton were the size of a 100-micron-diameter dust speck (right on the limit of naked-eye visibility; roughly the diameter of a hair), then a hair would be almost half the diameter of the earth. Did I mention that protons are really small? ‘Cause they are.

So a hydrogen atom is about 25 picometers in radius, and the proton, which is the only thing in it that takes up any space, has a radius of about 0.877 femtometers. The formula for volume of a sphere gives us a simple answer for “How much of a hydrogen atom is empty space?” 99.99999999999568%.

You guys know me, though—that’s too abstract a number. Too many digits. Let’s take, say, the United States. The USA is a big country. If it were a hydrogen atom, the whole thing would be empty space, except for a single patch about 24 inches (72 centimeters) across. Just big enough for an adult human to stand in. You probably wouldn’t be able to see it with the naked eye from an airplane. (I know I switched from volume to area here, but I used the same proportions, so the comparison is still valid, mathematically.)

For heavier elements, life gets more complicated. As I said, electrons are impossible to pin down for certain. They just exist in the nucleus’s general vicinity. Their existence is smeared out in a particular way around the nucleus. (That’s not exactly an accurate description of how it works, but I don’t know enough quantum mechanics to take you any deeper without the risk of misleading you.) The same is true for the nucleus, but because the protons and neutrons in a nucleus are much more massive, and the forces between them are so much stronger (and the forces work differently to the electromagnetic ones that work on an electron), their jittering is even more intense.

As a result, we know about the radii of atomic nuclei in the same vague way we know about the radius of a proton: we shoot particles at the nuclei and see how they bounce off. Most will just graze and barely deflect at all. Some will hit the nucleus closer to head-on, and some will hit it square enough to come back at you. By plotting how often electrons bounce off and at what angles, for a given electron speed, we can build up a pretty convincing picture of where all the matter in the nucleus is.

The radius of an atomic nucleus is roughly 1.5 femtometers times the cube-root of the element’s atomic number (for elements with atomic numbers above 20). For cesium, the largest atom by covalent radius, the nucleus has a radius around 5.7 femtometers. A cesium atom has a covalent radius of about 260 picometers, and therefore, is 99.99999999999895% empty space. If the United States were a cesium atom, the nucleus would be barely the size of one and a half sheets of standard printer paper. And uranium, the largest atom we’re concerned with (by mass) has a covalent radius of 175 picometers with a nuclear radius of 6.8 femtometers. 99.9999999999941% empty space. Compared to the United States, that’d be a circle about 34 inches (86 cm) across. Big enough to sit in, but not lie in comfortably.

You guys know me. I usually like to finish my posts with some clever coda. Some moral for the story. But there’s really not one this time. This time, the question was “How much of an atom is empty space,” and the answer is…well, it’s right up above.

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astronomy, image, pixel art, science, short, Space, Uncategorized

Pixel Solar System

pixel-solar-system-grid

(Click for full view.)

(Don’t worry. I’ve got one more bit of pixel art on the back burner, and after that, I’ll give it a break for a while.)

This is our solar system. Each pixel represents one astronomical unit, which is the average distance between Earth and Sun: 1 AU, 150 million kilometers, 93.0 million miles, 8 light-minutes and 19 light-seconds, 35,661 United States diameters, 389 times the Earth-Moon distance, or a 326-year road trip, if you drive 12 hours a day every day at roughly highway speed. Each row is 1000 pixels (1000 AU) across, and the slices are stacked so they fit in a reasonably-shaped image.

At the top-left of the image is a yellow dot representing the Sun. Mercury and Venus aren’t visible in this image. The next major body is the blue dot representing the Earth. Next comes a red dot representing Mars. Then Jupiter (peachy orange), Saturn (a salmon-pink color, which is two pixels wide because the difference between Saturn’s closest and furthest distance from the Sun is just about 1 AU), Uranus (cyan, elongated for the same reason), Neptune (deep-blue), Pluto (brick-red, extending slightly within the orbit of Neptune and extending significantly farther out), Sedna (a slightly unpleasant brownish), the Voyager 2 probe (yellow, inside the stripe for Sedna), Planet Nine (purple, if it exists; the orbits are quite approximate and overlap a fair bit with Sedna’s orbit). Then comes the Oort Cloud (light-blue), which extends ridiculously far and may be where some of our comets come from. After a large gap comes Proxima Centauri, the nearest (known) star, in orange. Alpha Centauri (the nearest star system known to host a planet) comes surprisingly far down, in yellow. All told, the image covers just over 5 light-years.

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Minor Update

I’m still not dead. And don’t worry, as promised, I’m still working on the second part of “A Toyota On Mars.” I’ve been busy with other stuff lately (including setting up to start grad school), so things might be slow for a while yet.

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A Toyota on Mars (Cars, Part 1)

I’ve said this before: I drive a 2007 Toyota Yaris. It’s a tiny economy car that looks like this:

2007_toyota_yaris_9100

(Image from RageGarage.net)

The 2007 Yaris has a standard Toyota 4-cylinder engine that can produce about 100 horsepower (74.570 kW) and 100 foot-pounds of torque (135.6 newton-metres). A little leprechaun told me that my particular Yaris can reach 110 mph (177 km/h) for short periods, although the leprechaun was shitting his pants the entire time.

A long time ago, [I computed how fast my Yaris could theoretically go]. But that was before I discovered Motor Trend’s awesome Roadkill YouTube series. Binge-watching that show led to a brief obsession with cars, engines, and drivetrains. There’s something very compelling about watching two men with the skills of veteran mechanics but maturity somewhere around the six-year-old level (they’re half a notch above me). And because of that brief obsession, I learned enough to re-do some of the calculations from my previous post, and say with more authority just how fast my Yaris can go.

Let’s start out with the boring case of an ordinary Yaris with an ordinary Yaris engine driving on an ordinary road in an ordinary Earth atmosphere. As I said, the Yaris can produce 100 HP and 100 ft-lbs of torque. But that’s not what reaches the wheels. What reaches the wheels depends on the drivetrain.

I spent an unholy amount of time trying to figure out just what was in a Yaris drivetrain. I saw some diagrams that made me whimper. But here’s the basics: the Yaris, like most front-wheel drive automatic-transmission cars, transmits power from the engine to the transaxle, which is a weird and complicated hybrid of transmission, differential, and axle. Being a four-speed, my transmission has the following four gear ratios: 1st = 2.847, 2nd = 1.552, 3rd = 1.000, 4th = 0.700. (If you don’t know: a gear ratio is [radius of the gear receiving the power] / [radius of the gear sending the power]. Gear ratio determines how fast the driven gear (that is, gear 2, the one being pushed around) turns relative to the drive gear. It also determines how much torque the driven gear can exert, for a given torque exerted by the drive gear. It sounds more complicated than it is. For simplicity’s sake: If a gear train has a gear ratio greater than 1, its output speed will be lower than its input speed, and its output torque will be higher than its input torque. For a gear ratio of 1, they remain unchanged. For a gear ratio less than one, its output speed will be higher than its input speed, but its output torque will be lower than its input torque.)

But as it turns out, there’s a scarily large number of gears in a modern drivetrain. And there’s other weird shit in there, too. On its way to the wheels, the engine’s power also has to pass through a torque converter. The torque converter transmits power from the engine to the transmission and also allows the transmission to change gears without physically disconnecting from the engine (which is how shifting works in a manual transmission). A torque converter is a bizarre-looking piece of machinery. It’s sort of an oil turbine with a clutch attached, and its operating principles confuse and frighten me. Here’s what it looks like:

torque_convertor_ford_cutaway1

(Image from dieselperformance.com)

Because of principles I don’t understand (It has something to do with the design of that impeller in the middle), a torque converter also has what amounts to a gear ratio. In my engine, the ratio is 1.950.

But there’s one last complication: the differential. A differential (for people who don’t know, like my two-months-ago self) takes power from one input shaft and sends it to two output shafts. It’s a beautifully elegant device, and probably one of the coolest mechanical devices ever invented. You see, most cars send power to their wheels via a single driveshaft. Trouble is, there are two wheels. You could just set up a few simple gears to make the driveshaft turn the wheels directly, but there’s a problem with that: cars need to turn once in a while. If they don’t, they rapidly stop being cars and start being scrap metal. But when a car turns, the inside wheel is closer to the center of the turning circle than the outside one. Because of how circular motion works, that means the outside wheel has to spin faster than the inside one to move around the circle. Without a differential, they have to spin at the same speed, meaning turning is going to be hard and you’re going to wear out your tires and your gears in a hurry. A differential allows the inside wheel to slow down and the outside wheel to spin up, all while transmitting the same amount of power. It’s really cool. And it looks cool, too:

cutaway20axle20differential20diff-1

(Image from topgear.uk.net)

(Am I the only one who finds metal gears really satisfying to look at?)

Anyway, differentials usually have a gear ratio different than 1.000. In the case of my Yaris, the ratio is 4.237.

So let’s say I’m in first gear. The engine produces 100 ft-lbs of torque. Passing through the torque converter converts that (so that’s why they call it that) into 195 ft-lbs, simultaneously reducing the rotation speed by a factor of 1.950. For reference, 195 ft-lbs of torque is what a bolt would feel if Clancy Brown was sitting on the end of a horizontal wrench 1 foot (30 cm) long. There’s an image for you. Passing through the transmissions first gear multiplies that torque by 2.847, for 555 ft-lbs of torque. (Equivalent to Clancy Brown, Keith David, and a small child all standing on the end of a foot-long wrench.) The differential multiplies the torque by 4.237 (and further reduces the rotation speed), for a final torque at the wheel-hubs of 2,352 ft-lbs (equivalent to hanging two of my car from the end of that one-foot wrench, or sitting Clancy Brown and Peter Dinklage at the end of a 10-foot wrench. This is a weird party…)

By this point, you’d be well within your rights to say “Why the hell are you babbling about gear ratios?” Believe it or not, there’s a reason. I need to know how much torque reaches the wheels to know how much drag force my car can resist when it’s in its highest gear (4th). That tells you, to much higher certainty, how fast my car can go.

In 4th gear, my car produces (100 * 1.950 * 0.700 * 4.237), or 578 ft-lbs of torque. I know from previous research that my car has a drag coefficient of about 0.29 and a cross-sectional area of 1.96 square meters. My wheels have a radius of 14 inches (36 cm), so, from the torque equation (which is beautifully simple), the force they exert on the road in 4th gear is: 495 pounds, or 2,204 Newtons. Now, unfortunately, I have to do some algebra with the drag-force equation:

2,204 Newtons = (1/2) * [density of air] * [speed]^2 * [drag coefficient] * [cross-sectional area]

Which gives my car’s maximum speed (at sea level on Earth) as 174 mph (281 km/h). As I made sure to point out in the previous post, my tires are only rated for 115 mph, so it would be unwise to test this.

I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, United States. Charlotte’s pretty close to sea level. What if I lived in Denver, Colorado, the famous mile-high city? The lower density of air at that altitude would allow me to reach 197 mph (317 km/h). Of course, the thinner air would also mean my engine would produce less power and less torque, but I’m ignoring those extra complications for the moment.

And what about on Mars? The atmosphere there is fifty times less dense than Earth’s (although it varies a lot). On Mars, I could break Mach 1 (well, I could break the speed equivalent to Mach 1 at sea level on Earth; sorry, people will yell at me if I don’t specify that). I could theoretically reach 1,393 mph (2,242 km/h). That’s almost Mach 2. I made sure to specify theoretically, because at that speed, I’m pretty sure my tires would fling themselves apart, the oil in my transmission and differential would flash-boil, and the gears would chew themselves into a very fine metal paste. And I would die.

Now, we’ve already established that a submarine car, while possible, isn’t terribly useful for most applications. But it’s Sublime Curiosity tradition now, so how fast could I drive on the seafloor? Well, if we provide compressed air for my engine, oxygen tanks for me, dive weights to keep the car from floating, reinforcement to keep the car from imploding, and paddle-wheel tires to let the car bite into the silty bottom, I could reach a whole 6.22 mph (10.01 km/h). On land, I can run faster than that, even as out-of-shape as I am. So I guess the submarine car is still dead.

But wait! What if I wasn’t cursed with this low-power (and pleasantly fuel-efficient) economy engine? How fast could I go then? For that, tune in to Part 2. That’s where the fun begins, and where I start slapping crazy shit like V12 Bugatti engines into my hatchback.

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Still Alive

And now I’ve got that song stuck in my head…

I always feel like my 1999 self when I say this, but sorry for the lack of updates. (My 1999 self was weird.) Bunch of real-life stuff which is completely unrelated to obsessive-compulsive thought experiments. I’m going to start posting again soon, starting with a proper re-thinking of my submarine-car experiment.

See you soon!

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Nightmare Tongue: Minor Update

Feel free to ignore this one. This is just a condensed reference for the phonemes in The Nightmare Tongue. I promise I’ll get back to the ridiculous thought experiments next post!

Romanization: IPA/X-SAMPA

N: n / n (voiced alveolar nasal)

U: u / u (rounded close-back vowel)

Z: z / z  (voiced alveolar fricative)

A: ɑ / A (rounded open-back vowel)

E: e / e (rounded close-mid-front vowel)

S: s / s (voiceless alveolar fricative)

4: ð / D (voiced dental fricative)

8: θ / T (voiceless dental fricative)

R: ʀ / R\ or r / r (uvular trill or alveolar trill)

T: s’ / s_> (ejective voiceless alveolar fricative)

F: f / f (voiceless labiodental fricative)

V: v / v (voiced labiodental fricative)

K: k / k (voiceless velar plosive)

W: w / w (voiced labial-velar approximant)

7: t / t (voiceless velar plosive)

P: p / p (voiceless bilabial plosive)

X: ʃ / s’ (voiceless postalveolar fricative)

3: ʒ / Z (voiced postalveolar fricative)

?: ʔ / ? (voiceless glottal plosive)

D: d / d (voiced alveolar plosive)

G: g / g (voiced glottal plosive)

O: oʊ / oU (diphthong)

B: b / b (voiced bilabial plosive)

I: ɪ/I (near-close near-front unrounded vowel)

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Nightmare Tongue 2: What Does it Sound Like?

In my (limited) experience, there are three ways you can start creating a language. 1) Focus on the grammar. This is what the creators of lojban and its predecessor loglan (mostly) did, basing their unambiguous language on mathematical predicate logic. 2) Focus on the sounds. I imagine this is what Tolkein did in creating Elvish, but I have no hard proof other than it’s a very good- and real-sounding language, which means at the very least that he paid a lot of attention to the phonology. 3) Focus on the alphabet. This is the route I usually took, because when I was young and impatient (well, more impatient), that was the only part fun enough to hold my interest. (Now that I’ve grown into the obsessive freak of nature that I am, I can focus on anything.)

For the Nightmare Tongue project, I’m taking Option 2: Start with the phonemes. Since I want this language to sound bizarre and creepy and evil, we need bizarre and creepy and evil phonemes. (Not that it’ll necessarily be evil and creepy; as I learned in German class, screaming Ich müss meine Hose finden! makes you sound like an irate and psychotic drill sergeant. Only in German (as far as I know) can “I need to find my pants!” sound threatening).

When you learn another language, you find out very quickly that speakers of different languages attach very different meanings to sounds and even to equivalent words. For instance, in German, saying “I ate…” translates (very roughly; for some reason, they didn’t think learning the past or future tenses was terribly important) to “Ich aß…” which, when you say it, sounds like Alfred Hitchcock, in his haughtiest possible British English saying “Eek! Ass!” Even as a supposedly mature adult college student, I had to force myself not to smile at that. And considering how wild and diverse languages are, it would seem like each would have its own independent set of grammars and meanings. For instance, I learned from the incomparable Dr. Ralf Thiede that there’s an Aboriginal Australian language in which you add meaning to sentences by adding prefixes and suffixes to words, which means most sentences are all of one word long.

That said, there do seem to be some common principles underlying most or all human languages. For one thing, the “deep structure” of the grammar (including things like the existence of nouns and verbs, et cetera) is almost invariant across language. Paraphrasing the late Sir Terry Pratchett (I’m sad that I have to add “late”…), you can’t have a language that has “No nouns and only one adjective, which is obscene.” That’s not how human languages work. This seems to be tied to the structure of the human brain and mind, and the way we recognize objects and people.

But on a deeper level, it’s possible that human languages don’t assign their sounds to meanings (and vice versa) completely arbitrarily. I’m going to put up a famous picture of two objects. One is called bouba and the other kiki. Or, if you prefer, keki and booba or booboo and keekee or boubou and keek decide which word names which thing:

(Source.)

Which one did you decide to call kiki? If you picked the spiky one on the left, you’re in the majority (the above-ninety-percent majority, according to one study). The study in question found that American college students and native speakers of Tamil in India called the spiky shape kiki over 90% of the time. (Fun fact: Tamil is among the longest-lived languages in everyday usage, its history going back to at least 100 BCE. Sanskrit, which today is almost exclusively used for religious studies and ceremonies among Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains, probably existed in a recognizable form before 1000 BCE. India’s cool.) Anyway–the bouba/kiki effect seems to hold across language barriers, and can even be identified among those who can’t read. Some say it might be related to synesthesia, a bizarre and awesome perceptual effect in which some people unconsciously and automatically experience certain stimuli (often numbers, particular letters of the alphabet, tastes, or days of the weak) as having qualities belonging to a different sense entirely. Famously, the mathematical savant Daniel Tammet (whom I’ve mentioned before) reportedly experiences colors, images, shapes, and movements, a specific one associated with every integer from 1 to 10,000. More frequently in synesthesia, the digits from 0 to 9 will each have their own color. This effect might be more common than we think, too: I’m not a synaesthete, but I find it difficult not to associate zero with black, one with white, two with blue, three with a red triangle, and four with a green square. And it’s been suggested that the bouba/kiki effect is a more universal example of the same phenomenon: a particular shape is automatically associated more strongly with one sound than another. I don’t know Mr. Tammet personally, but I imagine if you tried to ask him to imagine a beautiful white number 6 (a number he dislikes and whose image he finds hard to grasp), he’d get a little upset. It just doesn’t make sense to him, the way he sees numbers. And maybe that’s why so many people called the pointy thing kiki.

As a reader pointed out not too long ago, I ramble like an absentminded professor who’s had too much coffee. That’s because, apart from the Ph.D. and the status (and the coherence, and the chance to teach the next generation of scholars…) that’s pretty much what I am. But my rambling is never without purpose: my point is that there are some sounds that are going to fit better in a Lovecraftian nightmare language than others.

Speaking of Lovecraft, consider the famous incantation: Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. This is, of course, a poor mimicry of the language of the Elder Things, which human tongues cannot speak. But consider fhtagn. If you pronounce it “FFT-AGH-NNN,” it sounds scary. Like a wolf growling, almost. If you pronounce it “FT-AY-NNN,” it loses most of its teeth. And if you pronounce it “FFT-AG-EN,” you just make me think of this

(Source.)

which doesn’t exactly scream “cosmic horror whose mere presence brings reality-splitting madness.”

Or, returning to Tolkein, consider the name of the nine wringwraiths, the fearsome Black Riders: Nazgûl. That is fucking scary. I feel like I accidentally put a hex on my neighbors just by typing it. Something about that Z sound. You find it in a lot of scary names,

Beelzebub, for instance:

or Azazel, whose reference is uncertain but often used to refer to demons.

Speaking of demons, I think demon names are going to be my main source for phonemes. I’m not religious enough to be a Satanist, so don’t worry, I’m not tumbling into madness (or at least not that particular flavor of madness), but I am, after all, creating a Nightmare Tongue. Why not take its sounds from the names of the most horrible things in folklore and mythology? What follows is a reference more for my sake than anything else, so don’t feel obligated to read the whole thing. These are just some of the places I’ll be drawing my phonemes from. Incidentally, although I hate to do it since it might alienate the non-linguists out there, I’m going to have no choice but to start bringing International Phonetic Alphabet symbols (or rather, the X-SAMPA versions, which will always be the first item in the parentheses) into this. I’ll try to sound them out wherever necessary.

From Nazgûl: N (X-SAMPA: n), A (X-SAMPA: A, American and British English: father), U (u, American English: food)

From Azazel: Z (z), AZ (Az, A as in father), ZAZ (zez, in American and most British English, e = fate or crate)

From English slither, which is both my favorite word and my pick for English’s creepiest word: S (s), L (l or l`, think “love” as pronounced by a creepy villain in a horror movie), TH (D, English: then. I will, of course, be using the awesome Old English/Icelandic character eth (ð) for this sound, and thorn (þ) for the un-voiced th sound at the beginning of words like thorn and throw.)

From Spanish and French: R (R\, the rolled one; this is funny because this is one sound I can barely make even on a good day, despite being able to pronounce almost all of the IPA chart).

From my crazy-ass head: TS (this is the first of the “really weird” phonemes I’m adding; to pronounce it, press the tip of your tongue to the back of your upper teeth and make a quick “S” or “TS” sound, like you’re trying to warn a cat off clawing at the curtains; the X-SAMPA symbol for this one is s_>. Fun fact: Learning the International Phonetic Alphabet will give you spells of what look like Tourette’s Syndrome. I’d like you to imagine me, sitting at my computer, reading Wikipedia articles on consonant articulation, and every few seconds going “TS!” as I try to figure out where in the mouth the sound is articulated. This is why you should never do linguistics in public.)

From everywhere: F (f), V (v)

From English liquid: QW (kW, k is the standard English voiceless velar plosive as in kick and kill and kettle, and W is a breathy, voiceless approximant a little like a cross between hwa and fwa).

From everywhere and my crazy-ass head: T (t_>, a bit like the English t in tea and touch, but pronounced with an audible pop by curling back the tongue and pressing the tip against the hard palate, building up air pressure in the throat, and releasing).

From some dialects of British English and a few cool Eastern European languages like Armenian and Georgian: > (k_>, a velar ejective, like the K in kite and kick, a sort of cross between a regular K and a click).

From Xibalba, the awesome Mayan word for the underworld, the X which is really more like English SH (s`). Fun fact, with spoilers if you haven’t read the Popol Vuh, which you totally should: In Xibalba, there’s a Mayan handball court where the ball is somehow both spherical and razor-sharp. There’s a river of blood and a river of pus. There’s a demon dedicated to making people vomit blood. There’s a house that’s constantly full of flying daggers, a house full of decapitating screeching bats, and a house where you have to smoke cigars without burning them up, or else you die. One of the Mayan hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanqe (Xbalanqe is pronounced very roughly “ZH-BALL-AN-KAY”) plays death-basketball with his brother’s severed head. And the skull of Hunahpu’s father One-Hunahpu sits in a tree and gets a girl pregnant by spitting in her hand. (Yes, I know there’s more to Mayan mythology than blood and death; the rest of the Popol Vuh has stuff like giant malevolent crocodiles, a group of two hundred boys that might be some sort of hive mind, and a fairly friendly creator deity called Q’uq’umatz whose name translates to the no less awesome “Sovereign Feathered Serpent.”) Also, the Mayan gods took three tries to create humanity. I may have the order wrong, but I think the first time, they tried making humans out of mud, and the results were horrible and deformed and most died before the gods mercy-killed the survivors. The second batch were made of wood and were terrifying fucking soulless automatons. That’s right: soulless wooden Mayan robots. Now there’s a sentence to make you sound like a delirious homeless dude on the bus. The third batch were made of clay (I think) and came out okay.

From everywhere: P (p)

From English words mixaxox, and hex: K (ks)

From everywhere: W ( w )

From English words like noodle and super and (roughly) from German words like über: U (u)

From a lot of places, including the sound between “u” and “oh” in “uh-oh”, the end of the Cockney pronunciation of “cat”, and the British and sometimes American button (the buh-un form): ? (?, the glottal stop)

From everywhere: D (d)

From everywhere: G (g)

From everywhere: O (o, American English gross, American and British English: boat)

From everywhere: B (b)

From English leisure ZH (Z)

From English pin: I (I)

From English keen: E (i)

I think I’ll make a master list that sits in its own post. For now, though, I need to go rest my brain and my tongue. I’ve pronounced more weird consonants in the last hour than a Polish man and his Welsh wife reading Larry Niven’s Man-Kzin Wars series to each other.

(I don’t know Welsh or Polish. I do know that there’s a Welsh town named Cwmbran, which I would pronounce “KOOM-BRAN.” There’s another Welsh town called Pwllheli (pronounced (very roughly) POO-KHELL-EE). And there’s the Czech city of Brno, which always looks odd to me when I write it.)

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The Nightmare Tongue, Part 1

This series is going to be a little different. A sort of ongoing project. Don’t worry, I won’t let it derail my other bizarre ramblings.

Anyway, here’s the project: I’m going to construct a language. There’s a whole community dedicated to that, but it wasn’t for nothing that my grade-school teachers kept writing “Doesn’t play well with others” and “Is not very good at taking turns” and “Shithead” on my papers. I’m going to go at this more or less alone. (Unless any of my readers are compelled to hop on this loony rollercoaster with me.)

The premises and requirements of the Nightmare Tongue are simple. Not like lojban, a constructed language based on freakin’ mathematical logic which is so sprawling and complex that the language itself has its own Creative Commons License (I think). I want the premises to be simple, but there’s a reason I’m calling the language The Nightmare Tongue. I want it to be the kind of language demons or evil aliens or sentient hyenas would speak. I want a language that sounds scary. I want a language in which you can use a phrase to express weird thoughts James Joyce couldn’t express in English. (Re-reading that last sentence makes me realize I really need to get more sleep…) Why? Fun, mostly. Because I’ve dabbled in creating languages in the past, but I want to take a serious shot at it. This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I learned just how much effort and love J.R.R. Tolkein put into Elvish. Tolkein is a famed and respected writer, and Elvish is a beautiful and nuanced language. I remember watching The Fellowship of the Ring on freakin’ VHS when it first came out, and how the actress playing Arwen said she loved speaking Elvish.

Tolkein is a famed and respected writer and scholar (if I remember correctly, he did his own translation of Beowulf). I’m a madman on the Internet with too much time on his hands. The Nightmare Tongue isn’t going to be nearly as pretty as Elvish. But here’s a list of the things I do want it to be:

  • Pronounceable. I don’t want to turn this into some jackass art project where I deliberately try to be as dense as possible. Despite my sentient-hyena example from earlier, I want the Nightmare Tongue to be pronounceable by the human vocal tract. I do intend to stuff as many weird clicks and other bizarre consonants in there as I can, but I want it to be the kind of thing that a person can, with practice, speak fluently and with a nice rhythm.
  • Weird-sounding. Icelandic is an infamously complicated language. Years ago, everybody panicked because an Icelandic volcano erupted and pretty much blocked the flyways through Europe for a week. The name of that volcano is, of course, Eyjafjallajökull. (It probably says something about me that I spelled that right on the first try, but that I still get the I and the E the wrong way around in “receive”…) Eyjafjallajökull is roughly pronounced (forgive me, Icelanders–even in text I’m going to mess it up) “EY-aff-yaht-lah-YO-kut-th.” Those double-Ls are a weird-sounding phoneme we don’t have in English: a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. It’s (roughly) the kind of sound you make when you try to say the English letters “K” and “L” at the same time. You’ve probably seen this consonant before without realizing it. The name of the feathered serpent, the badass Aztec god Quetazalcoatl has one at the end, so if you want to pronounce it authentically, unless you speak Nahuatl (there it is again), you’re going to end up spitting on the person in front of you. Random fact: I used to work with a guy from Mexico who spoke Nahuatl fluently. It sounded awesome.
  • Complex.  Once again, I don’t want to descend too far into navel-gazing (for one thing, navels are kinda gross). By which I mean I don’t want an impenetrable mess of a language that’s purposely too difficult for anybody to learn. It wouldn’t be hard to make a language like that. After all, as Lewis Caroll once pointed out (I’m paraphrasing), you and I are imperfect speakers of English and imperfect doers of arithmetic because it takes us a lot of effort to decipher the perfectly grammatical sentence “What is the sum of one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one plus one and the largest prime factor of one plus one plus one plus one all multiplied by one plus one plus one plus one.” I’m sorry you had to see that. My point is, I want the grammar to be bizarre, complex, and alien, but I don’t want some abstract-art nonsense that’s impossible and pretentious.
  • Writeable. The Nightmare Tongue will have a written alphabet. When I first got interested in created languages (thanks to Tolkein), the invented writing was one of my favorite parts. Plus, one of my cousins gave me some sweet calligraphy pens for my birthday, so I’ll be able to write that alphabet in BLOOD RED. (I really need to get more sleep…)
  • Complete. Or as close as I can get. This site is all about thought experiments, but it’s also about fleshing things out. I don’t want this to be an unfinished concept-art project like all the other languages I’ve tried to create. My goal, by the end of this, is to have a weird-sounding, twisted, evil language that you could write a competent dictionary for, and maybe a grammar reader for children. (I’ve seen The Exorcist. I know children can learn demon tongues.) Perhaps someday I’ll find a way to crowbar it into a novel or something.

Either way, that said, work will begin, with updates as developments warrant. If you’re not interested in this kind of thing, you won’t hurt my feelings by skipping these posts. Don’t worry, I’ll be getting back to my bread and butter–ludicrous thought experiments–as soon as my brain gets unstuck.

Be safe out there.

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