January 12, 2007

A conscious negotiation, if not indeed a virtual exchange of views

Not long after noting Plug Loafsley's v-like /r/, Thomas Pynchon takes up the phonetic motivations for sound change in a more direct (though less human) fashion. It's page 406 of Against the Day, and we're back with the Chums of Chance on the Inconvenience, now hanging around the First International Conference on Time Travel at Candlebrow U.:

One night after Evening Quarters, the Tesla device came squawking to life, and the boys gathered around to listen. "Having taken delivery," announced a deep, reverberant voice, "from duly authorized agend Alonzo Z. Meatman of the map informally known as the Sfinciuno Itinerary, signing all receipt forms properly, you are directed to set course immediately for Bukhara in Inner Asia, where you will report T.D.Y. to His Majesty's Subdesertine Frigate Saksaul, Captain A. Zane Toadflax, Commander. It is assumed that the Inconvenience already has a complete allocation of current-model Hypopsammotic Survival Apparatus on board, as no further expenditure for that purpose will be approved."

Puzzled about what that "Hypopsammotic Survival Apparatus" might be, the Chums consult Professor Vanderjuice, who directs them to Roswell Bounce:

As early as 1899, the Professor had informed them, Roswell had grasped the principles of what would become the standard-issue Hypopsammotic Survival Apparatus or "Hypops", revolutionizing desert travel by providing a practical way to submerge oneself beneath the sands and still be able to breathe, walk around, so forth.

"You control your molecular resonance frequencies, 's basically all it is," explained Roswell, "including a fine-adjustment feature onto it to compensate for parameter drift, so as to keep everything solid-looking but dispersed enough that you're still able to walk through it all 'th no more effort than swimming in a swimming hole. Sonofabitch Vibe Corp. stole it from me, and I feel no hesitation about beating their prices. How many were you looking for?"

The "Sfinciuno Itinerary", by the way, is an optically-encrypted map of old Venetian trading posts in central Asia, which shows the location of the lost subterranean city of Shambhala.

Some time later, the Saksaul puts in at the buried port city of Nuovo Rialto.

Nearby loomed a high, ruinous structure of great antiquity, of some red-brown color suggestive of blood spilled none too recently, whose supporting pillars were torch-bearing statues male and female, and whose pediment was inscribed in an alphabet invented, according to Gaspereaux, by Mani himself . . .

It was here, evidently, that the sand-frigate planned to tie up. After evening "chow", enjoying a cigar on the fantail, Chick heard a high-pitched screaming, which seemed to him almost articulated into speech. He located a pair of under-sand goggles, slipped them on, and peered into the darkness beyond the settlement walls. Something large and heavy came thundering by, in high swooping hops, and Chick thought he recognized the smell of blood. "What in Creation was that?"

Gaspereaux had a look. "Oh. Local sand-fleas. Always coming round to see what's what whenever a new ship pulls in."

"What are you talking about? Whatever just went by was the size of a camel."

Gaspereaux shrugged. "Down here they are known as chong pir, big lice. Since the first Venetians arrived, these creatures, following a diet exclusively of human blood, have grwon over the generations larger, more intelligent, one ventures to say more resourceful. Feeding upon the host is no longer a matter as simple as mandibular assault but has evolved into a conscious negotiation, if not indeed a virtual exchange of views--"

"People down here talk to giant fleas?" inquired Darby with his accustomed directness.

"Indeed. Usually in a dialect of ancient Uyghur, though, owing to the mouth structure unique to Pulex, one finds certain difficulties with phonology, notably the voiced interdental fricative--"

Cute. But this seems to be an unusual case where Pynchon's fantasy runs aground very quickly on the shoals of fact. In the real world, the nature of insect respiration means that mouth structure (unique to Pulex or otherwise) ought to be the least of an insect's difficulties in generating fricatives of whatever place and manner.

The respiratory system of insects (and many other arthropods) is separate from the circulatory system. It is a complex network of tubes (called a tracheal system) that delivers oxygen-containing air to every cell of the body.

Air enters the insect's body through valve-like openings in the exoskeleton. These openings (called spiracles) are located laterally along the thorax and abdomen of most insects -- usually one pair of spiracles per body segment. Air flow is regulated by small muscles that operate one or two flap-like valves within each spiracle -- contracting to close the spiracle, or relaxing to open it.

After passing through a spiracle, air enters a longitudinal tracheal trunk, eventually diffusing throughout a complex, branching network of tracheal tubes that subdivides into smaller and smaller diameters and reaches every part of the body. At the end of each tracheal branch, a special cell (the tracheole) provides a thin, moist interface for the exchange of gasses between atmospheric air and a living cell. Oxygen in the tracheal tube first dissolves in the liquid of the tracheole and then diffuses into the cytoplasm of an adjacent cell. At the same time, carbon dioxide, produced as a waste product of cellular respiration, diffuses out of the cell and, eventually, out of the body through the tracheal system.

This respiratory system is not only separate from the insect's circulatory system, it also doesn't share the mouth with the digestive system, so that mouth parts can't be used to modulate an airstream. In fact, as far as I know, insect sounds are all produced by rubbing body parts together, rather than by using the reptilian and mammalian trick of exciting resonant cavities with sound (whether hiss or buzz or blat) generated by the aerodynamics of constricting a respiratory airstream. And the sound-generating body parts are generally wings or legs rather than mouthparts -- though I guess all bets are off for camel-sized fleas, which could only have grown so large by somehow supplementing or extending the usual insect tracheal system so that body size is not limited by the physics of gas diffusion.

Of course, mouth-part peculiarities can certain have phonetic effects:

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 12, 2007 05:50 AM