The Mahendo’sat

The alphabet, language, and culture of the mahendo’sat species, in the Merchanter Compact, as depicted in the Chanur novels in the science fiction universe created by C. J. Cherryh.

A primate species, loosely comparable to humans, chimpanzees, or gorillas. They are dark furred and dark skinned, from brown to black. They are generally dark eyed. Their hair is usually straight, but from some regions, it may be wavy, curly, or tightly coiled. The tasunno ethnic group is noted for its rarity off Iji. Tasunno are short and small, with curly brown hair and brown skin. Their faces are flat and longish, with round chins and large ears. Their ears may be lowered or flattened. Their arms are longer proportionally than humans’. They have dark nails on their fingers and toes. Their teeth are blunt, but may be sharper than humans’. Their torsos, at least in males, are wider. Men are taller than women, but women have smaller breasts than in humans. Both sexes may have close-cropped hair, and their hair does not grow long as in humans. Mahen diet is omnivorous. Mahen technology is more andvanced than hani. The hani were brought into spacing by mahen explorers, who discovered hani at a pre-spaceflight level. They have eccentric ideas on philosophy and religion, although some kind of monotheism is practiced, at least by Goldtooth. Mahen set great store in the concept of Personage. Their highest officials in politics, the military, or religion are Personages, who usually speak through their Voice, a powerful spokesperson and personal assistant, so as to avoid unpleasantness. Personages sometimes speak directly to one, though. Their species has a fondness for celebrity and politics, with some odd ideas thrown in. Mahen have a sense of humor and are often direct, frank, or blunt. They can be verbally abusive, as a negotiation tactic. They are clever and conniving and sharp traders. They are not above lying or at least exaggerating. On the whole, they are fair and reasonable trading partners. They have been known to joke with non-mahe about sex; perhaps the joke was not entirely jest. Both sexes have non-human ideas about makeup; generally they don’t wear makeup. Mahen usually wear kilts, but not shoes. They sometimes wear jerkins, a sleeveless jacket, or sleeveless shirts. Personages often wear individually patterned robes. All mahe may sometimes wear collars, usually for formal or business attire, reminiscent of Egyptian or African designs, as well as chains, bracelets, armbands, and so on. Their military wear dark gray. They wear pistols prominently holstered on the hip or leg, when armed. It seems to be common policy for military ships (hunter-ships) to function undercover as merchanters, dressed as ordinary mahen merchant spacers. They are fond of bright colors, massive architecture and interiors, and art and sculpture. They keep pets, often exotic ones.


Note: The fan known as Vetch has done work on analyzing and creating a mahen chiso glossary and perhaps grammar, but I’ not familiar with her work, and was not aware of it when I wrote my notes. I intend either to go independently or to incorporate her work with her permission; and in either case, to credit her work.

Note: I intend to work on a mahen chiso font or font-family, with some loose inspiration from the Indian Devanâgari. Fans have noted a favorable similarity between mahen chiso and Sanskrit or Hindi in terms of word or syllable formation and some cultural aspects. However, a simple borrowing (and misuse) of the syllabary would not do justice either to Indian culture or to the fan community for mahen and for Ms. Cherryh’s work. So a more imaginative inspirational use is more appropriate.

The primary language of spacefaring mahendo’sat is chiso. There are also numerous local dialects, used by mahe for privacy or secrecy toward non-mahe. Mahe are skilled with translation, except their own language. Many mahen spacers, but not all, speak a trade pidgin that is a mix of hani, mahen chiso, and stsho, and sounds broken like any pidgin. It sounds like Chinese-English pidgin. Their primary language appears to resemble Asian Indian languages such as Sanskrit. The language appears to be similar to Sanskrit in flavor, with a preference for long names and syllables that are usually consonant-vowel pairs. Perhaps the length of names represents a desire for luck, beauty, aggrandizement, or specificity. Names of ships and people often have recognizable elements of places or other concepts in them. Male names and occasionally ship names may have suffixes such as -min, -to, -jai, -shai, -ma, -tai, -no. Their meaning, and whether mahen female names have such suffixes, is unknown. We note the similarity to human words like English or French mine, mien; thou, tu; that; you or je; she, se, ce. However, the mahen suffixes may be unrelated. Comparison of the species words mahe, mahen, mahensi, and mahendo’sat; and the homeworld name Iji; and the ship names Mahijiru and Ijir; allows the following tentative conclusions, which may be proven wrong with further data. The root or stem mah- or mahe- is their species or something like person, being. The root Iji is the homeworld itself, and could mean world or earth or land. The suffix -(e)n appears to indicate an adjective and may be singular or plural or collective-plural. The suffix -do’sat, which may be two elements, is some sort of extension on this, perhaps species, people, whole, or all. The suffixes -r and -ru may be related by grammatical form within the same language, or may be separate dialectal forms of the same suffix. They appear to mean of or from. Thus Ijir would be of Iji and Mahijiru would be Mahen of/from Iji. Again, this is speculation.

Phonemes: Sounds and Alphabet

The form of the mahen alphabet or writing system is unknown, but is used throughout the Compact on signage in the trade pidgin or lingua franca. Sounds in the standard mahen language of chiso, include those below. H after a consonant is probably always an aspirate, so that ph would be pronounced p·h as in cupholder. The relation to the unaspirated (without-h) counterpart is unknown. Whether these are separate, single letters or pairs is unknown. The sounds ch, sh, and zh appear to be like chip, ship, and s in treasure, respectively. The relation between s, z, sh, zh, ts, dz, ch, j, and which are separate, single letters or pairs is unknown. The r sound is probably a trill or flap r, as in Italian or Spanish, but may also be the American retroflex r. Both occurred in human Sanskrit, in which the latter could be a vowel, apparently. The c appears to be a rare spelling for k; perhaps it is the same sound or letter; perhaps not.

The ship name Nji-no shows that nji may begin words. Similar consonant blends occur in African languages and ancient Greek. The nji is probably a single syllable, but possibly two syllables /(uh)n-jee/. In that case, the n would be syllabic, similar to English bottom, button, butter, bottle, in which m, n, r, and l may have an almost silent /uh/ preceding them, or the /uh/ may be entirely silent. Other word-initial nasal blends, such as m, n, or ng plus a consonant, are therefore probable.

An odd exception is the personal name Tginiso, with initial tg. There is probably a nearly silent intrusive /uh/, such as /t(uh)-gih-nih-soh/. Tginiso is a name from the rare Tasunno ethnic group native to Ijir. Therefore the tg could be missing or infrequent in chiso, although possible.

The vowels are pronounced as in most Continental European languages. Long vowels are in column 8. Short vowels are in column 9. The occurrence of oh in the name of the philosopher, Kohboranua, is probably an indication of vowel quality. However, the h could be pronounced.

Vowels are always pronounced as indicated, even in pairs. Note: ai /ah-ee/, au /ah-oo/, ae /ah-eh/, ao /ah-oh/, ou /oh-oo/, ei /eh-ee/, eu /eh-oo/, and so on.

Aside from the exceptions mentioned, mahen chiso individual syllables appear to fit the patterns: [s C V m | n | ng | r | l | s ] or [V C], in which C represents a consonant and V represents a vowel. Consonants between vowels may occasionally be doubled, probably to indicate a preceding short vowel.

Not encountered so far are q, x, ps, ks, bz, dz, gz, or thl, dhl, tl, dl, nl, ml, ngl, rl, mr, nr, ngr, lr, although they may be possible. Note that a word like instrumental might be possible in mahen speech, since the syllables would be divided: in-stru-men-tal, if r or l are allowed between a consonant and vowel. This probably allowed, but hasn’t been encountered yet. Again, the speech pattern appears similar to human Sanskrit, English, or other Indo-European languages.

table col:1 col:2 col:3 col:4 col:5 col:6 col:7 col:8 col:9
row:1 ph th kh sh ch c i /ee/ i /ih/
row:2 bh dh gh zh? jh? j h e /ay/ e /eh/
row:3 p t k s ts f y a /ah/ a /uh/
row:4 b d g z dz? v w o /oh/ o /aw/
row:5 m n ng ny? ly? l r u /ooh/ u /oo/
  1. ../images/mahen-font/
    1. mahen-font.fh10
    2. accent-bar-sub accent-bar-sub.gif
    3. accent-bar-sup accent-bar-sup.gif
    4. accent-dot-sub accent-dot-sub.gif
    5. accent-dot-sup accent-dot-sup.gif
    6. accent-hook-left accent-hook-left.gif
    7. accent-hook-right accent-hook-right.gif
    8. accent-mark accent-mark.gif
    9. accent-none accent-none.gif
    10. accent-ring-sub accent-ring-sub.gif
    11. accent-ring-sup accent-ring-sup.gif
    12. accent-tack-down accent-tack-down.gif
    13. accent-tack-up accent-tack-up.gif
    14. ring ring.gif
    15. xmark xmark.gif
    16. xring xring.gif

Mahen Chiso Language Samples

Book 3, The Kif Strike Back, a mahen officer gives an order to guards separating the crew of The Pride of Chanur from onlookers, including mahendo’sat. The guards, with their sticks, turn toward the crew of The Pride. No translation is given, but the first word is clearly related to mahe, mahen: maheinsi. It is either a separate word or a grammatically inflected form of mahe or mahen.

Maheinsi tosha nai mas.