Friday, 10 July 2009

Fin de XXe Siècle Bastardising Geekism and the Poor Apostrophe

I'm reading House of Chains, one of Steven Erikson's 'Malazan Book of the Fallen' saga. (It's the first one I've read but happens to be the fourth in the series. I chose it more or less at random; my English bookshop in Tokyo has a haphazard approach to stocking fantasy series in any sort of order.) It's... a qualified 'good'. I loved the first 200 pages or so, which was a fine romp of purely distilled ultraviolence and general mayhem. But as it's gone on it has become insanely complicated and over-elaborate, and the tone of the writing has become increasingly overwrought and precious. It's gripping, but has none of the emotional investment of, say, A Song of Ice and Fire.

Two things chiefly interest me about it:

1) It's very much a product of that nameless phenomenon which we'll call for the sake of argument "Fin de XXe Siècle Bastardising Geekism". What I mean by this is the tendency for late 20th/early 21st century geek culture to grab references from genre fiction, films, comics (Western and Japanese), computer games, TV series, D&D and real-world mythology, then mash them all together into an incoherent and unholy mix, and let it loose on an unsuspecting world.

House of Chains is a classic example. The characters all sound like Conan when they talk; they fight like the far-too-big-sword-wielding waifs of the Final Fantasy series of video games; many are vaguely reminiscent of figures from Greek and Norse myth; they are all 'teh awesome' to some degree; most of the female characters are of the "I can fight just as well as a man and also I'm really hot like Buffy" variety; it has that obsession with the minutiae of the setting which categorises all geek pursuits from Star Trek to Dragon Ball Z and which sometimes feels like stamp collecting; there is no cultural coherence to the setting, but elements of European, Mesoamerican and Asian cultures seem to have been thrown together in an ad hoc manner to create something altogether mongrel; there is no real moral compass except for a vague understanding that the 'heroes' aren't quite as nasty as the villains (for example, the 'heroes' might kill innocent people at random, but hey, at least they don't perform genital mutilation on pre-teen girls).

Which isn't to say it isn't an enjoyable read - rather, I would say it is amusingly representative of a noticeable cultural trend. You can see this trend, of course, in D&D; most of the above remarks about 'The Malazan Book of the Fallen' seem like a great fit for the general ethos of 4e (though of course not all 4e campaigns), and I wasn't at all surprised to find out that the series is all based on a long-running GURPS Fantasy campaign that Erikson participated in.

2) Erikson is described in the liner notes as a man who spent "nearly" twenty years as an archaeologist and anthropologist. What he certainly doesn't seem to be is a linguist.

Mark Rosenfelder makes the interesting point in his language construction kit that:

If you don't know another language well, you're pretty much doomed to produce ciphers of English...If all you know is English, you'll tend to duplicate the structure and idioms of the English vocabulary....

Non-linguists will often start with the alphabet and add a few apostrophes and diacritical marks. The results are likely to be something that looks too much like English, has many more sounds than necessary, and which even the author doesn't know how to pronounce.

To elaborate: monolingual people by definition don't have a conception of how speakers of other languages produce sound. Their experience and knowledge of language is limited to their own. This is perfectly fine and natural, but it means that if they ever try to come up with new words and new languages, they have a dearth of knowledge from which to draw, and their creations have a consequent dearth of interest. This remark could almost have been tailor written for the world of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Because for all of the much-trumpeted depth of its setting it is shockingly English in its vocabulary and lexicon. The place and character names just don't sound credible; they are the product of an English speaker trying to sound exotic, not of a different tongue.

Many fantasy authors are well aware of this problem and try to compensate in various ways. Erikson is no exception. In his case it has led to two things:

a) Lazy shorthand references to the real world. For example, an area of the Malazan world is called "Darujistan". It's vaguely Central Asian in flavour and a bit desert-y and exotic, so hey, stick -stan on the end and everybody gets that flavour immediately, right? Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Waziristan, Darujistan... Except here's the thing. The suffix -stan comes from a real world language or group of languages (the Indo-Aryan group). The suffix would therefore hardly exist in the world of the Malazan Book of the Fallen as a means of identifying a place or region, unless the author would have us believe that Indo-Aryan languages are spoken there. So it doesn't make any internal sense.

Now, I can hear the argument already forming on somebody's lips: Who cares? Because although this lazy shorthand (-stan = desert-y Central Asian place, so there's no need to bother coming up with a proper flavour for it) doesn't make sense, at least it works for the English-speaking reader. They get the drift, and that's all that matters. Well yes, I'd agree, except that when reading this series one gets the overriding sense that both publisher and author seem to be playing up the sheer depth and quality of the feat of world building that the books represent. If you're going to take that angle you'd damn well better follow up on it by actually producing a great feat of world building. Using "-stan" to represent generic desert-y Central Asian place doesn't cut it.

b) Abuse of the apostrophe. N'ow, th's 'is a com'mon pheno'men'n in much crappy fantasy lit, frequently encountered whenever an author is trying to make names seem exotic. But by Christ does Steven Erikson use it a lot. T'lan Imass. 'Siballe. L'oric. Sha'ik. Ah, the words just roll of the tongue don't they? Don't they? No, they fucking don't. They are a pain in the arse to read, an even worse pain in the arse to try to imagine the sound of (how in God's name does one prounounce 'Siballe and how is it different from Siballe?), and a constant annoyance which trips up the flow of the writing.

The abused apostrophe is the last resort of the English monolingual who is trying to create exotic sounds. Another lazy shorthand. I find it unusual, however, not to say astounding, that a qualified anthropologist would use it. The one thing you would expect from such a person would be a credible looking language, right?

In any case, this is not to say that the reading experience is not enjoyable. House of Chains is a genuine page-turner. It's also a cultural artefact which in a hundred years will I'm sure be seen as exemplary of certain trends within the arts during our era. What it isn't is a "a fantasy world as rich and detailed as any you're likely to encounter", which is what it says on the tin.


  1. Good post.

    In my younger days, I liked this kind of thing. Now I seem to be drawn to more medieval analogues like WFRP. I'm done pretending that this is a fantasy world, just go ahead and make it obvious it's an Earth clone.


  2. I agree in general, but would say that:

    1). Creating special characters in Windows isn't the easiest thing in the world to do (possibly easier with all of the Font creation software on the Mac platform).

    2). Finding existing marks beyond those on a standard Western keyboard within a given font (and making certain the font transfers correctly --perhaps something more bedevilling prior to the .pdf format) is only slightly easier than (1) above.

    3). Reading Tsolyani, Livyani, or the other three human languages of TEkumel (see, where the f is that damned Accent mark?) is something very few fantasy readers are willing to do simply to then try and keep track of the character amid --albeit genuinely 'real' synthlang-- the sea of other 'weird' names.

    4). I am curious which works by which authors you feel do a better job of this sort of thing. I'd be interested. Professor Barker's CV is his /carte blanche/ (no < '/' > allowed on this blog?) to engage in this sort of linguistic shenanigans, but I can't say whether his fiction-writing is of the same quality as his Linguistics.

    5). Sounds like the GURPS setting was Yrth, where people from across time and the globe get poofed to this other world, and there, hybridise their cultures (/a la/ Riverworld) and progress from there.

    6). This space intentionally left blank.


  3. Olethros: I agree. I either want something totally mind blowingly creative (Tekumel) or close to the real world (Dragon Warriors, Warhammer World). Don't give me this half-cocked affair! ;)

    Timeshadows: 1) I don't want to give the impression it's about creating or using special characters. It's about knowing how non-English and non-Indo-European languages sound and fit together. Most fantasy languages tend to use the lexicography of English, which means that even though the words have no meaning in our language, they resemble it. As Rosenfelder says, it's the tendency towards just taking the sounds found in English, maybe throwing in some random apostophes, using that structure to make up unusual sounding words, and thinking that's enough. It isn't.

    2) See above.

    3) That sounds a bit like the common complaint that "I can't watch subtitled films" or "I can't read books translated from other languages". It may be elitist of me to say so but I have almost no patience for that kind of thing, because I'm sure 90% of it is laziness. Of course anybody who can read can watch a subtitled film if they put their mind to it. Ditto getting to grips with Tekumel. (Obviously there's a point at which weirdness becomes weirdness for the sake of it, but Tekumel never seemed like that to me.)

    4) Tolkien obviously. You could also throw in Marc Orkrand (sp?) who invented Klingon. I've not read any of the Tekumel novels, but I'd like to. There's also the woman who wrote The Sparrow, whose name I forget. Aside from those it's tough to think of any. The obvious reason is that English speakers tend not to learn foreign languages, or if they do they tend to be related ones (French, Spanish). They therefore have a poverty of experience to draw from. Tolkien and Barker were a different kettle of fish, being trained linguists.

    5) No, I'm pretty sure it's his own homebrew setting. He and his friend created it for their game from scratch, from what I understand.

  4. Great review!
    I slogged through the first Erikson book (Gardens of the Moon, Gardens on the Moon) and my recurring frustration was that *it just didn't pay*. It didn't pay to remember the characters' names or make personality assumptions. It didn't pay to conjure a backdrop based on, like you say, a few central Asian toeholds. It kinda didn't even pay to look at the map on page one.
    The only author/reader collusion with a payoff happened when I began imagining fight scenes as anime: slow tracking shots with blur pans, rack focus on held cels, etc. But I hate that shit.

  5. crazyred: That's a great comment. I absolutely agree, except that I feel there was some emotional payoff in this volume but only for one character and only for the first 200 pages (of the 1000 or so). I was genuinely invested in the opening portion because the focus character for that section seemed very real and interesting. The rest of the characters in the book however just seem like ciphers and I couldn't really care less what happens to them, beyond the point of wanting to know what happens over the course of the plot.

    I'm totally with you on the fight scenes. Erikson manages the very strange trick of somehow writing anime when it comes to the combat; I can't make up my mind whether it's a special talent or really annoying.

  6. Interesting points, Noisms! I haven't read this but can imagine all the things you describe. In response to your points:

    1) sounds like Exalted, which is great fun shlock fantasy role-playing but maybe not so great for a "serious" novel

    2) I'm inclined to agree with you about the language construction but I would add that a) being multilingual is not enough - you also have to be thorough and clever, and b) being bilingual in related languages and clever may also not be enough - Tolkien's elvish is very nice but it does strike me as being very Old English (I think this is pretty accepted). Which happens to be the language he studied. This was probably deliberate - fuck knows if I was so nerdy as to create my own language I would want to nail it onto something existing. And OE is a very nice language to read. But alternatively he may just have not been able to triangulate a third language. Surely some smart-arsed Indian who knows 88 languages has done this to its fullest extent?

    and finally...

    2b) the abused apostrophe! How do you pronounce it in your head? When I see an apostrophe in a word (like, say, "No'isms") I imagine a little tiny pause, but not a popping sound. At the beginning of a word I imagine an almost-not-there T, so "'Noisms" would be like almost "Tnoisms".

    What do you guys imagine when you see the abused apostrophe? It almost never has a pronunciation guide, and it's inevitably easier to read it in your head than just look at it... so how do you read it?

  7. Thanks for the interesting take, Noisms. I've been debating reading Erikson's series for a while but have stayed away from it because (and this sounds incredibly shallow): it's too damned long. There's too much to read out there for me to slog through 1,000 page novels unless there's a great payoff. Based on what you've written here it sounds like I'll probably be avoiding these... but keep us posted if they get any better.

    By the way, weren't you going to take a crack at creating your own fantasy language?

  8. Jeebus how I hate that apostrophe!

    I'm tempted to read this book just to find out what an anime fight scene 'reads' like, but I think I would end up feeling entertained yet also deeply disgusted.

    Maybe they can get fantasy terms from Blogger word verification. Mine: "gonada". Sounds like a grand empire to me.

  9. faustusnotes: 1) Yes, Exalted is another fine example of Fin de XXe Siecle Bastardising Geekism.

    2) Yes, you're right. Although Tolkien more or less explicitly wanted to create an Old English myth cycle, so I suppose it's fair for the Elven language to have that sort of sound. To my mind it's equal parts Old English and Welsh - Tolkien loved Welsh.

    2b) The abused apostrophe. Yeah, I suppose I read it as a glottal stop, a bit like you suggest - that tiny pause. As the first character in a word I really have no idea, and your reading of it seems to make more sense than I could come up with.

    When people write Japanese in romaji they sometimes use the apostrope to signify dropped vowel sounds, as in shite iru becoming shite'ru when said casually. There's no audible pause, just a dropped sound. So it might be that, too. Like our very own can't, in a way.

    Brian: They are very long. That had dissuaded me too, but I had a long train trip on Monday and Wednesday this week and thought I needed something that I'd be sure would last the whole length of the journey!

    It's definitely way above the average for this sort of epic high fantasy fare, so I wouldn't want to dissuade you entirely. It's all a question of whether you can bite your lip and ignore the flaws. It isn't a patch on A Song of Ice and Fire and suffers by the comparisons made between it and that series, but it's an enjoyable read. Clunking dialogue is its worst problem.

    I was and am creating my own fantasy language, in as much as I've come up with its sounds and structure. The bare bones, basically. I haven't had much time unfortunately.

  10. K. Bailey: Sorry, just missed your comment there. Depends how you like your fight scenes. I like them realistic and brutal. George R. R. Martin's are perfect for this - Tad Williams isn't bad either.

    Erikson's are definitely more fantastical. Blokes with huge swords made out of flint which can chop two heads off in one blow, that sort of thing. Very very anime.

    "Gonada" - an ancient empire or slang for particularly large male genitalia?

  11. Absolutely spot on boss. I started noticing this many moons ago and it lead me to be very conscious of how I named my RPG characters and placenames. I tend to go for very classical english or germanic names, with maybe just a little twist (like Johatz) because i found myself using way to many "ae"s and "'"s

  12. Noisms, I reckon I read the comma a bit like the chiisai tsu, giving a brief pause/accentuation to the following consonant. So I probably also read it like the dropped i in casual Japanese, because when I use those phrases I do kind of feel like there's a tiny pause or wobble in the pronunciation as if the i was almost there but wasn't.

    Which just goes to show how correct your theory probably is, that the abused apostrophe is just a way for monolingual authors to create an incoherent mishmash of pronunciations.

  13. Good post. The one Malazan book I read seemed to have a nice rush of ideas, but fail down in the ways you sight--there was no feeling of coherent "culture" in any of the societies and the naming is hardly evocative (unless it wears its derivation on its sleeve).

    May I suggest R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy, and the just started Aspect-Emperor series, and examples of world-building done well, if you haven't read them.

  14. I've heard of Bakker but not read any of his stuff. I'll give it a whirl.

  15. The ' is frequently used as a glottal stop. In the Vrun-based languages of my milieu, it serves a grammatical function of linking to separate thoughts. In the Durnish languages, a period is used in its stead, as in:

    Shr.d, meaning, among other things, _[the] Burden |and| [the] Bearer_

    This, then, goes back to my point that diacritical marks not being readily available to writers or publishers, and then requiring an entire explanation in a glossary or lexicon is often passed over in favour of the simple reading.

    I cannot comment on any other use, especially the ' before a word.

  16. How does one pronounce "Shr.d"?

    A glottal stop is a phoneme like any other; out of interest do the other phonemes in these languages have meanings beyond just being sounds? Or are you saying that the glottal stop just corresponds to the conjunction "and"?

  17. How would you pronounce it?
    --I'll give you an opportunity before telling you.

    The Vrun Alphabetic Language system is a close-knit group derived from a central source, akin to the Proto-Indo-European/-Aryan, but also resembles the central repository of characters used by an entire continent although the dialects place varying emphasis upon interpretations, much like the (and here, I must defer to your experience) 'Kanji' script interpreted vocally by different speaking groups, but understood (in general) in written form.

    Each letter in Vrun is a broad-pallet pictogram, and are read in pairs to form the structure of words. The inclusion of the ' between letters is a link between to ideas, as is the . in the Durnish languages.

    For example: Qon Qol Kesh: 'I Am Wisdom's Reflection, [a] Trickster'
    --While the following Durnish construction:

    Duhen Shes Wied’am , means:

    Least-Duty, Wrought Spirits, Abiding: Freewill Dedicants
    Abiding Spirit, Least Wrought, Duty: Guardians of Exile

    Subtle-Work, Subtle-Spirit: Blessed
    Subtle-Spirit, Working-Subtlty: Efficatious

    Very-Least-Breath, Spirit-Duty, Heavenward Journey: Dedicated [even to the] Death
    First-Journey, -Dutiful-Spirit, Dust-wind: Discorporating and Returning to Origin

    As in all of the major languages on Urutsk need to be understood from both Right to left, as well as Left to Right to apprehend the full meaning of the words.

    Vrun characters are as ubiquitous as Roman characters are in our world, but there are numerous other scripts and forms, each with different rules of construction.

    Here are two words in Yirinn:

    Iirkys Lemharn:

    High Ice, Device, Less-than Least Subtlety
    My People's, Road

    The first Railway station, high atop a mountain.

    Nahzar Et’an:

    Remain Above, Work (Wise) Power, First Rank
    Spirit Above, --First Abiding

    The non-Euclidean dome which covers the arcology of Iirkys Lemharn.

    Western Isles Vrun is entirely separate from Continental and Marnharnnan Vrun, and is perhaps bes thought of as a sort of Ogham, although the WI Vrun have adopted the Vrun character-set for international acceptance, although the spoken language is entirely different.

    Other languages I have ben developing include:

    * Shaura: Spoken by the Tyrrhean Turili who share the south-east of the Vrun continent but are a significantly different ethnicity.

    * Lhoman: A sort of unified sub-continental language more akin to Thai than Urdu or the zillion others.

    * Abru: The spoken-only language of both the Kaukara of the southern Chaos Isles, as well as the Khark, long-settled in Lhoma.

    as well as other now dead languages, non-human languages, and AI code-sets.

  18. Oh, I forgot to add that Vrun is also a mathematical and 3D positional character set, and that children are taught the language in a black room with the characters painted on the four walls to aid in the child's apprehension of the positional characteristics of the language.

  19. Emotional investment of a Song of Ice and Fire? What emotional investment? All of the characters with any sort of morality die and all of the others you want to throttle because they are reminiscent of rabid pigs.

    Anyways... I agree with you on the overuse of an apostrophe. It can be a little disruptive, but those books aren't meant to be read aloud, so I don't mind so much.

    What is fantasy, exactly? I mean, I know what it is, but what makes fantasy fantasy? Personally, I prefer Erikson's type of fantasy because it's more 'fantastical,' unlike Martin. Erkison is more "Let's make it epic and complex, even if I don't know exactly what I'm doing." while Martin is "Ooh, let's make a living hell for my characters so that I can vent my emotional problems." Maybe I'm just drawn to different things than everybody else

  20. Quick nitpick at what faustusnotes said: Tolkien invented two distinct but related languages for the Elves, with the Finnish language being a major inspiration for the grammar. Finnish is of course an Uralic language unrelated to Indo-European. He also was familiar with over a dozen other Germanic and Romance languages including French, Latin, and Gothic,

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