Posts Tagged ‘language’

Last week, I admitted that I am a full-blown world-building junkie. That post included my influences and some of the more valuable references I like to use (although I am always looking for more, so if you know of any, please let me–and my readers–know!). You can check it out here.

This week, I want to go over what I usually use as my “second step” to building the world: names.

To create names, you need LANGUAGE.

Just as much as building worlds, I love languages. I speak several well, and can read/translate a few more, so the next step was actually building one of my own. What I USED to do was just create a vocabulary, and used Excel spreadsheets to make dictionaries (I may even still have some of those, although that was several computer-hardware-iterations ago). I don’t recall exactly how I got to use the class I use now, but I somehow think it was tied into Karen Traviss’ research on her novels about the Mandalorians (what Boba Fett is supposed to be) and creating a language for the Mandalorians. If not, I apologize, but sending you on the proverbial wild-goose-chase is not what I intended. However I managed to get there, I found Holly Lisle’s Create a Language Clinic to be an awesome resource for going even deeper into language creation. (Disclaimer: if you click on that link and end up purchasing a copy of the clinic for yourself, I will get some compensated. But I recommend it even if you navigate away and find it on your own!).

So why all that fuss, you may ask?

Well, before I start giving anything on my map a name, I like to have the “available” characters (sounds) of the language in place. It keeps it pretty consistent, like a real place, which is essential to lending it any kind of credibility.

You know, unlike this unpronounceable garbage:

Mister Mxyzptlk

So I don’t end up with something like that, I work through some of the basic exercises until I get the sounds, consonant clusters, and eliminate at least one vowel from “availability”. I don’t go in neck-deep unless I just want to build a language. I don’t need–and don’t recommend– Tolkien-esque language creation. (But I recommend The Silmarillion if you want to see what a master at work.) Then I create a bunch of syllables from those words, and using the pool of syllables, start to build words and conventions for the language, kind of like the way “burg” in German denotes a town/city of some sort. Holly’s clinic (see link and disclaimer above) walks you through this. (That’s only the beginning of her book on creating a language. She takes you thoroughly through everything you ever loved (or hated) about English grammar classes in school.)

Does it preclude me from creating poetic names? Not at all – I just “translate” them. One example is that for one novel I have written (first draft, percolating in the background while I am working through the “How to Write a Novel” class), I had a place I called “Hummingbird Ridge” on my pre-language go-around. After I created the language that would include/refer to that region, I gave it a name in the language that the culture interpreted as “bee-bird ridge”. So while I wasn’t sure if I even wanted a hummingbird-type creature in my story to make it a reference, I ended up not only with the name for a creature that was essentially the same, but also a reason for it to have been named that. You can blame that on my muse.

I also like to refer to existing cultures to get a “feel” for their language and its construct, and also its concepts. But that, my friends, is a subject for next week’s blog.

So what references have you encountered? Maybe you threw a dart at a world map to get an idea for how a language would sound, or spun and globe and stopped it with a jab of the index finger? Maybe you just did a random search on Google or Bing or whatever search engine you prefer and ended up in a very weird spot.

Let us know below!

From as early an age as I can recall, languages fascinated me. I grew up in a culturally-diverse corner of town—Italian, Korean, Spanish speakers all lived on the same block, within a few houses of one another, and my own family comes from a background that would make a mutt feel like a purebred. In high school, I took up Spanish and then later took German. In college, I took Russian courses. I had also spent considerable time in places, while serving in the Navy, where Spanish and Italian were the native tongues. Later, in college, Russian. For fun, I studied French, Gaelic, Tolkien’s Elvish and I even own a Klingon Dictionary.

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Then I began creating languages of my own to use in my stories—Omen-Eyes, Ennid the Havoc, the languages for the upcoming Dross* and alien races of the SHARC series of stories. In each of these, the language provides a “flavor” to differentiate the races/species and in just about every case, creates some type of conflict because of the limits of translation.

Here are a few things I learned about language while studying them:

Languages more often than not don’t feature a one-for-one translation. If it works out that way, you’re lucky. Some drop prepositions while others adopt gendered ones. Some (including English) drop implied verbs.

Example: There is a book on the table.

In Russian, their grammar prefers: On the table, there is a book. (Which, translated with the available words, would read: “On table, book.”)

In German, their sentence structure can be even more rigid. Subject-Verb-Everything Else for a statement, Verb-Subject-Everything Else for a question. Some throw their words all over the place, using inflection more than just structure to differentiate between a statement and a question (yes, that would be English. We English-speakers are language contortionists).

You went there.

Simple statement, although why someone would have to tell someone else where they went is beyond the scope of this blog.

You went there?

Connotes the idea of surprise that the subject “you” overstepped some boundary to get to that location, like the timid librarian stepping into a biker bar, where they clearly wouldn’t be wanted.

You went there?

This one is a little more snotty, and less of a question than pure derision. They don’t want an answer, they want to mock. The subject “you” ventured into some place that the one asking the question wouldn’t have set foot simply because it is beneath them.

(There’s a great episode of Jerry Seinfeld that uses this to great effect. Why would Jerry bring anything?)

Some have few words that can say a lot, and others use a lot of words for very little, and some languages encompass both. Russian is my favorite for this. On one hand, they can say “Tim tahm.” and mean “Tim is over there”, while to say “I like pets” they have to wrap their tongues around “Menay neravidtsa domoshnie zhivotniey.” (Bugs Bunny pokes fun at this concept too, in “Wackiki Wabbit”.)

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This may arise from the need to define the concept within the sentence that you are introducing it. We could say “The clear sky” but if the one listening is not familiar with the concept of “clear”, it may have to be expressed as: “It was a sky through which light may pass so objects on the other side or within the volume of the object may be seen without hindrance.” Now imagine that some of the words in the definition had to be defined, as those concepts were unfamiliar. See where the conflict in trying to explain things can arise? (Oppressive regimes might condone destruction or redefinition of terms and concepts to prevent someone from speaking about things that the government doesn’t want discussed. Sadly, a fairly recent phenomenon in our own history is to cripple free speech, open debate and discussion by hurling the invective “racist!” or “bigot!”–the equivalent of the playground “your mom!”– when no intelligent argument can be formed or respectfully conveyed.)

Then there are the concepts. We speakers of English are all familiar with hyperbole, exaggeration, metaphors. Imagine telling someone that your heart leapt for joy when you saw them coming. If they have no experience outside of the literal realm, they may start looking around their feet for a bloody organ bouncing around in the grass.

English uses very little of the mouth. We blow air out through our lips, puff out our cheeks, touch our tongue to the roof of our mouths but we tend to use so little of it. Other languages, like Russian, use all of those and add different “depths” of the mouth and throat to create their sounds. Some, like the fascinating Khoison family of tongues from Africa even feature pops and clicks. We have a couple of equivalents in English—you’ve probably heard it as “tsk-tsk” or when someone “clucks” their tongue.

And finally, some of the translations can be… funny… when brought over into English and vice versa. A “Nova” was a car model that didn’t do well in Spanish-speaking countries because, while it’s an astrological term in English, in Spanish it translates to “no-go.” And some names are pronounced the same way as some Russian terms. I’m not sure “The Queen of Country” would want to be known as “Fish” McEntire, and that jedi-in-training would be far less heroic if he’d been known as “Onion Skywalker.”

*Title subject to change