The Elements Of Music

Parodies of the periodic table are now so widely used as to have become a cliche. The better ones attempt to suggest some sort of systematic relationship between items under consideration and draw parallels with the relatioships of the real atomic elements. For instance, there are several blocks in the real periodic table, with unreactive elements in one column and similar elements near each other either in a diagonal or vertical relationship, with the three long rows in the middle all being hard metals, usually silvery with high melting points, the rare earths having very similar chemical properties to one another, and characteristics changing as you work down the columns. Thus the most common element suggested as the basis for life instead of carbon is the one directly below it in the column, namely silicon, and the halogens proceed from the highly reactive gaseous yellow gas fluorine to the purple, unreactive solid iodine and beyond into two highly unstable but unreactive solids, through the red fuming liquid bromine.

As regards music, there would seem to be two possibilities. One would be to arrange bands into different rows and columns, with the heavy metal bands inevitably occupying the lowest row of transition metals. Led Zeppelin has an obvious place below Bowie’s brief outfit Tin Machine, Iron Maiden is similarly already clearly allocated a place in the first row of the transition metals and Queen clearly belongs in Mercury’s location. Slightly less heavy sounding bands could then be placed above the heavy metal bands and the lightest and fluffiest bands belong at the top. If one could somehow capture the essence of the difference between Tin Machine and Led Zeppelin and apply that to Iron Maiden, thereby producing first Ruthenium Mother and then the ultimate heavy metal band Osmium Crone, it gives one some kind of method in producing a very slightly meaningful table, and possibly a source of possible new band names. Likewise, a Zeppelin is a kind of machine, so taking that up the table gets one to something like Geranium Contraption, and I can’t see the wood for the trees now and have no idea if that’s a good band name or not. This is a fruitful and stimulating approach, but also takes a lot of work and could provoke disagreement. It’s probably better than the other way though.

Which is the one Sarada and I came up with while imbibing at a local hostelry yesterday, inspired, if that’s an appropriate word, by the fact that it was our silver wedding anniversary. This event did various things to my brain, one of which was to inflict an earworm on it in the form of Echo And The Bunnymen’s ‘Silver’, and naturally that also suggested Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ (gold). From that apparently fecund launchpad it would be easy to conclude that at least many of the more familiar metals, such as iron and tin, would have well-known songs named after them, but in fact it proved to be remarkably difficult to extend it beyond just those two. It would be possible to cheat and add, say, Eagles’ ‘Hotel Californium’ or something similar, but this would be cheating and groansome. Less cornily, songs on the subject of the elements concerned are more promising and allow for a little flexibility. The obvious element to follow silver and gold for me would be carbon, which exists in several forms, meaning that ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and The Police’s ‘We Work The Black Seam’ would be equally admissable and I would prefer the second for its worthiness. Nevertheless the well runs dry very quickly.

The names of the elements provide a telling history of science which also reflects their properties. Before the diamond gramophone needle got stuck on “-ium”, their common names varied quite a bit, so we have for example carbon, sulphur, iron and zinc because they either occur on this planet in a readily recognisable relatively pure form or were extractable using well-known techniques rather than the relatively advanced technologies needed to get hold of something like xenon or technetium. The nature of these words is also reflected in the symbolic significance of the different substances. On the whole, songs with the names of elements in them are not detailed essays on their chemical and physical properties so much as metaphors. There are a couple of exceptions to this. It would be silly of me not to mention Tom Lehrer’s ‘Elements Song’, although that doesn’t actually follow the oreder of the table and has been modified and extended since it was first written. I haven’t checked, but I’d be very surprised if They Might Be Giants haven’t either recorded a cover of it or done one of their own, though it would be pretty redundant. There are a couple of other songs which are literally about the materials themselves. Shellac’s ‘Copper’ is, amazingly, apparently literally about the metal copper, how good a conductor it is and so forth, but it’s very much the exception.

Doing this with elements is unlike trying to guess every US state or even name a song which refers to or is named after a state, such as ‘Indiana Wants Me’ or. well, ‘Hotel California’. Doing this would probably involve a few dead easy titles followed by steadily harder ones until you had to find one for Delaware or something, and you’d have to exclude the state songs in order not to make it like painting by numbers. In the case of elements, the curve of difficulty is exponential and might even have been impossible to traverse in pre-internet days. Once you’ve got ‘Silver’ and ‘Gold’, most of the time you’d be hard-pressed to name more than a couple of others, and if you do look them up on the internet you find that whereas there are quite a few songs of this nature, they are usually by bands nobody has ever heard of. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good, but it’s almost like writing a song about an element is almost the kiss of death for a musical artist. This might be because doing that would generally be too nerdy to be popular, which might be reflected in other sounds by the same group.

Element songs fall into a number of categories. The rarest such pigeonhole is the song which is literally about the element. ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ and ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ are well-known examples of this kind. The Loved Ones’ ‘Arsenic’ might also fall into this category, as does the aforementioned ‘Copper’. A particularly literal instance is Against All Authority’s ‘The Source Of Strontium 90’, which is a consciousness- and money-raising piece about nuclear power and its impact on health.

Probably the most frequently found sort of element song is where the substance is used as a metaphor. ‘Silver’ and ‘Gold’ are obvious examples of this, and another two examples are Toyah’s ‘Neon Womb’ and Orgy’s ‘Platinum’. The former emphasises the technological impersonalism and coldness of never having been part of the human world – the protagnoist hasn’t even emerged from a human womb and all is strile and non-living, in a manner similar to some of Gary Numan’s oeuvre. The latter song uses the idea of platinum blond hair as artificiality, seeing things as you want them to be rather than as they actually are, presumably based on the idea that platinum blonde hair is completely artificial – there are no natural platinum blonde women or men. This idea of artificiality also occurs in ‘Silicon World’ by Eiffel 65, which is so obvious it’s not even worth going into, and ‘Chrome’ by VNV Nation, which is about hiding behind a metaphorical mask like chrome plating, so rather similar to ‘Platinum’ though still an original idea. The idea of artificiality is almost a category on its own, another one being Barenaked Ladies’ ‘Aluminum’, which compares the apparent silveriness of aluminium to the apparent genuineness of a person.

A frequent element department is instrumentals. Mike Oldfield’s ‘Platinum’ is one of several such examples. Others are Brian Eno’s ‘Vanadium’, Jean-Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Quicksilver’ (there is also a metaphorical song called ‘Mercury’ by Sufjan Stevens).  These artists are often wont to use scientific-sounding titles or themes, and you might therefore expect Hawkwind to be over-represented here but in fact there’s only ‘Silver Machine’, ‘Diamond Ring’ and ‘Neon Skyline’.  They did, however, do a song called ‘Valium’, which brings to mind a further class of songs which might be expected to be quite common:  drugs.

Drug songs named after elements or with the names of elements in the lyrics are fairly common.  The most famous is probably Nirvana’s ‘Lithium’ but others include ‘Sodium Pentathol’ from Anthrax and several songs whose titles refer to bromide such as the Atomic Rooster offering ‘A Spoonful Of Bromide Helps the Pulse Rate Go Down’.  The odd thing about these is that in spite of the common juxtaposition of drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, none of these are about recreational substances or narcotics.  The bromide references are to potassium bromide, a discontinued sedative which was rumoured to be used in the military as an anaphrodisiac, which is unlikely because it would’ve reduced alertness as well.

Another type of element song I would relate somewhat to the instrumental set.  This is, depending on how you look at it, and also on the track itself, the art rock/pretentious cluster.  There’s a group called Noxious Emotion which did a series of songs named after elements, including ‘Molybdenum’, ‘Iodine’, ‘Uranium’, ‘Nobelium’ and ‘Selenium’.  I find these songs opaque and odd, which might reflect me not being in their demographic, but I can’t help thinking they’re probably pretentious nonsense.

Another surprisingly sparse theme, like the drug one, is the political.  One might expect there to be lots of songs similar to ‘The Source of Strontium 90’, particularly focussed on nuclear power, atomic and chemical weapons or pollution, but in reality there aren’t many of these.  ‘Hydrogen’, from Front Line Assembly, is along these lines, being about the H-bomb, but there don’t seem to be many more than those two.  ‘We Work The Black Seam’, however, does belong here.

Finally comes the rather large number of songs which incidentally mention the names of elements, such as Del Amitri’s ‘Nothing Ever Happens’ (copper and tin) and nickel in Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’.

There are a large number of unrepresented elements, provided of course that one excludes Tom Lehrer and the like, which is basically a list.  Among these are, I presume, all the rare earths, ironically considering their importance as electric guitar pickups – myriads of tracks only exist because of the likes of neodymium in magnetic pickups and also in loudspeakers, and there are other rare earths involved too.  Then again, there are bound to be all sorts of mainly metallic or metalloid elements in musical instruments and electronics, such as zinc and copper in brass and presumably arsenic in the Fairlight CMI, whose phosphor might on reflection actually also contain a rare earth although that’s just a guess.  More familiar ones which are nonetheless apparently omitted include beryllium, boron, fluorine, rather surprisingly phosphorus (although there is a band called ‘White Phosphorus’), argon, scandium, manganese, gallium, germanium, rubidium, yttrium, niobium and technetium, among many others, and it would be quite a challenge to include those in non-nerdy songs.  Sadly I am no song writer, so it won’t be me doing that.

There seem, then, to be the following categories of element songs:

  1. Literal:  Tom Lehrer’s ‘Element Song’ and Shellac’s ‘Copper’
  2. Metaphors of artificiality:  Toyah’s ‘Neon Womb’ and Barenaked Ladies’ ‘Aluminum’.
  3. Other kinds of metaphor:  David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’, Woodkid’s ‘Iron’.
  4. Instrumentals:  Brian Eno’s ‘Vanadium’, Jean-Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’.
  5. Art Rock:  The various Noxious Emotion offerings.
  6. Drugs:  Nirvana’s ‘Lithium’, Atomic Rooster’s ‘A Spoonful of Bromide Helps the Pulse Rate Go Down’.
  7. Incidental mentions:  Del Amitri’s ‘Nothing Ever Happens’, Bob Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’.
  8. Political:  Front Line Assembly’s ‘Hydrogen’, Against All Authority’s ‘The Source Of All Strontium 90’.

In conclusion, the role of elements in pop lyrics and titles reminds me of the use of herbs in the Bible, probably because neither are usually supposed to be taken as science textbooks.  They tend to be used metaphorically.  The real oddity, I think, is that there are relatively few political or drug-based songs involving the subject and when there are drug-themed songs, they don’t refer to recreational drugs.  I suspect this is because of the prevalence of organic compounds rather than inorganics in pollution, warfare and pharmaceuticals, but to test that hypothesis I would need to look at other chemical themes in songs.  There are also quite a few remarkable omissions.



Yes I know, this should be on transwaffle.  Even still…

Today is our silver wedding anniversary.  In other words we have somehow managed to contrive to be married for a quarter of a century.  It’s therefore a good time to set down a few thoughts about marriage and the issues surrounding it, and don’t worry, I will be positive.

Many might argue, myself included, that it isn’t easy to be positive about marriage given its history and social significance, and it should also be remembered that for a long time it was an economic and sometimes a political arrangement, which was occasionally more like adoption than the way we tend to think of it here and now.  Personal unions between states, for example, could follow marriages between monarchs of different countries, and this is a particularly good illustration of how even heads of state are not truly free and never have been.  But I don’t want to spend my time slagging it off because it will annoy people.

Sarada and I actually married twice, once twenty-five years and one day ago and the other twenty-five years ago exactly, and oddly enough this has strong parallels with my current thinking about marriage.  The first time, we we to the Register Office and had a small ceremony which we found more moving than we’d expected because up until we went through with it we hadn’t expected it to be of much emotional significance to us.  Some of the people who couldn’t make it on the day were there too, such as my brother.  Nonetheless we don’t regard that day as the actual date of our wedding so much as a kind of formal arrangement to neaten things up.  Sarada had been in India for three months prior to the occasion, so I had had meetings with the Register Office which revealed that we were talking at cross-purposes because they had thought she was Indian and that we may have been marrying to get her British citizenship.  We were also concerned about name changing, and surprisingly it emerged that the change of surname is a mere custom, not a legal process which one opts in or out of, which was quite surprising as it effectively means it’s a cheap deed poll thrown in.  There seem to be a lot of areas of English law which are like this, unlike many other countries.  I Am Not A Lawyer, but I presume this is related to the existence of Common Law.

By the time I was talking to the Register Office, we had already started to plan our ceremony and I felt a little sorry for the Registrar that we hadn’t negotiated with him to come up with some kind of more flexible ceremony, but there is still specific wording which has to be included in a civil wedding which we felt made it too inflexible and not really ours.  I can’t currently remember what that was.  Nor can I remember when they changed the law regarding venues from simply being at the Register Office to a variety of other options, and I don’t know where it stands now, but I think it was after 1993.

So that’s the “official” wedding.  Now for the “proper” wedding.

The day after our civil wedding, we had a secular ceremony at Leicester Friends’ Meeting House, which we booked as a venue rather than marrying as part of a Quaker meeting.  In order to get married as Quakers, if one is not actually a member of the Society of Friends one needs to have some kind of affirmation from Quakers that one is of one mind with them, and this wasn’t available to both of us at the time.  It would have been possible for me to obtain this, since I had been on the fringes of the Quakers for many years, but not for Sarada.  Ironically, she is now a Quaker and I’m less involved.

It wasn’t a religious ceremony, and we based it on the British Humanist Association guidelines for secular weddings with someone presiding over it.  However, we also accommodated a silence, as occurs in Friends’ meetings, during which Sarada’s father, who is a vicar, opted to pray for our marriage to be blessed.  Only a few years later, we went back to church, but at the time my feelings about Christianity were overwhelmingly negative and I couldn’t have coped even with a formal church blessing, let alone a church wedding which would in any case have been hypocritical of me.

One point to take away from the dual nature of our wedding is that it happens to correspond quite closely to my current views on marriage and committed relationships.  Assuming that the rule of law and government has any validity, it does make sense for some kind of civil contract or arrangement to exist between people in long-term committed relationships, for a variety of reasons.  These include probate, custody, pensions, next of kin, testifying in court (or not) and a host of other things which are intimately woven into the law over centuries, in connection with marriage.  At the same time, many people may feel uncomfortable about the institution of marriage, because of its implicit historical heteronormativity, the assumption that a woman loses her surname and a man keeps his, the fact that until recently rape was legal within marriage and issues regarding a wife’s ability to act in her own right in various ways, such as entering into contracts.  Although most of these are now in the past, I very much empathise with the idea that marriage is sullied by these.  For that reason also, I’m not enthusiastic about same-sex marriage, and for other more important reasons too, such as the previous freedom from a possibly spurious and again heteronormative standard of what sexual relationships ought to be like which could then be used legally against couples whose relationships are just as valid but who happen not to be married, as might happen when they seek citizenship.  I have to say that I have never really understood the enthusiasm people have for the idea of marriage equality.  But, I don’t want to be negative about this because there’s another way of looking at this.

The main problem with abolishing marriage as a legal institution is that it’s so firmly entrenched and useful that getting rid of it would doubtless lead to couples drawing up contracts which were effectively the same as marriage anyway.  It would simply be reinvented and the existence of that customary and legal machinery means people would probably just end up reinventing the wheel.  Nonetheless there are problems with the fact that it has legal force because, for example, it has at least historically led to Christian churches in England having a kind of legal authority which other religious and secular institutions generally lack.  It simply isn’t part of a fair secular society to have a situation where a Church of England wedding makes a couple legally wed if, say, a Scientological or humanist ceremony lacks the same authority, and if the fact that I used Scientology as an example there makes you feel uncomfortable but the idea of an Anglican wedding doesn’t, you might want to ask yourself why.  I happen to be Anglican myself and have a considerable degree of trust in the Church, but I don’t wish to impose that on anyone else.

Civil partnerships seemed for a while to be a good solution to this dilemma, as for many people, though perhaps not anarchists, they seemed to shed the disquieting baggage which marriage holds for them.  However, unfortunately civil partnerships are not available between what for brevity’s sake I’m going to describe as heterosexuals, so they have to deal with the baggage.  Incidentally, in case you were wondering what the practical differences are, they’re that STIs and sexual infidelity (if that’s how you want to interpret it) are grounds for divorce but not for dissolution of civil partnerships, and where there are asymmetries in the law between spouses along gender grounds in marriage, these do not exist in civil partnerships with both partners being treated as if they are a husband rather than a wife, which applies also in lesbian civil partnerships.  The other arrangements, regarding inheritance and other such legal phenomena, are the same as in marriage.  Unfortunately, however, a test case in 2017 ruled against allowing civil partnerships between women and men, which I find very disappointing.

Oddly, and this happens on occasion, I find myself in agreement with the conservative evangelical Christian Institute on the question of civil partnerships.  There are situations where, for example, two friends or siblings live together, or where a parent and child live together, where the advantages of a legal recognition of a relationship, non-sexual of course, between them would be very useful.  There used to be occasional cases of same-sex partners where one adopts the other as a child in order to ensure such rights as are traditionally conferred by marriage, obviously excluding conjugal ones, such as inheriting property and being able to act as next of kin.  As it stands, if there’s a merely informal and not legally enshrined situation between two people living in the same house which ends with the death of one of them, it’s legal for estranged children to take that property off the survivor if the deceased is intestate, meaning there’s a risk of homelessness.  Likewise, next of kin relationships don’t automatically exist between two friends who have shared a home for decades.  None of these situations have anything to do with romantic or sexual relationships, but would nevertheless be resolved by the creation of an institution analogous to civil partnerships.  If we forget about the creepiness of such an arrangement having a history of sexual involvement and just look plainly at such issues as preserving livelihood, keeping a roof over someone’s head or ensuring someone can get emergency medical treatment, civil partnerships work fine for those.

What of marriage then?  Well, for many religious people being married in the eyes of God trumps the idea of being merely legally married, and I would extend that way beyond an imagined élite of people who happen to see religion like that and say there is nothing wrong with conducting a ceremony of public commitment between two people regarding their sexual relationship, and that’s what a real marriage is.  Just as our real marriage, and therefore our real wedding anniversary, is today and not yesterday, since yesterday is merely the anniversary of a legal arrangement we made for the state and not to do with the warm, deep, meaningful commitment we made in front of our community at the Friends’ Meeting House the day after.  That was the start of our real marriage, and I can’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be entirely extra-legal and probably therefore more legitimate marriages of this kind plus, if people want it, the practical, legal arrangement of civil partnerships which looks after the boring but necessary nuts and bolts of what to do if your beloved has a car crash or you pre-decease your sister and children she hasn’t seen in forty years end up turfing you out of your home.

So, why not just have both?

Whig Fish

In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena sprang fully formed and armoured from the brow of Zeus some time after he swallowed the titaness Metis in the form of a fly. If ‘Replicas’ gets a sequel you could get to see what I’ve done with that story but for now I want to focus on one aspect of that tale: Athena is what happens when everything goes right first time.

In the GAIL universe, Athena is the most Earth-like exoplanet so far discovered, so much so in fact that it’s actually more habitable than Earth, with no snow-covered polar continent. The idea of superhabitable planets has come up recently in discussions between astronomers. Not only might there be planets which are almost as habitable as Earth, but there might also be planets which are even more so than this place is.

In another sense, Athena must be a planet where everything has gone right in its history to get to the point it has. It’s been calculated that the larger a star is, the shorter its life. Red dwarfs, the smallest true stars, are so long lived that if the Big Bang theory is true the first red dwarfs to form are still in their youth. The largest stars, blue giants, are the most familiar and none of the ones we can see in the sky would have existed when the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs who weren’t birds hit Chicxulub. Athena orbits HR7345, a star 45% more massive than the Sun, which therefore has a lifespan slightly shorter than the age of our own planet. All the Galactic Association planets except Yom have life evolving along roughly the same lines as known life here and therefore Athena must have in a sense “got lucky” with its evolution and got to what seems to be roughly the stage we were at just before humans evolved faster than Earth did. There were no diversions on the way to the evolution of flowering plants and pseudomammals.

I once heard someone speculate how history would’ve gone if everything had gone right. This makes very little sense because history “going right” would’ve meant cavepeople waking up one day with all the knowledge required to invent nanotechnology, androids and starships, and that would be that. Having said that, hindsight allows us to look back on the story of life on this planet and wonder why it spent so long pratting about with, say, dinosaurs and Archaea before it got down to it and invented people, but in fact this is spurious and presupposes that history moves inevitably in a straight line towards the way things are now. Although I’ve mentioned this before on here, this bears repeating: this is what’s called “Whig History”.

Whig History is the idea that the human world will inevitably progress towards greater enlightenment, freedom, justice and scientific progress. In this respect it has a fair bit in common with Marxism and it can also apply to the idea that scientific progress is inevitable, with no dead ends or futile explorations which go nowhere. My Caroline Timeline is in a sense Whig History, imagining what would have happened if the course of events hadn’t apparently changed abruptly at the end of the ’70s. On closer examination, a total of nine different unconnected historical events would have to have been different, the earliest of which occurred in 1820, for this to have been feasible, although there is an interesting cluster of attempted and failed assassinations at about that time which it seems could easily have gone either way that would have led to a significant difference.

That said, there is at least one interesting trend in the history of life on this planet which appears to have been catastrophically stymied for about 120 million years before it got back on track, which is odd because good sense urges one to believe that there is no such thing as a track. I’m thinking of the mass extinction at the end of the Triassic, at about the time the dinosaurs evolved. After the horrendous kablooie at the end of the Permian which zonked practically everything alive into oblivion with the exception of a few scaly pig things, their descendants proceeded to evolve to become ever more like mammals, with warm-bloodedness (not a good term), lactation, fur and so on, eventually appearing to culminate with the first mammals about fifteen million years before the end of the period. And they were doing really well actually, getting quite big and diverse and seeming to dominate the rather insignificant and unsuccessful early dinosaurs. Then something happened, though nowhere near as serious as whatever caused the world of pigs invasion, and all of a sudden mammals were these little titchy things and dinosaurs became dirty great monsters that took over the world, and this went on for over a hundred million years. Then Chicxulub got hit by a massive object and, oddly, things returned to a similar state to before with mammals ending up doing really well and all the big dinosaurs being annihilated. The odd thing about this is that there really doesn’t seem to be a plan and it’s a mystery how the world seemed somehow to remember what it was “supposed” to be doing and get back to Plan A when there surely is no plan.

It doesn’t really make sense to talk about advanced and primitive life forms being around now since life has existed on this planet for something like four thousand million years and everything on it now, from Archaea to hummingbirds and stinking corpse lilies, has an unbroken string of ancestors stretching back to that point. Even so, there are trends in evolution and it might be tempting to believe that a furry, warm-blooded (there’s that word again) animal who gives birth to live young, lives on land and is intelligent is more advanced than a sea slug or a hagfish. Then we get into the great chain of being with mammals being more advanced than reptiles, who are more advanced than amphibians, who are more advanced than fish and so on, but actually there is a way in which we could’ve got lucky but didn’t, and an interesting way of illustrating that is with fish.

This is an opah, currently being touted in typically ignorant and sensationalist clickbaity fashion as a newly discovered warm-blooded (it’s like an unscratchable itch) fish. In fact fish who make their own body heat have been known about since Sir Humphry Davy found that bluefin tuna were 3°C warmer than the water around them in about 1800.

Tuna make their own body heat partly through being very active and large. Swordfish also do this, concentrating on their eyes and brains to enable them to think and react faster than their prey.

There’s a kind of perfect storm, or rather calm, pertaining to most mammals where they make their own body heat, give birth to live young, walk on four legs and breathe air which, because we are ourselves mammals, we tend to perceive as advanced. However, when our ancestors crawled out of the water they were “cold-blooded”, laid eggs in water and had gills as well as lungs. There are fish which do all of these things separately though. They just never occurred together in our ancestors until the Cretaceous. But maybe they could’ve done.

There’s a pitfall here that we might see fish as primitive and merely our ancestors when in reality they have as much history as we have and primitive fish weren’t like today’s on the whole. Expecting the kind of fish directly ancestral to us lot of tetrapods to have these features is roughly the same as expecting the aforementioned cavepeople to do the aforementioned things. Nonetheless, these features could in theory all have occurred together in the same species because each of them occurs individually in various species of fish.

The “warm-blooded” thing is really bugging me so I’ll deal with that first. It’s a misnomer and a pretty dubious advantage. Homeothermy is a better word. This is where vanishingly small amounts of heat are used to cool an organism down organisms maintain their internal temperature at a different level than their surroundings. It isn’t warm-bloodedness because in a tropical habitat a mammal may be expending a lot of energy on keeping cool, and it doesn’t apply to all mammals in all circumstances. Bats and rodents, for example, may have body temperatures below freezing when hibernating without coming to any harm. In 2010 a woman survived being frozen in a block of ice after her car fell into a lake and a Japanese man once went into hibernation after falling off a mountain path. Duck-billed platypodes’ and echnidas’ temperatures vary somewhat with their surroundings. Homeothermy in fish is selective and usually only applies to certain parts of the body.

It’s also worth considering particularly vigorous or large animals. Flying insects are often warmer than their surroundings because of the frantic activity of their muscles and just as a compost heap is warm, so might a particularly large supposedly “cold-blooded” animal be. Larger animals take longer to change temperature because heat has to travel considerable distances between the core and the skin and they have relatively smaller surfaces compared to smaller animals. If they’re also herbivores there’s a lot of enzymatic activity going on in their guts and that will also generate heat, as will their own metabolism. Consequently big enough animals, such as apatosaurs, could be kind of homeothermic by default. They could hardly not be. You would expect a fifty-tonne walking compost heap to be warm.

Going into more depth with dinosaurs, there are several reasons why they’re now thought to have been homeothermic, like all surviving dinosaurs, i.e. birds, are. They often had feathers, which insulate, meaning that they would make it harder for them to warm up. There wee relatively few predators, suggesting they needed a lot of food to keep going. They don’t show tree-like growth rings on their bones, which other vertebrates do due to seasonal variations in temperature. Finally, there were large dinosaurs in cooler parts of the world, meaning they wouldn’t have relied on the heat of the Sun to warm them up, which would have taken longer than smaller animals making them uncompetitive.

Speaking of dinosaurs, like them their closest relatives all reproduce by laying eggs. Birds and crocodilians always lay eggs. The closest any of them come to not doing so is the kiwi, who lays giant eggs a third the mother’s size which hatch soon afterwards. Although it’s fairly clear that it makes sense for a flying animal not to have to have embryos weighing down her body, this didn’t stop bats from flying and pterosaurs also gave birth, and flightless birds, crocodiles and alligators also lay eggs. On the other hand, giving birth to live young has evolved independently a hundred times among vertebrates, particularly among fish and snakes and lizards (mammals only evolved it once or twice but almost all surviving species are descended from the species who did). It’s notable that snakes and lizards store calcium in their yolks but birds and crocodilians use a calcium-rich shell as a reservoir from which to get calcium for their skeletons, so this may be why.

There are a fair number of live-bearing sharks and fish such as the swordtail above. There are different ways of doing this. A mother may simply retain the eggs in her body for the shell to rupture or dissolve before birth or the embryo may implant as with most mammals. Some embryos get nutrients from the egg, others from their mothers via a placenta. In some species the yolk interfaces with blood vessels, as with hens, but in others the yolk is absorbed by the digestive system, and rather surprisingly, although humans are placental, we seem to be descended from animals who did the latter. Meckel’s diverticulum is an occasional pouch found in some people’s intestines which seems to be left over from this stage, which is yet another piece of evidence for evolution.

Then there are legs. Clearly there is a whole major phylum of animals with legs regardless of whether they live in water or on land but there are also completely aquatic fish with leg-like appendages on their fins such as the common deep ocean tripod fish:

This stands kilometres down on the abyssal plain and is hermaphrodite as it’s unlikely to encounter another member of its species, and if it does will always mate. Had animals evolved from such fish they’d have been tripedal. There are also tree-climbing fish whose fins can grasp twigs and branches.

The other mammal-like attribute is survival out of water. Although lungfish can do this by aestivating – they cocoon themselves and bury themselves in mud when their water dries out – there are also British fish that do this such as the stone loach. These fish, though, don’t do much, as it’s the summer version of hibernation. I don’t know how loaches do it.

This brings me to the animal with whom I used to be legendarily obsessed as a child: the TOMPOT BLENNY!

This is a British fish who like other blennies lives in shallow inshore rocky waters in the Southwest. They also look like David Lynch’s version of Thufir Hawat from Dune, but their main significance here is that some blennies are amphibious. Although mudskippers are the best known amphibious fish, there are many others. Walking catfish for example.

In fact it’s not even that unusual for a fish to venture out of water. Salmon do it to move between rivers and eels are well-known for it. The thing about eels though is that I suspect the reason they can survive so long out of water is that they’re long and thin, so all of their body is close to the air, enabling gas exchange. This also means that it would be difficult for them to be entirely homeothermic because they would lose heat too quickly.

Air-breathing fish don’t need lungs. Rather, they either use special gills or gas diffuses across their skin. That said, lungfish are not the only fish with lungs by any means, another example being this species, a bichir. The possession of lungs is actually a primitive feature rather than an advanced one – some of the first fish, the arthrodires, had lungs and breathed air although they were completely aquatic. Swim bladders and lungs are more or less the same thing.

As far as I know each of these features – air-breathing, homeothermy, viviparity and the ability to walk – tends to occur alone. It would be difficult for a homeothermic fish in particular to survive out of water because she would lose a lot of heat by evaporation and insulation would be needed, probably in the form of subcutaneous fat rather than fur because the latter would be bedraggled and block gas exchange. Nevertheless, clearly air-breathing and the possession of leg-like structures do occur together in tree-climbing fish, and it’s probably just chance that there never seems to have been a live-bearing, homeothermic air-breathing fish with legs, and if they’d been the first land vertebrates, although they would probably have appeared much later, it would also have meant that, ironically, they would’ve leapfrogged amphibians and have been almost mammals bar the ability to suckle their young, as soon as they emerged from the water.

And that would’ve been a Whig fish.

Don’t Call It Suicide


Obvious trigger warning. If you’re finding things too much to bear, please go here.

As well as ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’, the subject of people killing themselves is impinging quite strongly on my consciousness right now. I can’t be said to be an expert on it but I’m still going to try to say something meaningful about it which, I hope, doesn’t require me to be an expert on anything other than human being.

It might surprise some people to learn that ideas of killing myself have almost always only occurred to me as intrusive thoughts. I am practically certain that I could be diagnosed as suffering from depression, although I lack the detachment to do so myself, so although I can look at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or International Classification of Diseases and satisfy most or all of those criteria, I’ve never formally gone along to a doctor or other healthcare professional and been officially diagnosed, and in fact I’ve had therapists remark upon the fact that unlike most of their clients I don’t go to them because of my depression. I don’t want to spend too long going into this because this isn’t supposed to be about me, but I don’t consider the likely fact that I’m depressive to be something I need to address. It’s also not been accompanied by thoughts of killing myself, which knocks out one of the DSM criteria, because I considered death to be better than I deserved and continuing living to be a punishment my perceived worthlessness warranted, but that’s only a superficial interpretation. In fact I think this is a rationalisation of a more deep-seated survival instinct. Anyway, for whatever reason I wouldn’t describe myself as having been “suicidal”, as the phrase has it, often, and consequently I might presume to understand it from the inside, but my intuition is probably off.

Like many people who work in the caring professions, I have come in contact with people who have come close to ending their lives many times, and in probably three cases they’ve actually completed the act. Unfortunately I have to say “probably” because I’m not part of any kind of network of healthcare services except to the extent that I sometimes get referrals from others or refer people to others. One of the benefits of the NHS is that it’s an integrated social system, meaning that someone’s medical history follows them around to some extent, with communication between various parts of the service, meaning, I imagine, that people working with people who are at risk of killing themselves sometimes get to hear about it when they have done so. I don’t have this, the result being that I get a slightly similar experience to the “missing” versus “killed” problem that happens after natural disasters, where one can’t achieve closure. My way of dealing with that is to conclude that of those three cases, the one I don’t know about is very likely to have involved someone ending their life. There is unsurprisingly very little specific I can say about this.

Recently one of my acquaintances took an overdose and is now in ICU unable to breathe unassisted and another one tried to take her own life twice in the last couple of years. I presume this is very common for the simple reason that I come across it sporadically among acquaintances and friends.

In 2015, there were 6 188 recorded cases in the UK. I quote an exact figure because each of those lives is of infinite value and marks an end of the world for that person – rounding it up or down would be disrespectful. That would be about one in ten thousand, which in fact to me sounds like a drastic underestimate, and I don’t understand why it sounds so low. Possibly it’s to do with pre-teens not usually being part of it but even then the figures would only be doubled to around one in five thousand. Moreover, most of my acquaintances are female and women are five times less likely to do it than men. Consequently, whereas I do accept that these statistics are accurate, I don’t understand why they don’t reflect my experience, but they don’t.

Onto the main subject then.

I dislike the word “suicide”. This is because words ending in “-cide” often describe crimes, which reflects the history of the word: regicide, homicide, genocide. Insecticides are a possible counterexample, but this uses the suffix in a wider scope in a similar way to “xenophobia” and “hydrophobia” not describing actual fears. The suffix “-cide” is from the Latin verb cædere, meaning “to cut down”, which is pretty stark in this context. Sui is used to mean “self”. However, suicide as a word originally described a crime and of course attempted or successful suicide were criminal offences in England until 1961. The idea of crime has connotations of culpability and responsibility, and even without those, of wrongdoing. Whereas people to get angry with others who have killed themselves and might therefore wish to blame them, this also happens with accidental deaths and other ways of losing people where by no stretch of the imagination could the victim be ascribed responsibility. Using the word “suicide” is outdated and unhelpful. It also tends to make survivors feel guilty for that reason.

There’s an obvious strong correlation between suicide and depression, and if depression is understood to be a mental illness, albeit one which involves more accurate perception than people who are not mentally ill in some areas, which is a big part of the problem, then it’s an illness and blaming people for killing themselves is like blaming them for dying of strokes or cancer. Having said that, in those cases there can be an element of lifestyle contributory factors such as smoking or diet of which the person would have been aware beforehand, and naturally those in turn could be linked to depression. Although I’m more sceptical than many about the existence of free will, I don’t think people can be realistically blamed for dying of strokes or cancer, and the idea of it being illegal or criminal to die of a physical illness would seem absurd to most people most of the time, with the possible exception of sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis. Therefore the word “suicide” shouldn’t be used most of the time, though I think there are exceptions.

Sometimes people will kill themselves as part of a criminal or immoral act. For instance, after a mass shooting, people often seem to shoot themselves and human bombs involve someone killing themselves and many others. I would concede that in these situations it makes sense to call the act suicide because of the criminal nature of the activity involved, although it still makes sense to me to see many people who do such things as mentally ill. Maybe there’s a way of divorcing the idea of responsibility from that of criminality in some way which won’t harm the innocent, I don’t know, but I would also say there’s a difference between this act and the act of a pilot crashing a plane as a form of suicide motivated by depression. In such a situation, the victim has got their perceived worthlessness out of proportion to the value of the lives of the passengers, and that seems to be pathological. That kind of belief seems to arise from a place most healthy people would struggle to understand.

Here I’m equating mental and physical health, and what’s often referred to as abnormal behaviour is frequently subsumed under a medical paradigm. If I go on too much about this, it ceases to be relevant to this blog, but there are other ways of looking at behaviour of this kind. It’s also not always depression which motivates people to kill themselves even if they can be diagnosed as mentally ill. For instance, they may feel compelled by a force or told by voices to kill themselves without being notably depressed, although nobody can deny that the usual connection is with depression.

The legal history of suicide is pretty depressing. Suicide became codified as a crime in England during the thirteenth century and was originally known as felo de se, crime against oneself, which was part of common law. People who had died in this way were buried at crossroads secretly with no mourners, and forfeited their estate to the Crown, which meant their dependents would be forced into poverty. I’m not sure if this was meant to be a deterrent or not but I suppose it may have acted as one sometimes. At the same time, being non compos mentis or a child would be in a sense a “defence” against felo de se, and as time went by this defence was used increasingly frequently, so there was a gradual drift towards seeing the problem in more psychiatric terms, and I mean that in a positive way. Even in the twentieth century though, police used to wait by the bedside of people who had attempted suicide.

It was largely the result of a Church of England campaign in the late 1950s that suicide in England ceased to be a criminal offence. As late as 1958 a man who had attempted suicide because his wife had died was sent to prison for six months. This means, to spell it out, he was bereaved, tried to kill himself and in that traumatised state arrested, prosecuted in court and sent to jail, and this is well within living memory in this country. In Ireland it remained a crime until 1993, and incidentally that along with the likes of their abortion law and the non-existence of divorce, all of which were in place during the Troubles, really does make me wonder why the heck Sinn Fein wanted a united Ireland.

I’ve used the legal terminology above deliberately, because it’s unhelpful and distasteful. Words like “committed” and “suicide” stop people talking about it. “Died by suicide” or “completed suicide” are better but still include the S word. The trouble is that it’s important to talk about and also difficult to, so we do need a way to make it easier. A Punjabi lesbian I met once pointed out that in order to come out to her monolingual Punjabi mother she had to say the equivalent of “I am a women who wants to sleep with other women sexually”, because there was no word for “lesbian”, which meant she told her a lot later than she would’ve done otherwise and found telling her all the more traumatic. It needs to be referred to succinctly but suicide, felo de se and “self-murder” are all insensitive and unsuitable. In this post I’ve talked about people “ending their lives” and the like, but I don’t find any of them satisfactory either.

The reason for all this seems to be that the person who had ended their life was not considered to have the authority to determine when someone’s time was up. It was considered an affront to God and the State. As such, calling it “committing suicide” is a relic of an order when abortion was forbidden and people were considered subjects rather than citizens.

Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, some people would argue that “commit” has lost this connotation nowadays and that it instead carries the idea that it’s a commitment to bringing one’s life to a close. However, it’s not possible to control how other people take one’s way of speaking and there is a flavour of stigma and shame in that verb which is not there in “completed” or “died by”, although to many the next word puts it right back in. I honestly don’t know what to do about this.

Finally, a word or two about the octagram at the top of this post. It used to be believed that the last thing a person saw before they died stayed on their retina. This was an actual scientific belief at the time to the extent that, among other people, Mary Anne Kelly, victim of Jack The Ripper, had her retina photographed post mortem in the forlorn hope that it might bear an image of her murderer. Unsurprisingly this failed, although there is some evidence that afterimages can be fixed shortly after death as it was done with a rabbit’s eye in 1860 and this brings ‘Black Mirror’s ‘Crocodile’ to mind too. The process is referred to as optography and the association with octagrams seems to be the result of confusing the words.

Just as an octagram would be a record of someone’s final experience, so is death by one’s own hand. However, just as an octagram is merely a final image, so is such a death merely a final act, and may represent a moment when the urge to die won over the drive to continue living, compared to numerous occasions when the person won, and it doesn’t define that person’s life. We shouldn’t be tempted to believe that it does, any more than an octagram is the most important image someone ever sees. It’s no more than final, and the person concerned had a life which made them so much more than that. Death shouldn’t be permitted that imaginary victory.

Through The Looking Glass

Some experiments should never be conducted. Currently, chief among these are naturally the vivisection of other species, which is still carried out on a horrific scale, though one death is like killing the whole world, since it’s the end of an individual’s world. A particularly notable example is the various Nazi experiments, which one can hardly bear to contemplate. These have yielded useful results which are still applied today and have saved countless lives. There is currently controversy regarding whether Aspergers Syndrome should be renamed due to Hans Aspergers participation in the Nazi eugenics and child mass murder (“euthanasia”) programmes of the Third Reich. In fact, leaving aside ethics and politics insofar as one can, it’s rather impractical to have eponymous medical terms such as the Achilles tendon and Fallopian tubes because they don’t actually describe what they are. Consequently, the former is now the calcaneal ligament and the latter are uterine tubes.

The person after whom the former body part was named is a good example of the patriarchal culture of the Ancient Greeks and is mentioned not only by Homer but in the Linear B tablets which bear the oldest written Greek in the Bronze Age. The oldest Greek has features which died out by the time the likes of Plato and Aristotle were alive, such as the sound /w/, and since this is generally the way things go, would have been rather more similar to related languages than it is nowadays, or later in Antiquity for that matter. Although Greek is, like English, an Indo-European language, it also appears to be an only child and has been so for thousands of years. English is clearly closely related to German, Swedish and Afrikaans, in the Germanic sub-family, but Greek is not so easy to connect beyond the fact that it is in the same family as our own speech. One possibility, though, is that it’s related to a long-dead language known as Phrygian, which brings me back to unethical experiments.

At about Plato’s time, Pharaoh Wahibre Samtik I conducted the kind of experiment it would have been easy for a sufficiently high-status man to carry out in those days. He took two infants and had them raised by a shepherd who was forbidden to speak to them or let them hear another human voice. This he did in order to find out what the original language of the human race was. He then starved them in order to provoke them into asking for food. They apparently reached out to him, repeatedly uttering the word “bekos“. “Bekos” turns out to be the Phrygian word for bread, and Samtik concluded that humanity’s first spoken language must therefore have been Phrygian.

By by en:User:Dbachmann – Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Although he was undoubtedly wrong, the conclusion he came to is quite remarkable because in fact Phrygian was spoken in the Balkans, and later in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), close to two areas considered to be the original Indo-European homeland – the location of the Kurgan Culture (as in Highlander) north of the Caucasus between the Black and Caspian Seas, shown as bright red in the above map, or Anatolia, again modern Turkey excluding Turkey in Europe, the home of the Hittites.

The main idea regarding the geographical origin of our language family is known as the Kurgan Hypothesis. This posits that a certain culture found in the Russian steppes characterised by its funeral barrows, known in Russian as << курган>> from the Turkish word meaning the same thing, spoke the language which eventually gave rise to English, Latin, Welsh, Greek, Albanian, Sanskrit, Armenian and others. There are certain likely limits to the time and location of the original speakers of Proto-Indoeuropean (PIE), determined for example by the fact that the words for “wheel” are similar in many widely separated languages (either cognate with “wheel” itself or “road” – Greek kyklos but Latin rota for example), meaning that the wheel must have been invented by the time this language was spoken, and by the presence of native and widespread words for some plants and animals but borrowed words for others, from which linguists conclude that the homeland can’t have had certain species but must’ve had others. Bayesian probability analysis, though its application has been criticised here as inappropriate by some, may help give a clue as to when this language was spoken, placing it between 7100-9800 BP with 95% confidence with a unimodal distribution (single peak) centred at 8400 BP. The abbreviation “BP” refers to number of years before 1950 CE, so it looks like it was spoken about 6500 BCE, during the local Copper Age, which precedes the Bronze Age.

It’s at this point that I should probably confess that I’m too close to this subject to have any idea whether what I’m saying is common knowledge or largely unknown, or for that matter whether it’s interesting or boring. In any case, I’m going to blunder on in my ignorance, so I apologise if this is all in “well, duh” territory.

Hence, rather surprisingly, Psamtik I seems to have guessed correctly where many early languages originated, although Egyptian itself was an Afro-Asiatic language like Hebrew and Arabic which probably didn’t originate nearby, there being various ideas about this which I won’t go into right now.

The main rival theory to the Kurgan Hypothesis is the Anatolian Hypothesis. This states that PIE was originally spoken in Anatolia in the Neolithic (New Stone Age), and suggests that they moved with the adoption of farming through Eurasia over the next few millenia. One of the problems with this is that the Neolithic seems to be too early, at around 8500 BP, and therefore languages would be more diverse than they in fact are, that farming spread in several waves and that there seem to be many words shared by languages for things which only became widely used later, such as wool and milk. Having said that, Hittite and its close relatives clearly did fork off earliest and were spoken in this area.

The idea that it happened early is also part of the Palaeolithic Continuity Paradigm, that PIE was spoken even earlier in the Old Stone Age, and that change used to be slower, which is why we find the idea that it’s as old as it’s suggested strange. This is based on the tendency for there to be continuity rather than sudden change in prehistory, that languages are old and that changes in archaeological finds tend to coincide with linguistic changes happening during the same period. However, there are problems with this paradigm, such as the fact that it’s Italian and asserts that Latin was spoken in Italy more than three thousand years ago, which as I’ll later mention is pretty certainly not the case.

Finally, there’s “Out Of India”, which is the belief that the languages originated with the Indus Valley Culture which started in about 3000 BCE, during the Bronze Age, and spread north and west from there. This is not a popular theory and to me seems nationalistic. Having said that, I used to believe as a child that devanagari, the most popular script used to write Sanskrit, was developed from the writing used in the Indus Valley civilisation. It gets complicated here, because although there seem to be many similar ideas, which are hard to credit, to dismiss them out of hand could also be racist. I don’t believe it though.

One of the clinchers for me is found in genetic evidence. Today’s Europeans have autosomal chromosomes with many features not found in Neolithic Europeans. Autosomal chromosomes are non-sex chromosomes, and ours seem to have spread from Western Asia north of the two largest seas which mark the remnants of the Tethys Sea, east of the Mediterranean. The fact that we have these genes suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly, that language moved with people’s reproduction. This brings up another issue regarding the movement of the “Aryans”, and I use that controversial word deliberately. From the nineteenth century, the Aryans were seen as the ethnic group which speaks Indo-european languages, the name being what Western scholars at the time thought the “Kurgans” called themselves. This may be true, as it’s reflected in names such as “Iran” and “Eire”, but nowadays the word is tainted by racism. This highlights two opposing views regarding how Indo-european culture spread: by diffusion or conquest.

The diffusion theory holds that Indo-european languages, along with the associated cultural features such as religion, cuisine, weapons and the like, spread peacefully or by military conquest. The characteristics of the pre-Indoeuropean culture around the whole area are said to be peacefulness, matriarchy and egalitarianism, and since Aryan culture was belligerent, patriarchal and hierarchical, to me it seems fairly clear that it was spread violently, and the fact that our genomes now include apparently Kurgan DNA is probably the result of a campaign of repeated rape on a massive scale as well as later, possibly more peaceful, intermarriage, although probably after a bit of genocide.

Having covered the Nazis, genocide, racism, experimental child abuse, rape and mass murder, the rest of this post will be a lot less depressing, I hope, but it was necessary to mention all this stuff in order to get to today’s actual topic: what would have happened if most people were left-handed? More specifically, what difference would it have made linguistically if the Kurgans had been mainly left-handed? This idea is the remnant of a much more extensive thought regarding how life on this planet would’ve been different if the molecules making it up had been mirror images of what they actually were, and in case you’re wondering it would’ve meant no thalidomide disaster, the scent of oranges and lemons swapping over and possibly different ways of giving up smoking, but I’ve decided not to go there.

So the obvious question arises of why the heck this would’ve made any difference at all. It would, for a start, have made slight but fairly obvious differences in the words used for left and right because right would’ve been the taboo direction and the Spanish word for “left” would be “siniestre” rather than “izquierda”, which is from Basque, and the English word “sinister” would’ve meant “skilful” rather than “presaging horror”, but in fact not only might this not have happened but it might just be that no Indo-european languages at all would be the same, although I could be wrong.

I almost called this post “Turn Left” but decided it made it sound like it was about socialism so I changed my mind. However, the question does arise of what would’ve happened if the Kurgans who turned “left” and went into Europe and those who turned “right” and ended up in Asia had each gone the other way, although it might make more sense to call those directions west and east.

Returning to the map:


…you will note that it’s colour-coded, with blue mainly in the West and red in the East, with the exception of Tocharian. On the whole, the family is divided in half, except that Hittite and its kin split off early and that doesn’t work for them. These are called SATEM and CENTUM, based on what happened to the word for “hundred” in either. SATEM languages include the languages of North India and Sri Lanka plus Romany, Iranian languages, Baltic (including Lithuanian and Latvian plus Old Prussian which is extinct) and Slavic (Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and the like). CENTUM languages include mainly the Western Indoeuropean languages, namely Greek (which has its own branch), Italic (Latin, its sister languages and its descendants such as French, Ladino and Romanian), Germanic (Scots, Yola, Yiddish, English, German and others; the Scandinavian languages; Gothic and its long extinct and unknown relatives), Celtic (Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Cumbric, the Q-Celtic tongues such as Irish and Manx and the extinct continental Celtic languages like Gaulish and Celtiberian), Albanian (which is the only surviving Illyrian language) and the anomalous Tocharian, spoken in Chinese Turkestan, Tocharian (consisting of “Tocharian A” and “Tocharian B”), which in spite of being the furthest east is also KENTUM like the Western languages. Armenian, which like Greek has its own branch, is hard to classify, partly because it’s in the middle and partly because it’s borrowed so much from other languages that there isn’t much left of the original vocabulary.

To a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Brit, the most important branches are Germanic, Italic and Celtic, although it’s only because we happen to live on the western fringe of Europe that Celtic now has much relevance to us. Due to the Raj and the Roma, northern Indian languages are also quite familiar to us, and in recent years Slavic and to an extent Baltic languages have also been heard more often. Greek is important too, due to technical jargon. Armenian, Iranian and Albanian don’t really figure for us at all, and Tocharian, having been extinct since the dark ages, is deeply obscure. Hence we’re generally a lot more familiar with CENTUM languages than SATEM. Except for Greek, CENTUM languages are also practically all written in the Latin script, whereas SATEM languages, though some are also written using the same alphabet, are often written in a wide variety of different scripts.

There is also a fringe claim that Tsimshian, a native American language spoken in the Pacific Northwest of North America, is Indo-european, but this is almost universally rejected, and Mandan, spoken in Eastern Canada, has a number of Welsh words which, however, turned out to have been borrowed quite recently.

The basic distinction between SATEM and CENTUM is their ancestral treatment of nine consonants found in PIE which have often changed again since that time. These are:


K, G, GH

C, J, JH

In SATEM languages, sounds in the first two rows merge and the third row becomes sibilant, for example as SH, ZH (as in Zhivago) and DZH. In CENTUM ones, the first row remains distinct and the last row becomes like the second. These changes, though, are often obscured by what happened more recently. For instance, although the Latin word for “hundred” is “CENTUM” with a hard C, all modern descendants pronounce the C sound differently, sometimes in fact as an S like SATEM languages, and English and its sisters have all turned the K sound into an H because of a process called Grimm’s Law (yes, as in fairy tales). It generally makes sense to think of this as starting as a variation in accent from West to East through the Kurgan area, with Armenian in the middle. Having said that, this may not be what actually happened for two reasons. One is that trends in pronunciation occur in parallel between related languages which are not in close contact. For instance, both German and English originally had the word “hus” for “house”, pronounced as in Scots “hoose”, but both now pronounce it with what English speakers think of as an “OW” sound. The other is that there just are trends in language change because of humans being similar to each other. Examples of this are the tendency to drop H’s , which ‘as ‘appened in English and all the western Romance languages, and the tendency for a L sound before a consonant to become an “OO” or “AW” sound, which has happened in English, Portuguese and Polish. High German is kind of the result of the same process which turned an older CENTUM language into something more distinctively Germanic happening twice.

Finally getting there!  What would have happened if the language changes which changed PIE to CENTUM and SATEM had swapped over, so that in the West the languages were SATEM and in the East CENTUM, with the exception of Tocharian and Celtic, so that instead of the easternmost group being the exception, the westernmost was CENTUM instead?  This could mean that Celtic languages existed in the same places as they do now, that Tocharian was just “normal” and that all the other related languages in Europe were more like, say, Farsi or Lithuanian.

The easiest example is Germanic.  Germanic languages would have satemised, but then gone through the same sound shifts.  I can illustrate what this would’ve meant to some extent using English as if it was SATEM.  The word for “hundred” could have been something like “sundecentic”, and the numbers from one to ten would’ve run something like this:  on, two, three, hower, fink, six, seven, asht, nine, tecen.  It takes a lot of work to come up with any idea of how things might have turned out, even if inaccurate, such as working out when some words end up sounding too similar to each other for them to survive as extra words, as happened with the two words later to merge into the single word “think”, or where a word might decay so completely that it would be replaced by another, as with the AQUA in Latin which was “ahwa” in Proto-Germanic, meaning “river” and eventually turned into an “uh” sound which promptly got replaced by words such as “nailbourne”, “burn” and “stream”, and eventually “river” itself after the Norman Conquest.

This brings up the question of the other major CENTUM branch, that of the Italic languages.  Although Latin was the only Italic language to survive into the Christian Era, there were a number of other languages spoken on the Italian peninsula and apparently elsewhere which belong to this group.  These include Picene, Oscan, Faliscan, Umbrian, Liburnian, possibly Sicel (spoken in Sicily), Volscian, Marsian, Sabine, the unknown Aequian and Vestinian and probably Lusitanian, spoken in what is now northern Spain.  These languages seem always to have been at least separate dialects and have influenced Latin, as has the isolated non-Indoeuropean Etruscan.  Incidentally, because Etruscan isn’t affected in this scenario, it still gets to donate words to Latin, some of which ultimately ended up in English, such as “atrium”, “person” and possibly “element”, meaning that those words at least would be the same.  Today the only traces of Italic languages other than Latin are found in Italian accents and dialects, but there’s another issue:  they may well be close to Celtic.  Italo-Celtic has even been proposed as a branch of the family tree, meaning that Welsh would almost be a Romance language, and in fact it has some similarities to modern Romance languages, which are descended from Vulgar Latin.  The trouble is that in the scenario I’ve suggested, Celtic is an isolated Western CENTUM branch, which would mean the language of the Roman Empire, if it’s truly related to Celtic, wouldn’t exist and the Romans would instead have been speaking something else.  When the Empire fell and the Romance languages developed from lower-class Latin, the French speakers who eventually got round to invading Great Britain would have been speaking a very different language.  However, it’s also suggested that the features Celtic and Italic languages share are to do with them being spoken near and influencing each other and/or because they preserve features from PIE.  Celtic also shares features with Tocharian and Hittite, which Italic languages also do to a lesser extent.  The process of parallel change mentioned before may also be a factor.  Therefore, maybe there could be a SATEM “Latin”.

The problem with all of this is that it might have nothing at all to do with handedness.  I like to imagine the Kurgans falling out with each other and storming off in opposite directions, and some decision being made where the chiefs of the two groups say to each other, in PIE of course, “Right then, you go left and we go right”, resulting in the situation we are now in.  If that happened, it would have been a fantastic example of a minute decision with massive consequences, which if it had gone the other way would’ve resulted in most of the world speaking completely different but faintly familiar languages, but maybe that didn’t happen.


The other thing is the question of how these languages would’ve been written.  Greek got its alphabet from Phoenician, but originally wrote it boustrophedon, like an oxen ploughing a field.  When it did this, it ran left to right on one line, then right to left with the letters reversed, then back to the original and so forth.  This made writing faster because it wasn’t necessary to return to the start of a line after finishing ones and in fact tellies used to do it too for the same reason.  It also meant that Phoenician script, when adopted by the Greeks, ended up reversing direction and being written left to right, then right to left by the Etruscans, and eventually left to right by the Romans and therefore also ourselves.  However, in this version of events it would probably have been the other way round, so we would in fact have mirror writing today if this had happened, since most people would’ve been left-handed.  Apart from that, different sounds would have existed in Latin.  For instance there would be no “Q” but the letter might have been used for a different sound as it was in any case when taken from Phoenician.

To conclude then, I haven’t worked out the whole of this situation but it provides ample food for thought for constructed languages and scripts.  I’ve assumed that the rest of history is the same, which probably wouldn’t be true.  However, working out the other details provides a whole world of thought, and perhaps one where the left-handed people in this one would prefer to live.

The State Of Greater Giraffia


This map does not depict all of the State of Greater Giraffia. It misses off the disputed territories to the west, the Northern Isles and the Scilly Isles, but you can assume that the last three are included as part of the country.

The total area of Greater Giraffia is approximately twice that of Great Britain, placing it in the same league as Madagascar and Baffin Island with an area of roughly 400 000 km². Its land surface has two distinct colours, one a kind of sandy hue and the other dark brown. These are the colours of the rocks rather than the vegetation, and allow the island to hide from potential predators more effectively. Less distinctively marked Giraffias were unfortunately picked off by roving Leonia islands, which used to be rife in the Northern Atlantic.

As with Great Britain, the island is divided into the nations of Scotland, England and Wales. Wales is the same size as it is in Britain but Scotland and England are both somewhat larger, the former being about the size of British England and the latter probably bigger than the whole of Great Britain. It may be instructive to compare the two islands side-by-side to scale, thus:


It can be seen from this diagram that Edinburgh and Glasgow are on the approximate latitude of the Shetlands and that the Highlands may even impinge on the Faroes. This means that the summer days are exceedingly long in Scotland, and of course the winter nights are very long too. The Sun can be expected to rise on the summer solstice at about 3:30 am and set at around 11:20 pm, and at the winter solstice it rises at about 9:50 am and sets at about 3 pm. In order to prevent offending the Faroese, the Faroes constitute a Danish enclave in northern Scotland which is identical to the Faroes, except that being inland they are unable to practice their tradition of pilot whale hunting. What a shame.

The ski resorts in Scotland are of much better quality in Great Giraffia than they are in Great Britain. Tourists can rely on Aviemore being snowy for much longer. There are also permanent glaciers of considerable size and the aurora borealis is a popular attraction. Much of northern Scotland is effectively tundra and reindeer are common there, where the Saami people pursue their traditional reindeer-herding lifestyle

Linguistically, Greater Giraffia is more diverse than Great Britain. Scots is spoken on both sides of the border, being found also in Northern England, and Pictish is still spoken in a few spots as well as Cumbric in Northwestern England. In Scotland, Faroese is unsurprisingly spoken in the Danish enclave, surrounded by an area of Caithness Norn speakers. The Saami herders naturally speak Saami dialects, though unlike the continental versions of that language. Some words have been borrowed from Saami into both Scots and Norn and there is a first-language Norn school in Edinburgh as well as a Saami language education scheme in the North, organised by peripatetic teachers, who are themselves ethnically Saami.

Speaking of education, there is no “tall poppy syndrome” anywhere in Greater Giraffia. All children are regarded as gifted and highly prized, and there has never been any selective education. The history of independent schools is also different, with public schools having maintained their accessibility to the poor, and they were incorporated into the state schooling system in 1870.

The average height of a Great Giraffian adult is around 3.2 metres, much of which is accounted for by the very long neck at about 1.5 metres, although the Saami do not have this feature. Like some other cultures around the world such as in Myanmar and South Africa, Giraffians wear neck rings, but this is out of necessity rather than merely custom and does not cause health problems. Giraffians also tend to have many birthmarks.

One of the most remarkable features of Northern England is the city of Carlisle. As in Britain this is the largest city by area in Giraffia, stretching approximately 120 kilometres north-south and thirty kilometres from east to west. It has a population of about the same as Bristol at 400 000 and an area of 3900 kilometres, more than twice the size of Greater London. Most of the residents speak Cumbric as a first language, a language closely related to Welsh and Pictish. There have been calls to make Carlisle the capital of England.

Giraffia has a longer coastline than Great Britain although being fractal this is not easily quantifiable.