Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Costumes

Maybe this entry should be titled, "where my time has been going for the last month..."

I've always loved Halloween, and even celebrated it when I lived in Japan with the other Americans I could find. My mother always sewed costumes for me and my brother, so now I do it for our family. Isn't it marvelous how a costume can change how you feel? Not too many cultural musings today, as I'm seriously sleep-deprived from all the sewing. But I thought I'd share photos. The little kitty is my daughter (age 3, with her gymnastics teacher) and the Batman is my son (with others from his kindergarten class). The clowns are me and my husband. I have heard rumors that the clown costumes may be all too appropriate for us...

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My grocery store in Tokyo

Our grocery store was called Kitamura, and to get to it we could either ride bicycles or walk (we had no car, and it would have been highly impractical to have one). It was down a steep hill from our apartment building, on the main road of the neighborhood which was lined with cherry trees.

There were two halves of Kitamura: the food half, and the dry goods half. These stood across the street from one another, and both were very small - but enormous compared to the buildings around them.

The dry goods half included basically everything from toilet paper to pots and pans, clothing, hardware, etc. It also contained a bookstore section, which was where I got my Japanese cookbook. I walked in there shortly after we arrived and said (in Japanese) "I'm looking for a cookbook of Japanese food with lots of pictures." When you don't know the basics of ingredients or of cooking terminology, the pictures are very important. I ended up walking home with a little book from the "new housewife series" called "Yummy! Simple!" (oishii! kantan!) It would have been embarrassing except that it was so exceedingly helpful.

I bought this cookbook for two reasons. First, because I like Japanese food, and second because I wanted to save money.

Food is very expensive in Japan. When I was living there you could buy a box of strawberries - all precisely the same size and shape - for about $7. You could buy a monster apple about five inches in diameter for about $5. The shocker for me was that rice cost so much more there than in the US. I would buy five kilos of rice for about $25. If I'd wanted to try to cook American, the prices would have been much higher than for cooking Japanese food.

So I explored. The store had a whole case dedicated to fish and seafood, which might not seem amazing except that it took up so much shelf space relative to the total size of the store. If you wanted to buy a whole chicken (not one previously carved into cuts), you'd have to special order it, but you could easily buy a whole squid, and take it home while it stared at you out of its styrofoam dish.

By the way, the carts at this store were made to fit the size of the aisles: they were metal carts with spots to put baskets. Since the baskets were about the size of the American over-the-arm shopping baskets, the cart effectively doubled your hauling capacity. Given that you then would have to carry everything you'd bought up a very steep hill on foot (or bicycle), it made sense. You just had to go to the store more often.

You would go through the checkout lines, which were in general very quiet. Nobody in line ever started a conversation with me, and neither did the checkout staff. I, being American in my heart, I guess, started conversations with them, and they didn't seem to mind. Then you'd take your baskets to a counter and bag them yourself, all plastic bags, for the purposes of getting them home.

I love my experiences overseas because they acquaint me with different values on parameters of life that I have never considered. So for all you worldbuilders out there, give some thought to how your people get their food, what markets look like and how much of their total budget they expect to spend on food and lodging. It'll deepen the world, and be fun at the same time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Culture - inside us or out?

Very often we imagine culture as something passed on from one generation to the next. It is easy enough to construe this as if culture resides in an individual and is passed on to that individual's children. However, while culture is expressed in and enacted by the individual, it also has a source outside the individual, namely the cultural group itself.

Some groups, like churches and schools - or even gangs - may have privileged individuals who are expected to take the lead in teaching the group's values to new members, while other members are expected simply to enact their roles appropriately. Some groups do not.

Sports culture is one that I've been considering lately. I can't tell you how much I've learned about sports since meeting my husband, who as an Aussie seems to have a limitless interest in sports and the statistics thereof. What I've found is that by picking up some of the culture's relevant terms, such as a sense of which scoring structure belongs to which sport, I can have more interesting random conversations with guys. Fortunately my husband encourages this. I think in a way it keeps that area of his life from being boring and unreachable to me. I guess you could say that the sportscasters function as the privileged individuals in this group, teaching terminology etc. Even the idiosyncratic expressions (boo-yah, anyone?) of particular individuals can get picked up by the group and become part of the local lexicon. This is also a group that encourages the use of puns that might make others scream. While it forms a part of male culture, it is not exclusively male; I'd say it forms an intersection with the male group.

The other one I'm thinking about is child culture. This is the one that blows my mind currently. I'm talking not about things that teachers teach to kids, but the things that children teach to each other. Little rhymes and songs can take on a life of their own, passed from child to child on the playground and thereby staying alive for years, hardly noticed by the adults all around. I find myself hearing my son say things I remember from my own childhood, but never taught him - and it occurs to me that so long as the playground talk stays alive, and the repetition continues there, why shouldn't a particular rhyme stick around for thirty years?

Subcultures like these have their own language patterns, so don't forget to consider what subcultures might exist in your worlds. While you're at it, consider that a culture can even deliberately change their language - witness the revival of Hebrew to a living language by the people of Israel. Language is a badge of membership in a culture, and also in subcultures.

So to answer the question I started with, culture is inside us, and it's outside us. We enact it, we mark ourselves by enacting it, and in enacting it, we take part in its processes of change. Those guys in business aren't wrong when they talk about the "culture of an organization." Neither are we wrong when we talk about "my culture."

Come to think of it, we all have multiple cultures within us - and if those cultures come into conflict, as when we must deal simultaneously with representatives from two different subcultures in our lives, that's when things get interesting.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Absolute and Relative Direction

Did any of you out there have difficulty learning the difference between right and left? Have you ever gotten confused over "my left" and "your left"? What about north, south, east and west?

Both of these are senses of direction. Right and left are relative, and orient relative to the position of the speaker unless otherwise specified. North, south, etc. are absolute directions, and orient independently of the movement of the speaker. No surprise to anyone, because in English we have both of these types of orientation words.

Interestingly, though, at least one Australian aboriginal language doesn't use the relative positioning words - only the absolute ones. So that they would never say "my right foot"; they would say something like "my northward foot" or "my southward foot" etc. I think you can see that it's awfully critical to maintain an absolute sense of direction if you're going to be speaking of about parts of your own body differently depending on which direction you're facing.

I would love to see a group of aliens with only absolute direction words - or, to take the concept further, only a set of absolute words to refer to something we generally use relative expressions for, like pronouns. Imagine how confused an alien from this society would be to hear every human referring to him or herself with "I." They would probably construe it incorrectly as a proper name.

While I'm on this topic, I'd like to mention the Japanese words "kochira" "sochira" and "achira," which can be roughly translated as "this direction" "that direction" and "that direction over there." Like English "this" and "that," "left" and "right," "I" and "you" they are relative terms, which take their meaning from the identity and position of the speaker. You can probably guess from the translations, though, that they aren't defined quite the same way.

The ko- prefix indicates a direction or an object associated with the speaker (or more precisely, in the speaker's in-group). The so- prefix indicates something associated with the person that the speaker is talking to - the other guy in the conversation. The a- prefix indicates something that is associated neither with the speaker nor the other guy in the conversation, but is outside both of their circles.

I mention the Australian and Japanese examples because I think it's fascinating to consider other methods of organizing reality. Also, though, I want to bring attention to our own way of organizing reality: organizing it around ourselves. If you look around, the English language is full of expressions that are relative (I, he, this, that, here, there, today, yesterday, just to name a few).

Never forget that relative expressions are your allies in the construction of point of view. If you are trying to create a close point of view, try looking around for opportunities to use relative expressions instead of absolute ones. You may find more than you expect.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Come, Follow

I just learned about this new "followers" function on blogspot, thanks to my friend Ann Wilkes. So for those of you who visit here a lot, you can sign up to follow if you like, and your name will appear here on the page. Now I'll have to go looking around and find my own favorite blogspot blogs to follow!

Makes me think of that song about the greenwood tree...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Considering Deafness

I've been thinking about deafness a good deal recently because I have a deaf character in a story I'm working on. Deafness fascinates me because it is, in one sense, a medical problem - caused by nerve defect, for example, or accident, or abuse of the ears over a long period of time - but in another sense it is a badge of membership in a language community.

The difference between auditory languages and visual languages is sometimes called a "channel" difference. Channel effectively means which sensory pathway is chosen for the language conduit, and in past entries I've discussed this a little; I know I've mentioned chemical scent languages a couple of times.

In a sense, by being born without hearing or becoming deaf, a person loses one channel. They then have two choices: attempt to "cure" the deafness medically, or use another language channel. In school I saw a fascinating video about cochlear implants, which can cause some deaf people to begin to hear. In that video was one woman who lost hearing as an adult, and she definitely felt rescued by the implant which restored her hearing. Then there were the children, and therein lay the conflict.

A pair of hearing parents with a deaf child had no hesitation about "restoring" the child's hearing.
A pair of deaf parents with a deaf child did not want to take away the deafness which was part of what defined her, didn't want in a sense to evict her from the cultural community to which they belonged.

Part of what entered into their decision was having someone assess the speech of other children who had had cochlear implants, and tell them whether they "sounded deaf" or not. They made their decision to forego the implant because they felt that giving her hearing would oust her from true membership in the deaf community, and they weren't convinced that it would give her true membership in the hearing community.

This last one is an issue of brain plasticity, or the ability of the brain to learn new language information. A rule of thumb on child language states effectively that the brain loses the ability to acquire nativelike phonological ability (i.e. pronunciation) at about age 6; grammar not until about age 13. Thus the later a child receives a cochlear implant, the more difficulty that child will have in processing the sound and turning that into natural-sounding auditory language.

Personally I thought it a shame that the child in question should miss out on hearing all the wonderful sounds of the world - but on the other hand, I understood the parents' cultural point of view.

I want to talk also about sign language a little, but I'm going to have to save that for another post.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Character judgment and psychology

I had lunch today with a friend who wears rings on her toes - one on each foot. She told me that someone recently asked her if she was Indian (she's not), because apparently there is a tradition involving wearing one toe ring on each foot if you are a married woman. This isn't a tradition I'm familiar with myself, but I do have a necklace my mother brought back from India, which my mother told me is a "married woman's necklace."

This kind of thing provides terrific evidence of the fact that even the smallest things can be judged significant in people's lives. A man's earring worn on the right ear versus the left used to have significance in the gay community. The closing of a kimono left-side first or right-side first can be significant, or the way you pick up a teacup.

In each case, the significance of the object or act is in the head of the character doing the judging.

This relates to my post of yesterday, inasmuch as characters can be differentiated by the way they judge situations. I find it fascinating to write a conversation between two people from two different cultural groups, and to switch point of view halfway through, so that readers can share the difference between what the two people notice in the interaction, how they judge the significance of one another's clothing, posture, etc. The most fun for me is when the two don't understand each other because they can't entirely back off their own cultural categories and judgments.

Individuals can also have different ways of judging. Imagine the way that a detective looks at a room, compared to the way that a child looks at it. Each will be looking for different things, putting importance on very particular and personally relevant details.

And then there are the characters with extreme, or impaired, judgment. This is where psychology comes into play. When I write a character as simply mean-spirited I find I don't know where to go; I'm grasping at mean things for that person to do. When I go into their psychology to identify a traumatic event that has changed their judgment, or even to identify a mental illness that alters their perception and judgment of events, it has a wonderful effect: it ties down the driving forces behind their behavior. Suddenly their behavior is no longer random, but principled, and I can take their strangeness much further without straining credibility.

I'd like to add one last observation that comes from the "show don't tell" arena. Having a character with a complex cultural background, or a mental illness, doesn't mean that everything about their culture or judgment has to be explained. They can demonstrate it in the kinds of things they treat as unremarkable, or where they suddenly take offense. Even an offhand descriptive adjective can be turned toward illuminating their point of view. I've even gone so far as to try to build the mental characteristics of a character into the prose style I use to write their voice. I'm thinking in particular of an obsessive-compulsive Machiavellian character I'm working on, who has a tendency to fixate on a topic and return to it over and over in his thoughts, always judging things instantly and never questioning himself in any way.

I'll admit here that I have trouble writing non-chronologically. The trick is, I really like the feeling that each chapter will be different because of subtle changes in character viewpoint that grow out of the character's experience.

In any case, character judgment and psychology are productive avenues to explore, if you haven't already.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Don't make them all the same

Keeping characters different from each other can be hard. I've noticed this especially when I read a large number of books from the same author; at a certain point, some of the characters will start to blend together across contexts. As a reader I never appreciate this. As a writer I'm always on my guard.

My attempted solution - not that I can swear it won't happen eventually, but I'll do my best - is to make my own characters as grounded culturally and linguistically as I can. To think about them in terms of their genetic background, physiology, upbringing, and personal experience.

I've seen a couple of "character sheets" floating around the forums this week, where people have been asking if they have to know all these different things about all their characters, or if they need to write journals from the character's point of view. I think these things can help, but they can also be hard to do when you're sitting down to start a book. I'd say start with a general sense of the person, their motivations and goals and why these things are important to them. Then, as you go forward, just keep awareness of the different kinds of questions you might like to answer on the more subtle levels. The more you write about a character, the better you get to know them and the more nuance you can add. In my experience, for getting to know a character and how they operate, there's no substitute for writing a story from their point of view - even just starting and attempting one that will never get published. It makes you dig in more than you need to if you're just using a character sheet and looking at them from the outside.

The other thing is, don't make every character from a particular alien or racial group exactly the same. This is what I've earlier referred to as "running true to type." It's fun to have a group of people from different races, whether that be elves, dwarves and humans, Braxana and Azeans (thanks to C.S. Friedman) or the people of Sendaria, Arendia, Nyissa etc. (thanks to David Eddings). But if the belief systems of these people are entirely uncontested, uniform across the race or alien group, the story won't have all the dimension it could.

There are two ways to approach this. One is from the character direction, making sure that your characters are three-dimensional and have motives and inner conflicts and all those important things. That's certainly true of the characters from the authors I've mentioned. The other is to think directly about the character's relationship to the social group they belong to. I couldn't say whether other authors have thought about this; they may well have.

Take a social group that has a particular vocation, belief, or ideology that they are meant to follow. You end up with a situation where children of that group are being told "this is what you are like"; "this is how you are supposed to act." How do the kids then react to that? Do they embrace it? Are they resentful of it? Resigned? Subversive? Do they reject it directly? And if they reject it, do they keep some of the beliefs subconsciously without realizing it? All these are available options.

Ask yourself another question, too: what does it mean to be fortunate among these people? What about unfortunate? Even a group of poor or undercaste will have a difference between the fortunate and unfortunate among them, and so will a group of nobles. And groups like these will always have inner conflicts over things of value, which coexist with conflicts between groups.

Once you've thought through a few things like this, making characters different can be a bit easier. And fun, too!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bathing in Japan

I remember before I actually went to Japan, I'd always kind of known that Japanese families bathed together. And given my cultural background (and ignorance) I'd figured that was like what I did when I was really little, having baths with my mom. This is not how it works.

Let me start by saying there's a really terrific reason for taking baths in Japan, as opposed to showers. They don't tend to have central heating in their homes. This means that when I was living with my first host family, I had days when I woke up in the morning with my nose hurting from being so cold; once I checked with a thermometer and discovered it was 3 degrees C in my bedroom. Unfortunately, this was also the period when I didn't feel comfortable with the Japanese way of bathing, and I froze myself silly by trying to take showers. After I moved in with a family that took time to explain things and be friendly, I was sane and used the bath.

Every house or apartment I've visited in Japan, no matter how small, has had a bathroom. The traditional Japanese bathroom is all tiled (or at least water-friendly) and has water sources on the walls outside the bath itself. The bather goes in, washes head to toe in the bathroom, rinses off, and then at the very end steps into the bathwater, which is mostly for relaxing and warming up. It makes more sense (at least to me) for people to share the same bathwater when they're each getting clean first.

Some tubs have ways of keeping the water warm, and some don't. All the tubs are deep, though, because they're made for soaking, often up to the neck. I think the funniest thing that ever happened to us when my husband and I lived in Japan was that we each used the old-style bath belonging to some friends who lived on a tiny island off the north coast of Honshu. I was shocked to discover that the longer I sat, the hotter it seemed to get. I had no idea what to make of this, so I took a very quick bath; then my husband discovered the same thing. When we asked what was going on we were told that there was a real fire burning underneath the bathtub! Now I know what a lobster feels like... To make this particular bath pleasant you had to keep pouring in loads of cold water. Little did we know.

Then there are the public baths. These are mostly divided into men's and women's, but are not always. (In some natural hot springs you can even bathe with monkeys - now there's inclusiveness.) Many people will take a washcloth into the tub with them, to cover up critical areas, but in general I haven't noticed a great deal of embarrassment among the people who bathe together in this context. People can in fact be very friendly. I was adopted once by a group of elderly ladies who decided that as a foreigner I must not know how Japanese baths were supposed to work, and took it upon themselves to teach me. Because they were sweet and solicitous, I let them teach me even though I'd been through the directions a few times by then.

There is in fact some degree of modesty in the public bath context, but the taboo isn't about being naked. It's about having someone else see you get undressed. Outside the common bath area there are generally curtained stalls for the undressing part.

I decided to talk about this today partly because I found it culturally interesting, but also because I think it shows the degree of cultural difference that is possible surrounding a single activity. You see architectural differences in the bathroom; different shaped tubs; different ways of heating water; a separation of the function of the bathroom (washing) and the bath (soaking); different rules of behavior including gender separation, context for modesty, etc. This doesn't even include the rules about who gets to go first/next/last in the family bathtub.

So if you're working with an alien or fantasy culture, try putting some thought into the various details of activities in your newly created context. Including a "bath scene," or a scene that shows another common daily activity in detail, gives you a terrific opportunity to deepen the culture you're sharing with the reader.

Group activities and Spirit

I'm excited this morning because my Analog story is still "alive," even though it came out in May (in the July/August issue)... Rich Horton's year-end summary said it was a good story! Whee!

And speaking of cheering (yes, this is a segue)...

This week has been "Spirit Week" at my son's school. I guess you could also call it "get everybody to do strange things together week." In a four-day week we had pajama day, crazy hair day, Disney day, and school colors day. My son's been having a great time.

I remember doing this in my junior high and high school years. I loved it, too - even when I was generally feeling like the odd one out of most social groups.

There's something about doing things with other people. It feels good. It means something.

One of my most uplifting experiences ever was singing Mozart's Requiem with the university chorus when I was doing my Master's. I remember standing in the church and singing my guts out, but I also remember feeling almost as though I wasn't the one singing, that I was being borne up on the music and carried along, and that I could have sung forever. (This is of course not true, as I would have lost my voice before too long).

This is how I imagine the feeling of the House of Leaves in "Let the Word Take Me", where all the Gariniki are speaking and shouting out together.

My husband had an interesting experience concerning group activities when we were living in Japan. An American guy asked him how he could get along better with the Japanese members of the company, and my husband suggested he should 1. get drunk with them, 2. have a bath with them, and/or 3. sing karaoke with them. There's that singing thing again, but in the case of karaoke, it's not a question of joining your voice to the great song. Karaoke is all about expressing a joint willingness to humiliate yourself - and there's also a trust that comes with it, that no one will make fun of anyone else later. When another American fellow in the office went out for the first time for karaoke, the word that he was cool took about five minutes to run through the entire office the following morning, and suddenly even the people who hadn't been there felt better able to relate to him.

I'll talk about the bath thing tomorrow - it's just too wonderful a topic not to give it its own entry.

Group activities really help to define the nature of social groups. My husband has never experienced a "spirit week" before; his schools always had competition by House to help organize group spirit. For all those of us who have read Harry Potter, that should sound awfully familiar! Hogwarts wouldn't be Hogwarts without it.

So let's think for a minute about worldbuilding, since I always do. You've got a population, now how do you let everyone know what they're like? This is a great opportunity for "show don't tell": either dramatize, or make reference to, a type of group activity that is highly indicative of their spirit in social behavior. Is it attending sports? Is it watching gladiators fight to the death? Is it going to church? Is it eating together with the members of the nuclear family - or with all the members of the extended family? Is it shapeshifters melting together into the "Great Link" as it was in Star Trek DS9?

Ask yourself how a group defines itself, what its members do together, and what those activities mean to them. You'll take yourself instantly beyond the surface level, into a much more interesting place.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Pick your species/Pick your tech?

This is such a common thing that I don't think I really have to point it out to anyone, but here it is, a phenomenon common to both science fiction and fantasy to varying degrees:

People pick established species on which to base their alien races, and established time periods on which to base their technology.

There are a lot of great reasons to do this. One excellent reason is an idea I talked about earlier, that of the conceptual "set." If you pick a preexisting set of characteristics for an alien and its technology, one that people are familiar with, then readers will not have to work as hard and they can use their instinctive expectations to guide them in understanding the story. A related reason is that the alien and its behavior will seem more "natural" if you match behavior to species and physiology and extrapolate it into the realm of culture.

On the other hand, as a writer you don't have to feel bound by these constraints. Not necessarily.

Sure, if you're pulling features of physiology, behavior, culture and technology from all over the place, it'll feel like a hodgepodge and not make any sense. That's not what I'm suggesting. I'm just saying that there are novel combinations of elements that can be used with internal consistency.

How do you go looking for a new way? I'd suggest starting with the understanding that physical setting influences physiology, and also influences culture, which also influences technology. As long as it's all connected, you can play around. Changing one aspect of physical setting will create ripples throughout the system. Changing an aspect of technology can be linked back to cultural preferences.

Let the elements of the world grow together organically and they can change each other. Let there be a reason for every departure from the set, and you may find your readers will trust you all the way.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Are you being invaded?

Have you ever had one of those conversations where you're being chased? The other person takes one step too close to you, and you step back, and they step forward, and before you know it, the race is on?

This is one of the difficulties that can arise from different concepts of personal space.

It's not a visible, but an invisible line between people, and when someone crosses it, you know. Not everyone's invisible borderline lies in the same place - and not every borderline stays in the same place all the time.

In Japan, typically people maintain a borderline that is further from them than ours here in the US. It's very practical. If you're both going to be bowing, and potentially bowing all the way to the horizontal, you have to take that into account when deciding where to stand, or you could sustain a head injury! So I guess it's okay to stand closer to someone when you're of about the same status and you won't have to bow low, but standing further away might be best with someone much older or of higher social status.

The one that always surprised and amazed me in Japan was the way the personal space borderline moves. If you're in a work or home situation, in a place where established social relationships exist around you and must be maintained, then the borderline falls at a distance. But if you're walking the Tokyo streets or traveling the subways with strangers, the borderline moves inward - to the skin. I was always amazed at how people in Tokyo would walk straight through me, constantly jostle and bump and never seem to notice they had done it.

To sensitive little American me it felt like a constant assault, and somehow I could never entirely turn it off, even after I got used to it. When I had just gotten back to California a woman in the supermarket apologized to me and at first I couldn't figure out why. Then I realized she was apologizing because the invisible path in front of her cart had accidentally entered the invisible path in front of mine.

I was tempted to give this woman a hug for being so considerate - but I wouldn't have wanted to invade her personal space. :-)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Why you should love grammar

Grammar isn't really that stuff they teach you in school.

Call that stuff, "textbook grammar." Not that it's bad, per se, but it's tuned for a very specific purpose: that of separating people from a style of communication that roughly matches their spoken words, and engaging them in more academic-voiced stuff.

For those of you who know me (in person or on forums) you know that I've written quite a bit of academic stuff. What I remember most about that is how I had spent years trying to remove the word "I" from my texts, and then had to go about reintroducing it. My dissertation talks about "I" and what "I" did in my study, because it's as important to know who the researcher is and how her perspective influences the way the study was conducted as to discuss the results themselves. Talking about researcher influence and its possible ramifications is one of the ways to reduce its effects on actual results.

The grammar I love is real grammar - descriptive grammar, you could say. And it's used differently in speech from the way it's used in academic work, and differently again in fiction, but it's powerful stuff.

Grammar is what frees you from context.

Start, as one of my professors once did, with a doctor in the surgery room. Everybody in that room has highly congruent training; everybody in that room is there for an express purpose, one that they all are familiar with; everybody in that room knows who is in charge. So when the doctor says "scalpel," that's all he or she needs to say.

Or take children learning to talk. Most often they babble and point first, and then they move to the single-word stage. One word that my kids both made great use of was "that." When you think about it, it's a great word. The child says "that" and the parent following after them has to guess from their actions, facial expressions and physical context what they want. Believe me, it's not always easy to tell what "that" is, when an array of possible objects is present.

Okay, so what about writing? Words on a page, divorced in time and location from their initial use, depend on grammar to show relations that would ordinarily be shown by context. Who is doing an action, what they're doing, and what they're doing it to - there's subject, verb, object. It goes on and develops in complexity from there.

Imagine a written message taped on someone's door:

"Meet Julie at 1:00 at Borders bookstore."

The context of the note hanging on the door makes us guess that the note is intended to be read by the person to whom the door belongs; the sender is unknown, but could be the same as the receiver (a reminder note) or someone else. Julie is quite a likely candidate. Notice also what isn't present in the note: the date.

This is where things start to get interesting, because pragmatic implication comes into play. If any piece of information is missing from the note, the reader will automatically infer that that information is already known to the sender and receiver. The lack of a date implies the nearest instance of the hour 1:00 - i.e. today. The appearance of Borders Bookstore implies the nearest instance of that particular bookstore (or alternatively, one known to the receiver of the message).

Let's change another piece.

"Meet me at 1:00 at Borders bookstore."

Now we know for sure that someone is supposed to meet the sender of the note, but we no longer know who that is. We can also infer that the receiver must know who "me" is, because otherwise that information would be specified. This is related to the maxim of quantity in Grice's cooperative principle, which essentially says "give as much information as required, and no more than is required."

Let's change another piece.

"Meet me at 1:00 at the bookstore."

Notice that it wouldn't work to say "a bookstore" because the two people would never meet. "The" implies that the meeting will take place at a bookstore that both people are familiar with.

Let's change another piece.

"Meet me at 1:00."

Now because the information about location is suddenly missing, we are forced to assume that the two people have already agreed on a location for meetings, just that the meeting time must be specified.

Let's change another piece.

"Meet me at the bookstore."

With no time information present, we must conclude that a time has either been agreed upon, or that the time should be the nearest time available, i.e. "now."

So while grammar's purpose is to supply missing context, it actually can do as much in its absence as it does with its presence. In these examples, we use our instincts to fill in and draw conclusions about what kind of information must be known by the sender and receiver of the message in order for it to be a "well-formed" message, or one that can be successfully interpreted by the intended receiver.

This is why I love grammar.

What do you think about it?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Make it happen, make it smooth

Language isn't just a way of sending messages between people. Certainly that's the easiest of its functions to pinpoint, but it does some other really important things, too.

Have you ever asked yourself whether you think in words? I know I do. I've always assumed it's possible to have internal thoughts without words involved, but it doesn't happen that way much with me.

Lev Vygotsky, a famous researcher who was born in Tsarist Russia, had a really interesting idea (actually, lots of them). He posited that language is interpersonal first, and internalized second. Thus, that children will learn the interpersonal function of language with caregivers and others first, then learn to talk to themselves out loud, and finally learn to speak to themselves internally. One thing he observed from child behavior was that whenever children were struggling to accomplish something just at the limits of their capability, they would start talking about it out loud. How to get an object off a high shelf, for example. His idea was that using language actually helped them to grasp what to do next.

This isn't just true for kids. It's true for me, even now! When I'm working on something hard, I talk to myself, or to others (my long-suffering critique buddies will attest to this :-) ).

Language helps make it happen.

Another thing that language makes happen is social interaction. A lot of the language we use is geared less to message-sending per se than to social smoothing and posturing. Europeans in the United States would probably draw attention to our tendency to say "have a nice day" a lot. Some might say excessively, though I've always rather enjoyed hearing it, myself. Then there's "how are you?" "fine" when neither person really has the time to talk about how they're really doing. These are things we use to say "I acknowledge you" and "we're socially aligned."

Greetings can be very important. How they're done can make the difference between feeling that a person is standoffish or friendly, and this can influence all subsequent interaction. So if you're working with a world that has status distinctions, I encourage you to consider building these distinctions into the greeting system. There are also words that we use to mitigate problems, like trying to share a path (excuse me), or remedy a mistake (sorry, pardon me, excuse me).

Often, words are used to indicate the beginning or end of an activity (including, but not limited to, a conversation). In English we'll often indicate that we're changing topics by saying "okay." I also find myself teaching my kids to say "welcome" and "come in" when our friends arrive for a visit, and "goodbye" and "thank you for coming" when they leave. Of course, when we leave their house it's "thank you for having us." In Japan when you invite someone in you say "go ahead, please come up." This, for all you worldbuilders out there, is a great way to give extra information about culture and architecture. The saying "please come up" depends on the fact that Japanese people take their shoes off in a lower entry area called a genkan and then take a literal step up into the house. Many of us know that when we enter a Japanese restaurant we hear the word "irasshaimase"; this one means "honorably come (in)". Japanese also has words you use when you start eating (itadakimasu, I humbly receive) and finish your meal (gochisoosama, it was a treat/feast).

As you're writing language use into your stories, think about how characters can use language to make things happen and to make things smooth. This will not only make interactions feel real, but give you extra opportunities to slant the content subtly and divulge more about the physical and social structure of your worlds.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Young people learning to be linguists

A friend of mine from Critters forwarded me the link to this article. It's really cool - the students in this class are going to be working with and figuring out the structure of an African language that no one has ever codified before! Yes, folks, they're still out there - and these students are lucky enough to be working with a native speaker and digging into the words, sound and sentence structure in a way no one has ever seen. Would that be a cool experience or what?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Genly Ai: A Ridiculously Close Look

Today I thought I'd take a look at Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness. This is possibly my favorite book of all time; certainly it's a source of inspiration to me in my own writing. The opening is actually quite complex, because it involves three different voices. The first one appears in the title of the first chapter:

"1. A Parade in Erhenrang"

Let's start with the phrase "in Erhenrang." This gives us a location with an entirely foreign name, so it's clearly some alien place (assuming that we've come to the first page knowing we're looking at science fiction).

The second thing I'd like to point out is "a parade." The word "a" has a special function, that of introducing something that is new - specifically, something that is new to the reader. It's the word "a" here that gives me a sense of a narrator, and a subtle sense of "once upon a time." So this is the over-narrator's voice: as close as we'll get to hearing the voice of the author herself.

Then we hit the second voice:

"From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490-97"

This is a voice of ultimate authority, the notes that would head a scientific report, and thus it gives us the sense that what will follow is a completely factual account. Notice that there are no verbs in this excerpt. No verbs means no subjects, and thus no actors - the sense of agency, of identity and intent is completely removed, leaving us with a sourceless truth. This impression is strengthened by the word "archives," a place where history is recorded, and "transcript," a completely accurate re-copying of something not originally in text form.

Along with this we get "Hain," another unfamiliar place but obviously the source of this authority. The word "ansible" may be unfamiliar but it clearly must produce documents, and in particular, messages ("To the Stabile on Ollul...").

Think about the number of alien names in these few sentences. The feeling I get from all of this is that the protagonist, clearly indicated to be Genly Ai, is a small individual in the context of a very large and complex overarching institutional structure. This structure not only incorporates separate planets (notice the use of "on" in "on Ollul" rather than "in" which we saw in the chapter title) but it also dictates its own measurement of time.

So from the chapter title we've backed off to the voice of the greater institution, and then LeGuin takes us into this:

"I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling..."

Here, beginning with the word "I," suddenly we hear our point-of-view narrator's voice. LeGuin indicates that this voice belongs to Genly Ai by linking back to the previous piece with the phrase "my report." We get confirmation of the outer space setting in the world "homeworld." But rather than starting to recount events immediately, Genly Ai says, "Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling..."

This is a fascinating move. Le Guin sets us up to receive facts, using the lines from the Archive notes, and then immediately has her narrator question the nature of truth and fact. (By the way, we don't actually get to the parade until the fourth paragraph on page 2).

It strikes me that this is intended to be deliberately disorienting. It sets the reader up to take the story seriously, but to be prepared for alienness and a great deal of ambiguity. It prepares us for the voice of Genly Ai, who comes out of an Earth-born storytelling background, but does have the skills of a linguist and anthropologist, as well as (to some extent) a political negotiator. It also fits well with the way Genly Ai himself feels disoriented a lot of the time.

Throughout the novel, we get the very succinct chapter titles which give us a calmly reflective sense of the story's progress, but the complexity of the characters, the world, and the situation just grows and grows. That LeGuin is able to keep it all driving forward and pointing to a dramatic conclusion is a measure of her skill.

There's a reason this book won the Hugo and Nebula awards. Read it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Doors and their Keepers

I'm obsessed with doors.

Okay, not really. But I do find I mention them a lot when I'm writing, sometimes so often it gets ridiculous and I have to start cutting. The thing is, doors are just so useful.

Doors and aliens: the shape and mechanism of a door will tell you a lot about the physiology of a species, even when they are absent. If a door gets narrower than a certain width, human beings will shift their shoulders sideways to go through it even though it may be wide enough to admit them without the shift. So what about aliens? How do they go about entering a space? Do they slither and need just a tiny hole, or are they enormous? Do they manipulate a handle to open the door? Does the door have hinges or does it slide? Does the door lock? These questions will illuminate local technology. Another question relevant here is how to know who is on the other side of the door. Is there a peephole to allow the apartment-dweller to see who is outside? Or will the individual on the inside use hearing or smell to determine who the visitor is?

Doors and power structures: who gets to sit behind a door? And who gets to sit, or stand, in front of it? These are things that can reveal a lot about the status structure of your society. If the people behind the door are knowledge keepers, then maybe a great deal of value is placed on certain types of knowledge, and this is then kept secret from others (I'm thinking of bureaucrats, but also religious knowledge and others can fall into this category).

Doors and manners: there are rules about how doors must be treated. In the US, an open door is seen as friendly. In Germany, it's seen as sloppy. The French see open doors and worry about draughts in the house. Whether the door is kept open or closed does not always say the same thing about the person inside. Maybe it says "do not disturb," but maybe it says "I maintain appropriate aloofness but you may approach me." Are people expected to knock to gain admission? And how should they open the door? In my house, where I've often got kids or stuff of various kinds in hand, I open the door any way I can. In Japan, opening a door with anything but your hands is bad manners (don't use your feet or your posterior!). In Japanese restaurants, the servers will put their trays down and remain kneeling to open the sliding door with one hand placed close to the floor.

Doors and point of view: I think this is why I use doors so much. If you're doing close limited point of view, it really helps to differentiate between describing actions from the inside of the POV character, or from the outside for other characters.

For the POV character, a door can mean a lot of different things. It can mean imprisonment. It can mean fear or resentment, that someone in particular might come in. It can mean safety. It can be the last line of protection. A character can approach a door with hesitation, paranoia, eagerness, excitement or apprehension. Or irritation, as Arthur Dent did with the sighing doors of the Heart of Gold spaceship in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

For the non-POV characters, a door can help you show their mental states without actually having to describe the emotion. How does the character approach the door? Quickly? With impatient movement, or with reluctance? Does he or she approach it face-first or back-first? What body part does your character use to knock, or to open the door? How does he or she grasp the handle - with white knuckles, or gingerly, or firmly? What quality of sound or air movement does the opening of the door create? All of these things can broadcast the inner states of a non-POV character, and the writer can choose whether to complete the extrapolation of the associated mental state or not. This means that if you describe how the person handles the door, but without using any direct descriptions of the assumed mental state, the reader can draw two conclusions: first, the reader can extrapolate the mental state of the person who went through the door, and second, the reader can deduce that the point of view character didn't draw the same conclusions, i.e. that he or she may have been unaware of the other person's mental state. And that's one way to show things to your reader while hiding them from your POV character in tight internal/limited point of view.

You gotta love doors.