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Category: Language

Use natural languages for fiction, not artificial ones

Posted in Just for Writers, and Language

Image of 2 babies talking
They don't need the Chicago Manual of Style to communicate

We have to distinguish between the dialect of English called the “formal writing style” which is what the style guides act as prescriptions for, and the actual (various) living versions of the English language.

The formal written language that you are taught in school is not a real living language. If you were well-educated, it may seem to be identical with the language you use every day, but it isn't. It's a status marker for “educated” and appropriate for non-fiction which is intended to be formal, but it's not a proper guide to writing fiction which should capture living languages, not artificial ones. It's not a matter of vocabulary choices (though that plays into formal/informal distinctions) — it's a matter of the actual language itself and its grammatical structures.

The formal written language is, um, written down and its rules change slowly and rarely. The natural language continues to evolve constantly and, as writers, it's the natural language we should be concerned with. (Or none of us would end sentences with prepositions or split an infinitive on the once-fashionable theory that Germanic English is somehow Latin.)

Chart of archaic personal pronounsFor example, just as in circa-Elizabethan times we saw the loss of 2nd person singular personal pronouns (thee, thou, thy, thine) to the expansion of 2nd person plural (you, yours), we are currently living through a similar evolution in the language with regard to gendered 3rd person singular personal pronouns, where (he, she, him, her, his, hers) are being replaced by the ungendered 3rd person plural pronouns (they, them, their, theirs) in gender-neutral situations, as the clumsiness of using the male 3rd person singular as a stand-in for unknown-gender is being eaten away by a disregard of number to solve the problem.

It now sounds perfectly normal even for the well-educated to say something like, “If anyone comes in early, give them a drink.” That wasn't true a few decades ago.

We are drowned in new vocabulary, slang, and idiom constantly, but it's unusual to be able to actually see a grammatical change this large in a human lifetime. We know this isn't proper for the written language, but we're no longer willing to say “him or her” or just “him” in our natural language use in that situation, even though that's what the formal written language still requires.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying use a style guide for guidance in punctuation (it's the written language, after all) and to convey conventional high-status artificial language for formal writing (or your readers won't respect you), but use the living language for fiction and especially for dialogue.

The Chained Adept – German edition

Posted in Language, and The Chained Adept

I've commissioned my first translation. This is a new experiment for me, and very exciting!

I decided the German market was the place to start, since it has a well-developed interest in SFF, both locally written and in translation. While I have some knowledge of German (well, the language from hundreds of years ago, anyway), I naturally needed to turn to a professional.

My biggest concern is not just the accuracy of the translation, but the tone of it. I want to make sure it doesn't have any whiff of modern slang to throw the reader out of the story while still presenting itself in living German idiom. That requires a sensitive hand, willing to reset the phrasing as necessary instead of just processing the words mechanically.

Image of robot from Metropolis
From Metropolis, part of the long history of SFF in Germany

I am myself slogging through the translated results with the aid of automated translation (Google Translate) to try and catch any obvious issues with individual words, especially since my English vocabulary is broad and therefore a potential source of confusion. This has the added amusement of showing me German constructions I've never seen before, as when “bandy-legged” becomes “o-beinig” (bones shaped like an “O”, I presume — who knew?)

I anticipate this will be ready by the end of the summer. Now I have to study up on my international marketing skills.

 

 

Perkunas

Posted in A Writer's Desk, and Language

perkunas(triumverate)My books are published by Perkunas Press, and every now and then someone asks about the origin of the name “Perkunas”.

In the picture above, he's the guy in the middle: Perkunas, the Baltic god of, well, many things. In this instance, he represents maturity and power, vs age and death on the left, and youth and fertility on the right.

More commonly, Perkunas is shown with a thunderbolt.  He is the champion of good, feared by all evil spirits. He rights wrongs, and upholds the balance of the world.

PerkunasminiHis clear counterpart in the Nordic countries is Thor, and there is a long and tangled relationship between them. The details are buried in lost history and intriguingly suggestive Indo-European etymology.

The root for “oak” in Indo-European is *perku (the “*” indicates a reconstructed form, IE being unattested except by its daughter languages). We see that word reflected in Latin: quercus (oak), and there is a general association of oak trees and lightning in Indo-European mythologies. Gods of oak trees are gods of thunder, and they wield thunderbolts (with emphasis on the pounding aspect of lightning rather than the flash).

perkunas_In Norse mythology, there are two tantalizingly references to obscure gods: Fjörgyn and Fjörgynn. The former (female) is mentioned briefly as the wife of Odin and mother of Thor, and the second (male) is mentioned as a byname for Odin. Etymologically, Fjörgyn is related to the same Indo-European word and seems to be another form of Perkunas. Lots of speculation exists about what this means in the relationship of the Norse with their Baltic neighbors.

Finding and working with a conlanger

Posted in Just for Writers, Language, The Chained Adept, and The Chained Adept

WerewolfThe Chained Adept includes four nations with different cultures and languages, in a full fantasy world (in other words, not just Earth under some other guise).

I may have a shallow linguistics background in a dozen languages (and I do), but that's just not enough to provide suitable linguistic depth for my world.  While full-world fantasies are often content to let many conventional earthly things appear unchanged, such as the air we breathe, the horses we ride, the sun in the sky, and the tasty beer, that is more in the nature of not having to explain absolutely every noun in a story to your readers. Those things are thought of as transparent, part of the background against which you set the actual story with its exotic cultures.

That carefully-crafted exotic flavor sours quickly if your characters are named Sam and Susie, or if their language and cultural artifacts are internally inconsistent, or indistinguishable from the usage of their enemies in another country.

Yet Another Fantasy NAme Generator - one of the better ones, actually. http://dicelog.com/yafnag
Yet Another Fantasy NAme Generator – one of the better ones, actually. http://dicelog.com/yafnag

We've all read fantasies where the author just threw in a few names from an RPG name generator and called it a day, but I know too much about real languages to stomach that approach and, besides, why stop at personal names? Why not include special terms for the exotic elements of the different cultures, using the appropriate languages, just as we refer to Japanese sushi, or French je ne sais quoi, or Sanskrit karma, all of which describe a cultural item in the native language? Why not make sure all the names in the landscape really are plausibly from the appropriate languages, possibly reflecting a history of border shifting or older populations?

Unless you model your cultures on real-world languages fairly closely, it's easy to find yourself out of your depth in linguistic plausibility.

Words and history

Posted in Fantasy, Language, The Chained Adept, and The Chained Adept

Anachronisms
Anachronisms

There's one thing a writer of fiction learns early — don't knock a reader out of your story because of words that mean what you want, but that the character would never have used.

If you're writing a work of contemporary fiction, that usually means matching your dialogue to your characters. The impoverished nine-year-old is not likely to use gold-plated words, except perhaps as a comic gesture.

For non-contemporary fiction, the bigger problem is anachronism. When you remember that “khaki” comes out of British imperial rule in India, you are well-advised to avoid it as a descriptive term in a book on the Crusades, or in a fantasy world where neither Britain nor India have ever existed.

When I read books, I find the worst offenders are phrases based on technology that the author forgot is modern, or at least, too modern for the context. “He's never learned to put on the brakes”, “He's just blowing off steam”, “He's a real live wire, isn't he?” — these are a slap in the reader's face in the wrong context.

Languages for Sale – Part 3

Posted in Just for Writers, and Language

This is the third of three posts on how to improve the use of languages in constructed worlds.  Part 1, an introduction of the topic for authors, is here. Part 2, an exploration for conlangers (the folks who invent CONstructed LANGuages) of what authors need is here. This final part is addressed to authors of fantasy and science fiction who might want to work with conlangers.

And if you want to see how this all worked out for my individual project, that report is here.

Why should my world building include language specialists?

A convincing world has history and context. It has artifacts from various cultures, some of the names of which came with the objects. It has transient fashions in names, and rulers or gods may be named differently from peasants. It may have non-human characters who don't use human phonemes to communicate.

Language also has history and context. It changes. It reflects the influence of other cultures. It memorializes conquest and trade. Each culture may have its own dialects and languages, possibly several. Characters from different cultures have different fluency in the default language (the one the book is written in).

Even if set in the future of our own quotidian world, the fashion in names will have changed, cultures will continue to mingle in unpredictable ways, new brands and technologies will come into existence and need names, and alien beings may make an appearance.

All of these things need names and convincing snippits of language to convey the appearance of a well-rounded historically-grounded plausibly realistic world.

Why can't I do it myself?

I can fake expertise (to some degree) in geology, biology, ecology, forensics, combat, medicine, physics, etc. And language. So can you. The question is: can we convince everyone?