Sunday, June 19, 2016

How Understanding Privilege Helps Your Worldbuilding

The idea of privilege is a hot and contentious topic in the world today, especially because with social media it's become easier to share our experiences, and people are beginning to be exposed to how the world looks through different eyes. Truth is: It looks different. 

Now, to paraphrase something Ed White once said, writers are the type of people who are gathered at a deathbed, with all the crying relatives, and are like, "dammit, where's my notebook?" Yes, we grieve; yes, we understand that some things are really serious and very important. But the world is material. We're just paying attention.

So, when confronted with people saying, "hey, you've got privilege! Check it!" Don't waste time denying it and being offended. This is not a problem. This is an opportunity! It's time to gain a more nuanced understanding about the world, and replicate it in your fiction.

So, privilege. What is it?

Privilege is any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred.

Having privilege can feel like nothing. Why would I be scared to hold hands with my romantic partner while walking down the street? Why would I think anyone would accost me when I'm heading home through my own neighborhood? Why would I ever consider missing class to celebrate my religion? Holidays are on Sundays, and we always have those off.

Not having privilege, on the other hand, can feel like everything. Just going about your normal business--having a job and a relationship and a home--is a source of stress and distress.

Being aware of this, of how whether or not a character is considered 'normal' by society shapes the way they see the world, can really improve your characterization.

But this blog post is not about characterization, it's about worldbuilding. For worldbuilding, the most important part of the definition of privilege above is 'socially conferred.' What does that mean?

Socially conferred means that the benefits of privilege and the costs of its lack are an intrinsic part of a social system. So when you are creating a society for your world, don't forget to pay attention to who has privilege and who doesn't. 

But just saying that 'the Mages are the privileged upper classes' doesn't actually give you a good sense of the world. How does privilege shape a society?

First thing: privilege and its opposite, oppression, are both institutionalized and systemic.

This means that when you're creating your society think about what institutions might support privilege and cause oppression. 

Sometimes its simple, like anti-sodomy laws, or bans on same-sex or interracial marriage. Do you have an alien species that greets its friends by a meeting of ectoplasmic fluids. Is that outlawed? 

Sometimes it's a flank attack, like requiring photo id to vote, or promoting English-only education and cutting funding to ESL departments. Do you have alien refugees who need specialized instruction to learn to communicate with humans? Can they get this instruction? From whom? Why? Do you have vampires who can't have their pictures taken and are disenfranchised by the photo-id law? Do you have a type of chaotic magic that can destroy whole neighborhoods if not contained? Are the people in those neighborhoods allowed to sacrifice the goats necessary to contain this magic?

Sometimes it's inadvertent. The rules were made before anyone bothered to think about what other groups might want, like having Christmas break or Sundays off. But other groups have their own systems and conflicts emerge.

Think about whether there is pressure to change these things, or pressure to institute more oppressive rules. Perhaps werewolves can only digest raw meat, and there are people saying werewolves shouldn't be allowed to eat in cafeterias so normal people don't have to watch them. Probably most werewolves are already eating in the bathroom because they're embarrassed. 

Maybe there's a push to normalize these things, to come out as werewolf--I'm hairy and I'm here! (Caution about appropriative language: Supergirl 'came out' as an alien. She also loudly insisted that she wasn't gay. This is taking queer-coded language, using it for pathos, and rejecting the queer community all in one go. It's a slap in the face. Guess how this could be fixed: actually having a major queer character in the show. It can be okay to make parallels and use elements associated with other communities for relevant purposes. It's not okay to do that without paying your debt. If you make a metaphor for queerness, blackness, non-neurotypicality, you had better have queer, black, and non-neurotypical heroes. (Lesbian!Alex Danvers, please!) If you are thinking about appropriating some Native American stuff, though, think again, read up on it, seriously, and then talk to actual people about it, and then . . . don't do it.)

The other aspect, 'systemic' means that this isn't just an issue about government and politics. Society is made up of people and everything that people create replicates their beliefs. 

The media, also made up of people, plays a huge role in supporting and maintaining privilege and oppression. One way of doing this is through use of stereotypes.

 Stereotypes, as pointed out by social scientists, are a way humans have of making decisions with minimal data. If we find out that one snake is poisonous, we want to avoid all snakes, even the non-poisonous ones, because better safe than sorry, right? So if you don't have a lot of exposure to people of different races, sexualities, abilities, etc, you will make up a vague idea of what they're like, based on the exposure you do have. And that knowledge is going to be flawed, because there is a huge amount of variety within groups. Which is great for fiction! There are so many stories about a kid getting adopted by centaurs and discovering that they aren't all brutish horse people after all, or an alien integrating into a human culture and discovering that they aren't all murderous greedpots plunging toward their species' impending doom. Only it's not that easy.

Your centaur friend--how is he going to feel watching centaurs on TV all the time portrayed as brutish horse people? How is it going to be, knowing that everywhere he goes, people will look away, cross the street to avoid him, or follow him in case he decides to attack someone? How will he feel when he can't find a book in the library where a centaur gets the girl?

The media is created by people who have grown up in a society inundated by stereotypes and they recreate these stereotypes in their media for three reasons. 1) They believe them. 2) They don't realize they're doing it. 3) They're marketable.

As Lord Vetinari says in The Truth: "People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds."

People don't want their stereotypes challenged. They want to feel comfortable, like they understand the world, and when they are faced with the fact that the world is different from what they expect they can react with anger, fear, and guilt. Often they argue, attack the speaker, or ignore the information and flee. People who are what their society considers 'normal' are especially likely to not be able to take this kind of information. 

So, if you have a society where the dominant class is tiger people, and you have one tiger person who meets a human who tells him just how hard it is for humans. But the tigers have worked hard at making a good society. Maybe they're refugees from oppression themselves, and every day they tell themselves how good Tiger Country is and how now, finally, they deserve the good life. This tiger isn't just going to believe that there's something wrong with the way humans are treated in their society. They know that humans are stupid and lazy and weak. That's what they're told every day. Just because one human says otherwise--well humans are always whiny, trying to get what they don't deserve. The society is fair. If they deserved better they would get it. But this human is pretty convincing. That sudden doubt, the crack in his worldview, he'd get angry, he'd get scared. Do all humans believe these lies? Are they going to be violent? Do the tigers have to band together to stop them?

Here's the third way of maintaining stereotypes and oppression: People. Our tiger goes to his friend. He tells his friend about this human, but he knows that the other tiger believes the same as he does. So he doesn't say, "I think tigers might be mistreating humans." Instead he says, "This silly human, he said that humans are getting ground up into tiger food. That's absurd, right?" And his friend, regardless of what's true, picks up on the fact that he needs reassurance and says, "of course it is. Everyone knows humans are always making things up." This assuages the tiger's fear and he's back into his usual worldview.

People in groups are very good at supporting each other, even if they end up supporting lies and violence. They talk, they make assumptions, they don't ask questions. When they encounter things that are not as they expect, they even make exceptions. "He's pretty smart for a human." Acknowledging that one human can be smart doesn't lead tiger people to believe that all humans have the capacity to be smart. Instead it picks this one out as exceptional and reinforces the stereotype of the group as dumb.

Kids hear these conversations and they accept the premises. They grow up, having the same conversations, recreating these ideas.

The one thing that we know from social science research is that if people are taught about equality and that people are people, etc. they can police their own attitudes. An enlightened tiger person will still think, 'oh, he's smart, how strange for a human,' but then they will remind themselves that, 'no, humans can be just as smart as anyone else.' They might even think, 'as smart as normal people' and then have to go, 'no, humans are normal too.' But those first, second and third thoughts are still going to be there. People have racist, classist, homophobic thoughts thoughts, but if they're aware of their own racism, classism, and homophobia they can have anti-racist, anti-classist, and anti-homophobic thoughts also.

If you are building a society that has privileged groups and oppressed groups, remember that because privilege is a quality of the society, everyone has these kinds of thoughts. -Isms and -phobias are the default. Characters need a reason to combat these attitudes.

And this is the fourth way that oppression is maintained: The Self.

You might think that in our tiger society, humans aren't speciesist toward humans, but of course they are. Living in a society where at every turn you are told you are stupid and weak and lazy, you look at yourself, you ask yourself, am I? Maybe I am. It's hard to not believe the lies that are told about you. It's hard to combat them when you know that even if you succeed you'll be told that you're 'the exception.' Sometimes you're even told you're the exception by your own group. Sure we want to be special, but special isn't fun when it means you don't belong anymore.

So, when building your society, remember the four common places that privilege and oppression reveal themselves:

1) Institutions
2) Media
3) People in Groups
4) The Self

Figure out what the lies are that people tell about different groups. Why do they tell those lies? Some lies sound positive on the surface, but any generalizations that apply to whole groups are going to be false. 

Why is there oppression in this society? (The harder question is often why isn't there oppression in this society. If there are multiple groups, there's probably going to be some imbalance, for historical reasons. People make up lies to say that this imbalance is the way things ought to be. The conquerers deserve to oppress the conquered. Migrants should be grateful that they can live here. They chose to come here, so clearly they chose to be treated this way.)

It's important to take the why seriously. There are many stories where one group is oppressed because they are 'different.' But the difference is non-significant. Now, from a liberal standpoint, all oppression is based on non-significant differences. But blaming oppression all on simple hypocrisy and selfishness shows a lack of understanding of how privilege works in a society. A story of oppression for oppression's sake, where oppression is bad and only bad people do it, is a comforting lie. It's the same lie that says there is a way to exist in a racist society and be non-racist. Any time there is a belief that a whole society holds and one character denies it--not because of any particular reason, but simply because they are the 'good guy' and 'know better'--the reader is thrown out of the world, because it no longer makes sense. Societies are made up of people, and society influences the way people think. When you're worldbuilding a society, you've got to commit to how it will shape your characters.

Things to keep in mind when plotting:

You can't stop systemic oppression by deposing a tyrant. But sometimes it helps.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Girl Has Got it Rough: "Agent Carter" season 2

In episode 4 of "Agent Carter" season 2, "Smoke and Mirrors", the scene flashes back to Broxton Oklahoma, 1920. Dusty sunshine, a cute kid, frowning intently as she dissects the radio, making notes, solving problems. She fixes the radio--clearly a budding genius--and upbeat jazz fills the room. It's a classic Marvel scene; the comics are full of young geniuses. We could imagine Howard Stark or his son Tony, Peter Parker, or, more recently, Lunella Lafayette in that same position. When the girl's mother comes in and tells her to clean up the mess she made fixing the radio, the feeling doesn't change.
But this little girl isn't going to grow up to be a hero. Little Agnes is this season's villain, Whitney Frost, A.K.A. Madame Masque. The reasons why she's destined for trouble quickly become apparent. Her mother gets along by being nice to men. She wants little Agnes to be nice also. But Agnes already knows that if you give a man a smile, he'll think you want to be on your back. "I bet you're pretty when you smile. Why won't you smile for your uncle Bud?" her mother's boyfriend asks. Agnes is too smart to be groomed by a randy pedo. She's busy thinking. She wants to think her way out, not live her life on her back.
In a post-"Jessica Jones" world, telling a girl "Smile," is simple shorthand for "I'm an asshole." "I think all you're good for is pretty scenery." "There's nothing going on in your head that isn't about me." Agnes Cully never gets told anything but "smile." If I were her, I'd go batshit crazy too.
The best thing about "Agent Carter" season 2 is Whitney Frost, under-appreciated genius, who uses the only currency her world lets her have--her pretty face--to put herself in a position where she can finally exploit her god-given brain. Surrounded by men who use her and betray her, the touch of real, concrete power that Zero Matter allows her is like finally reaching land after swimming through an endless buffeting sea.
She's not the only under-appreciated genius. Jason Wilkes, an African-American WWII veteran, tells his story of struggling to find employment after the war. Luckily Whitney Frost's company is there to take him in. And after that goes boom, quite literally, our favorite charming womanizer Howard Stark picks up the baton, tidying Wilkes away into a research facility where Stark, as he blatantly admits, will take credit for his work and become even more rich and famous by the theft.
In a universe where the events of Truth: Red, White and Black--the Marvel comics series by Robert Morales which explores the preliminary tests of the super-serum that created Captain America on involuntarily recruited black soldiers (most successfully Isaiah Bradley, the first Captain America), written to resonate with the horrors of the Tuskegee Experiments--has not been actively denied, Wilkes's backstory feels soft and Disnified. Our token moments in Black LA only highlight the odd lack of Latinx or Asian characters in a location that if Philip K. Dick was right, would belong to the Japanese Empire had things gone the other way during the war.
All of this, of course, is "Agent Carter"'s writers' flustered attempt to combat the criticism that pointed out that it was odd that the first season failed to have any main characters of color considering it was set in post war NYC. Somehow, it seems that they must also have been incisively criticized for focusing too much on the relationships between female characters. The quiet and yet resonant building of trust between Carter and her now-roommate, Angie Martinelli, has no parallel in season 2, and Martinelli herself is utterly forgotten in the script, save for an appearance as a figment of Carter's imagination in the musical interlude and one reference as "my roommate" in the final episode.
In spite of this valiant effort, "Agent Carter" season 2 suffers by comparison with season 1. Wilkes, though pleasant enough, is continually attacked by the script: shot at, insulted, exploded, disembodied, kidnapped, manipulated, led on, rejected, and ultimately tidied away. The female characters are given uncomfortably short shrift. Whitney Frost, the most developed of the group, loses agency halfway through the season, her behavior attributed to madness and megalomania rather than the reasoned chess-moves of a woman pushed to the brink. Ana Jarvis, sassy and charming, is simply there to be a concerned wife and then a victim, pushing her husband to man up and express his emotions through violence. Rose is given the occasional sidekick moment, but must share it with another (how many are there now?) gormless male scientist, and Violet, the fiancée, has a moment of personality and then is never heard from again. Everyone's favorite villainess, Dottie Underwood, is a force of chaos. Disconnected from her Russian handlers, she has no clear motives beyond a moderate and possibly unfounded respect for Carter. Carter herself is the real casualty of season 2. Her backstory, given as a parallel with Frost's, relies upon a supportive brother pushing her beyond her dreams for herself, which are 'normal' female dreams, reinforced by all of the women in her life.
It is unfortunate that the writers of Season 2 seem to have missed the BBC miniseries "the Bletchley Circle." The use of the women code-breakers of Bletchley Park as nothing more than wedding obsessed traditionalists seems unfairly reductive when compared with the stories of these same women straining against the strictures of the post-war world after testing their mettle at Bletchley. In season 1 we knew that Peggy Carter was making her way in a man's world, but she was not waiting for a man to hand her the prize. In season 2, even her identity as the Peggy Carter we know is a gift of a man--her boss, her brother--and though in this world women might be friends there is no power nor meaning derived from their mutual support.
I am aware that there is often disproportionate pressure applied to the one primetime female-led Marvel superhero show, encouraging it to be groundbreaking on issues of gender and race. Some might say it is unfair to only criticize "Agent Carter" season 2 along these lines. I can accept that. I can put aside my issues with the inadvertent messages it is sending. And, in truth, I would be able to forgive "Agent Carter" season 2 all of these gaffes and missteps if the main plot weren't so unutterably boring.
The first two-parter is a miracle of poor pacing. The inciting incident, an iced over lake in the baking heat of Los Angeles, brings a pleasing touch of the superheroic. (Let's just put aside the unfortunate knowledge that a dead woman is inside it, in fact, a female scientist who was having an affair with a powerful man. Is it surprising that television death is the fate of women who are too smart and too sexual for their own good? No. Of course not. It would have been nice if that weren't the case in "Agent Carter" though.) But as Carter and the Hawaiian-shirted-Sousa along with Detective Henry, a vaguely entertaining sneezy policeman who could have been culled from any Hollywood detective movie of the depicted era, very slowly follow the leads toward a political cabal in a gentleman's club (sadly one without the exuberant licentiousness of the Hellfire Club), the show drags. In the fissure between seasons, the one-sided admiration Sousa had for Carter became an amorphous 'something' quickly followed by Sousa ghosting his way out of the relationship when he is transferred to LA. This banal occurrence required multiple sideways discussions between otherwise interesting characters about 'what might have been.' Then the momentum of Carter's investigation is derailed again by a brief flirtation with a scientist, Wilkes, and the awkwardness of a one-sided exchange of phone numbers. The pacing is not improved by cutting back to New York, where Agent Thompson ineffectually interrogates Underwood. The actual narrative of Detective Henry's poor decision making skills is so buried under this detritus that when his life ends in shattered ice, it has utterly no impact.
Lack of impact is a theme of "Agent Carter" season 2. Suspenseful stakes? Only the fate of the world. But, unfortunately, it is only the fate of the world. When one of the characters is in immediate danger it is usually due to an unforeseen consequence of their own poorly thought out plan of attack. Twice they attack a vortex of doom with a magical machine. Twice they fall into one of Frost's casually laid traps. Twice, perhaps three times, they scrounge for nuclear material. Repetition and lack of escalation keep this season plodding along. The moments of brightness--Frost's complex motivations, Underwood's sly grin--fade away, leaving only a beige blandness in the last act.
The subtle hypocrisy of Carter and her team's actions do not improve the situation. They are the good guys, so when they gleefully cause brain damage to someone in their way, (of course, he's a sleazebag), or steal hard won research (the researcher is the villain), or hit a woman with a car (she's resilient, it's no big deal), it is automatically forgiven by the narrative. There is no nuance here, no understanding that being a good guy means doing it the hard way, or, at the very least, acknowledging the ugliness of the easy way. In spite of Frost's compelling backstory, after episode 4 there is no suggestion that she might struggle with her choices also. Carter's team plots and schemes and steals, all in order to punish a sad and lonely woman for doing what Carter did not do in this season--take what she deserved instead of waiting for it to be given to her.
Fans of the season 1 relationship between Carter and her now-roommate Martinelli wondered if the lack of Martinelli in season 2 was their punishment for daring to read the friendship as romantic. Was this love triangle nonsense a panicked 'no-homo' move by the writers? Worse, it seems that it was a 'I don't know what to do with a woman main character besides put her into a love triangle' move. When even Twilight fans are tired of the love triangle, that shows a sad lack of imagination. But the truth is, the fans of Carter and Martinelli as a couple saw something real: a well written relationship between two very different characters. It developed slowly. Trust was earned. Romantic or not, there was a relationship there. In season 2, all we were given was forced sexual tension. The most charming human moment was when Sousa botches the proposal to his girlfriend Violet. They laugh together. They'd be a good fit. Instead, of course, Violet discovers Sousa's lingering feelings for Carter, sets him free, and never appears again.
Perhaps the moment that leaves the bitterest taste of all is Jarvis's halting description of the motion picture he is pretending to cast Whitney Frost in. She will play a spy, a female Agent. "Any love interest?" Frost asks. "We haven't found the right actor yet," he temporizes, suggesting, unintentionally perhaps, that this might turn out to be a different sort of movie, one where the lady spy can carry the plot without a romance. In a world where that movie existed, Frost would never have had to become a villainess. And in that world, season 2 of "Agent Carter" wouldn't be bogged down in unconvincing romantic subplots. The writers might have thought hard about the characters, discovered what their motives were, where to hit them where it hurt, and season 2 could have been a romp and a thrill ride.
I do not expect miracles from television, but the abandonment of basic principles of storytelling, the cavalierly treated characterization, the forced and unconvincing romance, and the betrayal of the solidly and carefully built first season left me doing little but sighing, wandering away from the screen, and yelling at each missed opportunity and unsupported character moment.
Peggy Carter may not actually be a telephone operator, but I'm sure she can tell when someone is phoning it in. She knows her value. And she deserves better.


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.


(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?