Sugar and Iron

I have made several mildly disparaging remarks about the tebokoe in my writings on the culture of the giftees. I am probably guilty of that human thing of imagining a monoculture where none exists, but there are many elements of tebokoe culture(s) that I find irritating, particularly as a translator.

Firstly, their attitude towards words is annoying. For example, tebokoe is not their word for their people; it is the giftee word for their people (it means ‘like the large forest omnivore’ – which is pretty spot on). The tebokoe have no word for their people, nor for their planet, nor their gods and spirits, as they believe that important things should not have names (they literally refer to one of their guardian deities as “the third one”!). They do have personal names –lots of them– but consider that an act of humility on their part, and will get annoyed if you actually use them. You can probably see why this could be irritating for a translator and amateur historian.

Secondly, no really, their attitude to words is super annoying. Their most commonly used word for ‘yes’ is ‘voyb’; their usual word for ‘no’ is also ‘voyb’. What does ‘voyb’ literally mean? ‘Maybe’. So you would assume they indicate which they actually mean with tone or inflection right? Nope. They do have (less frequently used) words for ‘not no’ and ‘not yes’, but if they want a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ they have to switch to an entirely different sub-language.

Oh Goddess, I’m going to have to explain their language aren’t I? On normal planets like Earth or Gift when two tribes or cultures with different languages meet, you still end up with two languages; there might be some loan words exchanged, some people will learn both, eventually one tongue may supplant the other, but it’s quite possible both may continue to exist. On Maph-tebokoe however, they literally just jammed the two languages together to make one new language of twice the size. Moreover, when that language met a third one then it would grow again. Now the tebokoe were never a very numerous people, but their language is easily thirty times larger than English, with a ridiculous number of synonyms and several different overlapping and conflicting grammars. It is insane, and I haven’t even gotten to the sub-languages yet.

There are three sub-languages or registers – originally they seem to have been separate languages spoken by the three main spirit cults, back in the time when membership of one excluded you from the other two. They all draw from the same stupidly large corpus of words, but some words are only allowable in one register or another, and the allowable grammars also vary.

The forest register is the widest and most permissive; this mode is used for poetry and story, the words are expected to be interpreted through metaphor, allusion and allegory.

The valley register is a subset of the most useful words and the simplest grammars; it is used for everyday communication and informal advice. It is still rather ambiguous compared to English.

The mountain register allows only a limited set of words, and has an exacting grammar. The words are precisely defined, and are used pedantically. Some tebokoe assert that it is impossible to lie in this register – that is not literally true, of course, but it appears to be culturally taboo to do so.

Many words exist in all three registers, but the definition would vary slightly. So for example: ‘shantak’ in the valley tongue is reasonably translated to the English ‘story’. In the forest tongue it might be a myth, or a joke, or a sequence of events, a train of thought, or even a pathway. In the mountain tongue it is ‘a narrative which the speaker believes to hold a philosophical truth but does not hold to be an accounting of actual events’.

It is often considered a point of pride for a tebokoe to compose sentences that work in multiple registers at once; they believe the slightly different, sometimes conflicting, meanings add nuance rather than confusion.

Thirdly, no, I’m still hung up on their attitude to words. They have a saying: “Words are only of use when actual communication is impossible” - not a maxim to lift a xeno-linguist's heart.

I once asked a tebokoe ambassador what his favourite food was. He paused for a solid minute before replying, “Any true answer I could give you [about that matter] would be a lie.”

So, yeah, not a massive fan of the tebokoe. But the giftee absolutely love them, and it is mutual. No one really knows why these open and fun-loving savannah herbivores get on so well with those solemn and solitary artic predators; they just do.

They do, I suppose, share several common values; they both exalt kindness, and highly value learning and reason. The tebokoe prefer accuracy to honesty, but that is close enough a lot of the time.

Despite the climate of Gift not being to their liking at all, the tebokoe maintain a sizable enclave in the south-west of the Holy City. Around that part of the city it’s not unusual to see both tebokoe and giftee diplomats and emissaries wearing tebokoegah-narrugh’ or ‘map-charms’ – which is what I actually wanted to discuss, since they’re quite interesting as artefacts.

The tebokoe have no flags (not surprising, as they couldn’t be bothered to have a name for themselves) but the map-charm serves as a signifier of membership or association. You will sometimes hear them described as good luck charms, but the tebokoe don’t really seem to conceptualise luck in the same way as humans and giftees do, as something that can be called or encouraged. Rather the charms are about knowing where you are, where you want to be, and being visible to your guardian spirits.

In form they are nothing much to look at; a flat wooden irregular polygon with a single hole through it, no more than a couple of inches across. The front and back surfaces are inscribed with carved lines, and some areas are carved lower than the other parts. The corners and edges are rounded. The charms are normally worn on a ribbon or cord.

As I say, for believer in the primary tebokoe religion – which is a form of polytheism/animism that they’re very reserved about – the charms are held to ensure visibility to the guardian deities, like some form of spiritual tracking device. Their origins are more interesting than that, though.

The world of the tebokoe is freezing and hostile, wrapped in snow for most of the year. Tebokoe can endure stupidly low temperatures, but even they try to avoid the worst of winter, hunkering down in a state of semi-hibernation (at least, in the pre-technological era). However, it was sometimes necessary to hunt during winter; the very best hunters would bring supplies back to the village. That is, unless they got lost and died.

This was a particular issue for the villages of the westward reaches, an area crisscrossed by intersecting valleys and shrouded in extensive forests of ‘clumping pine’, the trunks of which grow so close together that it is often impassable in sections. In the driving snows and ice storms of early winter, even the best navigator could lose their way.

So the hunters of this region began carrying small wooden maps; on one side carved lines represented paths and mountain passes, on the other prevailing wind currents and lee zones. A hole marked the location of the village. The lines needed to be carved because during ice storms the tebokoe would travel with their eyes closed. In these situations, their fingers might be too numb to feel the lines, but they could put the map in their mouth and read it with their tongues.

As you can imagine, a hunter brought home by her map would quickly attach a spiritual sentiment to it, and soon people who didn’t actually need them were wearing them for purposes of facilitating a more metaphorical navigation. And so the maps became charms.

The modern-day map-charm is not really a map at all, at least, not of an actual place. The lines are now abstract and chosen for aesthetics or as a focus for meditation. A rough translation of a common mantra associated with these charms would be:

“Let my mind know my destination; let my stomach know where I stand now; and let my feet find the path between them.”

… although it could just as well be translated as “Raven flies, bear stands, wolf runs”. Have I mentioned that the tebokoe are super annoying with their words?

Fig.1 - drawing of a Tebokoe Map Charm
Fig.1 - drawing of a Tebokoe Map Charm.