Thursday, January 29, 2009

How sociolinguistics can help you!

I've talked about sociolinguistics here before, in the context of accents. It's essentially about how language differs across social boundaries, and how it is used to indicate membership in various kinds of social groups. These can be class groups, interest-related groups, regional groups, etc.

This is extremely useful for writing about science fiction and fantasy worlds.

As you put your world together, ask yourself how your people divide themselves up. Is it by town? By side of town (other side of the tracks, etc.)? Is it by larger geographical region? Is it by profession? By upper and lower class?

Once you've decided on the divisions, think through how these divisions might be linguistically indicated. Is there a pattern of speech that is considered particularly sophisticated? One that is very lowbrow? Is there a group, such as traders or port workers, whose language mixes with other languages from the nearby regions? How would that influence their speech, and how would such speech be regarded by those around them?

I'm not talking about slang, necessarily, though slang can be one of your tools. Pidgin/creole languages can also help you. You can also choose phonological differences, like the dropping of a final consonant on some kinds of words, to indicate the speech of a social group. Keep in mind that the social divisions you create can be distinguished by virtually any of the various measures I've been discussing here over the last month: phonology, morphology, syntax, vocabulary use, pragmatics (!) etc.

Drawing linguistic distinctions between social groups is one of the best ways to help a created society take on extra dimension. So do give this some thought as you go forward.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How pragmatics can help you!

Pragmatics is an area of linguistics that I love, but which is difficult to define. Witness Mr. Paul Levinson, who spent an entire chapter trying to separate it from semantics in his textbook. Argh!

So what is Pragmatics? Basically, it deals with those areas of meaning which aren't really meaning. What does that mean? It deals with implications (in the lingo, "implicature"), and with presuppositions, and with using language to do things rather than just send messages.

I think most people know about presuppositions, even if they can't give a name to them. An example would be when the lawyer asks the plaintiff,

"Have you stopped beating your wife?"

Either a yes or no answer will contain the presupposition that the plaintiff beat his wife. Thus, in order to avoid tacit acceptance of the idea that he's beaten his wife, the plaintiff has to reject the question. There are many words like this. "Manage to," for example, which presupposes that the person has "tried to."

The usefulness of presuppositions in story-writing lies in their ability to carry extra implied meaning. If you say that your character "didn't do" something, we know nothing about whether he or she wanted to do that thing, or tried. "Didn't manage to do" tells us a heck of a lot more in just two additional words. So keep an eye out for these as helpers in the creation of point of view as well as ways to layer meaning into your story.


If you've followed my blog for any length of time you'll have noticed that I've talked about H.P. Grice and the Cooperative Principle more than once. Essentially the Cooperative Principle says, "make your contribution to the conversation optimally relevant and appropriate." This may seem terribly obvious, but it is in fact quite powerful. This is because the assumption of cooperativeness allows us to draw conclusions from what people say.

Let's say someone tells you "I have two children." From the point of view of strict truthfulness, this could be true so long as that person had two or more children. But the Cooperative Principle lets us conclude that if the person had more than two children, they would be telling us that. Thus, we conclude that the person has two, and only two, children. Grice calls this the "maxim of quantity."

There are other Gricean maxims, but I won't go into all of them here. I'll just mention that the "maxim of quality" means that you're not lying (I'll return to the issue of lying, and its implications in stories, in a minute).


I've probably also mentioned "speech acts." These are instances of "doing by speaking," as when you invite, insult, refuse, swear, promise, marry, etc.. The action is accomplished by the utterance of the speech. I encourage you to think about these, because they often have social consequences. What kind of unique speech acts might a world have? In what contexts might they occur? What are the special conditions required for the act to be performed successfully (you can't marry two people to one another unless you possess special qualifications, for example)?

In my story, "Let the Word Take Me", every utterance was an act - an act of holy transport or blasphemy, or of respectful restraint - and was restricted by special conditions of person, time and place. This is an extreme example of the type, but there is a lot of interesting stuff to be gained by playing with speech acts in alternate cultural scenarios.


The other issue that Pragmatics covers is that of Politeness. This is extremely rich ground for story ideas, especially because Politeness often conflicts directly with the Gricean Maxims. In particular, it's easy to misinterpret polite avoidance of particular topics as evasiveness or lying. We do a lot of effortful things in order to avoid threatening other people's "face," also called committing "face-threatening acts." Brown and Levinson 1987 is the classic source of this discussion.

Interestingly, Brown and Levinson talk about two types of social desires: the desire to be autonomous (negative face), and the desire to be accepted (positive face). These contrast with one another, and while polite and diffident talk addresses another person's desire to be autonomous, that desire may not be foremost in their minds. Familiar talk (including slang and insider vocabulary) addresses another person's desire to be accepted. The choice between these two strategies is critical to a person's success.

The other reason I love pragmatics as a source for stories is this: when people are learning foreign languages, the errors they make in pronunciation, word formation or sentence word order - even picking the wrong word meaning - are interpreted as errors in language. They are easily excused as the broken language of a learner. Errors in pragmatics, however, are not seen as language errors. They reflect instead on the personality and identity of the speaker. So a person who makes a politeness error is less likely to be seen as a learner and more likely to be seen as rude.

I have to say that Pragmatics is my favorite source for story ideas. I hope this discussion has shown you why, and has given you some ideas for exploring pragmatics in your own story worlds.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Thinking ahead to a Language Design Workshop

I'm getting a vibe from some of you that all my linguistics posts are making my language design workshop seem scary.

It shouldn't be.

I'm not planning to sit down and have people design languages from the ground up; that is, not unless they want to. What I'll be looking for will be a description of the people speaking the language with details about their physiology (not so tough with humans) and their social structure, and also a sense of how deeply the language should penetrate the work, i.e. whether use of the language is intended to feel intimate or estranging. As with my last workshop, I'll give more specifics on the day the workshop opens, and ask for people to submit within the first week of February.

It's my bedtime, but I'll try to do some pragmatics tomorrow.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

How semantics can help you! Part 3

Tonight I thought I'd discuss that ubiquitous genre activity - the one that always drives my spell-checker insane - making up words. Thereafter, I'll give a little thought to the idea of redefining existing words.

I'm guessing that after my last post you can imagine how making up words contributes to an effect of foreignness. Whenever you replace an English word with a foreign one, you lose every connotation and context associated with that English word. The feeling provided by the newly created word will depend on the evocativeness of its pronunciation. This may come from an association with Earth languages that it resembles (which will give the new word some of the contextual association with the language in question), or from general principles of onomatopoeia (such as the association of voiced sounds/o/u with large or loud things, and voiceless sounds/a/i with small or quiet things). Any further associations will have to be deliberately provided by the writer.

I've often heard it said that "if it's a rabbit, call it a rabbit." I tend to agree with this. After all, why put your reader to the trouble of divesting a word of all its associations if the people in your story use a word with precisely the same associations?

Another created word context is that of words coined from combinations of other words (or parts thereof). This most often occurs in science fiction, when you'll find people using comlinks and any number of other more exotic things. These words retain and combine associations, provided that the parts of the word are recognized and can be successfully extrapolated.

If you're using a created word, think through what associations you want it to have. It's not hard to show a reader through demonstration what the denotation of the word is. By all means, do so - but don't stop there. For your word to take on life and feel real in the world of the story, it will help if it comes with some of the other types of associations that our words commonly do. I'm thinking of emotional connotations. Here's an example.

Let's say you have a word, Korinye, which means a particular type of police officer. In order to define it for the reader, you put one of these on a street corner (or chasing the protagonist, etc.) , point him or her out and say "watch out for the Korinye." But that alone doesn't tell you how the Korinye group is regarded in society, whether for example they're a secret police for a fascist government or whether they're just a friendly policeman on the beat (who nevertheless won't be on your side if you steal from the shops). As you go through the story, think about whose point of view you're in, and how that person regards Korinye in different contexts. Their view of Korinye can even change over the story. Or you can have alternate points of view to show that some people consider the Korinye to be upholders of the law, while others consider them to be ruthless brigands who pillage in the name of the law. Don't just let your word sit; let it expand just a little each time you use it.

In general I'd suggest that you keep the most subtlety, the most extensive building and explanation only for words that are key to your main conflict. This may be a bias of mine, but why make people put a lot of effort into a word that will give them little reward? Of course, this does assume that you want the reader to feel like an "insider" with the word(s) in question. If you have a human going to an alien planet and feeling lost because all the words are different, then keeping to the human viewpoint will probably mean not explaining any of the alien words.

You can also turn this around. What if you're in the alien viewpoint? It may surprise you, but my first suggestion for an alien viewpoint is this: Minimize the number of created words.

Part of putting your reader in an alien's head means making him or her feel comfortable there. So have the alien give not very much thought to things he/she doesn't feel are important. Names of animals, for example, can be tossed in with just a couple words of context, and even used as metaphors for other things, like "he was mad as a cornered ughara." Give much more attention to those concepts that will allow readers to understand the alien's motives. These concepts don't even need to have made-up names.

Yes, I am suggesting that you can redefine English words rather than putting in created ones every time. Sure, your alien may have an idiosyncratic sense of honor, but you don't have to call it "zinni" or anything else. Instead, use strategically designed context and explanations to designate the associations that you want, and pluck away the ones you don't. In my forthcoming Analog story, Cold Words, the aliens have a very distinct set of social judgments associated with the words Warm and Cold (but not Hot). Since these are integral to the plot, I spend some time building them up contextually. The other word I change in that story is "friend." This one works slightly differently because it is a concept that the aliens do not have. I have to treat it carefully because as you might imagine, this does not mean they don't have close relationships. In order to change it, I have my character give some conscious thought to what it means and how it fits into the relationships he is familiar with.

I love this stuff - in particular the relation between words and social meaning, which will lead us into our next topics, pragmatics and sociolinguistics. This will be the final post on semantics unless any of my readers have specific questions. If you do, please feel free to comment and ask.

I'm still planning to invite submissions to the language design workshop during the first week of February. As with the last workshop, the number of participants will be limited to five.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, everyone!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

How semantics can help you! Part 2

Neural networks are really amazing things. In my last post I talked about how a word brings up all of its meanings simultaneously; today I'm going to talk about how that's not all it brings up.

I'm talking about connotations and allusion.

Along with all of its meanings, the mention of a word can bring up all the contexts in which we've encountered it. With exceedingly common words, there may not be a particular context that stands out, and the word may have a more generic feeling. With less common words, we may really notice how they evoke the context in which they were created (Quidditch, anyone?) or in which they were used. Regardless, these contexts always tag along, and they influence the way we hear a word.

Has anyone ever tried to use the word "ejaculate" as a dialog tag? No? It used to be common enough, but I'm guessing you can see why we don't use it so much that way any more. (Dialog tags are out of fashion anyway because they can be distracting.)

This reminds me of a discussion I had on the Analog forum about euphemisms. They tend to get "used up" and replaced by others quite quickly. Why? Because of the contexts in which they are used. If those contexts are considered dirty or low, then the quality of the context will be evoked in the speaker or writer's mind with every occurrence of the word, and eventually the word will be sullied by its association with that context.

In my classes at the school of Education at UC Berkeley, occasionally the word "intertextuality" came up. It essentially means that a word will evoke in the reader's mind all the texts in which they have seen it. "Monster" can bring up Frankenstein, or Monsters Inc. or any number of other things. This is one of the reasons that my friend Paul Carlson was able to put together his list of words that evoke particular genres (find it here).

When you're writing, it might be daunting to remember that there are a million layers floating behind everything you say, particularly when you choose a word that doesn't occur so frequently as to become semi-generic. Almost any word can become more than it is, much like the few critical words used in ancient Japanese poetry (I'm thinking primarily of tanka, not haiku).

Daunting, sure - but what an opportunity! This stuff can allows you to imbue a scene with a sense of foreboding or excitement. The other thing it can do is allow you to illuminate your point of view character. All of the judgments of value inherent in a particular word will reflect on the user of that word. We see this all the time in oral language when we judge people based on their use of cuss words or insulting words for others. In a piece of narrative writing, all those judgments will be associated with the point of view character. It's one of the ways that point of view can extend into your writing far beyond the simple first and third person pronouns.

That's it for tonight, but I'm starting to feel more stable, so I hope I'll have another post up in the next day or so.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

How semantics can help you! Part 1

Semantics is the study of meaning. I have a confession to make: I've always found the idea of semantics more exciting than the study itself. This is because academic classes on the subject involve a great deal of hard logic.

I'm not going to do that stuff here. (pc, I assure you I'm relieved too.)

Because I'm sick at the moment (with vertigo, which is really shutting me down), I'm going to divide this one up. Today's entry will concern a topic that I'm sure every writer can relate to:

Word Meaning: Choosing the Right Word

Choosing the right word is critical to getting our meaning across as writers. Here are a few initial things to think about:

1. Does this word have the meaning I'm looking for?
2. Does it supply that meaning unambiguously?
3. Does it have the proper positive, negative, mysterious, or other desired connotations?
4. Does it reflect on the attitude or identity of the point of view character?

I'm going to spend a little time on ambiguity, because linguistically speaking, even the denotation (meaning) of a word is never simple and singular.

Consider the word "dog." When you hear it, what do you imagine? I get an instant image of something beagle-sized and brown, with floppy ears and a wet nose and a wagging tail. This is my meaning-prototype for the word "dog," even though I know the word includes great Danes and shar peis and toy poodles and Snoopy.

A word's meaning is like a pointillist painting - the prototype lies at the center of a scattering of points which are each possible meanings for the word. As long as the object has enough of the right features (but not necessarily always the same ones), it will be rapidly construed as a member of the set.

This brings me to the problem of ambiguity.

Very often when I critique - either editing myself or reading for others - I'll come across words that don't work well because of ambiguity. This is not because the writer has necessarily chosen the wrong word, but because the word they've picked has more than one possible meaning.

Meanings and words don't have a precisely one-to-one relationship, much in the way that "dog" doesn't always describe the same dog. When we hear a word, our brain brings up every known meaning for that word simultaneously. These generally occur in a hierarchical order of likelihood, but they are all present. Therefore, if the context provided does not narrow the choice sufficiently, the ambiguity can become distracting. Homonyms are a natural context for this, but so are words that appear in idiomatic expressions (they can be ambiguous between idiomatic and non-idiomatic meanings).

The example below shows a different type - a word whose part of speech is ambiguous:

"Joseph burst into the suspect's apartment. Crashing and the tinkle of broken glass came from the back room."

In this sequence, the word "crashing" is ambiguous between the following meanings:

crashing: NOUN a loud sound made when something breaks
crashing: VERB breaking something

Because we've got a verb context set up with Joseph's sudden entry, it's easy to misconstrue "crashing" and end up confused when it gets set up as a parallel with "the tinkle of broken glass." So maybe we should consider replacing "crashing" or setting up a noun context by using an adjective like "horrible" to make it "horrible crashing."

I'd love to go digging for more examples, but it's late and my woozy head is telling me to lie down, so I'll stop there for now.

Stay tuned for my next semantics entries
1. connotations/ point of view
2. creating words and
3. altering the meaning of words.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

How syntax can help you!

This one's funny, because it sounds like grammar, or maybe computer programming...

Syntax is the study of how sentences are put together. Part of this is word order. This is the one everyone fears because it often involves diagramming sentences. Actually, one of my most intense and wonderful classes was Syntax 1 at UC Santa Cruz. We put together a set of rules for how to create the sentences of English, based entirely on example sentences given to us by our teacher, Professor Sandy Chung (who totally rocks, by the way). Each time we thought we had it, she'd throw us another sentence that didn't fit, and the rule set evolved.

So how is this useful for science fiction and fantasy writers?

First, consider Yoda. He doesn't use typical English syntax. We know this. Yet we can still understand him. I always figured he was a native speaker of some other language and that affected how he could speak the common tongue - but my husband says he never thought of that, and he thought Yoda was just quirky.

Be that as it may, one of the things you can do by altering syntax is give a feeling of dialect, or of a foreign accent. The key here is to keep it all consistent. If it's inconsistent it will feel quirky, and could be construed as an error.

So how do you keep it consistent? Track your subject/verb/object order, and track your phrase types.

In English we use SVO (subject-verb-object) word order: I hit him: I=S, hit=V, him=O.
In Japanese they use SOV (subject-object-verb) word order. boku ga kare o utta : boku=I (for boys)=S, kare=he=O, utta=hit=V

I don't personally know any VSO languages (write in a comment if you do!) but I do know that Earth languages don't actually have all the possible orderings of these elements. For alien languages, who knows? They might not even conceptualize subject and object and verb the way we do - in which case it might be tough to write out their language in the story!

Some languages have freer word order than English. Take for example Latin or Japanese. This is a place where phrase syntax (in the Japanese case) or morphology (in the Latin case) can allow you greater freedom.

In Japanese, the subject and object are marked by particles, special words that come directly after the nouns they apply to and tell you their role in the sentence. With your words marked like that, you can scramble the phrases up a bit and still get meaning out of it.

In Latin, morphology provides case suffixes. Case suffixes essentially play the same role as the Japanese particles, and by labeling the word's role directly, allow more freedom for altering word order.

Play around with it. Yoda shows us that we can understand a lot of different ways of putting a sentence together, provided that we know enough to track each noun's role in the action at hand. You might also want to run it by your friends to make sure it's comprehensible!

At this point you may notice that I've been talking about altering English syntax within a story to imply the structure of another language. This is true. The same principles apply if you want to write sentences in a created language - but I'm guessing this is going to happen less often in the story than the use of English for implication. I have written a song in one of my created languages, but I don't imagine it will do more than sit in an appendix, since putting the entire thing in the story as Tolkien did isn't quite my style.

Now, go forth and have fun with syntax!

Screaming about the internet

I just wanted to share (or vent, as the case may be). Our internet has been up and down for days and I keep getting into endless service calls that make me want to scream with steam coming out of my head. I got put through the regular checklist with another guy this morning and now he tells me my internet should be fine. But it seems like maybe it's going to be the same old story. My local cable provider has been the most helpful of all in this process - I wish we could have gotten people to jump on our case like this before we switched off them. They're keen to get us back, and to be honest, with the great service we've gotten from their people, I'm keen to be back. Provided of course that we get continuous service.

How ironic how dependent I am on this stuff, but I suppose it's the nature of electrical/virtual connectivity. I love blogging and I love emailing. Since I'm home basically all the time, it's my only connection beyond the neighborhood that isn't my phone.

I really appreciate all of you for continuing to read my posts and be patient with me.

Monday, January 12, 2009

How morphology can help you!

Morphology is a fantasy and science fiction writer's best friend.

Seriously. Why? Because everyone uses it, and I mean everyone, whether they know it or not. Every story that makes up a name for a group of people and then pluralizes it is using morphology. Every story that takes a nice-sounding made-up word and then adds on a suffix to make the name of a country or city is using it too.

Morphology is prefixes and suffixes (and infixes). It is the study of the tiny pieces of meaning that make up words. Each of these pieces is called a morpheme. Some morphemes are free, which means they can occur by themselves and still have meaning. Examples:

cat
do
blend

Yes, these are words. But not all words contain only a single morpheme. Most contain one or more bound morphemes, which are meaning units that can't occur all on their own. Examples:

-s
re-
-er
-ness
anti-
-ville
-ia

So if we use these in combination we get words with one or morpheme, as follows:

cat+s=cats (2 morphemes)
good+ness=goodness (2 morphemes)
paint+er+s=painters (3 morphemes)
etc.

If you have a fantasy or science fiction language, I urge you to think through the morphemes you use. There are a ton of people out there who make plurals by adding -i, or who make names of countries by adding -ia. But you shouldn't necessarily fall into the default pattern.

Think first about the feel you want your language to have. A choice like -i for plural is different from -s, which gives the word a slight foreign feel (because of its Latin roots), but it's still very under the radar for readers. This can be a good thing. On the other hand, your language could potentially use any sound or combination of sounds in its repertoire to pluralize (or it might not pluralize at all!). Using an unusual pluralizing suffix might stand out at first, but if it's supported by the surrounding text so that its meaning is unequivocal, it can make your language seem far more interesting. The same goes for -ia, which is if anything more standard than the pluralizing -i.

Remember also that your morphemes don't have to have the same meanings as English words. In my work I don't use plural morphemes, and I don't use a morpheme that means "country," but I do have one that means "place" and another that means "person." Examples:

The capital city is named after a man named Pelisma, and the suffix -ra means "place."
Pelisma + ra=Pelismara, the place of Pelisma.

The title of a city ruler is Alixi, which actually breaks down like this:
Alhi=one
-iks=most
-i=person
Alhi+iks+i=Alhiiksi, pronounced Alixi, or the firstmost person.

Morphology is a lot of fun, and when you create a system that makes sense, it shows in the story.

Friday, January 9, 2009

How articulatory phonetics can help you!

Articulatory phonetics deals with how the human vocal tract creates sounds.

Knowing the principles of how the vocal tract works can help science fiction and fantasy writers to create languages that follow naturalistic patterns of pronunciation, thus making created languages that seem more natural.

One of the key assumptions in the following discussion is that we're working with a species which, like humans, can perceive vibrations in the air (whether through ears and hearing or by other means like antennae). While this does restrict us somewhat, it still allows for a lot of possibilities.

Let me begin with a caveat before we begin our tour of the vocal tract. If you've never studied linguistics, this may appear complex - but it's not as bad as it seems. Just because there are a lot of variables you can change about a language doesn't mean you should go about trying to change them all.

Okay, so here we go:

1. Powered by the diaphragm, the lungs emit an airstream that can be shaped by other parts of the vocal tract. This is the power source for the sounds. Change this element, and you'll have a drastically different language, but one that will be a bear to transcribe into English!

2. The vocal cords can vibrate when the airstream passes by them. All vowels are "voiced" sounds, i.e. sounds with where the vocal cords vibrate. So are consonants like b, d, z, v, y, l, r, n, and m. In the case of an alien, it's important to know that this creature possesses something like vocal cords, or at least something able to create a consistent humming vibration, if you're going to use any voiced consonants in transcribing its language. Language sounds without this vibration are called "unvoiced." Whispering is entirely unvoiced.

3. The mouth is a resonating space for vibrating air. In human languages, the quality of vowels is altered when the tongue is used to alter the shape of the mouth space. The position of the tongue is described in two dimensions: height (high, mid, low) and front/back. Here are some examples of the position of English vowels.

[i] as in "feet"=high front [u] as in "hoot"= high back
[E] as in "bet"= mid front [o] as in "boat"= mid back
[ae] as in "hat"=low front

If you go into any beginning linguistics textbook, it's easy to find a graph of the mouth space and the vowels involved; you can also Google "vocal tract." Here, I'd prefer to talk about what to do with them. If you have an alien, try to think about the kind of resonating space it uses to create speech sounds - the length of its muzzle or other factors might change things significantly. You can also think about how it might change the shape of that resonating space (with tongue or other muscles), because this would affect its ability to pronounce human languages.

If you have a human or fantasy human, the problem is easier, but you can still think about how the language pattern might use vowels with different characteristics. Do your people generally avoid mid vowels? Avoid back vowels? Do they tend to pronounce vowels across a word with the same kind of mouth and tongue position (say, making all vowels in a single word high)? Do they generally keep their lips rounded or unrounded? There are lots of options here.

4. The air flow can be stopped or blocked in different ways by the tongue, teeth, and lips. When the air flow is blocked completely, that's called a stop (for example, p/t/k/b/d/g). When it's still flowing but partially obstructed, that can be called a liquid (l/r), an affricate (ch/ts) or a fricative (s/th/f/z/v). W and y are called glides. Consider the "tools" your creature or person has for altering air flow. Where will most of the obstructions occur? Far back in the mouth near the uvula, as with French R? In the front with the lips? At the alveolar ridge behind the teeth where we create sounds like t/d/s/z?

There's more I could talk about, but I don't want to go overboard...

In fact, you'd be surprised how few things you need to change to give an entirely different flavor to the alien words you use. Here is an example of a language that I recently created.

I had an alien with a long muzzle and tongue, so I decided that there were a lot of different kinds of "l" and "r" sounds in this language. In English I decided to use single "l" versus double "ll" and single "r" versus double "rr" to indicate these sounds, even though I didn't know exactly what they sounded like. I also decided to avoid all unvoiced consonants - mostly for the sake of argument, and for giving the language a distinctive "feel." That means plenty of m/n/d/g/b/v, etc., but no p/t/k/s/f.

To my mind, the biggest advantage of using principles of articulatory phonetics is this: if you use natural language patterns to guide your choices, the resulting created languages will seem less arbitrary and more convincing.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

How linguistics can help you!

As a lead-in to my language design workshop, I'm going to do a little sequence of "How ____ can help you!" pieces concerning various areas of linguistics. These aren't intended to be technical, or even introductory discussions of linguistics itself. I'm going to try to make them short, practical pieces which relate linguistics topics to the use of created languages in science fiction and fantasy. Certainly they will be useful for people who are digging into creating an entire language that penetrates an SF/F world. I hope they can also be helpful for those who are using minimal-penetration languages in SF/F - languages that consist mostly of names for people and places.

Here are some of the upcoming topics:

Articulatory phonetics, a.k.a. how to match sounds to an alien physiology
(I've discussed this a bit before, but I'll try to take it a bit further)

Morphology, a.k.a. how words are broken into smaller pieces of meaning

Syntax, a.k.a. how sentences are put together

Semantics, a.k.a. how meanings are structured

Pragmatics, a.k.a. how language implies more than it "means"; how people define insincerity vs. politeness

Sociolinguistics, a.k.a. how people use language for social purposes including drawing distinctions between social groups


FYI I seem to be having internet problems again, this time intermittent ones that make me go argh! but don't keep me off for entire days. I think this neighborhood must be cursed by the internet gods or something. Anyway, I'll try to address the problem and hope it doesn't get any worse.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ideas for Languages: animal sounds

It can be hard to get ideas for alien or fantasy languages. Even with the four languages I know (and the sound systems of a few more) for ideas, I find myself running dry sometimes. And of course, the last thing you want is for your languages all to sound the same.

Here are a couple of ways to get around this:

One: use a sound system extremely close to an existing world language. The only pitfall here is that your designed language can get a little too close to the language model and people can tell what you're up to. This may not be a problem (many people don't care).

Two: design your sound inventory based on the physiology of your aliens (caterpillar aliens, octopus aliens, cat aliens, etc.) If you've got aliens with a really unusual physiology, this can be fun (if at times difficult to write out using the English writing system).

Sound system itself isn't everything, though. Two languages can have very similar sound systems, but the way the sounds pattern may be entirely different. Japanese and Spanish, for example, are very similar in their sound inventory, but I hardly have to explain that they sound like they come from opposite sides of the planet. They do.

So here's another idea. Listen to animal sounds.

Use the obvious ones, sure, like barking for dogs or meowing for cats. But then take it further. What are the little sounds these animals make? Whining, gurgling, howling, purring, half-meowing, etc. Do they make them repetitively? Try to take these additional sounds and turn them into speech patterns.

Here's an example:

A cat who says "meow" may also say "mrrk" or "meeg", or "mrk-mrk" depending on context. I could imagine that someone who says meow a lot would be fond of diphthongs, so I could say maybe this language doesn't have the lax/short vowels, but only long vowels and diphthongs of all kinds. ow, ai, oi, and push it further. Maybe the length of the vowels would be significant, like a distinction between "meow" and "meeow" or "meoow." Maybe this would be a language where repeating a word indicates a mood of excitement or eagerness.

If I can do this with cat sounds, which are incredibly familiar, imagine what can be done with other animal sounds. There's a ton of stuff out there on the web. Look for monkey sounds, bird sounds, whale sounds, elephant sounds, ground squirrel sounds, anything you like. If you can actually find a recording of it, instead of just imagining it, the task will become even easier and more fun.

Because I'm planning a language design workshop to open on February 1, I thought I'd do a few language-related posts during the month of January. As with the worldbuilding workshop, this one will begin with me asking for submissions, so if you're interested it can't hurt to start thinking now. And listening...

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Dinosaurs Before Dark: A Ridiculously Close Look

Today I thought I'd look at story drive and point of view in a bit of an unusual context.

Both story drive and point of view can be tricky to achieve. A story without a consistent point of view will often feel all over the place, and one without drive makes us sigh and put it down, wondering why we couldn't get caught up in a story whose premise seemed so interesting.

My point today, though, is that though we may be tempted to make our stories more complex in order to create drive or to create point of view, complexity is not at all necessary to create interest or forward momentum. Similarly, point of view does not require a mature and sophisticated text.

My excerpt today is the opening of Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne, one of the Magic Tree House books that I just got for my son for Christmas. This book has drive on page one. It has third person limited point of view, also on page one. And my five-year-old can read it. I have immense respect for an author who can achieve that.

Let's take a look at how she does it.

Line 1:
"Help! A monster!" said Annie.

And we're off. Five words, and already I'm curious whether this is a real monster or not, where Annie is and why she'd be saying that. The style is simple. The content is compelling.

Line 2:
"Yeah, sure," said Jack. "A real monster in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania."

Instantly we have conflict, with the boy and girl disagreeing. I become curious about the relationship between Jack and Annie, and while I wonder which of them to trust, I still can entertain the possibility that a real monster is coming. Notice also that the context of conflict allows Jack to bring up Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. Without any conflict, you'd get one of those cringe-worthy "as you know, Bob" sentences - but here it sounds totally natural because the location itself is not in question, only the plausibility of finding a monster there.

Line 3:
"Run, Jack!" said Annie. She ran up the road.

Annie could have argued with Jack, saying "No, really" - but then the reader would become certain this was just an argument. Annie's willingness to take action in spite of her brother's attitude keeps us guessing about monsters, and also develops Annie's character and her relationship to Jack.

Line 4:
Oh, brother.

One line, and suddenly we sense point of view. With no quotes, this can't be spoken, but it's such an idiosyncratic expression of frustration that we have to conclude it's someone's thought. Mary Pope Osborne accomplishes this without ever using the word "thought," or italics, or any other stylistic indicator. She just gives us something that can't be construed as anything but thought. The question then becomes, "Whose?"

Which is the curiosity leading us to the next line.

Line 5:
This is what he got for spending time with his seven-year-old sister.

Suddenly we realize we're in Jack's head. Although the pronouns are third person, the sentence clearly centers on him. "This" refers to the situation he's in, describing it as close and immediate to him much as I do when I think to myself. Also, this conflict situation again allows Osborne to give us critical information - "seven-year-old sister" - without resorting to an unrealistic line of dialogue or thought.

Something else, too: this sentence radiates attitude, through the expression "this is what he got." It's clear now that Jack doesn't believe what his sister is saying. The question then becomes whether he's reliable in his judgment. Osborne gives us that information in the very next line.

Line 6:
Annie loved pretend stuff. But Jack was eight and a half. He liked real things.

Coming on the heels of Jack's other thoughts, even a sentence beginning with Annie doesn't pull us into her point of view. The juxtaposition of Annie and Jack (see the word "but") gives us Jack's justification for his opinion. It also places him as only slightly older than his sister. I couldn't tell you what my son thinks, precisely, but from an adult's point of view, this is fascinating because I see that he's reliable in his judgment of the monster situation, but not necessarily reliable in his attitude toward his sister. It also places him at the age where kids stop believing in magical stuff – and given that this is a Magic Tree House book, we can sense already that he's got a surprise coming. This leaves us asking when, and what that surprise will be.

Line 7:
"Watch out, Jack! The monster's coming! Race you!"

Here we see Annie's persistence in wanting to play with her brother (after all, he hasn't answered her last invitation). But interestingly, the words "race you" suggest that Annie also knows she's making things up. "Race you" reflects her desire to engage and compete with her brother, but she'd never say it if there were a real monster coming.
Line 8:
"No thanks," said Jack.

Jack is staying out of the competition, and the conflict ends here – but we're still waiting for the final turn of the interaction, because the conflict is only over if both parties agree to let it go. Annie's response in the next line changes the momentum of the story completely:

Line 9:
Annie raced alone into the woods.

Suddenly we've ramped up the conflict. Not only has Annie refused to accept Jack's lack of involvement, she immediately runs off into a location which is a classic for adventures. I'd have to guess that by the age of five my son has already seen enough instances of kids alone in woods and trouble ensuing (through fairy tales, children's books, etc.) to think that Jack was wrong to let Annie leave by herself, and to wonder whether she's going to be okay, and what she's going to find.

And that's how Osborne keeps us driving ahead into the rest of the story.

The tools she uses here are content and juxtaposition – tools of the utmost simplicity, yes, but they are highly effective. This story drives forward with every line. It lets us share Jack's thoughts and feelings – and evaluate them – without the need for lots of extra words. The expressions she chooses are evocative of highly familiar knowledge (even for five-year-olds), and the conflict situation she sets up allows her to dispense critical information smoothly.

Now there's a good story.