Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s

Some remarks on the etymology of literary Martian

Nothing was the same for two successive minutes, and if that’s a language, I’m an alchemist!
    — Stanley G. Weinbaum, ‘A Martian Odyssey’

  § 1.  MARTIAN is the language spoken by the intelligent indigenous inhabitants of the planet Mars. Since, to the best of current knowledge, there are no such inhabitants, its study has been somewhat neglected: in fact, I am not aware of a single learned monograph on the subject since Victor Henry’s pioneering Le Langage Martien appeared in 1901. The fictional exploration of space was then in its infancy, and the evidence on which Henry based his description came necessarily from ‘Martian’ glossolalia enunciated by the spirit medium Hélène Smith (see Flournoy, From India to the Planet Mars). Subsequently, however, more or less extensive samples of Martian have been offered to the reading public by several generations of writers in the science fiction idiom. True, these writers’ approach to the language has varied, as has their diligence in reporting it: Edgar Rice Burroughs luxuriates in naïve exoticism (Tars Tarkas, Barsoom), Aleksandr Bogdanov contents himself with a few rather monotonous personal names (Ènno, Mènni, Nètti), and Ray Bradbury disdains to concoct a plausible-sounding language at all, choosing instead to name his Martian characters Mr. Ttt, Mr. Bbb, and so forth; but A. N. Tolstoy presents whole sentences of Martian dialogue (Aiu utara šókho, Tao khatskha ra khamagatsitl), and Percy Greg even draws up grammatical tables (although the early date of Across the Zodiac’s publication means its Martian is rather archaic). Readers may feel that the language attested in these various records is an inept mishmash, just too crass and too shoddy to be spoken under minimal atmospheric pressure in the frigid and unchanging rockfields that we all know from the photographs. I make no objection; I share the feeling. I only ask such readers to wonder, as I do, whether our unease at seeing the perfect celestial places thus polluted with sublunary trash does not reflect an emotional attitude to the solar system that is really pre-Galilean,—one that we should perhaps be trying harder to overcome.

  § 2.  The language described in these notes is, essentially, literary Martian in its classical period (which may be placed very approximately between 1900 and 1950). In particular, I shall give only the most cursory attention to Anglo-Martian, the language or dialect spoken by fictional human settlers on the planet: it is no part of my intention to compile a Hobson-Jobson that might help readers through the intricacies of dinner-table conversation in the bungalows of Lakkdarol or Port Schiaparelli. Anglo-Martian will not, in any case, be found to be especially significant from the standpoint of interplanetary comparative etymology (although one interesting Anglo-Martianism is discussed in a note appended to the present study). Even Martian properly so called cannot be given more than the very briefest treatment here: this article should be viewed, in fact, as an exploratory probe, a first fumbling step in the quest to discover life—even intelligence—amid the deserts of Martian philology.

  § 3.  The Martian language flourished only briefly, for reasons that are undoubtedly connected to the difficult history of the planet’s fictional relationship with Earth. H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, contains barely a word of Martian—especially on the assumption that ulla (derived from the English word ululation) is to be read as a mechanical noise, the sound of a Fighting Machine’s siren, rather than as a fragment of Martian. (Ulla did eventually find use as a war-cry or call to attention in Khlebnikov’s manifesto ‘The Trumpet of the Martians’.) The circumstances of the Martian invasion of Earth provided few opportunities for conversation; and Martians can always fall back on telepathy when they have no human beings to talk to. It was subsequent human visitors to Mars (travelling either as guests on Martian-built space vehicles or aboard rockets constructed on Earth) who had the best chance to hear the language spoken in its natural setting. By about 1950, however, the fictional exploration of Mars had been largely accomplished; and it was followed, as exploration sometimes will be, by permanent colonization. Evicted from their golden cities, stripped of their lightning guns, the Martians were driven relentlessly into the Kalahari and Outback of their planet. Naturally enough, interest in their language waned too: writers’ attention shifted from documenting the autochthonous civilization of Mars to describing the rise of the planet’s human settlements. Bradbury’s elegiac manner makes him the most tasteful chronicler of this new phase in Martian history; but its inauguration is marked most emphatically by Arthur Clarke’s The Sands of Mars (1951):

Gibson wondered how the changed climatic conditions of a hundred years hence might affect the Martians. If it became too warm for them, they could easily migrate north or south—if necessary into the sub-polar regions [...]
      There was still no answer to the great question which the discovery of the Martians had raised. Were they the degenerate survivors of a race which had achieved civilization long ago, and let it slip from their grasp when conditions became too severe? This was the romantic view, for which there was no evidence at all.
[...] In any case, it would be an extremely interesting experiment to see how far up the evolutionary ladder the Martians would climb, now that their world was blossoming again.
      For it was their world, not Man’s. However he might shape it for his own purposes, it would be his duty always to safeguard the interests of its rightful owners.
      It really comes down to this—would we get a better return for our efforts if we teach Martians to plant airweed, or if we do the job ourselves?

It would be out of place, in a philological essay, to comment on matters of interplanetary relations—to indulge, say, in fantasies about one last Fighting Machine coming bowling over the horizon, its siren skirling and its heat-ray fully charged, to vindicate Mars’s honour in a new War of the Worlds that would be a war not of conquest but of liberation. But an environment like that provided by Gibson and his colleagues is scarcely one in which we would expect spoken Martian to be taken down with any great attentiveness; and in fact Clarke’s book does not contain a syllable of it. One is not surprised to find Kurt Vonnegut in 1959 writing about Mars without mentioning the indigenous population at all, or Ben Bova, more recently, reporting that nothing survives of the Martians and their language beyond some inscriptions, of vast antiquity but quite indecipherable, carved into the stone.

  § 4.  The nature of our source material means that the methods we would ordinarily use to establish cognates and etymologies in terrestrial languages cannot be applied in quite the usual fashion: it would be unrealistic to look for rigorous phonological laws in a vocabulary that has been filtered through the imaginations of individual writers. The risk of being misled by purely fortuitous similarities is thus a serious one. It can, however, be kept within reasonable bounds by employing a weaker version of the same methodological principle. Percy Greg, for instance, informs us that the Martian for ‘to rule’ is mepi—which might remind us of the Georgian word mepe ‘king’. Are we to accept this etymology, and add Kartvelian to our list of language families from which Martian has borrowed? We would be rash to do so. The word is a short one; Greg may not have known any Georgian. In the absence of other Martian–Georgian parallels in Greg’s work, we would do well to treat this parallel as a coincidence. Or, again, Tolstoy’s khamagatsitl might put us in mind of Nahuatl (Aztec) words in which tl also occurs. This time, by contrast, we will find a whole series of Martian words that seem to have been shaped by some recollection of Nahuatl: tsitli, klitli, Magatsitl, Taltsetl. The pattern seems unlikely to have arisen by chance. And, once we have recognized Nahuatl as a source for Tolstoy’s Martian, we shall perhaps feel entitled to see the oa of Soam and Soatsera (a combination that is uncommon in Russian) as another Aztecism—influenced in this case by the oa of, for instance, Quetzalcoatl.

  § 5.  There are, of course, doubtful cases. C. L. Moore’s Lakkmanda, as the name of a market town, may or may not have much to do phonetically with Kathmandu; but, alongside the echo of Tibetan lha ‘god’ and Lhasa ‘city of the gods; Lhasa’ in the name of the deity Lsa, it probably allows us to identify a generally ‘Himalayan’ element in Moore’s Martian. On the other hand, a putative relationship between Pharol ‘the Devil’ and Pharaoh may seem less compelling. Similarly, it is not yet possible to say with absolute confidence whether or not Greg’s mordyta ‘lightning gun’ should be associated with English murder, or Tolstoy’s Soatsr ‘the sun’ with Russian solntse. All other things being equal, finally, we shall feel bolder in asserting a parallel where the word is more phonetically complex, and where the resemblance is especially close, than we shall otherwise. The case for associating lita ‘starlight’ (Tolstoy) with the English word light is not overwhelming; and, in fact, it seems just as likely that lita is a back-formation from Aèlita (a personal name). But there probably is a connection between the same author’s Likhta ‘one of Mars’s moons’ and the German word Licht. Secure etymologies are naturally harder to establish when writers offer only a small corpus of Martian words, although we need not give up all hope: grok ‘understand, apprehend, appreciate’, the only Martian word included in Robert Heinlein’s voluminous Stranger in a Strange Land, is probably derived from English—to grok something is to grasp it or to clock it,—with a novel orthography to lend it a dash of unfamiliarity.

  § 6.  On occasion, it may be possible to identify the general affective tone of a word even if its exact etymology remains uncertain. Roger Zelazny, very consciously writing after the fall of the fictional Martian civilization, refers to Mars’s chief city not as the uncouth Amâkasfe (Greg) or the faintly alarming Soatsera but as Tirellian: and we do not need to decide whether we are reminded specifically of Troy, Ilion, Aurelian, carnelian, or something else altogether to apprehend the word’s deliberate sweetness and classicism.

  § 7.  We are now in a position where we can venture upon a slightly more systematic account of one particular set of Martian records: and it is reasonable to select Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis. The Martian of this book is in fact presented as the language of the hrossa (singular hross), one of three intelligent species inhabiting Mars; but it is in general use as a Martian lingua franca, and a sequel even makes clear that it is used on Venus and other planets too. One of the first things that will strike us about hross Martian is its fondness for preaspirated word-initial consonants, or for initial consonant clusters in which the first element is h: Hleri, hnakra, hross, Hyahi. This characteristic immediately recalls Old Icelandic, or Old Norse (the language of the sagas, the eddaic poetry, and other works): hlæja, hnakki, hrafn, hvítr. The similarity between hross and Old Icelandic is strong enough that we are tempted to look for specific cognates—and we find some. Eldil ‘spiritual being’ may be influenced by English elder, but Old Icelandic eldr ‘fire’ is probably also part of its meaning; and harandra ‘(Martian) highland, upland’ is certainly formed from Martian handra ‘land, world, planet’ by the addition of something like Old Icelandic hár ‘high’.

  § 8.  There does not seem to be any very obvious Old Icelandic prototype for handra itself, which also occurs in the compound names Malacandra ‘Mars’ and Thulcandra ‘Earth’; none, at least, that seems a more convincing etymology than Sanskrit candra ‘moon’. And we may detect another hint of Sanskrit in Maleldil ‘God’: the Sanskrit term Mahatma will have been much in the news in the 1930s, when Lewis was writing, and Maleldil can plausibly be identified as a Martian calque—with mal- seemingly cognate with Sanskrit maha, Greek mégas, or Latin magnus. Maleldil, for which Lewis provides no literal translation, would thus mean ‘Great Spirit’. Once we have established that Lewis’s Martian draws not just on Old Icelandic but on several of the older and more literary Indo-European languages, we may seek to associate hnau ‘rational corporeal being; neither a beast nor an eldil’ with Greek noûs ‘mind’; and, while Arbol hru ‘sun-blood’ is a perfectly acceptable quasi-Icelandic kenning for ‘gold’, Arbol ‘the sun’ itself is evidently from Latin arbor ‘tree’—the image being of the sun as a tree with the planets as its fruit.

  § 9.  The termination -ol remains unexplained, however: and it is sorely tempting to see it as an echo of bargol ‘alone’, one of the comparatively few Utopian words that have been preserved for us in an addendum to the work of Hythlodaeus, More, and Giles:

Utopos ha Boccas peu la chama polta chamaan.
Bargol he maglomi baccan soma gymnosophaon.
Agrama gymnosophon labarembacha bodamilomin.
Volvala barchin heman la lavolvala dramme pagloni.

A scratch translation of these hexameters will perhaps be found helpful by any readers whose Utopian may be rusty:

My King Utopus made an isle
    Where no isle was before:
Alone in all the world, I showed
    Philosophy the door;
Yet I’ve become that perfect state
    Philosophy foresaw—
I’ll gladly teach you what I know,
    Or learn, if you know more.

On this reading Arbol, the Sun, is not just arbor, a tree: it is also a tree that stands bargol, or alone. The suggestion is a pleasing one; but, in the absence of other clear links between Utopian and Martian, it must be classed as unproven. Final -ol is quite common in the extraterrestrial vocabulary given by C. L. Moore, although it seems to be characteristic of Venerean rather than of Martian (Yarol, Sha-ardol ‘Venus’); and it is at least conceivable that Lewis was recalling the Venerean of his contemporary, rather than sixteenth-century Utopian.

  § 10.  There is, in any case, something more to be said about the hross fondness for preaspiration—even in words that do not otherwise closely resemble Old Icelandic: Hhihi, hluntheline, Hnoh, Hnohra, Hyoi. This phonological peculiarity of hross Martian is shared—even more clearly than it is by Old Icelandic—by the language of the Houynhnhnms, in the transcription of Lemuel Gulliver: one need only compare these examples of Martian with the attested Houynhnhnm words hhuun, hlunnh, hnea, and hnhloayn to be struck by the similarity. And the parallel is a fitting one. If one wanted to summarize the prelapsarian Mars that Lewis describes, indeed, one could do considerably worse than to say it is a cross between classical Iceland and the country of the Houynhnhnms. It would be satisfying to think we had reconstructed a thought process of which the author himself was only partly conscious, and perhaps with some of our other Martian documents that will be true; but in this case I do not think so. For one thing, Lewis was himself a critic and a mediaevalist and was quite accustomed to paying attention to matters of etymology and influences. And, for another thing, the Houynhnhnms were horses; and the word for ‘horse’ in Old Icelandic is, as any mediaevalist or Martianist will confirm, hross.

A note on Anglo-Martian etymology: the word Bleekmen

Philip K. Dick records Bleekmen as a term used by settlers on Mars, to denote the planet’s aboriginal inhabitants. The allusion here—in a context where Martians are assimilated rather closely to the San of the Kalahari—is probably less to bleak (describing the desert landscape) than it is to Wilhelm Bleek (1827–1875), the author (with L. C. Lloyd) of the classic Specimens of Bushman Folklore. Despite the derogatory connotations it acquires on the lips of Mars’s colonizers, Bleekmen is in its origins a rather elegant portmanteau of Bleek and Bushmen. There may, in fact, be some other gems amid the dross of the Anglo-Martian conversational lexicon,—but, if so, their retrieval, cutting, and polishing must be left to the prospectors of the future.


BOGDANOV, Aleksandr. Krasnaja zvezda (Red Star, 1908)
BOVA, Ben. Return to Mars (1999)
BRADBURY, Ray. The Martian Chronicles (1951)
BURROUGHS, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars (1912)
CLARKE, Arthur C. The Sands of Mars (1951)
DICK, Philip K. Martian Time Slip (1964)
GREG, Percy. Across the Zodiac (1880)
HEINLEIN, Robert. Stranger in a Strange Land (1962)
KHLEBNIKOV, Velimir. ‘Truba marsian’ (‘The Trumpet of the Martians’, 1916)
LEWIS, C. S. Out of the Silent Planet (1938)
MOORE, C. L. Northwest Smith (short stories, 1933–1936)
TOLSTOY, A. N. Aèlita (1922)
VONNEGUT, Kurt. The Sirens of Titan (1959)
WEINBAUM, Stanley G. ‘A Martian Odyssey’ (1934)
WELLS, H. G. The War of the Worlds (1898)
ZELAZNY, Roger. ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’ (1963)