Sunday, January 10, 2016

How to Write Fictional Languages

And then, Amashra, High Priestess of Bouurain said, "Oh, foolish one, don't you know that the the soul is Sol!"

WAIT. Hold up there. Is this lady saying that we know the soul and the sun are related because the words sound the same? Does that mean she’s speaking English? Why would they speak English in Bouurain? Maybe they just mean that the Bouurainian words for soul and Sol sound the same? That would be fine, okay, keeping going.

Only I’ve already been tossed out of the story. 

So, one thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how to deal with language in fiction. Because worldbuilding is a language problem and language is a worldbuilding problem.

Worldbuilding is a Language problem. And Language is a Worldbuilding problem.


A blog post at The Hunting of the Snark  really helped my thinking on this. This post introduces four terms that really help me think about how to deal with languages in fiction, in particular, made up languages.

conlang: “a functional language with all the requisite parts,”  enough information about sounds, grammar, and vocabulary for eager fans to learn it and communicate more or less intelligibly.

Think: Dothaki, Klingon, Na’vi, Sindarin and Quenya (elvish)
burrogue: Words and phrases that suggest the existence of a complete language. Personal and place names and invented concepts often get ‘burrows’ (an individual invented term), which give a sense of the world as a whole, and reminds the reader that this is Not Home.

Think: Edgar Rice Burrough’s language of Barsoom (the origin of the term ‘Burrogue’), which heavily influenced the Star Wars Burrogue with word parrallels like ‘sith/sith,’ ‘jedi/jeddak),’ and ‘padawan/padawar.’

barbar: An impressionistic representation of the sounds of a foreign language. These utterances don’t break down into meaningful words or grammatical structures.

Think: Thermian from Galaxy Quest, or the Droids’ beeps and boops in Star Wars.

masque: When a work of fiction is written entirely in English (or whichever real language is used as the means of communication between the writer and the reader), but it is signaled that English is only a stand-in for the actual language the characters are speaking, translated for the convenience of the readers.

Think: any ‘Common’ type language: Gallactic Basic Standard, Westron; or the more nuanced Suomic, etc.

One point that the Snark makes is that these terms are for fictional languages. But, of course, the portrayal of fictional languages is derived from the portrayal of real languages. I find books which occasionally drop into different tongues to be very surprising, but also very cool. They also often represent the way real people live their lives. Not all of us live in monoglot cultures, and some times we use multiple languages in a single conversation. Conlangs can be used to evoke those feelings too.

Some of my favorites are Diary of a Provincial Lady, by E.M. Delafield, where the narrator drops into French whenever she has something ‘too shocking’ to say in English, Random Deaths and Custard, where the main character lives in the Welsh Cwms, and has a reputation for being pretty good at speaking Welsh, but actually isn’t. People do actually speak Welsh in Wales! And it’s great to see that bilingual world represented. And, on TV, I’m loving Jane the Virgin, where the realities of code-switching in a multilingual, multigenerational family are shown.

Other books (Travel narratives, I’m looking at you), use terms from the foreign culture that our narrator is investigating, because the point is to maintain that sense of foreign. Using ‘congee’ rather than ‘Tamil rice porridge’  is a choice. An interesting one, to be sure. The decision to use a burrow in a similar context might have a similar alienating effect.

Finding a real-world parallel with barbar might be dangerous, but a brief youtube search for "Catherine Tate Interpreter" can both exemplify the concept of barbar as it relates to real languages, and remind you how offensive it is! Luckily, when used with fictional languages, it is often shorthand, or used for non-human entities whose mode of communication might differ enough to not be parseable by the human language faculty at all.

One thing I’ve considered is using barbars to express the confusion of a non-speaker in a foreign context. But I decided that it would be more interesting to try and express the incomprehensibility by writing down what a non-speaker would hear. Speakers of a language hear things like word boundaries and allomorphs which are completely inaudible to non-speakers. So writing down the actual pronunciation with no spaces between words would respect the language without making it easy to understand.

dhaetsizitundrstaen

(That’s easy to understand.)

Masques are obviously the fictional version of translation. Reading Russian lit or Japanese slice-of-life comics in English, you still know that the communication is not happening in English unless it’s explicitly stated that it is happening in English. But for fantasy there aren’t any external cues that the base language is not English, so the author needs to signal that within the text.


It’s really exciting to have words to be able to think about the use of language in fiction, especially fantasy and scifi. The implications and effects of ‘oh, I’ll just make up a word for that’ are easier to think about, when you know what you’ve done is create a burrow, which implies a burrogue. ‘Do all the words I made up sound like they come from the same language? Should they?’ If you’re using a masque, that doesn’t mean anything goes. Translations often commit the sin (imho) of replacing jokes that only work in the origin language with a joke that works in the target language. But if the joke doesn’t work in the target language that means that it’s probably a joke about the language itself (try translating puns, just try it). So if you have a pun-style joke in your masque, that can break the veil, making the reader think about the fact that you’re only pretending that another language exists. I’d love to see more of the French New Wave style of subtitle translation used in a masque, [[Untranslatable French Pun]].



Saturday, January 9, 2016

Talking about Language

Here is a repost of my guest blog at Heroines of Fantasy. Here are some places where my Linguist training and my novel writing begin to combine.

Talking about Language


Let’s talk about space. You know, the final frontier, with alien populations and cultures cropping up on every planet. A band of intrepid explorers arrives on this planet, on a Starfleet vessel, through a Stargate, by some means of something beginning with Star, and lo, the aliens all welcome them, or the aliens all try to kill them...and very handily they do this all in English.


Have we noticed the problem?

Language and culture are two things that can make a place come alive. They are highly related ideas. In this blog I want to talk about some of the really interesting ways you can look at language in fantasy and use it to bring the world to life.

Is this scary? It shouldn’t be. This is NOT about Conlanging.
(Conlanging – the act of building a CONstructed LANGuage, i.e. a conlang.)

Now, conlangs have a rich history in the world of fantasy, thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien and his obsession with Finnish and Welsh, but I know, from personal experience, that for some people constructing a language is possibly the most painfully boring and frustrating thing anyone can do. ConNaming, however, every writer has to do at some point, so it’s worth thinking about. But not now.
Instead, let’s imagine some worlds. 
A vast empire, spanning mountains and seas. But a traveler from the capital has no difficulty communicating with the peoples of the hinterlands, perhaps they have a slight rustic accent, but nothing that impedes his path.

Languages change over time, and physical separation can create mutual unintelligibility. It’s very likely that an empire would span over cultures with differing native languages. But is this world then deeply flawed? No! This is an opportunity. A powerful and well-organized Empire would likely have a policy of everyone learning the language of the conquerors. Rebels might still speak their local tongues, and suffer punishment if they were caught. An emperor who brought prosperity might also bring a sense of pride and prestige in speaking his language. Young people who intend to go to the cities to look for work would learn the metropolitan language, while their elders grumble in the corners in the old tongue. Rather than having an unbelievable world, we now have more depth and complexity, and a way of showing whether the empire is cruel or benevolent, just by the locals’ attitudes towards language.
A world of many diverse cultures, a traveler visiting each one, and though being thrown by local customs, having little trouble buying his dinner.
First question to ask: is the traveler likely to know many languages? This is where being an American skews one’s ideas a bit. In most places, it’s totally reasonable to grow up speaking and understanding multiple languages. Although this can happen through formal education, usually it happens because the languages are all around. Did the traveler grow up in court society with ambassador’s children? Did he have a nurse from one place and a cook from another? Did his family speak a different language from the town? Does the village a mile into the wood speak the language of their homeland? Did he grow up on the docks or in a trading outpost where people from all over came together to interact?

If not, perhaps his interpreter did. Or, even, if not, perhaps there’s a lingua franca, a language used for trade and communication of ideas on a supra-national level. Knowing the trade language means there are always a few people he’ll be able to speak to. He’ll have a way of functioning, even if no one is using their native language.
A foreign land with complex systems of kowtowing before royalty, appreciating your elders, and never asking directly for anything, in which your rustic hero enters, and with his cheerful good-naturedness wins over the local populace who are secretly sick of all this stiffness.
Problems! The ways people use language is an intrinsic part of a community. Methods of politeness can vary from context to context inside a society. But if someone violates those norms, it’s very unlikely that people are going to just smile and like him the better for it. If someone came up to you and violated your politeness norms, you’d probably think he was pretty rude, right? This is the same.

Now there are a couple of ways to think about being polite. Two common ones are negative face vs. positive face. When you think about negative face, think about a courtier, someone who needs to get people to do things for him without making them feel like he’s imposing. He does not expect people to like him, in fact, he doesn’t even always expect them to be able to figure out who he is. Although he could try to jolly everyone along, make them think that they want what he wants, that isn’t usually the way of things in court society. Usually, he tries to make the imposition as small as possible. He says, “Well, if you wouldn’t mind,” or “If it isn’t any trouble,” to people more powerful than he is. He never talks about how important it is to him, just because it would reveal that they have power over him.

Positive face is the opposite, where you try your best to be charming and friendly, and tell people just how much you need their help, and make them feel good and connected with you, so that your wants become their wants. Now, it’s obvious to do something like having the court be all negative face, long sentences, hiding your personal interests, and having the pub be positive face, all about making friends and getting them to take your side. But what if you switched them? What if there was a court that ran entirely on positive face mechanisms, with a surrounding town where negative face was the way to go? How could that happen? What would it be like?
Your rustic hero becomes king. Perhaps he slays a dragon, or has the royal birthmark on his behind. And then he’s king, right? He can suddenly talk the talk of the king and walk the walk of the king, no problem.

Oh there’s definitely a problem. What happens after your farm boy becomes monarch? How does he learn to speak like a king? Does he have tutors training him in court language and city accents? Is he powerful enough so people try and speak like him, and suddenly the rural hickish accent is stylish and popular and everyone is trying to adopt it? Does he try and fail to change his accent? Do people mock him behind his back for how he says his Vs? Do his supporters pick up his accent and his rivals reject it? What about a suspicious sycophant? How would he try to ingratiate himself with the king by adopting his accent? Would the king find that humiliating? There are a thousand possibilities, each one more interesting than the last.

Essentially, here’s the truth of it: questioning your expectations about language and playing with them can put life into your characters. Women/Men/Workers/Hicks, we all think we know how they speak. But those expectations are derived from our own culture. If we are building a new world, we need to break out of our own expectations, surprise ourselves and our readers. Or just really think it through!

Language: a danger and an opportunity. What’s that, now? You want to try ConLanging?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Road Trip Wednesday # 171



Quarterly Check In!

I had plans... once.  And perhaps they were silly plans.  Especially for Winter Break which involves not only travel, but Christmas, and birthdays and Memorial services and sundry other events that are full of crazy.  But I had hope!

I have two novels that are currently: UNDER CONSTRUCTION: HARD HATS ONLY.

And I was planning, I suppose, to finish both.  One just needed to be finished, and the other needed to be refinished, since I had to cut the last 7 chapters and reformulate them.

I managed to get neither goals accomplished... during break.

But just last weekend I scribbled down the final scene for novel #2, and wrote a short epilogue.  DONE!  (Then, of course, I looked back at the beginning and was like - oh god.  This needs a lot of work.  As well as needing to be cut by 1/3.)

Novel #1 is still not quite complete, but I'm hoping that Friday/Saturday this week will give me a few solid hours to bang out some words.  I have been progressing, and I really think there's only a few more scenes before I hit the end, less than 10k even.

And then CPs!  Be ready!


(And at some point I need to find the time to sort out my thesis, but one thing at a time, eh?)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Road Trip Wednesday #168: What Do You Love About Writing?

What do I love about writing?

The power.

It's really as simple as that.  When I'm writing I have complete control - over the world, the events, the characters' destinies, and I can create a world that is thrilling and wild and absurd and beautiful if I want.  And I can live there.  Maybe it's only for an hour at a time, but I can live and feel and experience so many things, just by using my brain.

And it's not just the power over myself and my characters, but the power over my readers.  This isn't a vicious, vindictive sort of power, it's just love.  I want to take them and shake them up and make them laugh and make them feel, and then, in the end, make them feel satisfied, whether it's a happy satisfied or a sad one.

So, yeah, if I didn't have writing I'd probably be a megalomaniac of some kind.  :D

Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Troubles...

Here's the thing.  I've forgotten how my book should end.

Usually, when I'm getting so close that I can SEE it, caltrops couldn't stop me from finishing this thing. But this has been a LONG SLOG.  And I let myself get distracted with a side project.  And then there's the project that I should actually be working on.  (And school - but forget school).  So, essentially... I've got problems.  But this book, now THIS BOOK.  It should be beautiful, and it's a mess.
I went and found my love list for this book - or my list of themes or something:

Gothic
Romantic
Erotic
Bloody
Cruel

Think Howl, by Florence + the Machine.  Think dark fairies and werewolves and evil science.  Think Cinderella + Little Red Riding Hood all smashed together, where the prince is actually the wolf.
Only that's the problem, you see.  Because my wolf-prince is being PATHETIC.
Cinderella's doing well.  Her life's falling apart.  She's nearly dying for like the sixteenth time.  She is completely miserable.

Wolf-prince, however, she's not so desperate.  Technically, her brother/father/lover figure has just told her that he was planning on using her body and sticking someone else's mind in there.  She's lost her home, has decided to challenge someone way more powerful than her for lordship of the fief.  Her brother is burning everything of hers that he can find.  So she's upset and scared and off balance and angry - and then goes and drinks tea with a nice lady.

WRONG!  WRONG I SAY!

This isn't good enough.  I keep on making sure she has baths and enough to eat when she should be RUNNING FOR HER LIFE.  She should go get Cinderella because there's no one else - even though it's drawing her brother to them.  

THIS IS THE LAST PART OF THE BOOK.

If wolf-prince isn't miserable now, when is she going to be?  If she's chirpy and happy, meeting her mom, making out with people, being kind of annoyed - it isn't good enough!  And the thing is, Cinderella NEVER CATCHES A BREAK.  She's always losing people, upsetting her dad, breaking her ex-boyfriend's heart. Wolf-prince doesn't have a lot to lose, except her life, and yet her life is never in danger.  Where is evil brother?  Why hasn't he tried to attack her directly?

She needs to get hurt.  She needs to escape by the skin of her teeth.  She needs to KNOW DESPAIR.

So that when she says, "No," to Cinderella, "I'm not using you.  You need to go and stay gone.  Stay out of here.  I might die, but I won't drag you down with me." and lets her go, saying 'don't bring me that one thing that might actually let me defeat my brother' it rings true.  And then when she turns around and says, to her evil brother, "No, I'm ready now.  Take me and put your dead girlfriend in my mind, take me and don't go after her.  You win." it sounds right - and sad.  But like something she would do.  "I've nearly lost you enough times, you need your own life, that doesn't involve people who are after me trying to kill you."

Wolf-prince - you need to be there.  And I know your girl is a woobie, but you don't have enough woobie cred.  You get angry.  But you've been a victim your whole life, and now the people you had just started to trust are turning on you - not just turning on you, hunting you.  What are you going to do about that?

Cry?

Go for it.

Then get scared, bleed, and run.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Voice & Style

I've been wondering about voice for a while. Being a linguist, I know a lot about language, and teaching writing I've started to figure out what makes writing effective. But voice has always been unquantifiable. People say everyone has voice. What that means, I think, on a basic level, is that everyone has a certain set of words that are their go-to words, they have a certain idea of what makes a sentence flow. It often reflects the way they speak - where they put adverbs, whether they use lots of rhetorical questions. But there are three pits you can fall into with voice.

1) An inconsistent voice.
2) A sloppily executed voice
3) The wrong voice for the story.

If voice is something that everyone has naturally and everyone has only one, then how can there be a wrong voice? Am I saying that some people can't write certain types of books because they have the wrong voice? No.

 When we speak we frequently exploit varying registers. If you're speaking to your little brother, you're not going to speak to him in the same way you would speak to your boss, right? (Unless your little brother is your boss, in which case, I'm sorry.) And if you do speak to your boss in the same way you spoke to your little brother, you might get fired. These registers are basically systems of preferences. 

Little brother: Prefer 'hey you!' Imperative voice. Casual language. Slang. 'or else!' Short sentences. 

Boss: Prefer 'please' Subjunctives like 'would, could, might.' Formal language. No slang. 'do you think...?' Longer sentences.

 We can switch between them easily!

In writing, though, register becomes more complex and tentative. You don't have a person that you're directing it to, so it's harder to make choices. And often you're writing in a certain style.

Style in essay writing is a lot like register. You consider who your audience is. You ask, do we want to impress them or to befriend them? You write.

It's harder to figure out what's right for a novel. An MG voice isn't the same as an adult voice, but a comedic voice isn't the same as a mythic voice either. Choosing a style is not just choosing an audience, but figuring out the feel that you want your writing to have.

The problem comes when you actually try to write it. We all have registers for friends vs. teachers, but we don't necessarily have a particular register ready to address the emperor, or to talk to baby ducklings. We don't all have a gothic style at our fingertips, or even a comedic style. And if we can't control the style we're writing in, things start to fall apart.

When agents and editors say voice, what they mean is this:
Voice - The consistent and correct exploitation of a style.

The way your style will come out is directly linked to your experience of language. That's why reading a lot of the type of voice you want to master can be helpful. You learn and then you make generalizations. "Use long sentences." "Use creepy words like 'lacework' and 'groan.'" But unless you only read those books and words from the age of two and never speak to anyone else, you're not going to mimic it exactly. It's going to build another layer onto your own language. Your own language is the source, is the bricks. Your language will merge with this new style to create a voice.

But that's not enough to create Voice. It has to be consistent. Part of that is controlling the style (rather than letting the style control you). Part of that is controlling the perspective, making sure that you know who you're talking to and what your relative positions are (social positions, but also physical and temporal positions.) Languages take note of who is speaking, who they're speaking to, when they're speaking, when what they're speaking about occurred in relation to the speaking, and where they are in regards to the action, as well as tons of other things. Controlling the perspective (a lot of this goes into the POV) is part of controlling your style.

If you can't control the style we often end up with sloppy execution. Sloppy execution suggests not paying attention to the details. And there are a lot of details! Are you referring to your reader as 'you' or 'one?' Are you referring to your reader at all? Have you forgotten what perspective your narrator is relating the narrative from? Slipping in a modern slangy term into a historical, slipping in an old-fashioned word into a modern story. Using the same structures repetitively without any clear reason. Readers have to get used to writing styles. A sudden shift in syntax can be jarring. If you just got used to having post verbal parenthetical adverbs to suggest contrast, "John went, surprisingly, to the store." and then suddenly you shift to 'but' clauses instead, it's going to give the reader whiplash. "John went to the store, but it was unexpected."

Styles don't have to be dramatic. You might say, simply, I'm going to write in a colloquial style, as if I were telling this story to a friend. But which friend, when, for what purpose? All of these things go into your voice. Every day, we speak in many registers. We have the ability to write in many styles. But we choose register based on context. Choosing a style is conscious - and often, a whole lot more fun. But pulling off the style - that's voice.

Friday, September 28, 2012