Wednesday, January 4, 2017

In-Group Marking (nicknames, slang, secret handshakes, etc.)

I have always loved the idea of the secret handshake, but I never learned the term "in-group" until I was studying Japanese. This discussion was about how we mutually mark ourselves as members of common social groups, i.e. as insiders. The initial spark for the discussion was an after-hangout chat during which Mafia nicknames of the '20s and '30s were mentioned.

Nicknames are funny. Who actually awards them? It depends on the group involved (in our family, most nicknames come from Mom, i.e. me). They aren't titles "awarded" by the head of an organization though - they can be agreed upon by consensus of the group, or each individual (as in the case of my family) can make up their own nicknames for other members. It's not just Mafia and families, either. Sports players can get nicknames, like "The Fridge" or "Sweetness," etc.

Another thing that marks in-group members is verbal habits, which can include everything from slang to special greetings to slagging (ritual put-downs, which are known by many different names depending on the social group). In a way, it's an honor to be able to put someone down safely.

I saw a great video of a teacher who had a different secret handshake for every single one of his students, and shook hands with each of them as they entered at the start of the day (video here). Freemasons were known for having secret handshakes also.

Clothing can also be a critical indicator of group membership. School uniforms, hats, or class rings, championship rings etc. Gang colors are an example of this. So are house colors like the ones in British Schools (and Hogwarts!). Fraternities have colors, letters, and a motto.

The creation/selection of these critical membership artifacts contributes to the sense of unity among the group. Groups have their own culture of shared interest.

Ideologies are also a form of in-group. Often people recognize members of the group from among people they don't know by listening to how they talk, as when people use dog-whistle words or phrases.

We chatted also about how we recognized members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy "tribe." Sometimes it's their clothes (a genre t-shirt, for example). Sometimes they are reading a book. Sometimes they have colorfully dyed hair. Sometimes the guys have long hair. Sometimes it's several of the above!

There were codes of dress and adornment favored by LGBT people, as when there was the habit of gay men wearing an earring in the right ear. In the case of groups like this, there can be potentially dangerous consequences for exposure, so it may be advantageous for the signals to be kept secret.

Groups can be formed on the basis of a shared job (as with unions, etc.) or a shared experience. Often, you will find that mothers will bond over describing their birth experiences. This becomes more complex in the case of transmen bearing babies.

Within groups, people often try to stratify themselves. Would that be indicated by scarier nicknames? Possibly.

Che talked about the witches in her book Tea Times Three, who were ostracized by non-witches. Each one of them is named after food! We wondered whether this was a witch thing, or a sisterly thing.

A really good source of conflict might be a person who is a member of two or more different incompatible groups being placed in a situation where they have to deal with one of each, and signal covertly to more than one person at a time, in different ways. When you are writing fiction, definitely think through what kind of groups exist and how they might be linguistically marked.

The identity of a group will reflect on the way the language use comes across. A character called The Nose might be very different depending on whether they are a perfumer, someone in an elementary school, a member of the Mafia, and alien, a mean girl, or something else. It's up to the author to create those associations. Set up the context, and take your time.

Given names for children are a way they can be involuntarily grouped. People change their names for various social reasons. Geisha take a performer name, as do people like Sting. Racism sometimes leads to people avoiding "ethnic" names. Lady Gaga chose her name to be deliberately ironic and to reference the song by Queen.

In Japanese, suffixes like -san, -chan, and -sama are used differently depending on whether you are members of a shared group (-chan and -kun are for insiders).

There are often nicknames that you don't want but which you are stuck with, and it can be problematic when nicknames are used out of context. A group may have a name for itself that is different from the public name it uses.

The use of a particular term can sound different when used by people in different social groups, as when the n-word sounds different used by white people (who are associated with racist contexts in which the word has previously been used) vs. black people (who have reclaimed the word in some ways).

License of intimacy often lets you use a nickname. Sometimes, external context like being at a diner can let you use a nickname.

Thank you to everyone who attended! This was a really interesting topic, and I enjoyed talking with everyone.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Marshall Ryan Maresca and An Import of Intrigue

Author Marshall Ryan Maresca joined us to talk about his latest book, An Import of Intrigue. He explained that this is the fourth book he's written in this world, and the second in the series - he's got two series going on concurrently, and a third series will be coming out in March! Wow.

The fantasy world we spoke about is called Maradaine after the largest metropolis in it, though the nation itself is called Druthal. Druthal is a parliamentary monarchy, because Marshall said he didn't just want to copy and paste a British monarchy. So they have elections and parliament representatives. He wanted to keep a "street-level" perspective on this world.

Series one is The Thorn of Dentonhill followed by The Alchemy of Chaos, and they feature a magic student who becomes a vigilante. The second series is The Murder of Mages followed by our featured book, an Import of Intrigue, which involves inspectors investigating magical murders.

I asked Marshall about the magic system in his world. He said it wasn't logical; that some people were born with magic but that it wasn't genetically predictable. It usually manifests at thirteen years old or so, and the mage must be trained. Mages are pressed into training at a "circle," or a legally defined society of mages. If you are not trained by a circle, you are outcast and can become a target. In this world, trusting magic is new; two hundred years earlier, mages would be burned at the stake!

Minox, one of the main characters, is an uncircled mage. He was adult when his powers manifested and was already working in the constabulary. You can't be circled and in the constabulary at the same time, because circled mages distrust the constabulary, thinking they will be locked up for disturbing the peace. Minox has to be careful with his use of power because he's not fully trained. Marshall says he's a bit like a bull in a china shop. People at the police station call him "jinx" and don't trust him.

The other main character, Satrine, is an excellent inspector but unconventional. They respect and like each other, and each one gets point of view time. Book 1 only had two points of view, but Import of Intrigue has more points of view. Marshall says point of view is an element of trust with the reader, because you must be honest with the reader. Part of the point of having multiple points of view was to show that these characters have a life outside of their jobs.

I asked Marshall about the maps that accompany the book. He designed them himself, and says he worked on maps while thinking about the book. He's made maps of the city, of the country, and of the world. He creates them with photoshop. He started working on them more than twenty years ago, so he says there are lots of photoshop layers!

Maradaine is located by a very large river estuary, in a very protected port. There are islands before you get to the sea. Culturally, it's got a lot of people who have traveled from other regions, and it even has a neighborhood of foreign enclaves. He worked on linguistic background for five foreign cultures. 

"Trade" is what he calls the language of the Druth culture. It's a small piece of what was once a larger empire, and the language is shared by all the other regions which were once a part of this empire. Trade is rendered in English in the book. Marshall says he has a friend who is studying linguistics who helps out with particular linguistic aspects of language design. The first step for him is deciding on the phonemic inventory, or the list of all the different sound concepts used in the language, or "all the sounds I feel like I can make." He thinks about how to express those sounds in a consistent way using English letters, because he wants the languages to look different from each other, and also not to resemble particular Earth languages. Then he moves on to the distribution of sounds and the rules affecting them.

Marshall really enjoys linguistic work. He told us about a different project in which the main character's culture has three different languages contributing to its basic vocabulary, which he says causes weirdness.

An Import of Intrigue includes a pronunciation guide in the back.

The Fuergan language comes from the east of the Keiran empire.  It uses aspirated sounds like hr and hs at the starts of words - mostly names and a few nouns appear in the book. This is a language with many complex familial terms that come from a system of complex marriages. A Fuergan noble is the murder victim, and the Fuergan mourning ceremonies are featured. This language is foreign to the point of view characters. Marshall described it as a copyediting adventure trying to get all the languages correct and internally consistent, but says at least he can ascribe it to character error if anything comes out not quite right. He has extensive notes on language and transcription rules. Different cities have to reflect the language rules of their area.

Morgan asked where he starts with the language. Marshall said he starts with the country names. He names them first, and then uses those names as a basis to inform the language concept.

Druth history and language change also factor into the language. Pockets of the original pre-Imperial Druth language still persist in the form of place names. These names tend to resemble French a bit more. He created them first, then backformed the language from them. We agreed that one of the traps of conlanging (creating new languages) is over-regularization of the language. He said he was always frustrated that the Bajorans of Star Trek only ever seemed to eat hasparat.

Because he uses points of view who are outsiders to these foreign languages, he can do more with those languages in the book.

Culture and language navigation are the key to solving the mystery. It's a puzzle he created deliberately. The writing that accompanies the body is Lyranan, and the Lyranan language uses structured logograms where rotation of them changes their meaning, so each block of symbols can have four possible meanings. The Lyranans who read it weep at the poetry but find it impossible to translate with its full import. On the other hand, the knife with the body came from somewhere else!

It was great to have Marshall Ryan Maresca visit the show - thanks, Marshall! The book is out, so go find it and explore all of its coolness.

Dive into Worldbuilding will resume on January 4th, 2017 at 10am Pacific. Our author guest for January will be Laura Ann Gilman, who will be talking to us about The Cold Eye, the sequel to Silver on the Road, which she discussed with us this year, here.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016


We had an interesting discussion of friendship. The word "friend" can be used for many different kinds of relationships. Acquaintance, classmate, just people you frequent, or very close friends, or Facebook friends, etc. Hangouts and Skype increase the list of who we can be friends with. You can be friends via letters or emails, too.

Is your appearance (i.e. face to face meeting or video) necessary for a friendship? We said no. You can develop a friendship via other means (telephone, letter, email). If the appearance gets added in later, it can sometimes cause surprise or a feeling of disorientation, as I described when I first met my email/phone friend Janice Hardy face to face.

Is friendship a commodity? Sometimes it can seem that way. It appears also that Middle Grade fiction requires the author to take a stance on friendship.

Tight narrow age groups, such as in school grades, tend to restrict friendships. Siblings can cause you to make friends across age groups. These restrictions relax once you are outside of a heavily age-stratified social environment.

Who are you allowed to be friends with? This is an interesting question, because lots of people try to restrict their children's friendships on the basis of various factors such as race, class, gender, or even caste. Can men and women be friends? Of course they can - the very asking of that question reflects negatively on the beliefs of the person asking it (I'm looking at you, Harry). Sometimes you can feel forced into a friendship because your parents are friends with someone else's parents - or sometimes those friendships can become an unexpected gift.

In some cultures, there is a sense that neither of the two members of a friendship has higher rank than the other. In others, that is not the case. France has the formal and informal pronouns vous and tu, and they used to be used based on status even within a friendship, but the criteria for their use have changed and now are more indicative of solidarity rather than rank. Japan has the concept of senpai and kohai, which usually indicates age or year in school. The senpai is older or more experienced and has things to teach the kohai.

Sometimes people try to control their friends by making them compete for favors.

Can you be friends with a parent or a direct caretaker? Perhaps, or perhaps not, depending on the cultural definition of a friend and the nature of your relationship. Maybe, as in some cultures (e.g. a culture in the Kalahari), you can be friends with your grandparent before you can be friends with your parent, because it skips a generation. The degree of control that the parent is expected to exert over your behavior has a lot to do with the answer to this question.

How well do you keep in touch with friends? Can you be friends in one context and not in another? What kind of contexts?

What can you discuss with a friend? Are there topics (like politics or religion etc.) that you avoid in order to keep the friendship? How much trust do you have? Do you feel safe with your friend? What can you talk about without suggesting romantic interest?

You can create an echo chamber in a group of friends who all agree. At the same time, this can be a safe place for people to air their feelings. Whether it's potentially harmful depends on the link to evidence.

Sometimes friends can argue about things they agree about, exploring nuance or carefully defining terms.

Where can you talk with friends? Hallways? Stairwells? Restaurants?

Do you live with friends? How does that change your relationship? How do politeness expectations differ? How do you negotiate the maintenance of your shared environment? Is there a place you can go if you have to be alone because you can't stand it any more? What impact does that have on the others?

How do you get  your basic-level psychological needs met in a friendship?

Do you have an obligation to air grievances against a friend? Some friends expect each other to "read minds" and have the other person notice that they are disgruntled. This can lead to friendships breaking up.

Power and money complicate friendships.

Would friendships be stronger in an empathic or telepathic society? Would they be fewer?

I talked about the question of friendship in my story "Cold Words." Because rank is so important to the alien Aurrel, the alien protagonist Rulii has great difficulty understanding the word friend and struggles with his relationship with the human Parker throughout the story. Each one has things to offer the other, and each one admires the power of the other, so neither one wants to take a dominating stance. It makes Rulii feel as though the relationship is uncomfortably intimate. The Aurrel define the relationships of "huntmate," a person who shares a goal or project with you, and "littermate," a sibling, and "consort," or boy/girlfriend/spouse.

Needing companionship is adaptive, because people can survive better in groups. Vulnerability is important though it also can cause trouble.

There are friendship bonding rituals and procedures. How would another society define those?

Do friends have nicknames for each other?

Thank you to everyone who attended. Today I'm interviewing guest author Marshall Ryan Maresca about his new book, An Import of Intrigue. Next week on December 14, we'll be discussing in-groups and how they are defined, and what kinds of names and habits they have to mark themselves. Join us!


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ken Liu and The Wall of Storms

Multiple award-winning epic fantasy and "silkpunk" author Ken Liu stopped by the show to talk about his new book, The Wall of Storms, which came out on October 4th. He said that writing this second book was a challenge because while he'd had unlimited time to write the first book, The Grace of Kings, he had to complete this one in only a year.

He said that he did have an outline, which he spoke of in terms of "islands to sail to" in both the figurative and literal senses. He said that he had copious notes which helped a lot, and that he know what kind of book it needed to be.

He had a really interesting answer when I asked him about how he went about fleshing out his outline. Ken is super interested in epic narratives, and foundational narratives, and he said that he was particularly interested in how foundational narratives have different meanings for different groups of people over time. One example he gave was the foundational narrative of the United States, which includes a statement about "self-evident truths." At the time it was written, he noted, the narrative didn't include African-Americans. He noted that now is another time of change for the foundational narratives of the US. These are stories that we live as well as stories that we tell.

Ken sees The Wall of Storms as an illustration of the way foundational narratives change. He compared Book 1, The Grace of Kings, to the Oddyssey and the Iliad because it featured larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life things and ended with the foundation of a new order. Book 2, The Wall of Storms, is a re-reading of the original narrative bringing in the voices of the poor and women who had less of a role in Book 1. They enlarge and revise the narration.

Ken points out that The Wall of Storms begins with an incident where events from Book 1 are being told by a storyteller. However, the way the story is told does not match Book 1. Mata Zyndu is idealized into a resister to the new order, and changed in a way he would not recognize, just as we revise Greek and Roman narratives.

There is another scene where Kuni Garu's children are called on to evaluate the story of Princess Kikomi, and his daughter Théra gives a new reading for the story. Her teacher welcomes this challenge.

Ken says, "The series in a lot of ways is very meta."

The narrative he creates is very complex. Ken says human beings are narrative-driven, not data-driven. "We don't write some optimization function" for our lives, but we create stories about them that make sense to us. This is one reason why stories are powerful. They define our notions of justice and fairness. This series features repeated uses and misuses of narrative. In Book 1, the gods' play is misused by a human to achieve his ends, and this happens quite a bit in The Wall of Storms. Jia, the new invading leaders, the children, and the soldiers are brave or not brave depending on the story they imagine themselves to be a part of.

Ken says this kind of "meta," self-conscious writing can feel a bit distancing, because it reminds people they are reading a story, which can affect immersion. However, it reflects his own thinking about stories.

He creates complex plots using a wiki of detailed notes about characters, plot, geography, history, dates, food, timelines, etc. One of the things that was new in Book 2 was that he tried to break it up by writing certain chapters in close point of view through letters, pseudohistories, and indirect interior monologue. He wanted to create the feel for a different type of book - one which dealt with second generation political realities rather than a larger-than-life, almost mythic history.

I asked Ken about changes in the character of Jia. He told me that the shift in her character was planned. Book 1 doesn't have a "place" for everyone in it. His plan required that women and other points of view assert themselves in Book 2 to deliberately "blow it up." Jia is constrained in BOok 1, but is growing by the end in her goals and ambitions. It's not clear if she is a hero or a villain, and he says it's "natural" not to know how to take her. It has to do with the question of how we understand history. In The Wall of Storms, the official view of Princess Kikomi accepts the destruction of her reputation, but Princess Théra tries to recover the truth. Jia reveals her motives but in ambivalent ways. She should be a believable, powerful politician who is not likeable. Ken says there is too much emphasis on people being likeable. Jia is one of the most important points of view in the book. Ken designed her to be respected.

I also asked about the character of Zomi. She is one of a new generation of charaters, and Ken describes her as an indication of the success of the new regime and its idea of meritocracy. She comes from a humble background but rises by dint of talent and education to become a powerful figure. In other ways, though, this narrative gets subverted. She had luck in finding a teacher who would advance her. Is that cronyism? Is the promise of social mobility by education an illusion? There are parallels to this in the real world, and the answer to those questions is not clear. Ken says the examination scene is one of his favorites, because he wrote it like a battle scene. He says, "Some of our most defining moments are exams." Zomi criticizes the regime but at the same time is an example of its success. She says there are hundreds of others like her who were not advanced, and asks how anyone can claim the system is just. She critiques the system that she benefits from.

I asked Ken about what kind of advances he made in his "silkpunk" technology. He says that the technology "progresses apace both in peace and in war." He described progress as a kind of poetry. Epic poets don't memorize, but build from a basic outline using tropes and phrases in an improvisation. Engineers have a storehouse of techniques that they improvise with. Technology relies on discoveries that can be harnessed. People learn about new forces and physical phenomena. He wanted this to be low-magic fantasy, where magic is restricted to artifacts and to the gods. The engineers are like the wizards, performing great feats of wonder and amazement. At the end, he says, the nerds and geeks are heroes because new tech "saves the world." Engineers who defy the status quo find new ways to win.

I remarked on how in several places Ken relies on bare dialogue to do his worldbuilding. The risk here, as he describes it, is falling into "As you know, Bob" dialogue where two people converse pointlessly about something they already know. He says he prefers to do infodumps straight as infodumps... but he also says, "I enjoy reading science papers for fun."

One of his favorite scenes is a discussion of tax policy between Kuni and an advisor. Even tax policy can be a lot of fun if explained in the right way. People talk about things that are relevant to them. There are even places where they talk about the foundation of the Dara writing system, and how it enables conversation and inhibits literary production.

Ken says the whole idea of the gods is big in The Wall of storms. It reflects the way gods change, as when Roman and Christian belief systems incorporated practices from the pagan systems that preceded them. This isn't often portrayed in fiction. The Dara gods were not native to the area, and changed with their migration. In this book we see invaders bringing new ideas and the gods responding. Where the truth of the gods lies is left deliberately ambiguous.

At the end of our discussion, Ken brought to our attention a new anthology called Invisible Planets from Tor books. This anthology features contemporary science fiction from China (post 1990s). It's the first English language collection of such stories, and he says it offers people a chance to discover how different and how interesting science fiction is in China.

My thanks go out to Ken for this fascinating discussion! Thanks also to everyone who attended. Next week we will meet on December 7 at 10am Pacific to talk with guest author Marshall Ryan Maresca about his book An Import of Intrigue. I hope you will join us!

To support these hangouts and Dive in to even more Worldbuilding, please visit my Patreon.


Monday, November 21, 2016


We got together a couple of weeks ago to talk about prosthetics. There are more prosthetic things than you might expect, of course, starting with the pirate's peg leg and the Captain's hook. If you define a prosthetic as any artificial addition to the body, that covers quite a lot. People have prosthetic teeth, or insulin pumps, or cochlear implants, chemo pumps or glass eyes.

"Prosthetic" in the context of movies or theater can also refer to makeup that significantly alters facial features. In fact, in Star Trek, there were a number of instances when the crew got their faces surgically modified so they could hide amid an alien population distinguished by its facial shape.

In our real lives, we run into prosthetics more than we realize. A lot of them are low-profile. Che told us about meeting people with prosthetics at the gym and at a writing retreat. I first met a man with an artificial leg when I was a kid. I also had a friend who used prosthetic hands. Artificial joints are now more and more common, and they also count as prosthetics. Here is a video with an animated sequence showing how knee replacements work.

You may also remember the Bionic Man and Bionic Woman. Both of them had superpowers given to them by their artificial (prosthetic) parts. Ghost in the Shell involves someone with a total body replacement. Darth Vader also is largely defined by his prosthetics.

In our real world there was a controversy surrounding runner Oscar Pistorius, who was given extra height and bounce by the running blades he wore in place of feet.

What can be offered will depend on the technology level. Who makes your prosthetic? Is it the saddle-maker? If you have an amputation, who has done the amputation? Do people have the ability to take a mold of your leg, for example?

An episode of Copper featured someone who had lost a leg in the Civil War.
Star Trek Deep Space 9 had an episode where a man had a partial, and then total, brain replacement.
Ann Leckie's Ancillary Mercy has a prosthetic leg in it, but that prosthetic is worn only so long as the person has not yet grown their leg back.

Our current technology allows us to use biological scaffolding to grow bone, and also organs. Also, rather than a doctor or other special manufacturer being the sole source for a prosthetic, there are instances of people 3D printing their own prosthetic limbs, particularly in the case of children who will outgrown those limbs.

There was a recent video in which Robert Downey, Jr. delivered an Iron Man-style prosthetic hand to a little boy. A lot depends on what you can afford.

The cutting edge of current prosthetics is controlling them with brain waves. This would mean, ideally, that the prosthetic was rendered invisible... but while it's good to be able to manipulate a false limb in the same way that you manipulate your other limbs, it's not necessarily good to have it be invisible. Websites like have beautiful prosthetic limbs that are more about being visible and interesting/beautiful than invisible.

One of the critical questions to answer is how to reduce the burden of an injury or birth defect both psychologically and physically.

Artificial limbs can be normalized by having people who use them present and visible in society. Tammy Duckworth is an example of a high-profile woman (now a Senator!) who uses prosthetics because of her war injuries.

People don't always use prosthetics in response to injuries. Sometimes they use wheelchairs. Sometimes people keep service dogs to help them also.

Morgan mentioned a science fiction novel where a surgeon amputated his forearms to use his phantom limbs in surgery. The book was called Flesh and Silver by Stephen L Burns. Almost Human also featured a character with an artificial leg. I heard a story from real life about a man who was placed on house arrest with a GPS ankle bracelet but was then discovered at a robbery... because the GPS ankle bracelet had unwittingly been placed on his artificial leg, and he had left it at home.

Thanks to Che and Morgan for a really interesting discussion. Again, Dive into Worldbuilding will not meet this Wednesday (the day before Thanksgiving) but we will resume again November 30th with a discussion of Friendship. I hope to see you there!

Please consider supporting my Patreon for more worldbuilding goodness!



Most people have teeth, but they tend to fly pretty low under the radar in fiction unless we're talking about fangs. Vampire movies where the vampires brush their teeth are comedies.

Tooth care varies widely across the world and across history but gets little attention in fiction. In some places, people clean their teeth by chewing on sticks. We have toothbrushes, that used to be made of wood and boar bristle (like some hair brushes) but are now made of plastic. We also have electric toothbrushes and water pik machines that shoot water really hard at our teeth. Just walk into a US grocery store and you'll see a gazillion choices of toothpaste.

In Farscape, they used grubs to clean their teeth, a bit like hippos and birds. I'm sure there was a deliberate science fictional gross factor involved.

Poor tooth health can be associated with lack of money. This recent article talks about the stigma of poor tooth health in the USA: .

Tooth health is very important. In the US, orthodonture is seen as very important. This isn't the case across the world, but having straight teeth contributes significantly to better tooth health through life in part because it makes regular dental care easier. Removing wisdom teeth is a very common procedure. There is a luxury in not having to think about our teeth.

Tooth health is also a form of public health. The fluoridation of drinking water was a revolution in tooth health, according to both my dentist and this CDC website where you can read up about it:

Generally, main characters don't have tooth problems. Sometimes we see them in movies like Castaway, or Affliction with Nick Nolte, or even in Dances With Wolves, but they are rare. Dr. Who did mention that Shakespeare's breath was horrible. In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum mentions that he has nine (in the video, I misremember it as four). This may be in part because they are so personal to us. It was even difficult for us to start this discussion, because everyone's first reaction to talking about dentistry was to shudder.

George Washington is well known for having only one of his own teeth left by the time he became president, and using dentures made of metal and hippopotamus ivory. It's no wonder that people didn't smile much in pictures of themselves!

Of course, one thing that adversely affected tooth health was the easy availability of refined sugar.

Dentistry dates back to 7000 BCE.

We speculated that one could have aliens or fantasy creatures with rodent-like teeth, who would have to engage in constant gnawing.

Humans also have deciduous teeth, and the dentistry performed on them is different because they are not permanent.

A lot of dentist equipment looks like torture devices, especially in the 1800's. Dentists were also barbers in the early years.

Diet has a huge influence on tooth health. Ancient Egypt generally had good tooth health.

The evil dentist is a trope. We sometimes see endondontists, since root canals are very famous procedures. Orthodontists are even less common. Gold teeth do show up in fiction, however.

Sometimes people put off going to the dentist for so long that by the time they go, the situation is catastrophic. This can be self-fulfilling.

Tooth care in Japan is very different, and teeth are valued differently, even though toothbrushes and toothpaste are largely the same. The dentists I encountered there were much less interested in helping patients keep their teeth than the ones in the US. A Japanese friend of mine who came to the US perceived the US approach as overzealous, a bit like a mechanic who wants your money, and so finds problems where none exist. Snaggle teeth can be considered cute.

Cultural value on teeth changes over time. Back when I was a kid, tooth whitening was not something anyone did. Then people latched onto it, and suddenly there was pressure to have whiter teeth, and to use all kinds of products.

The Maya would inset jade into their teeth.

The Ferengi in Star Trek would sharpen their teeth, and there was an episode where the Klingon Worf buys a tooth sharpener from a Ferengi.

Some human cultures have filed patterns in their teeth or filed them to points. Over a person's lifetime, their teeth will wear down and their gums will recede.

If you are working in a secondary or alien world, think about where references to teeth occur in the language. "Like pulling teeth" "hen's teeth" "long in the tooth" are just some examples from English.

In ancient Japan, married women would blacken their teeth using a dye created by putting iron filings in tea or sake.

Teeth are very personal to us. Should you show them when you smile? That's a very personal question. Should teeth be straight? That can be a significant source of embarrassment. We use super-white teeth as a symbol of vanity, as when you see the gleam coming off someone's teeth in cartoons. Tooth-baring can be a particular form of communication. Tooth pain is also very personal, maybe because it's in an orifice (as Che said) or because teeth are in our head, very close to our perceived seat of consciousness. Our teeth also affect our speech.

The tooth fairy is a very old tradition. In France, children are visited by "la petite souris," or the little mouse (this mouse appears in Rise of the Guardians, but really should have been a female mouse).

What if alien teeth were affected by different substances than ours? That would depend on what kind of bacteria were able to damage them, and what they consumed.

Thanks to everyone who came and discussed teeth with me! There will be no hangout this week, for Thanksgiving, but we will resume the following week.

Don't forget to visit my Patreon for worldbuilding links and prompts and more opportunities to worldbuild with me!


Monday, November 7, 2016

Non-Auditory Languages

A great many of us are accustomed to auditory languages, but those are not the only languages around. Not by a long shot!

Linguists use the word "channel" to describe the different ways in which linguistic information can be transmitted. The auditory channel is only one of those. There are also olfactory, visual, and tactile channels - essentially, a channel for every sense.

Sign languages are a really important form of non-auditory language used by humans. It's important to note that American Sign Language is its own language, and not at all the same as Signed Exact English. When working with signs, it's easy to think that signs are more iconic than auditory language, but if you look across international sign languages (they differ for different countries around the world) each one has its own iconicity. The idea that a sign is iconic is common, but how each one is iconic is culturally based.

Sign languages in fiction are a challenge to work with. In fact, any non-auditory language will risk being overwritten by our auditory impressions of the language the story is written in.

Language change is universal, and occurs in semiotics and in gesture, and in sign languages, over time.

A language like American Sign Language has its own grammar. Grammar doesn't take the same form in non-auditory languages that it does in auditory ones. It still categorizes, however. It still does the basic job of grammar, which is to create shared context where none currently exists. In the same way that onomatopoeia imitates actual sounds, sign languages can do really cool things to indicate the manner in which actions are performed. It can also use locations in space as ways to refer back to antecedents.

In my 2016 story, "The Language of the Silent," which I wrote with Sheila Finch, the sign language was created as a language of rebellion by the people who used it. There was a slave population who wished to coordinate their rebellion, and therefore they designed a set of signs based on the auditory language they spoke, and this turned into a full-fledged language they could use. I based my idea for this language in part on the way that Hebrew was revived as a full-fledged living language for the Jewish people in Israel.

Readers who use auditory languages as their native languages will come into a story with a base-level assumption that the language used will be auditory.

Other options are color based languages for cephalopods who can change their skin color. Morgan suggested pheromones making a language.

Auditory languages have the property that they are strung out over time, because there are limitations on the way speech sounds are created and how they can be created in succession. Visual languages are less held back by time limits. You could imagine a language where color suggested emotional content and pattern carried grammatical information. A bioluminescent creature might have a finely tuned sense of color.

Languages have to solve particular types of problems, like how to convey passage of time, how to indicate relative position, etc. They can solve these problems in different ways. You could use the relative balance of two different olfactory chemicals to create change that would convey information.

Helen Keller used a tactile version of English to communicate when she was unable to use the auditory and visual channels.

It's important to realize that humans don't communicate solely on the auditory channel. We communicate simultaneously on multiple channels including the visual (gesture, facial expression), olfactory (pheromones), tactile, etc. We can communicate by telephone, though, because the major burden of grammar falls in the auditory channel. Tone of voice is not the same as speech sounds in conveying grammar, but it still plays an important role, and it can appear strange when it is missing.

Disability affects language of all types. You could imagine a disability possessed by a cephalopod, for example (as Morgan is doing).

Deafness is not just a disability. It is also a language community with its own culture. This is why it's so complex to propose to give hearing to people via cochlear implant. Its effect can be to allow people to hear auditory language, but it simultaneously endangers the culture and language of the Deaf community.

It is a mistake to assume that a channel problem equates to a mental, cognitive, or emotional problem. For example, if we are unable to make or to understand facial expressions, this can be misinterpreted as a mental problem, as if we have diminished capacity for a rich inner life. It's too easy to assume that because a piece of expected evidence is missing, that the internal life itself is also missing.

In The Liars I created a language that was only partially conveyed on the auditory channel. So much of the language was conveyed on a magnetic channel that humans could not detect that the humans concluded that the Poik were cognitively diminished, and this contributed to discrimination and exploitation.

Ask yourself how important the various channels are, and what kind of information each is used for.