Saturday, February 28, 2009

Titles aren't just the name of your story

I've been thinking about titles.

This is in part because I've been thinking about titles for my own work, and in part because I've been helping my friend Janice Hardy with them. Titles are important, and are often harder than you might think.

A few titles have come to me easily, almost automatically. "Cold Words" was one of those - it could not have had another title. Most others are trickier.

I generally divide titles into three categories.

1. Story element titles: these are titles that are derived from a character, an important object, a location, a setting, or a plot element. Essentially, these are names that come out of the content of the story. "Dune" falls into this group. "Anansi Boys" does also, as do "Interview with the Vampire" and "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell."

2. Story quote titles: these are titles that are pulled from the words of the story. These would include titles that quote poetry or songs that appear in the story, or some critical line that a character says in the story. "Kushiel's Dart" is one of these (this could also be considered a #1 type). So is "The Madness Season." So was my short story "Let the Word Take Me."

3. Thematic titles: these are titles that tell us something about what the story is about - but on a more abstract level. "The Sparrow" falls into this category (though it also could be considered a #2). So does "Split Infinity," and "Black Hearts in Battersea."

When looking for a title, you want to find one that is intriguing, contains talismanic words, and says something about what people can anticipate when reading the story. By talismanic words I mean ones that have especially resonant and evocative meanings. There are lots of words like this, but here are some examples: Infinity, Word, Madness, Vampire, Boys, Fire, Gate, Death... Each of these brings up a rich set of associations, hints at the kind of emotional experience we can anticipate and and gets us guessing what kind of instantiation of the concept we will find when we begin to read.

A really great title can be the first hook for a reader. A really great title will help the reader know what kind of patterns or messages to be looking for in a story. A really great title may even have more than one meaning within the context of the story. A "fine" title will tell us what the story is about, but may not add that extra level of insight.

I just changed the title of the book I'm writing. And I'm excited about it. I went from a story element title (The Book of Lives) to a thematic title (Through This Gate) - and when I did, I realized a couple of tiny changes to the manuscript can really help the title to point out the theme of the book. It's as if, after more than a year of writing it, I finally know what my book is about. I know it's right because when I think about how it relates to what I've written, it gives me goosebumps - and if it's not going to give me goosebumps, it sure won't give them to anyone else.

So when you're writing, or critiquing someone else's work, don't skip past the title or take it for granted. Take a look; see if it works fine, or if a slight change could make it really work for the story as a whole.

You could find an alternative that's really exciting.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A complex model of writing development

This entry is a response to Colin's comment on the last post, and anyone who would like to see the details of his question can look in the comments. He began by asking about naming, and then went on to tell me a little about a project he's doing. These two are actually separate issues.

First, naming. Establishing naming conventions isn't hard - really, it's fun! I've discussed this in a number of places, and my first suggestion is to take a close look at what you know about your planet and people. Physiology can give you some hints as to the sounds they might use. You can also look for inspiration in animal sounds or in existing world languages. Just try to keep the names consistent in sound. There are some sounds that evoke emotions in a hearer, and many of these associations are culturally based, though the principles of onomatopoeia are more universal. Posts to look at in my archives might include:
Does your world/universe include names?
Bow-wow, boom, smash: onomatopoeia
The Feel of a Language
Ideas for Languages: animal sounds
How articulatory phonetics can help you
How morphology can help you

Now, onto the next issue, which is really a question of writing systems. Colin describes a situation in which "runes," which express whole word meanings, resemble letters and can be mistaken for them. It took me some thinking to reconcile these two ideas, in part because historically, rune systems did represent sounds, and because meaning-based writing systems (ideographic systems) and sound-based writing systems (alphabetic or syllabic systems) are so different. But if the Japanese can take the ideographic Chinese system and adapt it into a syllabic system that is then used concurrently with the ideographs (and they do!), anything is possible, right? :-)

My idea was to think of this as a process of language history. Maybe the people originally used an ideographic writing system to express their ideas. Symbols for the names of virtues would have been part of this system. (I do suggest these not be called runes, however, because the automatic associations with the word "rune" could confuse readers.) Then, something happened. Maybe there was an invasion, or perhaps an opening of trade with another country which used similar implements for writing (thus the visual similarity) but instead functioned using an alphabetic system. Or perhaps the opening of trade led to the idea of an alphabetic system and some person of note decided to adapt a set of core ideographs into an alphabet. The ideograph-users as a society would probably see the attractiveness of a system that reduced the education burden for literacy, and while there might be some initial objections, let's say they adopt the new alphabetic method of writing. Generations go by, and the knowledge of the ideographs became more and more esoteric. At a certain point one would see a situation in which ideographs would not be recognized as bearing their original meanings, and might instead be construed as resembling similar symbols from the newer alphabetic system. I'd also suggest that both the systems should have their own names, and the symbols should have identities that are not borrowed from Latin symbols if there is no real connection between them and Latin. Use descriptions of the symbols, and words for the symbols that you create, that you can fit into the same sound system as the names of people and things as mentioned above.

Thanks again for the question!

You might also want to check out Tom Waters' interesting discussion of language building:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Make your world personal

Very often on writing and science fiction forums I see discussions of worldbuilding (including language) and backstory, and how not to make a world overpower a story with infodumping. This is an issue that I have struggled with, because my love of linguistics and anthropology makes me want to know every detail about the worlds in which my stories occur. After many years of writing I've developed my own philosophy of how to deal with this issue. I'll call it make your world personal.

We are all the products of our experiences and the worlds we've grown in. The way each of us understands the world is intensely personal. When we speak, our personal understandings of the world filter through our words in many ways: in the words we choose to describe things, in how we categorize things and people, and in subtle shadings of grammar. When ethnographers study social situations in the real world, they often analyze such elements of speech to improve their understanding of how individuals in a social situation judge one another and the world around them. Because the subtle details of expressing identity in language are mostly subconscious, their effects are easy to feel but difficult to explain. The ethnographer's analytical techniques have been designed explicitly for the purpose of bringing these details into full consciousness.

When as writers we create a new world, we often begin by laying out logistical details and descriptions as if we were reading about a foreign place in a book. I find it all too easy to write lots of words about the worlds I create, but at the same time I find that's not enough for me to enter the story world successfully. I need a character.

If I take all of the impersonal questions I've asked about my world - geography, culture, objects, naming conventions, etc., etc. - and recast them from the point of view of a character inside that culture, then I start to get to somewhere new. The place I want to find is inside someone's head, a stance and point of view that will warp everything around it, where action and the judgment of action will cause backstory to reveal itself. I want to make my world personal.

One place to start is to play with what is. Take a paragraph of description - almost any one will do - and highlight every name, object, and category label you find in it. Then ask yourself how each one reflects the unique point of view of the narrator, and whether you might be able to push any of them closer to that person - for example, by changing an article from a to the, by adding a judgmental adjective, or by substituting a word heavy with interesting connotations. Then see how the paragraph has changed.

You may discover that your world feels more personal.

It's something to think about.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Workshop: More thoughts

I'd like to open this post with a thank you to those who have replied to my rather vague and cryptic questions of the last post. I'm happy to hear that this workshop has helped in some respects - but while I'm a staunch supporter of consciousness-raising, I am hoping I can offer a few concrete suggestions on the projects you all have described to me. Since this is the first workshop I've offered on the topic of language design, I've been feeling my way a little, and I'm grateful for your patience.

Here is where I have arrived in my thoughts on the various projects, and my suggestions for what you might submit to me:

pyraxis: I'm happy to see you thinking through the phonology of rsakki and systematizing the names. I appreciate you posting the excerpt, also. I wonder if you could show me a short (up to 250 words) excerpt which demonstrates the rsakki interacting with non-rsakki, perhaps showing some of the ways you indicate language contrasts.

wordjinn: I'm happy to see you thinking through how to express the various nuances of the djinni speech. Since I was most intrigued by the idea of sung vs. spoken and spoken vs. telepathically communicated, I'd like to see a short (up to 250 words) sample conversation which involves some of these distinctions - hopefully also one that hints at the main conflicts of your story.

K: I'm happy to see you thinking about the relation of language and culture to your story on so many different levels. I was very intrigued by the idea of the contrast between languages that Kei has to bridge, so if you could I'd like you to try making a list of phrases that might be used for social purposes among the Eyans - trying of course to let the content of these phrases indicate people's attitudes toward various types (psychic and non-psychic) of communication. Here's an idea that might start you off: see if you can construct a compliment or two, something you'd say in admiration of someone else's restraint, for example. Or perhaps an insult that deals with insincerity of emotional projection.

David: I'm happy to see you attempting a project so thoroughly permeated by language. There are so many things I could ask about that I find it a bit daunting, but I think I'd most appreciate it if you could give me a rough timeline of language development among the arcati. Points that I'd really like to see you address would be:
1. Why language use evolved among the arcati before the inundation (why did they need to speak? Why was it adaptively successful to communicate using the auditory or visual channel that they do?
2. What form written language took before the inundation
3. From the point of view of a genetic engineer, how they planned to deal with the problem of living and communicating underwater
4. From the point of view of a genetic engineer, how they justified a complete abandonment of air-breathing capability (or not).
5. What kind of attempts were made to preserve written information through the inundation (waterproof floating libraries :-) ?)

Catreona: I'm really happy that you've found the workshop to be illuminating. I feel for you in the story dilemma that you're facing - but I feel strongly that it's important to face such issues and work through them. While your story may emerge different, you may find that it becomes stronger and more compelling for you as well as others. I don't want to put you under pressure for a final product here, because after all this is all about making the story better. If you feel you would be better served by explaining the premise problem you're facing, then feel free to do so. I'll leave it up to you - but you should know this: none of the effort spent on a story is ever wasted. I have enormous quantities of text that I've created that no one will ever see, but all those words have served to deepen my understanding of created worlds and writing, and sometimes I'll find phrases or concepts I hated to discard showing up in unexpected places in my newer work.

Thanks, everyone. I'd like to see replies from all of you by the end of Wednesday if that's not too much of an imposition. In the meantime I'll try to compose some posts that have been inspired by our discussions in this workshop.

More soon...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Workshop: Where to go next

I've really been enjoying the discussions about all of your stories and languages. I also really appreciate all the effort you've put in to quick replies and extensive explanations; these have helped me to understand what's going on, and I hope they've enabled me to be of some use to your projects.

My last workshop (worldbuilding) began and ended with a writing sample. Because this workshop began with a description rather than an excerpt, I've been wondering how best to bring it to a meaningful close. What I'd like to do is this: first, ask you if there are any areas of your project that need desperately to be addressed but which I either haven't touched on or haven't understood; second, ask you to give me something that you feel uses and demonstrates something you've benefited from in our discussion.

So, first off, consider yourselves asked. I'd appreciate it if you could comment on this blog post with any last-round questions you might have.

Once I've had a chance to address those concerns, I'm going to ask you to push yourself and do a little experiment. What this is will depend on where you think the workshop has been of most benefit, and we can discuss what you would like it to be. It could be to create a timeline of language development. Or it could be to describe a section of your plot showing how language will take on a new influence. Or it could be to describe culture and world details and how you think they will be relevant to either plot or character. Or if you're working on dialogue and voice, it could be to write an experimental conversation (250 words or so) between two characters where you can dig into the questions you've addressed.

I'll then comment on (and invite comments on) those experimental results and we'll bring the workshop to a close.

I look forward to hearing from you...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Workshop: Rendering a Created Language in English

I thought I'd pay attention today to an issue I sometimes call "the translation problem," which effectively is the issue of rendering a created language in English. After all, no matter how much work you put into creating a language, a culture, etc. the language that carries the story will be English. So in some manner, you have to find a way to give the flavor of your created language to your English.

This issue covers two of the items from my last post: dialogue, and voice. This is because both of them have directly to do with the content of the language you put down on the paper.

Let me start with a couple of examples from my own work.

The alien dialogue in "Let the Word Take Me" (Analog July/August 2008) was based on the principle that the Gariniki would speak only in oblique references to a set of canonical sacred stories. Some of you may be familiar with this language concept, which I first encountered in Star Trek: The Next Generation's fascinating episode entitled "Darmok."

What I did for the dialogue was design references without actually writing the underlying stories themselves. Examples include "Kridia's head-scales shone," "Rosbas drew strength from the sedi," "In the desert Herremi could not see her face." These were deliberately intended to be opaque. The linguist's son, David Linden, could understand most of them because he'd worked out correspondences between context and utterance along with his father for several years. So I could use his understanding to help the reader's understanding - of the dialogue.

The voice of Allayo's point of view was a different matter. Because culturally she knew of contexts in which the language was used productively (normally), she could think to herself in the language without using the oblique style - a good thing, or I wouldn't have been able to use her point of view at all. But if I tried to make her voice like the English I speak, that would not have worked either. So I looked for ways that her attitude toward language and the world could show up in the way that her voice came across. Since she considered all language sacred, I aimed for a tone that would suggest reverence - using words and meter (stress patterns) that would hint at Biblical verse or incantation. This also meant avoiding slang and contracted forms like "don't" "I'm" etc.

The language of the Aurrel in my forthcoming story, "Cold Words," depends on a distinction between high-status and low-status talk. The high-status talk I designed as the dialect spoken by a tundra-dwelling species of Aurrel, who used talk for coordination of their pack hunts. Thus I decided that they would begin by getting one another's attention on the run with an initial word that both announced the intent to speak and indicated the functional content of what would follow. The low-status dialect didn't use these same initial words, but had some of the same functional things - like submitting, or dominating, or asking for attention - simply mixed into the general talk.

This may all sound pretty complicated. Well in fact, seeing it done is much easier than trying to explain it. However, I did have a tought time at first making it readable in English. I had to make two attempts! Thank goodness for my critique group who basically said "Are you nuts?" and made me try again. However, the end result was both readable and distinctive once I introduced it properly early in the story. An example of the contrast between dialects might be as follows (where the word "belly" refers to a canine apology):

Low status:
"I belly to you, but I don't think so."

High status:
"Bel-belly: I don't think so."

Again, this is the dialogue. I could NOT do this comprehensibly in the character voice. The character voice was made distinctive in part by using first person present tense, in part by completely avoiding the present progressive tense "am __ing," and in part by keeping intense focus on the kinds of world metaphors that my character used. These metaphors were related to dominant and submissive relationships, hunting, animal behavior, etc. When possible I also tried to use a loping meter suggestive of running on the hunt.

These are my own examples, so they are extreme - but I'm hoping you can get some ideas from them. One of the things I tend not to do is use altered spelling to suggest pronunciation. However, this can be done well. Mike Flynn, author of The January Dancer, does it beautifully in his work. He not only alters spellings systematically, but backs them up with surrounding description that connects the spelling changes to the local dialects he is creating.

Before I finish this entry, I'll take a brief look at two of the language models in this workshop that might benefit most from a deliberate language-to-English representation strategy. One is wordjinn's partial psychic dialogue, and the other is David's underwater dialogue (pyraxis may also find this useful, but I don't know enough about rsakki at the moment).

In order to have two people speak to each other, you need to have linguistic content. That linguistic content is going to be most easily expressed in English words. So take the meaning of what one entity says to another, put it in words, and use that for the verbal dialogue. To give it a unique flavor, concentrate on giving unique color to the meanings expressed. So far you will be working free of obligation as to the precise sounds involved in the exchange.

Things like slang and contractions are responses to social and speaking conditions, and as such, they draw attention to the social and speaking conditions surrounding the dialogue in question. If your social context does not match that of a particular slang term, avoid it. Contractions are less distracting, but still, watch out for them if you're trying to create a formal impression with the communication.

Any created word that you insert into your interaction will instantly imply sounds in the pronunciation of the alien language. If that language is never ever pronounced in an air medium, the type of sounds that can be transmitted goes way down (indeed, most or all of our consonants would have no hope of being transmitted under those circumstances; this might be worth researching in more detail). If it is sometimes pronounced in an air medium, you can get away with saying that the word is not fully pronounced in that context, but implied, and the full word would be evoked in the speaker or hearer's mind.

If you have crucial components of communication that are not delivered verbally, then you need to decide what they are and how exactly they are transmitted. While color and scent languages could evolve to a level of sophistication, I have a hard time believing that they could be easily developed for the conversion of verbal material, which is why I'm advocating sign language for David. Sign languages already exist, and the primary time burden would be in learning the amount of material that these people wanted to preserve. It would be far easier to write with indelible ink on stone or another water-durable material to preserve records than to marshall a large population into memorizing cultural content in a newly learned language. Color or scent might be more effective for conveying mood, which I think would fit well with the discussion to this point. Wordjinn: with telepathy, you can presumably send words if you want, and thus those would have a soundlike representation. The harder trick is interweaving it with dialogue without ending up with something that reads like a script, because people will generally find this more difficult to follow. Also you'll probably want to have it represent the content, instead of having it look like an explanation of the content. So you might want to give some thought to how the djinn talk about their own telepathy. What do they call it? How do they refer to the keys, and what is the content of the keys? Etc. In our language, we have words that we use for opening communication, identifying ourselves, and asking permission for various things; I think these could be relatively easily adapted in a unique way to give the impression of the psychic content you're looking for. These are complex messages, and thus I think words are the best communicators for such content, but I think you can use words to gesture toward what is being expressed. Think of it almost as an English translation, and you'll find the content will become much easier to handle.

I hope this helps...

Friday, February 13, 2009

Workshop: The role of language and culture in stories

I'm noticing as I look at the material here that I'm making a lot of comments about potential ways that language can influence the stories. In some cases I'm getting a reaction of "wow," and in others I'm getting "well, that doesn't work because my story has to do this."

Let me be clear: I don't expect you all to change your stories to make them about language and culture. On the other hand, language and culture can give some unexpected benefits to just about any story, and that's what I'm looking for here. Possibilities. Since language and culture are such broad areas, in many cases I'm having to feel around your descriptions of your stories, to get a better idea of where I can be of most help. So I appreciate all of your cooperation in answering questions on the workshop. Thank you.

Now I'd like to discuss some different kinds of places where language and culture can serve to enhance stories. If you read this and any element resonates with you - particularly if it's something I haven't detected or mentioned in your comments to this point - do let me know.

1. Premise
I think of premise as the basic set of assumptions that a reader needs to accept in order for a story to work. For any story (like mine, for example) that has aliens in it, the existence of some kind of alien language forms a critical part of the premise. The story itself may or may not depend on the nature of this language, but if the language sticks out as unrealistic or somehow physically or culturally impossible, that will make it difficult for readers to accept any kind of story placed in that context. The questions I've asked about channel (auditory versus visual) and about linguistic history in David's arcati world are premise-level questions.

2. Plot
This is "what happens" in the story. Language and culture influence the plot of a story if the story is specifically about language difficulty, or if language difficulty or cultural misunderstanding cause a distinct change in events at any point in the story. My own stories involve this stuff all the time. I know David has plans in this area, and I think this may also apply to K's story at certain points, with misunderstandings of the Terran versus Eyan cultures.

3. Setting
In this case I'm not talking about the physical setting, but the cultural and linguistic setting. This is something that I believe is applicable to every story. Quite often it's done well on gut feel alone, without any kind of analysis. Look for any way in which the people in your story are divided into types, and there you'll find a great opportunity to explore language and culture. This doesn't just mean how the different groups speak. It also means how they are described by others, and how they describe others; what expectations are held for them and how those expectations are explained; how their role and values are judged. This is something I've definitely seen in pyraxis' rsakk story, in K's story of Dalkans and Eyans and Terrans and how these groups perceive appropriate behavior, in Catreona's story of Plague Children and the respect with which they expect to be treated, and in wordjinn's families of djinn with their different values. I'm not sure how deeply David's gone into the divisions between the arcati, but I know the groups are there, with the guilds etc. So in this area everyone can dig in; one of the things that can help you to do that is character.

4. Character
A character is a wonderful tool for language and culture building in part because of point of view. If you want to learn about how some group of people regards the others around it, experiment with writing the answers to a set of questions from the point of view of one of the members of that group. Trying to take a point of view often makes it easier to explore the answers to language and culture questions, and value judgment questions. How does your character talk about people he or she respects? Hates? Every character has a personal history, and a personal culture (even aliens or fantasy characters without a known group from our world); these things influence character behavior and judgment in every circumstance.

5. Dialogue
By dialogue I mean how your characters talk. Do you want them to speak in British dialect? Should they speak with an accent that is indicated by alternate spellings of known words? Do they use a lot of slang? If you consider that they are speaking a foreign (usually their own) language, do you want to have that reflected at all in the way their English dialogue is written? If they're communicating on a channel that isn't auditory, such as empathic or telepathic or pheremonal signals, what information are they conveying by that means and how do you want to express that in English?

6. Voice
This one means narrator voice - the language of the voice telling the story. Whether you've got a story told in first or third person, the narrator has an identity, and that identity is indicated by the words you use to tell the story. The narrator can be an epic storyteller, or one of the characters considering his or life retrospectively, or one of the characters experiencing the story in the moment; as a character (invisible or no), the narrator has his or her own culture that is reflected in language. This element can be tricky to step back from and work with, but if you ever really want to go whole hog with an alien point of view, for example, it can be invaluable.

So for my workshop participants, please look through this list and give me your thoughts on which areas you find most promising for your own stories. Play around with the possibilities in your head, or even create an alternate story experiment file and see what kind of impact on the storyline may result from language and culture changes. You might decide you don't want to change the existing details - but you might gain a different kind of insight into the story events, and discover a change that can enhance the story's impact without detracting from your overall intent.

More soon...

A note for wordjinn: I have some comments for you after reading your blog posting (thanks for that!), but I haven't managed to put them together quite yet. I'll try to post them for you in the next day or so. Thank you for your patience.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Workshop: Initial Issues

The first thing I notice as I go through these language and world descriptions is that we have some humans involved, and a goodly number of humanoids. All cool. I note that Catreona has her humans speaking "British," which is the language represented by the English used for the story. This is a good way to organize a human language in this context. For example, Sheila Finch calls her human language "Inglis." This is an important thing to address if your world is divorced in space and time from our world. If you choose "English," that will mean the language is the direct descendant of modern English and will probably not be a uniform Human language but one spoken by a segment of the human population.

K, if you don't yet have a name for your human language, I'd suggest you pick one. If you're calling your humans Terrans, maybe "Terran" should be what you use.

I don't see much on human language in David's piece. David, have you got your human language worked out in some basic way?

More individual questions (please everyone read):

For pyraxis: You say that rsakk are one of several races of "human," but that they shift into lizard form and others shift into other forms. While I can see how fire could be important to these people (especially if they breathe it, it might be seen as an essence of their spirit), it seems to me that the main distinction between them and others is that they take the lizard form, and that this would figure hugely in their cultural identity and language. Are there any special characteristics of rsakki that make it pronounceable by or otherwise appropriate for lizards (rather than others)? Do the rsakk feel that their lizard form is purer or otherwise better than their human form? What is the role of human form in their lives as opposed to lizard form? In what contexts do they want to differentiate themselves from the other types of people?

For wordjinn: You say the three houses, Az, Uz, and Ua, are separate and concerned with different things, and they have dialectal differences but not major language differences. I wonder how, and how often, the three houses interact with one another. This would be a factor in evening out language differences. Since they've obviously been around for a long time, I could see that there might be dialectal distinctions between the groups. Can you think of a way to make the language use reflect the main concern of the house? I should remark that dialectal differences can be rather large, and if you want there to be dialect differences, you should probably think of how you'd like to mark them in your English text. Also, if Ua is a "newer" house, then its dialect might resemble one of the others (say, Az) more closely than the two others do (making Uz and Ua dialects more similar to each other than to Az).Do you have any immediate thoughts on this?

For K: can you clarify the psychic powers of the Dalkans vs. Eyans? What kind of psychic behavior is expected in social contexts? Is there a principled way in which the provision of empathic cues fits in with the Eyan (or Dalkan) language? I imagine there could be, if these people are accustomed to having an emotional overcurrent surrounding them. Your excerpt from the worldbuilding workshop said things about the ability to block emotional projection. Does this have degrees? What kind of empathic behavior is expected in different social situations?

For Catreona: I need to know more about the interaction of your people. Based on your excerpt from the worldbuilding workshop, I have the impression that they conform to the social rules of the British, at least roughly. I would expect, though, that the nature of the task of surviving and making society work on this foreign planet would alter some things about it. What might those things be? I would also encourage you to think through the situation of the Plague Children, since it seems to factor significantly in your story. You say that the Plague Children are well-integrated (and so are the indigenes). I would expect that the society as a whole would then hold an ideal for such integration, as well as maintaining expectations about how such people are to be treated, addressed, etc. Once you've figured out what this is, you'll then be able to get a better sense of what unwanted discrimination means. People will not all hold these ideals to the same degree. If you're interested, you might want to check out my entry entitled "Don't make them all the same." I'd like to hear your thoughts on these topics.

For David: It sounds to me like you're looking to create a language with a distinct system of formality. The parameters for your formality and informality are not clear. "Respectful" informal language can be as simple as speaking informally when the situation calls for it. Are you looking for something that is spoken asymmetrically based on rank, or something that is spoken symmetrically based on the formality of the situation, where having a person of high rank involved would cause both parties to speak formally? Next, here's an issue that's been bothering me since the last workshop. Have you worked out the precise circumstances of the change from land to water habitation? This will have a huge influence on the language solution that was pursued by these people. I tend to think that they would be likely to have a sign language. This would lend itself well to your semi-translated words. Water as a language medium is very limiting because of the type of sounds that travel - think about dolphin and whale communication. If you want humans to try to speak a vocal language of this type, it will be a challenge. You can pick a vocal language that sounds different above and below water, but I would think that the sounds that are inaudible or indistinguishable underwater would regularize and disappear rather quickly under those conditions. The pheromone discharge strikes me (at first glance) as totally unnecessary. There will be lots of opportunities for communication difficulty already, and I'm not sure how they would evolve naturally. Again, please tell me more about the history of the inundation. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Everyone please feel welcome to read each other's material and comment on your own initial impressions. I will continue to make comments as I find new things to comment about. Your written responses to these questions will help me a lot.

More soon...

Monday, February 9, 2009

Workshop: Update

Hello to my five participants. I have had some significant internet outages yesterday and today, which is the reason for my delay. My thought is this: I have some general questions that have been piqued by the different entries, and I'm hoping we can all weigh in on them even though they don't all apply to every person's language. I'm going to post this now while my link is up, and the questions will be forthcoming.

Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Workshop: Final Participants

It looks like I have five participants for the workshop. I was hoping for more, but maybe the people who were daunted by my linguistics entries this month will come out of the woodwork later when they discover I'm not going to bite - or require grammatical completeness for a created language.

The participants are:

1. Catreona
2. David Marshall
3. Pyraxis
4. Wordjinn
5. K

I'm going to go off and dig into the material you've provided. More soon...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A magazine I have loved...

I'm not generally one to subscribe to causes as such, but I was very sad recently to hear that Realms of Fantasy magazine was going out of business. I always loved the art, usually loved the stories - it was worth me having a subscription, which I can't say for most magazines (the only other one I currently subscribe to is Analog).

It appears some supporters of the magazine have started a group called "Save Realms of Fantasy." If any of my TalkToYoUniverse readers have read and enjoyed this magazine, and would like to see it continue, you might look into joining the group. You can Google it easily; their Facebook page is at this link.

I really hope the voices of enthusiasm can sway the publishers in this instance.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The appearance of text and script

This post was inspired by the internet discussion that has prompted my latest surge of visitors - welcome, all of you who've never visited before! It is also quite relevant to my language design workshop (fortunately!).

I'm talking about letters. That is, how a language is written down. In previous posts about designing languages (see the label "designing languages"), I've talked about how different writing systems correspond to different sounds, so today I'm going to come at it from a different angle - what those characters look like, and how to discuss the appearance of text, letters and script in a story.

When I was designing my Varin world, I actually designed the language after I drafted the novels for the first time, and I had to go back and look for every instance in which I mentioned the appearance of the text. Lucky for me, this didn't involve instances of naming letters so much as places where people were looking at books or handwritten notes. So I sat down and designed a single-sound-based alphabetic character system with a print and a cursive form.

The trick with designing alphabets is that you want them to be simple enough to duplicate, and yet distinct enough for them to be easily recognized. The alphabets I created as a kid were almost always too complicated to duplicate with any reasonable degree of speed, as are some of the character systems I've seen used in published fiction. I've also seen many character systems in published fiction in which the characters were not easily distinguished from one another. Tolkien's Elvish/Mordor script is of course wonderful - you see it and you immediately think you're looking at a foreign language, but that it's a language.

Another factor to consider is what tools your people use to write. If they just use pens, then you're pretty flexible. If they use a reed stylus and clay, then the form of the characters will be influenced by that.

Back to my Varin alphabet design story. The Varin alphabet (which is written with pens) has the basic elements of dots, vertical lines, horizontal lines, and diagonal lines. No curves or circles, unlike our writing system. Instead of orienting itself at mid and high distances from a single line at the bottom of the text, the Varin text orients itself along a central axis. The curves come in when people start writing in cursive. So when I went about describing it in the context of the story, I used these elements. Examples: "He stared at the note until it became just meaningless dots and lines sprayed across the paper." "He had gorgeous handwriting, with axis serifs at the end of each word."

That will take you some distance toward solving the problem - but suppose you want to deal with particular characters, as when a child learns their ABC's? I have several recommendations here:

1. Unless your people actually speak English or another language that uses the Latin alphabet, don't use the appearance or name of the letters we use.

2. Don't try to list out the entire alphabet and the names for all the letters. Keep the description general or appearance-based and restrict yourself to naming two or three, maybe four of the letters.

3. Make sure that the names of the letters are short, easy to pronounce and remember.

4. Make sure that the sounds of your letter-names match the phonological system of the names of your characters. A made-up word for a letter will always stand out, but it may stand out more than you want if your character's name is Aramia and the first letter is called grixbat. Not that this is impossible linguistically, of course - but the contrast will be noticed. So take a look at the sound characteristics of the words you've already created, and match them with one another and with the names of the letters (I have already made posts on sounds; see articulatory phonetics).

I hope you find this helpful. Please feel free to comment or ask questions.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Welcome to the Language Design Workshop!

Welcome to February, and the Language Design Workshop. Consider yourself invited.

If you would like to participate in this workshop (for free, of course!), please submit answers to the following questions in my comments area by 5pm PST on February 8th:

1. Is your language spoken by humans or by aliens?
1a. If spoken by humans, in what climate do these humans live? Please describe.
1b. If spoken by aliens, what kind of aliens? Please describe.

2. How do your people (humans or aliens) live? Please describe as much as you can about their social interaction.

3. What divisions are there between groups of people (aliens or humans or both) in your world?
3a. What kind of language differences are there between these groups?
3b. What kind of value judgments are placed on these language differences?

4. How deeply does your language penetrate your story?
4a. Does your story use names? If yes, give examples.
4b. Does your story use object labels? If yes, give examples.
4c. Does your story use extended sequences of created language material (dialogue, songs, poetry etc.)? If yes, give examples.
4d. Do you have any created-language point of view characters? Please describe.

5. Do you expect language issues to influence the story's plot? If so, how?

Please answer all these questions to the best of your ability. If you can't answer every single one in detail, don't worry. I'm not looking for people who have already got perfectly designed languages here, but people to whom I can be of help. That said, please provide the best and most complete answers you can, because I'll need a good sense of the language you're aiming for in order to help you flesh it out. I urge you to read through my "How linguistics can help you!" posts from the past month. This should help you get some ideas.

Since I'm not sure what kind of answers I'll get, or how many people will submit, I'm being cautious about numbers, but I'm hoping to have five to ten participants.

I look forward to hearing from you!