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?