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Thursday, July 31, 2008

How language learners speak

Just a short post for tonight, so please do ask me to follow up on this topic if you find it interesting. I was out on the Absolute Write forum today and the topic of language learning came up - one of the writers there was working with a character who spoke Arabic but was learning English, and trying to figure out how to portray her speech.

A number of people on AW gave advice about the sound structure or grammatical structure of Arabic - and it's true that the structure of a person's native language has an influence on the way that person speaks a new language. Others suggested that this writer go out and find a native Arabic speaker learning English to get a good language sample - certainly an excellent approach.

But there's more to the issue. It reminded me in some ways of the discussion of dialects we had here on this blog, because portraying speech errors in a sensitive way is equally difficult. The moment I think about altering spelling to reflect pronunciation errors, my internal alarm bells start going off. You can always go with word order, grammar and vocabulary usage, which is somewhat easier (and research on language learning sequences can help guide you on that). On the other hand, I had a character recently who gave me a lot of trouble, because he was supposed to be a native Chinese speaker who spoke perfect English but was putting on a strong Chinese accent. And every time I tried to contract his syntax, I felt I was losing the depth I wanted this character to have - that he was becoming to the reader what he was only pretending to be. In the end I went with greater language complexity, and a description of his accent.

The one thing that no one had yet addressed at AW (before I got there :) ) was discourse - the higher-level strategies that language learners use to get through a difficult interaction.

The first and foremost approach that a language learner will take in a tough spot is silence. I've been there - listening and listening but unable to respond. People often choose to stay silent in order to avoid mistakes. Another type of silence strategy is avoidance. Language learners will try to avoid grammar areas that cause them trouble, or vocabulary they don't know, by talking around the problem area. Avoidance also means that very often in conversation, language learners will make abrupt topic changes - when their resource pool for a particular topic runs out, they will switch to another (often without warning or explanation).

I would just encourage anyone dealing with language learners to remember that silence and avoidance are strong learner strategies - and best of all, they are among the easiest to portray in text without the risk of inadvertently ridiculing the learner.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cool Japanese Ghosts

It was really exciting to respond to those comments on designing languages, and I'm always open to more discussion of questions, but tonight I want to do something different. I'm going to talk about Japanese ghosts and spirits.

I didn't learn about these ghosts through manga (sometimes these are created by the authors), and I didn't learn about them until after I'd been living in Japan for most of a year, but I love them. They were first chronicled in English by Lafcadio Hearn, who lived in the city of Matsue, Japan starting in 1890, and became a Japanese citizen. His house still stands in the city of Matsue, and they also have some really cool statues of ghosts. If you want to explore the full variety of Japanese ghosts, you can visit a website called "The Obakemono Project" and get an extensive list, with pictures.

This list doesn't include dragons, which I guess fall into their own category. But the ghosts do include creatures like the tengu, a goblin creature that is both birdlike and manlike, and can change its form into that of a wandering priest. Then there's the kitsune or fox, who can change its form and appear to be a woman (sometimes with a tail). The tanuki (roughly translated as raccoon-dog) is a mischievous creature and can change its form as well, as can the scary bake-neko or ghost cat. In fact, obake-mono translates literally as "change creature."

A noppera-bo will appear to be someone so upset that they are hiding their face, but when they finally turn to you, you'll discover they have no face at all, but a smooth egglike complexion. The rokuro-kubi seem normal by day, but at night their heads fly off their bodies and make mischief, sometimes attached to the body by a long rope of flesh!

These are some of my favorites, but I couldn't possibly list them all here - I'll let you explore The Obakemono Project for that. What I do want to comment on, though, is the way the Japanese ghosts have characteristics that make them particular to Japanese cultural concerns.

Consider for example the laughing woman (kera-kera onna), who haunts people by laughing derisively.

Or consider the "ghosts" caused by neglect: the two-mouthed woman (futakuchi onna) which is essentially a normal woman who grows another mouth because she's been neglected; the karakasa-obake which results from the neglect of an umbrella; another which results from the neglect of shoes, and a host of other objects that take on spirits of mischief if they're left untended. There's also the tenjo-name, a creature who licks dirty neglected ceilings.

I'll close by going back to the idea of obake-mono as "change creatures." Among the vast number of Japanese cultural concepts we find tatemae (front, facade) and honne (true feeling). Different value is placed on maintaining one's polite face, and showing one's true feelings, depending on the circumstances - so it should come as no surprise that deception, change, and the revelation of the true nature of a creature would feature so prominently in the Japanese ghosts.

I'll leave it up to you to think about how our own Western ghost creatures might reflect our cultural concepts. But I hope you feel inspired to consider superstition as an area ripe for exploration in the creation of fantastical or science fictional peoples.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

More about Designing Languages

After my post on designing languages I had comments (here and on the Analog forum) from three people, which I thought I'd follow up on tonight.

Bill Gleason asked about translators.

A universal translator like the one in Star Trek is effectively a deus ex machina, an intervention on the part of the designer to allow us to bypass the real problems of different languages.

A mechanical translator can do a lot when it comes to predictable language structures - finding word boundaries by identifying repeating sets of sounds, tracking the structure and the sequence of those words. A really snazzy neural-network-style translator would probably also be able to do a good job of tracking phrases that repeat, and be able to do fuzzy categorization of words so it could capture exceptions to rules and things like that. It would also be able to do meaning to a certain extent, but I'm not sure how it would push past literal meaning to social meaning, for example. I suppose it would have to depend on how high you assumed the technology was.

I think it would be really interesting to have a translator machine that was really helpful but also limited in predictable ways. One issue a really "universal" translator would have to address would be how to incorporate information from the surrounding visual and social context - and that would be very tricky. Certainly it would require a device that could follow things like eye gaze and body position.

Bill also asked about body language. I talked about that yesterday so I won't go too deep, but if you assume that two groups of aliens are each able to identify discrete objects in their environment, then I think there would be a high likelihood that pointing would be used by both. Beyond that, a human trying to interpret alien gestures would need to be very sensitive to surrounding context and remember not to make assumptions about natural meaning for a given gesture. A shoulder-lift might not mean the same as a shrug, or possibly the alien might use an eye-gaze gesture similar to ours, but that is not accompanied by a shoulder motion. I don't think it's too far out to have two alien groups reach a basic level of mutual comprehension, but watch out for places where categories of objects are defined differently.

Tom Ligon brought up two very interesting ideas: a language based on bioluminescence, and a sound-based language with such vast range that human sounds seem undifferentiated.

Fireflies communicate by bioluminescence, but in a very simple way ("Where are you?" "Here I am!"). For a species with such a language to be able to grasp that humans are communicating, they would have to have an awareness of sound and its potential for carrying messages. They might even have unique alternate means to communicate via sound, as humans have used Morse code on Aldiss lamps, or semaphore (with flags).

As far as the language with vast range is concerned, that's a very interesting one. Human babies must gradually learn what not to pay attention to in their environment, so as to make communication easier without distraction, and so I think this is a completely solid concept. A human would have a tough time with this initially - it makes me think of H. Beam Piper's Fuzzies, who spoke with supersonic pitch. But given a good receiver, a lot of analytical work, and an appropriate sound generator, they might do a good job of speaking the range-language. Among range-language speakers, I think it would be a question of special individuals being able to grasp human language sound concepts. I've met many people who aren't able to hear sound distinctions that differ from their own native language - but on the opposite side, there are always exceptional individuals who are able to hear more subtle sound distinctions.

Greg Ellis peppered me with examples - what an exciting range of species! Look for them in his FOTS universe. The first place I'd start, given a large number of groups like this, would be sound design based on physiology, and believe it or not, the minute you name a group, you've already started language design. I'm going to comment a little on each group he gave me (except two he called the Swarm and the Machines), and I hope this will give a sense of how I get started when thinking through alien languages.

Saurians, Dwa'Kim
It might be good to ask whether dinosaur-like aliens have flexible lips, for example, because inflexible lips might restrict their ability to create consonants like p/b/w/m, or vowels like o/u. It looks already as though the Dwa'Kim have such flexibility - that could be used as a distinction between the two languages.

My question about caterpillar aliens is whether they have a hard palate, and whether they have a nose. Both are useful to have, the palate being good for consonants like j (assuming it's pronounced "dzh") and the nose for sounds like n. The species might well have a different way of re-routing the air stream to produce a different resonance, the way we do with our noses. The name of the species as given here would actually be possible to pronounce without a palate if the j were pronounced like a y, and the q low down in the throat. But generally speaking the transcription of sounds would have to be considered approximate.

A doglike group. I've got the vibe. It looks like these guys are going to have some really cool growl-like consonants, or multiple qualities of "r." Does the apostrophe mean a glottal stop, a plosive consonant, or some kind of dropped sound? These are possibilities that might help the language expand.

A more humanoid group, and their name is short, so lots of directions to go with this. I'd be looking to culture and social situations of language use to find out more about how the language is used.

Kon'ta Py'ron, Q'Tez, Grymphon
I'm grouping these together because they are relatively insectoid, with hard body parts, which suggests to me that they'll have a lot of means for clicking, creating hums and vibrations, and potentially whistling, all of which are difficult to use English letters for. But for clicks you can always turn to k/p/t/! , and for hums or whizzes you can go for s/z/f (or ph!) Whistles might give you vowels. I wonder a little about "n" and "g" for these groups, but this is all about getting creative - these might indicate sounds created by a combination of hum and click. Think through the type of mandible structure they might have, and whether they would have rubbing surfaces on their legs or other types of sound-producers they could use for language.

And that's it for my thoughts! Thanks for sending me the questions, guys - and I hope these examples have been thought-provoking for other people facing similar challenges.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Don't forget the importance of body language

After yesterday's post I've been presented with a number of interesting language systems to chew on - but it's going to take me more than a single day to come back with ideas! One of the things that came up peripherally, though, is the question of body language. So I thought I'd muse a bit on it this evening.

I won't discuss sign languages here, except to say that they are fully elaborated language systems with their own complex layers of grammar, all executed in the visual medium using signs in combination with posture and facial expression.

Body language is something every writer should take time to observe, because it's useful in every genre. It's great for the purposes of "show not tell" to express characters' emotional states. Closed body position is a classic indicator of discomfort, and can include crossed legs, crossed arms, tucked chin, hiding of hands, and lack of eye contact. Open body position, the opposite, indicates comfort, and if taken to the extreme, can indicate attraction. Personal distance is also a really great thing to observe and to use in stories, and can be used along with general body position.

If you really want to take the idea of investigating body language seriously, try carrying a notebook to a place where lots of human interaction is taking place, and making note of the different types of body stances, hand gestures, head angles, gaze gestures, and facial expressions that you see.

Basic facial expressions are common across cultures - things like fear, anger, happiness, etc. But gestural signals and personal boundaries vary.

Here are some real-world examples from my experience. Americans tend to stand at hand-shake distance, while Japanese people stand further away, at bowing distance. I have watched people conk heads (ouch!) when the standards cross. Americans will point to their hearts when saying "I," while Japanese people will point to their noses. The Japanese gesture for "come here" is executed with the wrist above and the fingers below, with the back of the hand facing the person being called - almost exactly like the American gesture for "move a little further off." My husband nearly got lost in Tokyo because of this distinction. I have seen many Europeans point using their middle fingers, where Americans point with their index fingers. The Japanese generally with their entire hands, and consider the single-finger point to be rude - though it doesn't have a meaning anything like the middle finger in America!

Oh, what lovely potential for misunderstanding there is in gestural communication! Gestures tend to be iconic, which is to say that their meanings seem obvious to those using them. However, as I've noted above, not everyone agrees on the same obvious meaning.

Alternate physiology (aliens!) only adds to the possibilities. Consider the vast difference between human and canine gestural language. A human might point to his mouth or stomach to indicate hunger, while a puppy has the instinct to lick its parent's chin. I've found that learning a bit about dogs' gestural communication has further widened the parameters I feel I can play with in gesture, including head position, body posture, tongue gestures, bites, etc.

If you want to think about how to make an alien look inquisitive, think about what kind of sensory organs it might be using to investigate things, and work from there. Cocking the head to get the eyes closer to the person they're talking to might work. Or swiveling their ears forward. Or raising their antennae higher. Try to think about it from the point of view of their communication needs (and if you're feeling ambitious, the social significance of gestural communication), and the possibilities will start to open up.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Want to design a language?

I'm back after a great trip. Great adventures seeing sea lions and seals and kelp (in nature and in the aquarium) and playing with my parents and my kids and my brother's family too. Then I came home to the news of one rejection and one honorable mention from Writers of the Future - so quite a mixed surprise!

While I was away, I had this list floating through my head of the things I think about when I want to create a language. I always like to find reasons for the structures and words I create - because even though language is arbitrary in theory, in practice most of the things we say interconnect and make sense. Plus it's really hard to make up random strings of sounds off the top of my head. So here are some things to think about:

1. Language evolution. I've heard a number of people, particularly at the Analog forum, talking about the way they've thought through the physiological evolution of their aliens. So why not think about how their language evolved? What was it first used for? Distress calls across long distances? Cooperative activities of some kind? A language used for hunting might come out differently from one used while building tree homes, or one used to find other members of a family in a dark den.

2. Mouth shapes (sounds). The most obvious - but not the only! - application here is to aliens in science fiction. The sounds of the language have to be produced somehow, so if your alien has a lot of teeth, or a very long neck, that might influence the type of sounds in the language. Mouth shapes are also relevant to fantasy human languages, and to real-world languages. The sounds of English just don't require us to move our lips as much as French speakers do, but more than the sounds of Japanese do. Those general mouth patterns contribute to the feel of languages in real life, so why not in our stories?

3. Word structure (morphology). This means breaking down words into their component parts, such as re+cite, walk+ing, dog+s etc. And actually, it's one of the things most likely to be noticeable about your language in a story. Why? Because the language elements that tend to be included in a story are words for things, for languages and peoples, and possibly for activities. I've seen a lot of stories where the sound "i" is stuck on the end to make a plural. But why not use something else? Or, as the Japanese do, just (mostly) forget about plural nouns? The word for a town might have a prefix or suffix meaning "place." There are lots of options, and they can really add a sense of depth to your world. If you look at Tolkien's writings, you'll notice that all the elf names can in fact be broken into parts, and translated into literal meanings. I always thought that was amazing!

4. Sentence structure and above... Unless you're writing full sentences in your created language, you usually don't need to work out how sentence structure works. This is where it's good to turn around and consider how you want to capture the feel of your language in English. If you're not working with real world languages, then choosing an existing language dialect becomes problematic, because very often it will be recognizable. The last thing I want is for someone to ask, "I wonder why Wade's aliens are speaking Cockney?" So I go for alterations in rhythm and feel. English tends to have a natural speaking pattern of alternating high and low stress,

"x X x X x X x X" (iambic)

so you can reverse that, or alter it in funny places. In addition, you can have someone speak repetitively, or in very short sentences, or very long drawn-out ones.

5. Cultural concepts. Your people's belief system, and what kind of things are important or repugnant to them, can have a huge influence on language. This includes political ideology or religion. The Gariniki in "Let the Word Take Me" had an extreme version of this, where their view of the sacredness of their own language shrunk their public usage down to phrases without any sustained rhythm. The flip side of this was that when they spoke fluently, I tried to have them speak in a way that emulated the tone and language of sacred stories in English. I can hardly think of a world in which nobody ever swears (though maybe I should make one, hmm...), and the content of swearing has a lot to do with belief systems.

6. Language learning. Children in a society have to learn their own language, and they don't always need to learn it the same way. The Gariniki children learned to speak in the holy place by listening to stories and discussing them. In our society children generally learn to speak from their mother or primary caretaker. In some societies, children learn more language from their own siblings than from their parents. And generally, television- or computer-generated language is not responsive enough to play a significant role in child language learning.

Foreign language learning also comes to mind, but I need to end this post so I'll leave it for another time. I will say though that it differs in some key ways from child language learning.

I'd love to go into more depth on any of these points, so if you're curious about them just ask. Or it might be fun to do an example language. I'll think about it for upcoming posts.

Friday, July 25, 2008

But what does it mean? (Point of View)

Yesterday evening I was talking about objects, but there was a hidden dimension there that I'd like to talk about a bit more, and that is significance. It's not just the presence of an object that counts, but what that object means. For example:

object: a bottle of bubbles on a large desk beside a computer

Immediately we can guess some things. Bubbles are a toy but the description does not place the bottle in a "natural toy environment." This could imply that the owner intended to place the bubbles out of reach of children in the house, or possibly just that the owner likes bubbles and is given to transports of fun in between emails.

I don't think anyone will be surprised by the idea that bubbles might mean children in the house, or that bubbles on a large desk might mean someone placed them out of reach. But let's take this one step further.

The description of an object can also tell us things about the person observing it - even when that person is not directly mentioned in the description. Compare these examples:

1. The bottle of bubbles sat on the desk, safe from reaching fingers.
(someone thinks the placement is "safe" - probably Mom?)
2. There was our bottle of bubbles, hidden in the grownups' clutter on the desk.
(someone small owns the bubbles and has been looking for them?)
3. The incriminating bottle of bubbles now sat out of reach on the principal's desk.
(someone, not the principal, thinks the bubbles will get them in trouble?)
4. Damned if the bottle of bubbles wasn't right there on the desk!
(someone is frustrated after seeking bubbles for some time and not noticing them?)

It's not just the object that is important. The voice of the character who observes the object chooses tell you extra things about it and its location, thus opening a window on how he or she views the world - and how he or she feels about discovering the bubbles. The tiniest addition to a description, such as the word "incriminating" in sentence 3, can make a huge difference to a reader's understanding of a story situation.

You might say that the choice to include that word provides information in two directions: both inward, toward the object, and outward, toward the observer. And because of the presence of the reader and author adds even more possible layers. All this stuff relates to my favorite area of linguistics, pragmatics. In this regard I'd like to share H.P. Grice's Cooperative Principle (from Logic and Conversation, 1975):

"Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged."

Which is the long way of saying,

"Say the appropriate thing at the appropriate time in the appropriate way."

Okay, fine, but there's more to it than just that - because along with the cooperative principle comes the idea that people will always assume you're obeying it. So if you mention something, that has meaning. If you leave out something expected, that also has meaning.

I'm going to come back to this at some point, because I feel like I've barely scratched the surface tonight. For those who want more right away, I wrote a lot about this in an article which appeared in IROSF in August 2006. It was called "Point of View: Reading beyond the I's" and if you want to go into detail you can check it out in their archives. IROSF requires registration, but to my knowledge it is still free (and easy).

I'm away for the weekend, so I'll be back again Sunday evening or Monday (depending on how frazzled I am). So TTYL from TTYU!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Considering the Culture in Objects

I loved all the discussion of dialects, and I'm planning to revisit the topic, but today I thought I'd take a little turn into the Anthropology area and talk about representing culture through the use of objects. Or "props," in drama terms. You really can't have a story without them, but this is a place where it's good to do some thinking, so as to use the opportunity to its fullest.

You can really deepen a sense of culture in a story just by paying attention to the stuff you find when you look around a room. In "Let the Word Take Me" I gave David Linden a chance to look at a Gariniki artifact called "sun armor," a perforated leather coat covered with white feathers, that had been repaired several times. This single object let me expand on several ideas. It linked to the idea of the Gariniki as a cold-blooded species, who would need to protect themselves on a journey through the desert. It established that their economy would not support the easy creation of sun armor, and also allowed me to hint that the gecko-girl Allayo was engaged in a special mission where she would possess a ceremonial, highly valued object. It also fleshed out the fauna of the planet Garini by indicating the presence of birds (feathers) and grazing beasts (leather). The sun armor did not have buckles or other complex closures - an indicator of their technology level.

In that story I gave the sun armor quite a bit of attention, but objects that surround the main actors and their actions can be just as revealing. Here are some examples.

Example 1: Sources of light. Do you have natural light, a fire, torches, candles, oil-lamps, kerosene lamps, gas or electric lights, glowing rods, etc? How (and if) people make light for themselves can be a great way to evoke a larger technological context, even with just one or two words.

Example 2: Food and drink. There are so many possibilities here I'll just touch on a few. What do people eat and how is it cooked (or is it?)? What kinds of tools do they use to eat it? Where do they eat, and in what kind of social situation (many people, or few, or alone)? What manners are called for? Take for example a glass of beer: when an American is finished, he or she will leave the glass empty. But in Japan an empty glass is effectively considered an invitation for a refill - so when you're satisfied, you actually have to leave the drink unfinished or you'll get more than you bargained for.

Example 3: Literacy-related objects. Captain Kirk's little etch-a-sketch pad would fall into this category. So would inkstones, brushes, and mulberry paper (ancient Japan). Or typewriters, or a printing press with moveable type. Pencils, or mechanical pencils, or possibly charcoal. Ditto sheets. Computers (yay!). Or clay and stylus. I also remember clearly the sand tables that were used for recording music in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger.

Example 4: Incidental objects. I remember being very impressed with the variety of objects in Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman, including but not limited to fans, lacquer boxes, and folding screens. When I look at my own desk I can see American and Australian flags (we're a mixed nationality household), and a container of bubble solution (we have kids). Clocks could fall into this category as well.

As a final note, I would also like to say that the absence of objects can speak as clearly as their presence. This of course has something to do with the expectations of the observer, and as a writer you can decide whether the absence of the object is remarkable to the story character, or simply to the reader. In my Varin world the absence of wooden tables is considered completely unremarkable by characters, but I've had several critiquers point this out as something they found intriguing.

Do you want to take on dialects?

I was thinking about writing a little on dialects, and then lo and behold, Bill Moonroe over at Asimov's board asked me to write about it! So that was perfect timing.

Dialects can be really fun to work with, and they can also be very challenging to work with, depending on how they're approached (especially the real-world ones). It's awesome to find a story where dialect is done really well - gives the whole thing a lot of flavor. But if it's done badly it can be insulting, as I'm sure many of you know.

Here is one useful principle of dialects: since language is constantly changing as it's being used, the longer a population has lived in a given area, the more that pockets of language use in the area will diverge. Some real life populations that come to mind are China, where the dialects are very often mutually unintelligible, Japan, which has a vast variety of dialects, and England. All of these are populations that have been in place for a very long time. In the US we have many dialects that originate from other parts of the world, but it's interesting to observe how many fewer accents there are on the more recently populated West Coast than in the East.

Intercommunication will not eradicate dialects, but it can slow their divergence. This is a useful thing to keep in mind if you're designing a fantasy world, or a SF planet, where the population has been around for a long time.

Dialects also reflect social status. (Don't get me started on social status! Today I have to stick with dialects...) There once was a study done in New York by Labov (earlier I said England, but my visitor Byron kindly reminded me of the real source) where different department stores had slightly different English usage (in pronunciation of "r"), and this was seen as an indicator of status (how classy the store was). So in your world/universe a particular profession, say, mariners or spacefarers, could easily develop their own dialect because they're relatively tight-knit, often isolated, and have a lot of pride in their own community. These regional dialects can simultaneously conflict, and coexist, with "standard" dialect (i.e. without disappearing), because social value is placed on being able to speak to the public, as it were, but a different kind of social value is placed on being able to mark yourself as one of the insiders for any particular language group.

If you want to work with a real-world dialect, there are different ways to approach it. Using alternative spellings of English can be clunky, both to write and to read, if it's not done just right (and for me, sometimes even if it is done right). Fortunately there's a lot more to dialect than just accent (phonetics and phonology, for the linguistics buffs). You can also work with vocabulary, or usages of words that are particular to the dialect. And you can also work with sentence structure, or with rhythm (prosody). Sometimes the easiest approach is to develop a feel for word-flow with a dialect speaker, and then use the surrounding text to imply the accent rather than trying to render it in spelling. In any case, for using real-world dialects the best bet is not to make any guesses. Find yourself a "native speaker" of the dialect and use them to help you grasp its patterns, and if you can, get them to proofread at the end. This is the best kind of insurance against inadvertently making an error that seems to belittle the dialect.

If you're not working with a real-world dialect, you can have a lot more free fun - though I will note that if the dialect appears to resemble a real-world dialect, or has "developed in the future" from one, then you might want to "hang a light on it," or bring attention to the fact that this is a dialect that has progressed on one hundred years since the cockney dialect, etc. so that people won't make wrong guesses.

My last thought would be that it's important to consider the ease with which the reader can grasp the dialect in question. My critique friends will laugh at me for saying this, after all the odd things I've asked them to try to read, but it's true. I just recently designed a language for a short story, but my main concern was less what the language itself sounded like, and more how that language could be rendered comprehensibly in English while still retaining the feel of an alien language. I think my friends would kill me if I actually ever tried to alter spellings, so I always try to go for using sentence structure and rhythmic patterns to indicate the difference. This is because I'm asking them for a real commitment, i.e. to read a whole story in this style. In "Let the Word Take Me" I did a similar thing with the gecko-girl Allayo, which is to say didn't worry much about what her language sounded like, but gave her a different rhythm of speech to contrast with the voice of David Linden.

If you've got one guy who talks funny, that's one thing, but the more extensive the use of dialect is, then the more reader effort it requires. It's worth putting in some effort as a writer to make sure the audience's comfort is being considered.

Because believe me, I don't want to make anyone suffer.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Does your world/universe use names?

I'm figuring it does, whether it's an SF story or not.

Every time we choose a character name, it means something. I was part of a panel discussion about this at BayCon 2008, and the panel agreed that names are often chosen for what they convey subconsciously about a character. This is true whether the names are from English, from other world languages, or even if they are all made up.

Science fiction names are often taken from world languages. The presence of different language groups (like English/Germanic, French/Spanish/Romance, Indian, Chinese, etc.) can imply a lot about the history of the future world featured in the story. Off the top of my head I can think of Aliette de Bodard, Sheila Finch and Mike Flynn who have done interesting things with their naming schemes and also with the twists they've put into the history of their universes.

Okay, so what if all the names are made up?

Making up names is fun, at least for me. When I'm creating a character, a lot of times the name will just leap into my head, but in order to take the world concept just a bit deeper, it's good to consider these in a language context. Are these names pronounceable in English? Are they pronounceable by anyone? And to push the level a little further, do they form part of a unified system?

Here's my own experience with finding an underlying language system.

I had this great mega-fantasy story and I had made up scads and scads of names for it before I suddenly decided I wanted my world to be a bit more principled. So I tried to figure out what "language" the different names might have come from, and I found the names falling into three or four categories as far as the types of sounds that occurred in them. Some sounded like English-pronounceable names, while others were more like Spanish-pronounceable names, or French-pronounceable names. I asked myself, "Do I want to have this be a single-language world?" The answer for me was that I wanted everyone in the immediate area to speak the same language, but I remembered that names in almost every country tend to keep the forms of older contributing languages - and I really liked the idea of this country having older contributing languages. So I took the few names that "were not like the others" and regularized them to one of the four main sound systems. And that gave me a place to go with the world's history and backstory, i.e. that there had once been people from four different language groups that populated the area.

Which is the long way of saying that if you think about your names for people, and names for things, as part of a language system, you can inadvertently give yourself a much deeper world concept and open up possibilities for history and demographic changes in your world.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Welcome to TTYU!

Talk To YoUniverse begins, unofficially, in a fancy department store in Tokyo Japan, where my husband and I had gone to look at shoes with some Australian friends. We approached one of the employees to ask - in Japanese - for help, but the young woman looked at us blankly and said,

"No English!"

We replied, still in Japanese, that we were speaking Japanese and it was all right, that we just wanted to look at a pair of shoes that our friend liked. Again, she replied,

"No English!"

We were never in fact able to open communication with this particular person. Eventually one of her colleagues recognized that we were indeed speaking Japanese and offered to help us.

This was a moment of discovery for me. I had to conclude that it didn't matter how well we spoke, that some people would never be able to accept that we were speaking their language. I'd met this attitude in other forms, but never so dramatically.

Later, of course, I incorporated this idea into a story, "Let the Word Take Me" (Analog, July/August 2008), folding it together with the idea of a canon-based language that I picked up from the "Darmok" episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation. If you haven't read it yet, please do! Basically it follows a young man, David Linden, as he and his famous linguist father try to save their colony from planetary eviction by figuring out how to communicate with the local gecko-like aliens - after the language "code" has been cracked but they still can't get the aliens to recognize that they're speaking it.

Since that story was published I've found myself talking about language, linguistics, and culture in many places online, including the Analog and Asimov's forums. I decided I'd like a central location to discuss these issues in speculative fiction.

So I invite all of you to come and talk with me! Let's talk about designing or deepening your universe, the accents and cultures in different regions of your fantasy world, or even places in the real world that you'd like to know more about. I love this stuff, and I'd love to share what I know and learn from you!

Monday, July 21, 2008


I am interested in hearing from you. If you wish to contact me privately (outside the comments area), please send me an e-mail.


When reading through my various entries here, you may find multiple (if oblique) references to the world of Varin and its characters. This is a world in which I continue to develop short stories and novels. The first short story set there will soon see publication: "The Eminence's Match," forthcoming in the anthology Eight Against Reality from Panverse Publishing.
Varin was my first really thorough mega-world. Its initial, most basic form came from a core story idea in the classic fantasy style, in which two members of an underclass discover their people were once kings and, with the help of the usurper king's abused servant, attempt to return their people to their lost status.
The Varin concept evolved beyond that first core idea because of my convictions about fantasy and magic, some of which I've discussed here at TTYU. For those who haven't read those posts, suffice it to say that I get frustrated with the unruliness of magic and the tendency of populations in speculative fiction to run true to type ("he's an elf/ a native of the planet Gaga/ etc. so that's why he acts the way he does"). Around the time that I became interested in anthropology and linguistics, I decided to depart from Varin's fantasy core and strive for a world of complete sociological realism, emulating the nuanced work of Ursula K. LeGuin. This led to the creation of the high-technology nation of Varin with its eight underground cities, and the wysps, as well as Varin's caste system (see below).
With Varin as a "real" world, I found many more stories began to grow out of it than ever before. I became able to delve into the national history and the background of each character. The original concept is now the middle portion of a more complete, fleshed-out timeline.
The Varin Caste System
Level 1: Grobal Nobility
Level 2: Arissen Officer Caste
Level 3: Imbati Servant Caste
Level 4: Kartunnen Artisan Caste
Level 5: Venorai Laborer Caste
Level 6: Melumalai Merchant Caste
Level 7: Akrabitti Undercaste
The caste system of Varin defines the identity and experiences of its people, and has done so for over 300 years. Castes are distinguished on the basis of employment, but caste membership is determined by birth, and those who marry outside of caste must fall to the status of the Lower partner. Dressing without a caste mark is dangerous, and "cross-marking," or the impersonation of a Higher, is punishable by imprisonment or death.
The strength of the system lies in the special pride that each caste level takes in the value of its societal role. Each caste has its own set of ideals and cultural ideologies, valuing different manners and behavior, and receives a different respectful greeting when greeted by those of Lower status. Internally, each caste is governed on a meritocratic basis, allowing the caste's most successful members to rise to positions of prominence.
The caste system has a single area of overlap with the distinction between Varin's two religions. The undercaste alone follow a religion based on wysps and shinca trees, the two forces that make life above ground unsustainable on the Varin continent. All others revere the Holy Celestial Family, deities based on the planets of their solar system, whose exploits are recounted in the Ancient Stories.
Copyright © 2008 Juliette Wade


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How I write...

Story ideas don't generally come to me whole, but in pieces. Particularly with short stories, I feel like I collect parts of stories from the world around me, and then the ideas settle through my head until parts that match well suddenly stick together. These parts generally include premise, setting, and characters.
A premise might be something like "humans try to make first contact with aliens but have difficulty for cultural reasons," or "two boys can fly but don't know it because that ability is being taken from them, and they want to run away." With some premises, a lot of work goes into designing setting, including environment, technology level, language, religion and other factors from scratch. With others, I can use existing settings and time periods, but it takes about the same amount of time as working from scratch because of the extensive research required.
Characters are the center of everything for my stories. If I have a premise or setting that excites me, I always try to create a character who is maximally entangled in the properties of his or her surroundings, so that the character's point of view does a lot of work for me in establishing setting details (thus I attempt to minimize the dreaded infodumps). Once I have a character right, that person comes alive to me and may act independently of my authorly plans.
As I see it, I work on several levels when I write a story. On the editorial and analytical side are "grand plan," "events," "mental state," and "word" levels as follows:
  • "Grand plan" means the structural outlining, including determining where the story must start and end to maximize its effectiveness.
  • "Events" means the basic sense of how one thing follows another in the story, including the logistics of traveling from one setting to another.
  • "Mental state" tracks the knowledge content and psychology of the various characters from one stage of the story to the next, so that their motivations and judgments keep the story driving forward. This is why I generally write stories in chronological order.
  • "Word level" is about keeping point of view solid and making sure to maintain consistency for a character's use of metaphor and simile in a way that matches his or her age and experiential background.
On the gut, subconscious writing side? Those, because of their nature, are harder to tease apart. I know that when I write I feel like I am the character, and when I do that I let go of all my editorial desires. I can tell if my setup isn't working right, because characters will start to misbehave. The other thing I do without thinking is write in distinct rhythmic patterns for different character voices. I generally do not (at least to this point) design stories with narrators that are independent of character voice.