Thursday, January 28, 2010

Adapting to Technology

I had to do this post, after all the brou-ha-ha over Apple's new iPad product...

I think recent developments in technology have been rather interesting, particularly as they demonstrate human adaptability. First off, I have to notice that there isn't much attempt to get a computer to read your handwriting any more. They had a couple of products, years ago now, that would try to read what you wrote on a pad with a stylus; these were generally not very successful. Much more successful was the Palm Pilot. Why? Because instead of adapting the computer to your handwriting, it had you adapt your handwriting to the computer. For a while I used it, using the fixed shorthand that the Palm had designed for its interface. It worked - wasn't as quick as I might have liked, but it was a workable interface.

I remember people telling me it was only a matter of time before they figured out how to do the handwriting thing. And I remember telling those people that people were a lot more adaptable than computers, and that in all probability the problem would never be solved.

I don't think I was exactly wrong. I'm not seeing handwriting recognition these days - we've moved onto something completely different. Now we have touch screens.

I hear a lot about how "natural" touch screens are. I suppose they are. I can't argue with the fact that it's a lot less hassle to use your fingers directly on the screen than to try to pull out a stylus and use it without dropping it or having it be too small to write with comfortably. In a way, the hand is the original communicator, prior even to the stylus or pencil or pen. And we're adapting again, because after all, it's much easier to adapt to the needs of the computer than it is for the computer to adapt to you. People aren't writing by hand much any more. Keyboards are what it's all about, and those keyboards are available inside the fancy touch screens, too. I'm guessing also that people aren't learning to type much any more - in part because typing (by that I mean touch typing) was a skill usually taught to older people. I remember you had to be twelve years old to get into the typing class I took (I was twelve). These days my kids, 7 and 4 and a half, are using the keyboard already, and I'm going to have to teach them to touch type myself if I don't want them to create their own technique from scratch.

It's curious. Technology allows us to do a lot of things we want to do, and at the same time, it changes our behaviors. Sometimes this happens in ways we don't expect, and it's good to keep your eye out. I deliberately write certain things by hand because I hate to think I'd let my handwriting become a mess illegible by humans (much less by computers!). I will make an effort to teach my kids to type efficiently.

I want to tell you about a really fascinating example of people responding to technology in an unexpected and not very helpful way. I heard this one from my friend Dave Malinowski, who posts over at the UC Berkeley Found in Translation blog. A French language class had introduced video chat sessions with native speakers of French. Great news! Now, in addition to the teacher and their fellow students, students can speak to real live native French speakers. It was a great idea, except that the students set too much store by the fact that these were native speakers. They stopped wanting to speak to each other as much, maybe because they had the idea that the native French was better. Now they were cutting down on their total interaction in French.

I think this has some relevance to story writing, especially with science fiction that involves technology, but also with fantasy worlds that involve alternate technologies (even if they aren't "high-tech" ones). When you give a group of people a particular technology, try to think through how they will adapt to it, and how it will change their behavior either individually (as in the writing example) or socially (as in the French class example). When you're finished, the result will probably be a world that feels more whole.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Update for Wednesday

Here are a couple of notes I thought I should share.

First, my guest post is up at my friend Janice Hardy's blog, The Other Side of the Story. Have you ever written a novel that meandered and got too long, maybe even never seemed to finish? I'm dealing with one right now, and talking about it in a post today about "Structural Rewrite of Death." It's about when you have to abandon everything you've written and start over, without actually losing anything of what you've accomplished so far. If you've ever been in this situation, or if you fear you might be one day, check out the post.

Second, I'm still planning to respond to Hayley Lavik's request for a post on folklore. It's taking me a long time because I'm not a folklore expert, and so I'm trying to get in contact with a friend of mine who is, because I'd really like the post to be a humdinger and not just a collection of my random thoughts (much as you folks are used to those by now!).

I've had some delays in my writing endeavors due to cold and flu season, and I'm going to be taking today to try to catch up. I hope to have a more significant new post for you all tomorrow, and in the meantime, you can visit Janice's blog. While you're there, search around a bit if you're rewriting something, or querying, or dealing with other aspects of trying to get published. It's a gold mine of good advice.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I'm a guest blogger!

I'm happy to announce that tomorrow I'll be guest blogging at Janice Hardy's blog, The Other Side of the Story. I heartily recommend the blog, which features lots of great advice on writing, querying, and getting published. My post takes on the topic of in-depth structural rewrites, where you have to depart significantly from a large amount of story that you've actually written.

So check it out, and I hope you enjoy the visit.

Friday, January 22, 2010

New Feature

Today I'm trying an experiment. I've added a new gadget in my left navigation bar with a list of popular posts in my archive. I hope this will give visitors a nice sampling of what people are hoping to find when they visit TalkToYoUniverse, and encourage them to spend time exploring the site. If you haven't read the posts, feel free - I hope you enjoy them.

How will they pronounce it?

You can never really know.

You craft your world with care. You name your characters and locations, and usually you hear the sounds of the words in your head. Maybe you become highly attached to a name, as a particular character grows into it. You've given it a careful spelling, of course, to represent as closely as possible that perfect name that resonates in your head.

Then, say it gets published. Someone walks up to tell you how much they liked the character, and they get it wrong. Badly wrong, so wrong you can hardly recognize what they say.

I suggest that you appreciate the person greatly. After all, they went to the trouble of reading your story, telling you how great you are, and liking your character so much.

You don't have to imitate their pronunciation of the name, necessarily, but don't try to correct them. It's not their fault. English spelling wasn't designed to indicate spelling unequivocally, and fantasy names often use European or other foreign sound systems anyway.

Blame it on the limitations of orthography, not on the person. We don't write in IPA - and if we did, nobody could read it.

I won't blame you if it gives your gut a twinge to hear a name pronounced differently. When I wrote my first novel (still in revisions, because I've learned a lot since then), I created a character and named her Catin. Can you guess how I pronounced it? Well, I got together with friends and discovered they were rhyming the name with the word "satin." I went "aigh!" I asked them for help. I said, "How the heck can I spell this so it will sound like....?" We tried. Since then it's been spelled Catín - but fortunately I've also adopted a new attitude of curiosity rather than prescriptivism.

I'll be looking forward to hearing what you think it sounds like.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What Authors Control

I came across this interesting article today. Cherie Priest writes about what aspects of a book the author controls, and what they don't. Interesting for all of you who may someday be getting a book published... The article is here.

The Reader as World Builder

Here's a fascinating article from Tor.com that takes worldbuilding and turns it around, seeing sf/f readers as bringing a toolkit with them for the purposes of world construction as they read.

See what you think, here.

Maybe we can discuss it...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Power of Culture

Culture is stronger than you think.

Culture comes with metaphors for understanding life - ways to make sense of our drives and desires, ways to understand right and wrong, ways to categorize the familiar and the unfamiliar. It's evident in our thought, even if it doesn't actually limit the way we think.

I think there's no reason why anyone shouldn't use it as a tool in their writing - not just science fiction and fantasy writers, but mainstream writers as well. The people you write have a personal history, and a way of acting, that comes from their culture.

I've seen many sf/f stories that take non-human behavior and essentially say "these creatures act differently because their physiology or their dimension or their physics work in a way unlike ours." I'd like to argue that this is rarely necessary.

I don't mean that alien physiology shouldn't be taken into account when you're figuring out how an alien group acts. Of course metabolism (as in my earlier post) and body structure will have an influence over the kinds of infrastructure built by this group of people. Of course different behaviors might grow out of that.

The problem, for me, arises when culture gets omitted. A direct link is drawn between the physiology and the behavior. "Well, members of this group must behave this way because otherwise they'll burn up." It creates a rule that isn't really a rule, but a law of nature - and leaves out the people's ability to create rules for themselves.

If you've got a law of nature, then great. Take it and make it into a general principle within your culture. See if it can be extrapolated across contexts - whether the danger of some particular location gets turned into a general fear of locations resembling it, or whether stories grow up around the physical limitation that affect behaviors across the board for this society. The culture of the wolflike aliens of Aurru had a giant social and linguistic division that had grown up around the distinction between people who shivered in the cold (those with less fur) and people who didn't. The physiological fact was there, but its consequences were more than just physical. And it could influence behavior, as when Rulii took drugs - a choice based on a physiological fact that nevertheless brought significant social consequences along with it.

If you don't have a law of nature, you might not need one. Look for a law of culture. My otter aliens have very high technology, but they don't have virtual reality. It's not because their brains can't process it. It's because their societal structure is based on the idea that people operate in pairs, and one will vouch for the other in all situations. If they wanted virtual reality, it would have to take a form that could be witnessed by both members of the pair. A holodeck maybe, or some form of large-scale projection. It could never be something like headphones or a VR visor that would only be usable by one individual. Superstitions don't always have a basis in fact, but they have a powerful influence on behavior.

Keep your eye out. Look for cultural explanations for behavior, and cultural implications of difference. They will make your world feel much more real.

It's something to think about.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Question Your Assumptions

I've spent a good bunch of time, and several posts, talking about how to take all the details of a complex world and build them into how you write your story rather than writing out a whole explanation as an infodump. I've essentially said "see, if you get close enough to your character, then it will become clear that everyone does things in X way, because the way the character thinks will demonstrate X by implication."

Today I'm going to flip that around:

You're telling people things without realizing it.

Look at it from an alien language perspective. Just using our language implies that we identify objects as separate from one another, able to be acted upon by subjects in particular ways. If you read our language it becomes evident how we categorize things - what we lump into which baskets.

Then look at it from a story-writing perspective. The things you know are slipping into your narrative. When those are things about your world and your characters, it's great! It means you're transmitting critical information below the radar, hiding it in plain sight (here's my article on hiding information in plain sight). However, sometimes things we know about our own world - the writer's world - can slip in too, and then it's not so good.

When you work in any fantasy or science fictional world - at the short story length or the novel length - it's vital to spend some time thinking through the underpinnings of your story.

Question your assumptions. Even the really basic stuff.

So what are your assumptions? That's a harder question than it looks like - because they're assumptions, they're hiding in your head.

Hard science fiction writers would probably be swift to point out that you need to know whether there's gravity, whether the air is breathable, what the sun, or suns, look like, etc. Someone on the Analog forum mentioned that if the Pandoran atmosphere is poisonous to humans, then their skin would have to be protected from it as well, so face masks wouldn't really do the trick. I'm not the expert on this topic, personally, so I'm not sure if the Avatar folks had a particular idea for what was in their atmosphere which would mean re-breathers would work perfectly - but I thought it was an interesting observation.

There's more to it than just chemistry and physics, though.

I'm revising an Allied Systems story at the moment. For me, making up an alien species, creating their language and culture, and writing in their point of view is in some ways easier than writing about the humans in the story. Crazy, I know. But here's the thing: if you put it in comedy terms, the humans of the Allied Systems are the "straight man" and the aliens are the flamboyant comedians. Not that it's intended to be comedy, but I think you see my point. It's an issue I mentioned in my post on focus: the complexity of the aliens is such that I want the humans to be easy. They form the relatively neutral background upon which the aliens stand out. This is why they often come across as kind of retro.

The hazard of having retro humans, for me, is that the Star Trek model starts creeping in my head. I don't suppose this is so unusual. Our assumptions are built up from our experiences. People in the 1950's would make assumptions about aliens based on their experiences, and come up with The War of the Worlds, or classic pulp sci fi, if they didn't model their ideas on the Cold War. They would expect aliens either to make war or experiment on them, and certainly expect the end of the world as they knew it. My experience with space and aliens comes from Star Trek (TNG, mostly), so I get that set of assumptions. Not with my aliens, since I intentionally break the expectations there, but with my humans.

So there I was, looking at my story, and I realized I hadn't defeated the Star Trek default assumption that everybody out there has a spaceship. If you live in the Star Trek universe, you expect aliens to make war, to have funny powers or rules, or to make friends - but any way it works out, you're not particularly surprised to meet them.

This is where you see the biggest influence on the story: in human reactions to what is happening. I just about hit myself in the head when I realized that the humans were way too calm about the idea of encountering spacefaring aliens. Sure, the Allied Systems have lots of aliens, but humans are one of only two spacefaring races. Which means that encountering a third one is a BIG DEAL.

Take a moment to look at what you're writing, and give some attention to how your characters react to the events that occur. Think about their expectations.

Magic:
Do they expect everyone to be able to do magic? Or just one person, or a few? That will influence their reaction to magical occurrences and for example, what kind of guesses they might make when faced with unexplained magical happenings.

Social Justice:
Do they expect to be treated fairly by the people around them? If they're members of a socially lower group, they probably don't. But here's the trap: if bad treatment is normal to them, they probably don't question it nearly as much as we would. They wouldn't take offense at every little thing, and most probably wouldn't even spare much thought for revolution, which would seem dangerous and impractical anyway.

Technology:
What do they expect to be able to accomplish using scientific and technological means? What do they expect others to be able to accomplish? If they've seen a lot of different technology levels, they'll tend to take surprises more in stride. If they haven't, their reactions will be completely different.

So question your assumptions before you call it your final draft. It will go a long way toward having your characters' behavior seem well-grounded, and helping their reactions not to ring false.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Senses and Emotional Intensity: Expert advice from the Romance genre

Today I'd like to welcome a special guest blogger to TalkToYoUniverse. Lillian Csernica is an active member of SFWA and author of the historical (pirate!) romance novel Ship of Dreams by Elaine LeClaire. She's been kind enough to put together a terrific piece for us, informed by her years of experience writing fantasy and horror as well as romance. I think this piece is particularly timely because it is relevant to the question of narrative distance, and in particular, to the question of how to make your narration feel close to your point of view character.

The Senses and Emotional Intensity: Expert advice from the Romance genre
by
Lillian Csernica

Romance writing is all about stirring up the feelings of the reader and appealing to the five senses. One might even say romance writers stir up those feelings through appealing to the five senses. The more we as writers can get the reader involved on a sensory level with our characters and their actions, the more vivid, the more real, our stories will become.

It's simple enough to come up with a sentence that deals with each of the five senses individually. Depending on where your main character is in relation to the other character(s) in the scene, both in terms of social footing and proximity, you may have only one, two, or possibly even three out of the five senses available to you. You want to get the most out of them, especially if this is the first encounter between your characters. Here's a good example of multiple sensory input from SINGLE WHITE VAMPIRE by Lynsay Sands:

"Kate C. Leever was about his mother's height, which made her relatively tall for a woman, perhaps 5'10". She was also slim and shapely, with long blonde hair. She appeared pretty from the distance presently separating them. In a pale blue business suit, Kate C. Leever resembled a cool glass of ice water. The image was pleasing on this unseasonably warm September evening."

Just five sentences, but look at all the information packed into them, all the sensory detail. The viewpoint character is Lucern Argeneau, hero and vampire. How appropriate that he should process his first meeting with Kate in terms of sight and taste! We now know what Kate looks like, along with Lucern's first impression of her and his emotional reaction to that impression. What's more, the author provides us with subtext of Kate bringing relief to the heat Lucern feels. That heat will continue to grow between them in true romance novel style.

Miranda Jarrett's GIFT OF THE HEART shows heroine Rachel Lindsey first meeting hero Jaime Ryder when she finds him lying unconscious in her barn:

"The rifle in her hands was much finer, too, with a cherrywood barrel inlaid with stars and elegant engraving on the plate. German made, she guessed, or maybe Philadelphia, but too valuable for most of the men in this part of New York....His skin was as hot as the snow in the fields was cold, and though she now knew he lived, she wondered for how much longer, burning with a fever like this."


Sight and touch tell Rachel the man lying before her is probably some kind of soldier, and that he's in danger of dying. Her knowledge of the rifle's worth tells the reader how intelligent and knowledgeable she is, and her willingness to take Jaime into her house speaks of her compassionate nature.


In my own historical romance, SHIP OF DREAMS, Lady Rosalind Hanshaw is captured by the dreaded French pirate L'Ange Noir, the Black Angel, and spends some informative time in his brig:

"Rosalind sank down until she could wedge herself into the corner at an angle that allowed her to doze. The roll of the ship was soothing. The cell was warm enough, despite her soggy petticoats and shoes. The brig smelled of nothing worse than salt air, damp canvas, and a hint of beer.

Ding-ding! Ding-ding! Ding-ding! Ding-ding!

Four bells. Time for the ship's dog watch, the short span between four and six in the evening. The fading gold of sunset threw long shadows down the hatch, leaving Rosalind in almost total darkness."

Rosalind's senses of smell and hearing tell her a lot about the ship she's now aboard. It's cleaner than most, and it's run according to the orderly system of watches. This tells the reader that Rosalind is more familiar with the running of a ship than most women of her time, and that she knows the differences between an honest vessel and a pirate ship. All this adds to the mystery of who the Black Angel really is and what he wants with Rosalind. If your main characters are observant and aware, both of themselves and the people and places around them, they're going to be livelier, more interesting people.


There might also come a time when your main character is so preoccupied with something that he or she is not capable of being as observant and aware as usual. That could open up story possibilities. Enhance your characterization by focusing on the one sense that will provide the most telling detail. This has been done effectively in other genres as well as romance.


Science fiction:

In "The Murasaki Doctrine" by Jay Lake, the heroine's sense of touch and her motor skills in general become compromised because of how long she spends outside a space station in a spacesuit. She sustains these injuries in pursuit of her mission, which makes her that much more heroic and sympathetic in the mind of the reader.


Fantasy:

In Terry Pratchett's GOING POSTAL, Moist Von Lipwig's sense of hearing plays a key role in discovering what's really been going on in his newly refurbished post office.


Mystery:

The sense of smell can be a powerful element here. More than once in Agatha Christie's mysteries, the scent of bitter almonds helped Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot identify the presence of hydrocyanic acid, or cyanide.

Writing that includes as many senses as possible can:

  • Create a more vivid reality for the reader
  • Render greater emotional depth in the main character
  • Intensify relationships between the major characters

The ways in which your main character can act and react within such a vital, dynamic environment will bring more immediacy to your writing.


What is "immediacy"?

1. The condition or quality of being immediate.

2. Lack of an intervening or mediating agency; (from the Free Online Dictionary.)


One thing that will put "an intervening or mediating agency" between your action and your reader is the word "felt." Consider the difference between these sentences:

Susan felt the breakers wash over her feet.

The breakers splashed around Susan's ankles, the chill seawater a refreshing contrast to the sun's heat.

Which sentence is more vivid, more immediate, and conveys more concrete sensory detail? The second one, of course. The word "felt" filters the action through the main character's own sensory apparatus, which puts one more unnecessary step between the reader and what the main character is experiencing. Direct experience, immediate sensory input, makes for more effective writing.


Here are some exercises if you want to try it yourself.

Exercise #1:

Write a scene where the main character has to make a pivotal, life-changing statement. He or she is either going to be hyperalert, on edge, feeling things more keenly, or so focused on the matter at hand that nothing extraneous is getting through. Here are some possible scenarios:


1. Saying "I love you" for the first time.

2. Telling a relative or close friend "You're dying. You have 3 months to live."

3. Being the one who has to tell the leader of the expedition "The volcano god wants a virgin sacrifice or we're all dead meat."

Exercise #2:

Go to the supermarket newsstand and buy a romance novel. Mark up one passage according to each sense that appears. Go read two pages of your own work and mark it up the same way. Now compare yours to the romance novel passage. See the difference? Decide which senses you could add to your scene to improve its immediacy and rewrite it accordingly. Do the comparison again with a fresh passage from that same romance novel. Once you get the hang of writing with as many senses as you can reasonably include, your writing will really come to life.

The techniques of enriched language and sensory detail borrowed from the romance genre will enhance your writing, improve your characterizations, and ultimately bring your reader deeper into your story.

Isn't that what we're all aiming for?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Narrative Distance Comes Full Circle

I've been having thoughts about narrative distance. For those less familiar with it, narrative distance is the sense you get that you are either close to, or far away from, the narrator of a story. It's related to point of view because it has to do with how deeply the reader gets enmeshed in the perspective of the narrator. The choice of first or third person pronoun is only part of the issue. I've heard people say they've been told to get closer to their protagonist, and that they think they should consider switching to a first person pronoun because "you can't get closer than that." Let me just say that pronouns aren't all of it.

I'm not going to go into depth (in this post) about what contributes to narrative distance, but as I said in my 2006 article on point of view, you can use lots of niggly little grammatical tools to create a sense of closeness. Articles can convey the internal knowledge of the protagonist; deictic pronouns (this that here there etc.) can add a dimension of closeness by implying the physical and temporal location of the protagonist; choice of words with implied desires, volition or judgment can infuse your narration with the sense of your protagonist as someone with wants, goals, and judgments.

Another thing that can contribute to narrative distance is the choice of how to express thoughts and perceptions. The more instances of "I/he/she saw," "I/he/she thought," etc. that appear in the narration, the more distance the reader is going to perceive. People don't think of themselves in these terms. For example, we don't stand back from ourselves and say "I see someone coming in" - we say, "Gee, someone's coming in!"

In this post, I thought I'd share with you something about narrative distance that I thought was just fascinating. It concerns the Royall Tyler translation of The Tale of Genji, which was written in the year 1009 in Japan by a woman known as Murasaki Shikibu. Here's the kicker, and why it's related to the issue of narrative distance: in the ancient Japanese in which the Tale was written, there was no such thing as indirect quotation.

Think about it. No way to say, "He said he would take the carriage." You could only say, "He said, 'I will take the carriage.'" Similarly, there was no way to say, "She thought she would die of grief." Instead, you had to say, "She thought, 'I will die of grief.'"

Here's a quote from a lecture by Royall Tyler (the lecture itself can be found in full here):

Murasaki Shikibu seems to have been the first Japanese writer to exploit interior monologue fully as a narrative technique. When it appears, one suddenly finds oneself listening directly to a character's thoughts, as in the following example from chapter 49. A young man whose great love has died nurses his sorrow, even as his politically advantageous but otherwise unwelcome marriage approaches. The text shifts from third-person narration to first person interior monologue and back again.

At heart he knew he would never forget a loss he still felt keenly, and he simply could not understand why, when they had clearly been meant for each other, they had nonetheless remained strangers to the end. Oh, how I could love someone whose looks recalled hers a little, even if she were unworthy in rank! If only I might see her again, just once, at least in the incense smoke of that old story! He was in no hurry to consummate this exalted alliance.
It is almost as though he sang a brief, first-person aria. However, first-person musing like this is unusual in English, and previous translators therefore rendered it in the more common third person, as in "He said to himself that...,'' "It seemed to him that...,'' "He reflected that...,'' and so on. I cannot blame them, since I too started out that way. However, when I understood the importance of the first person, I adopted it completely and refined my use of it even as the author refined hers.

Tyler says,"...first-person musing like this is unusual in English." I think this was true for a very long time, but on the other hand, Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game springs immediately to mind as an example of a book that uses this precise kind of switch from third person narration to first person expression of thought. Today isn't the first time that I've told people they'll be closer to their narrators if they avoid such expressions as "he thought" and the like.

The effect is dramatic. The culture of Genji's Japan is removed from us by a millenium, but when you read Royall Tyler's translation, you feel it with amazing immediacy. The most remarkable thing to me is that the immediacy in the narrative isn't just a decision made by the translator, but a more accurate reflection of the actual use of the language of the time.

The Tale of Genji comes alive. And narrative distance comes full circle.



Those who are interested in learning more about Royall Tyler and his translation can check out an interview with him, here.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Another link about Avatar and alien language

For those of you who have found the discussion of alien languages interesting, you might also be interested in this discussion of the Na'vi language of Avatar from another linguistic and cultural perspective, at a UC Berkeley language blog:

Found in Translation

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Alien Languages - how foreign would they really be?

This post was requested by CWJ, my friend from the forum over at Analog - thanks so much for the question, CWJ! It also strikes me that this may be a timely topic for people who are considering the Na'vi language that was used in Avatar.

CWJ asked:

Juliette, I'd like to hear more about (constructing) non-human languages. In particular, if Chomsky's idea of universal innate grammars is correct, does that mean there are only certain avenues down which humans can go, which might be different from aliens? That is, maybe there are some concepts or constructs that would be difficult for humans to truly conceptualize. Or the other way around. In short, I am interested in the possibility that communication may be very difficult.

This is a complex question, so I'll take it a bit at a time.
First, the Chomsky question. Chomsky proposed the idea that there was some basic sense of grammar universal to all humans, that was passed on as an instinct.

Now, human languages are very diverse. The most thorough article I've seen on this topic was recently published in the Economist, and you can check it out here.

In fact, it's hard to say how much of human language is innate and how much is learned. Humans are oriented towards language from birth or even earlier; this is well known, as newborn infants prefer to listen to language sounds over non-language sounds, and their mother's native language over other languages (studies measured strength of sucking response!). They also go through a number of language development stages, like early babbling, even if they don't have any auditory language input (say, with non-hearing babies). Non-hearing babies are also known to babble with their fingers. People have also looked at pidgin languages, which tend to take on grammatical structure - and very similar grammar structure - when they're passed on to the second generation, and used this as evidence for a more extensive innate language faculty.

On the other hand...

I've been quite impressed by research which looks at language acquisition from a neural-network point of view. Neural net computers have been shown to learn language patterns like English past tense -ed in much the same progress trajectory as human kids. I've also heard about research that says re-occurrence of phrases may play a larger role than we thought in language acquisition. Certainly human brains are very good at tracking the frequency of occurrence of things (sounds, words, etc.) - a critical skill for language learning. So in the end I'm not personally convinced that grammar is really what's innate and at the root of the drive for language acquisition.

I suppose if there were some kind of universal grammar beneath all human language, then it might be restrictive for the learning of alien tongues. Since I'm not really in the innate grammar camp, I don't think that the primary restriction on learning alien tongues would come from that department.

I think it would come from perception problems. More on this below.

The evolution of language is not simply a matter of brain evolution, but of the co-evolution of the brain, the ear, and the vocal tract as language developed. As a result, they are all well-suited to one another, and babies can hear any language sound from any language in the world, and learn it natively, given the opportunity and a normal course of development. We listen for audible building blocks from the vocal tract that are put together sequentially. Our brains are excellently tuned to process them, and we associate them with physical, temporal and social context in lots of complex ways. But alter these very basic prerequisites, and the problem becomes much harder (even if we assume maximum language-learning ability like that of a child). Sign language shows that the language stream need not be auditory. But what if the language stream is not sequential but simultaneous? Or what if the language producing organs of the alien create a language stream that our eyes and ears are unable, or only partially able, to perceive?

Sheila Finch's stories about the Guild of Xenolinguists speak more directly to the kind of language problems that CWJ mentions - basic problems of auditory vs. visual, processing in the brain and such - than my own. In fact, CWJ, if you haven't read them, you might find them very interesting, because she takes a very Chomskyan approach to her concept of language. She has humans being able to understand all sorts of things, but requiring special drugs to make them forget their existing categorizations of perception, for example. Speak with her in person, though, and she'll tell you - as I will - that any communication with aliens would be next to impossible.

In the realm of animal communication on Earth, we're still discovering things, like the super-low sounds produced by giraffes. We're working hard on the communication of dolphins, too (see a very interesting article on dolphin intelligence, here). We've taught some creatures how to interpret basic signals on a behavioral basis (I remember Mike Flynn having an interesting post on the nature of communication - I'll see if I can find the link). But we haven't really cracked any codes. One of the things that can cause misunderstandings between humans is differences in categorization of concepts - places where the two languages file things differently, as when the Dutch say a picture is "up the wall" instead of "on the wall." A creature that lives underwater and perceives its world through sonar signals will have a totally different way of perceiving the world. It may not even conceptualize the separation of objects as we do. What does it do to language concepts when the means of producing language (sound) is the same as the means for perceiving one's surroundings?

So effectively I think it would be hard to recognize alien language as language at all, and probably harder to try to "break it down," especially in a situation where the physiology of the aliens in question, and their environmental context (not to mention social context) were unknown.

This doesn't stop me from designing alien languages, obviously! As far as constructing the languages goes, I think it really depends on the author's intent with the story, and the nature of the primary language problem in the story. If decipherment is your primary problem, then you can really embrace problems of channel (auditory/visual etc.) and the identification of structure. If your primary problem is one of first contact and code cracking, then you can do some channel stuff, or you can focus on grammar or phonetic dificulties, pronunciation difficulties, etc. If your primary problem has to do with cultural issues and misunderstanding, then it's helpful to create a language and assume that humans have already cracked the code, which allows you to place the focus where it really belongs.

Wow, that became a long post! I hope you find it helpful. I welcome any questions, followup, "what-the-heck-did-that-mean-can-you-explain-this-bit-again-please," etc.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Totally cool - tactile maps!

My husband found this story for me, on NPR, and said, "You have to blog about this." I went, and listened, and he was right, so here I am. It's a radio story about a completely new development: tactile maps for the blind.

The original radio story is here.

These maps are printed on a braille printer and show the layout of neighborhoods - streets, etc. - with their names printed in braille. The most amazing thing about them is that in the thousands of years maps have been used, and the 150 years that braille has been around, no one has ever put the two together (at least, I note after the comment below, not this effectively). This is the first time that maps for non-sighted people have been systematically available. It's astonishing! Even more amazing is the fact that so many people have equated visual with spatial information that for a long time people would say that the blind couldn't possibly understand maps. On the other hand, the radio story gives the example of a braille periodic table of the elements - there's a lot if important information conveyed spatially by that layout, which has nothing to do with its visual properties.

Anyway, it's a terrific story and you should all go have a listen if you have a couple of minutes to spare.

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Year's in Japan

I still have two more requested posts, and I'm working on putting them together for CWJ and Hayley Lavik, but I thought while I worked on those I'd do a little post about New Year's in Japan.

The Japanese celebrate the new year on the first of January - not later, with the Chinese new year. I've spent the new year in Japan three times, but I have the richest memories from when I was visiting with Japanese families in Kyoto and Osaka. You really can't get nearly as good a view of a celebration like this if you're seeing it from the outside.

On new year's eve, my Kyoto family took me to the Yasaka shrine. We drove partway, and then walked the rest of the way because the streets became too crowded. The weather was clear but icy. The shrine was lit with hundreds of white paper lanterns, and people were lining up to approach a fire that burned in a large hanging brazier. When they got there, they'd use the fire to light a short natural-fiber rope. In fact I had seen people with burning ropes walking in the streets as we approached the shrine, some twirling them over their heads to keepthem lit. Though my family didn't spend the time in line, they explained to me that people would then take these ropes, still smoldering, to light the first fire of the new year in their homes.

On the way back from the shrine we stopped at a small restaurant to eat red snapper soup. In Japanese the red snapper is called "tai," and it's considered a good luck fish because its name is the same as the last two syllables of the word "omedetai," which means auspicious (and which in another form is also used to express congratulations).

On new year's day, you're not supposed to cook. The traditional food for New Year's is called "Osechi" and it's prepared in advance and packed into beautiful boxes to be eaten cold on the first of January. I've eaten it in Kyoto and in Osaka. I have a cookbook for osechi, and it's some of the most beautiful and complex food I've ever seen. Pickled carrots and radishes carved into flower shapes, for example, make the traditional new year's colors of red and white (which are also on the flag!). There are little things almost like meatloaf squares on bamboo toothpicks, except that the squares are cut just right and the bamboo toothpicks go in one end so the whole thing looks like a folded fan. It's amazing, and I keep promising myself that one day I'll do it for our family, but so far I haven't had the energy required!

New Year's also has performances. On the pop culture side, there's a televised singing contest where celebrity singers and actors get into male (white) and female (red) teams, and sing off against each other. I prefer the more traditional style of performance - I have gone to see the Noh play "Okina" performed on the Noh stage near the south gate of the Yasaka shrine. That involves male performers wearing gorgeous woven costumes and masks tied in the back with long cords, who chant to the syncopated music of drums and flute.

I know today is January fourth, so it might seem a bit late, but the New Year is the big winter holiday in Japan, and people get three or four days off surrounding it. Christmas is also celebrated by many people, but it's much more of a Western-inspired holiday and is typically associated with white cakes with strawberries, and KFC (if you can believe that!). In Tokyo, at least when I lived there, they still had the near-life-sized statues of Colonel Sanders, and dressed them in Santa outfits for Christmas. Yikes!

So Happy New Year, everyone! あけましておめでとうございます。Which means, (the new year) having opened, let it be auspicious.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Defining Words

I read an interesting article this week - I think it came from the Chicago Tribune originally. The article was called "Redefining Definition," and it was about the future of dictionaries in the age of the internet.

Do you remember your vocabulary lists from high school (or earlier)? Take a word, look it up in the dictionary, and use it in a sentence? How often did you find that the definition didn't really tell you what you needed to know to create your sentence right?

I consider myself pretty good with words. Better now, of course, but I was always decent with them, and I still had trouble with this. I remember using "aggravate" in the sense of, "My brother really aggravates me sometimes," and getting dinged for it. But the fact was, I couldn't grasp "aggravate" based on the dictionary definition alone.

Writing definitions is apparently quite an art form. The writers collect as many examples as they can of the word being used in context, and then based on this try to come up with something succinct that captures the word's meaning. It's amazing that they can do it, and the reason they have to is that paper dictionaries are limited in their length.

As this article mentioned, the internet changes the game by removing the need for succinctness. In fact, it suggests that an internet resource would allow people to behave in the same way as the definition-writers: to see a list of examples of the word so they could formulate a definition - or at least, have a better understanding of the definition as it has been phrased.

I generally agree with this, though some might argue that kids will scavenge the examples for their own assignments. This is, after all, the way we form the meanings of words in our own minds - by concatenating the contexts in which we've seen them.

I actually attempt to pull this trick sometimes in stories, and you might too. Have you ever created a word to represent a complex concept, not really defined it explicitly but let people watch it play out to figure out what it means? That's what I'm talking about. I'm also talking about getting readers to re-interpret words that they already know. If you've ever used an alternate point of view, alien or antagonist, to interpret things that should be normal as strange and vice versa, you may be doing it there, too.

It's something to think about.