Wednesday, 23 March 2016

On Language

There are three schools of thought regarding languages in fantasy or SF settings. These schools of thought are sort of implicit, in the sense that English writers - like most English speakers - tend not to actually think about language very much. They are as follows:

1. The pseudo-philological school. These are those such as MAR Barker and JRR Tolkien, for whom constructing coherent languages is an enjoyable hobby and actually probably the main attraction for them in the genre of fantasy. This is by far the smallest. 

2. The instrumentalist school. This is the use of language and linguistics to achieve fictional goals. One example is China Mieville's Embassytown, in which an alien language which requires being able to say two things at once and living people to act out similes is a sort of plot device for weird stuff to happen. Another is the Star Trek: TNG episode "Darmok", in which an alien race is discovered who can only communicate using metaphor - again as an interesting plot point. 

3. The aesthetic school. This is the largest, and comprises the great majority of fantasy writers, who simply make up words as and when they need to because they sound good. An example of this is George RR Martin, who invented a "Dothraki" language in some notional sense (the language exists in the setting) but who just makes up Dothraki words when he needs them; they sound sort of suitable from an English-speaker's perspective for a culture of steppe-travelling nomads. Most fantasy languages are like this, and are typically conceptualised in quite a lazy way, so if there is a culture of people who live in small mutually antagonistic city-states the languages they speak will sound vaguely Italian; if there is a culture of people who live in hot exotic climes their languages will have weird clicks and apostrophes everywhere; if there is a culture of people who live in the desert their language will sound harsh and guttural; and if there is a culture of people who live somewhere cold their language will have lots of umlauts and feel vaguely Nordic. 

I've always been fascinated by languages, especially the rare ones. Different languages really are different ways of looking at the world. Perhaps the best and most striking example of this I know of is that the Japanese word for 'blue', aoi, also often is used to mean what an English person would call 'green'. I was amazed when I first moved to Japan and started learning Japanese, and realised that people actually referred to a grass lawn or a 'go' sign on a traffic light as being blue. This rather trivial example illustrates the depths of difference which exist from culture to culture, and what a tragedy it is when one of these unique ways of looking at the world disappears.

The variety of human languages is also pretty astounding. Listen to the sounds of these three people, speaking Ainu, O'odham and Scottish Gaelic respectively. Pay particular attention to the noises they are making. The variety is impressive, and what you will notice is the absolute poverty of imagination that there is in the English-speaking literary world when it comes to thinking about what potential fantasy languages might sound like. 






Yet it is also perhaps worth pointing out that there may be a fourth school of thought regarding languages which is even less well-acknowledged - it's not so much implicit as subconscious. And it's this: if, like Tolkien, you conceive of fantasy as being a kind of "legendarium", then it may be entirely appropriate to approach the construction of fantasy languages and words as being an exercise in communicating meaning rather than in being realistic. A good example of this is the use of words in Mythago Wood; I don't believe for a second that the words used in that book are at all accurate as examples of old Brythonic or whatever, but the word urscumug has a great ring to it as a word for a kind of hellish guardian monster of the forest. Similarly, I would say that the word orc has a certain feel to it for English speakers which is suggestive of what the word "orc" represents. Fantasy languages, in other words, have a role to play in creating a mood for their audience that is representative of what that audience understands "fantasy" to be.

It is suitable and appropriate, then, to think of fantasy words as having to communicate mood to the readership rather than making sense from a linguistic point of view. Yet the observation that there is a poverty of imagination there also holds true: if you want to be interesting and different, you could do a lot worse than listen to how people in other parts of the world (especially its more obscure corners) actually communicate with each other.

42 comments:

  1. "what you will notice is the absolute poverty of imagination that there is in the English-speaking literary world when it comes to thinking about what potential fantasy languages might sound like."

    I imagine that a lot of this is a result of the fact that they are using the written word to communicate.

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    1. You don't think about how words sound when you're reading them? Especially unusual or made up ones? Do you think there is no connection at all between how a word sounds and how it's written down?

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    2. I just mean that a writer in English has pretty conventionalized "sounding" rules already established for the letters he has to work with. So if we're talking about non-English sounds (like the ones you might hear in Ainu or Kwakiutl or whatever) it's difficult to explain them to the reader by simply making up a new word. You're just going to have an English speaking person pronounce the word using the normal sounds they use every day, but in an unusual order.

      E.g., the Gaelic-speaking person is going to make unusual (to me) sounds when you show him a string of letters. I'm just going to make normal American sounds.

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    3. So the challenge is to work around that. I feel a post coming on.

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    4. Vance would drop a footnote... ;)

      The worst is this route: "YOUR MORTAL TONGUES COULD NEVER PRONOUNCE MY TRUE NAME. YOU MAY CALL ME 'IZZY'."

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    5. I second what Ivan says. For me the string of letters "megyek" would convey a simple Hungarian word where the only "interesting" sound might be the palatal consonant in the middle. For an English person it's almost the same. Now, in my imagination it could actually sound very different (the "g" a voiceless velar fricative, the "y" a mix between an U and an I as in Swedish or Norwegian, and the "e" an open schwa).

      The challenging part is coming up with a string of letters that invokes a pronunciation close to the writer's imagination. For Hungarians, I'd probably write "mehhüök" (but they still wouldn't get the fricative part of the consonant), while for Americans I would go with "mecchüok".

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  2. School 5: Wants to do a detailed language because they loved Lord of the Rings, but isn't actually Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University.

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  3. I would point to the Book of the New Sun as subcategory of 4, or perhaps its own category. The unusual words in that book give a distinct character to the world while conveying a lot of depth to the themes of the series (sometimes.) Ridley Walker is a great book for learning about how language sounds, but it is a very difficult read and I would not be drawn to this technique on the regular.

    For my DMing I typically ignore other languages altogether. I feel like it is a very strange way to hide information from the characters. The idea of some genius elf knowing 8 languages does more to suspend my disbelief than his pointy ears and blasted tomfoolery. For me language barriers are (almost) always impediments to play, and it weirds me out a little how ubiquitous the use of *unspeakable* languages is in the hobby.

    I think about this a lot, natch.
    ~Rebus

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    1. I disagree. I think not understanding things and having to find a translator or another explanation is a great source of adventure and engagement with the setting.

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    2. Perhaps, but this doesn't really address the need for polylingual PCs (in fact it seems like a knock to them). I think the immersion is only as good as the modeled language, or the players buying into it. For instance, in the more obscure fiction by Vance he tends to write sentences comprised entirely of newly created Vancian words. At some juncture the flavor is lost; the five flavors numb the tongue. Given that you rarely say the names out loud, they become more symbolic than linguistic. I think slavish mimicry of JRR is the most pressing reason for the focus. Hence *unspeakable*, vs unreadable.

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    3. also Comprehend Languages is a LVL 1 spell.

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    4. Yeah, but who wastes a slot on Comprehend Languages? ;)

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    5. Apparently your players!

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  4. "you will notice is the absolute poverty of imagination that there is in the English-speaking literary world when it comes to thinking about what potential fantasy languages might sound like."

    " if you want to be interesting and different, you could do a lot worse than listen to how people in other parts of the world (especially its more obscure corners) actually communicate with each other."

    Why? Writers are trying to communicate with their readers. Mimicking obscure languages for the sake of it, beyond establishing coherent proper nouns, is affectation or indulgence, much like a SF writer getting carried away with his understanding of the maths-physics of the universe and leaving his lay readers in the dark.

    No matter the gobble-de-gook far-away phonetics of a real or simulated language the expressed content is actually "How are you?" or "I'm thirsty." If the idea is just to alienate the reader with foreign sounds captured in our local phonetics I don't see why this needs to be sophisticated or accurate.

    It is aesthetically pleasing to be consistent in inventing proper nouns, particularly for a student of language like yourself, but Tolkien does not overshadow Vance, Dunsany or CA Smith in inventing consistent atmospheric proper nouns. I think the majority of fantasy and SF writers fail in that responsibility but it is a failure of style and poetry in their own language and dabbling in outre phonetics is no remedy.

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    1. I think this sort of attitude is common, but inexplicable. Fantasy and SF, as genres, thrive on doing new, imaginative, and creative things. An SF writer who invents some new technology which seems to work within the bounds of real physics, or a fantasy writer who creates some amazing new world which seems to hang together coherently, are rightly praised. Yet when it comes to language: why bother? Let's be neanderthal about it - keep it cliched, keep it staid, don't dare be indulgent or affected.... Why?

      It's interesting that you seem to suggest the invention of a set of proper nouns that is consistent is a simple thing to achieve, but it really isn't. That's what makes Tolkien so special. He does completely overshadow writers like Vance, Dunsany and CA Smith in that respect and his world is a million times more believable and interesting as a result. The words he invented are part of a consistent milieu; the words Vance or Dunsany create are nonsense words thrown in as an afterthought. It just so happens that I recently finished reading Vance's City of the Chasch. It is a really great book and I loved it, but the one bum note for me was the proper nouns - Vance, like a lot of fantasy writers, has a complete tin ear for them. There is no consistency at all, but worse, they are full of English phonemes and spelling conventions that immediately make them stand out as being decidedly unalien. Their use is directly antithetical to the goal of creating a believable and interesting alien society. "Phung" and "pnume" are classical examples of this - these are English language nonsense words, not believable proper nouns from another world.

      Clark Ashton Smith is the worst example of all to use, because his proper nouns are not only inconsistent, they are also often unpronounceable gibberish, giving the absolute worst of both worlds: lack of realism and difficulty of use. Yethlyreom? Xylac? Mmatmuor? You're telling me those proper nouns achieve anything other than the reader rolling his eyes?

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    2. 1- "Yet when it comes to language: why bother? Let's be neanderthal about it - keep it cliched, keep it staid, don't dare be indulgent or affected.... Why?"

      This doesn't follow at all from anything I said. I am delighted to read writers who are stylish, inventive and poetic *with their own language*. You were *explicitly* talking about invented languages. So I say again, If the idea is just to alienate the reader with foreign sounds captured in our local phonetics I don't see why this needs to be sophisticated or accurate. Beyond proper nouns what is the point if the reader won't understand it?

      So, what I have quoted you saying above is irrelevant and poor comprehension on your part.

      2- You say, "It's interesting that you seem to suggest the invention of a set of proper nouns that is consistent is a simple thing to achieve,"

      I said above, " I think the majority of fantasy and SF writers fail in that responsibility".

      Deciding which of Tolkien in LotR or Vance in the Dying Earth invent proper nouns having a more poetic evocative effect is entirely subjective. You could find plenty of people who read more widely and deeply than you who prefer Vance to Tolkien for the poetry of his invention. I place the four authors I named in the same bracket.

      3- "Clark Ashton Smith is the worst example of all to use, because his proper nouns are not only inconsistent, they are also often unpronounceable gibberish"

      In your original post *you* are the one calling for obscure gibberish sounds. CA Smith, since he did not produce audio books is simply trying to convey strangeness through spelling. For me he succeeds and at times creates ironic and amusing names that make Tolkien's scheme seem stiff. I don't have any difficulty creating pronunciation for the words you chose at reading speed.

      How can you tell if his place names are consistent if he only uses a handful of names for each language within certain time period? There is enough data to make a judgement.

      In summary I think you have confused yourself and don't really know what point you set out to make. You are fond of Japanese. Fine. You like odd sounding speech. Fine. You think you could invent more interesting proper nouns than Vance or Smith. No you could not. Nor do you know how to go about doing it well because it is a skill of a good fiction writer.

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    3. typo----"There is *not* enough data to make a judgement. "

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    4. What are you on about? I'm not calling for "obscure gibberish sounds" - actual real languages are hardly sources of "obscure gibberish sounds", are they? I'm calling for a broader awareness of what it means to create a coherent sounding other language that doesn't sound like the efforts of an English speaker to sound foreign. Which is what the work of Vance and CA Smith are. You may say that the poetic evocative effect of the words used is entirely subjective - which is true - but that's a bit like saying that poetry itself is subjective. Yes, it is, but that doesn't preclude judgement, does it? Any doggerel I produce isn't going to be as good as Keats at his best, despite the fact that these things are ultimately "subjective".

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    5. Vance in particular usually ties his stuff back to Planet Earth, this is a bit of a hand waive but might excuse the shared phonemes. Planet of Adventure is pretty rad but all is not as it seems...

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    6. I have to totally disagree with your assessment of Vance - if anything he falls into your fourth school. I don't know of any fantasy author who so often finds evocative names for thing, places and characters without any sort of actual system in place (such as an invented language) to do so.

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    7. I don't really agree. He's nowhere near as bad as some, and Clark Ashton Smith is really among the worst, but he's not great. Think about "phung" as a name for a race. It's contingent on the idiosyncratic English/French use of "ph" and also the "-ng" ending which is quite common in English words but rare in other languages. That's what I mean when I say Vance's words are nonsense English words rather than convincing alien-sounding ones.

      I'm not having a go at him for this - I love Vance's books and coming up with convincing sounding alien languages which do not alienate the reader is hard. But still.

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    8. "Any doggerel I produce isn't going to be as good as Keats at his best"

      No matter how many times I try to draw a distinction between writing in an invented language and inventing proper nouns you ignore it. The fact that you can't get that straight in your head makes conversation with you on this topic worthless.

      Vance, Smith and the handful of great fantasy writers *never* did the former because it is a pointless exercise to alienate the reader with sentences in gibberish no matter how sophisticated. Keats is irrelevant because we are not discussing how good the authors use of English is. Vance and Smith are in the same bracket as Tolkien for that too which is sub literary in the great scheme of things.

      We are just talking about invented proper nouns not languages and Vance & Smith only had to invent a handful that would be tied to any specific language, and that requires art not science.

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    9. I'm not sure why this is difficult to understand. Creating a coherent set of proper nouns requires thinking about the entire language they come from. That doesn't mean you have to create an entire language. It just means thinking about things properly and doing justice to the fact that words come from languages and have context. They aren't just conglomerations of English language nonsense words.

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    10. Nothing you say is difficult to understand. Your 'insight' is a cliche every pre-teen reading Tolkien discovers for himself. Readers who grow beyond Tolkien and read deeply in literature know that a principle that served Tolkien well in his obsessive focus on elves is irrelevant to writers *who are not imitating Tolkien*. Better fantasy genre writers than Tolkien did not need such a scheme. They were artists not pedants. Look, you are not someone who reads literature and your understanding of language is at the level of someone who reads fantasy rpg books which bear little relation to even the sub literary genre of fantasy fiction.

      I also realize now that you just have rpg product to sell. Good luck with that.

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    11. I was with you until you knocked "Phung" -- now you're dead to me.

      The Phung is one of the most fascinatingly evocative things ever (I don't remember how much it features in Chasch). It's name is perfect. It would not have worked if it was called a Mantoid or a Xiap'tolelk.

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    12. Kent, I spent much of the last week reading a book by Javier Marias. It didn't even have chapter headings and was reviewed in The Guardian and everything. I've got a Murakami book on my bedside cabinet right now. You don't want to get into a pissing contest with me about literature boy. I'll end you faster than you can say "John Dos Passos".

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    13. Ivan, the Phung are a great concept so far, so don't ruin things for me. Xiap'tolelk is better than something CA Smith would have come up with, though.

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    14. That is not literature, friend, it is hipster fad popular-culture shite. But you read what you are capable of reading.

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    15. I'm confused - this discussion also started with me saying I'd also recently finished a book by Vance. So am I capable of reading literature or not? I can't help but feel you're not really thinking things through.

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    16. 'So am I capable of reading literature or not?'

      No, ha ha! Vance it not literary by a long shot.

      You don't know what literature is because you have no perspective or compass on who the great writers are. That is because you don't read them, and *that* is because you don't enjoy reading them. All of which undermines your credibility to make subjective judgements a neutral would pay attention to.

      Don't be alarmed or disheartened. People who read literature are vanishingly rare. Hell, people who read hip populist muck are rare enough, that might be the source of your easy self-satisfaction.

      Having said that I wouldn't read your blog if I didn't think you were one of the few interesting rpg bloggers but you do realize I am looking down on you, and I read your posts as a favour to you so I can elevate your understanding from time to time.

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    17. How do I know that I don't enjoy reading them if I don't read them? You're getting confused again.

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    18. So in your life you've never done anything that you didn't enjoy?

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    19. Yes - trying to get a sensible comment out of you is something which springs to mind.

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    20. I think you live in Liverpool, or nearabouts, and I imagine you go for beers in your local, English culture not being much different to Irish. I can't help wondering how similar or different our conversation would be in person. Perhaps the same, perhaps different. 'Fuck off cunt' & tears, or, winks and laughter. But always admiration for my manly body and an unmistakable golden age Hollywood style.

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    21. I think I would be very polite with you because I like you. In fact I admire you because you don't automatically delete my comments. I think you are intellectually tough. But I think I would be excoriating with your rpg pals, who strike me as birdlike or childlike in their timidity, and who might be sitting beside you.

      Intellectual toughness is an admirable trait and you have it, ' cos you're English. I LOVE rugby and English lads are mentally very tough while Irish lads are not as tough.

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  5. "Similarly, I would say that the word orc has a certain feel to it for English speakers which is suggestive of what the word "orc" represents."

    It certainly does, and I think it's probably part of why some monsters (and some names for monsters) catch on better than others. 'Orc' sounds like a guttural, grunted command. 'Ilithid' sounds like a sudden squirming and snapping of tentacles through slime. The sound of 'Drow' opens up grandly and then dies away into a echoing whisper like a sound heard underground, evoking words like 'cowl' and 'drown' and 'prowl' in the process: worthy of note, I think, that it was 'Drow' rather than 'Trow' that Gygax picked, even though the two are used interchangeably to mean 'bad fairy' in the original Shetland folklore. ('Trow' would evoke 'trowel' and 'trowth', instead.) Then look at some of the ones which never caught on... Xvart. Heucuva. Perfectly decent monsters in their way; but, for an Anglophone audience, the names do not do them any favours!

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    1. Yeah, "Drow" and "Illithid" are great monster names. I also like "Githyanki" and "Cthulhu". "Cthulhu" is inspired, although HP Lovecraft is generally of the CA Smith "let's just throw some random sounds together" school of naming.

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  6. Interesting. In support of your point on "orc", I'd point to the fact that the word has drifted into English several times over the centuries. So we have Beowulf's "orcneas" and, elsewhere in Old English, "orcthyrs". And then we have the unrelated sea monster ("orc" or "orca") and the 17th-century "orke", from Italian "orco", I think. Finally, Tolkien derives "orc" from "orcneas" for his goblins and it comes into the language permanently. Collectively, these imply that the word odes indeed have a monstrous feel for English speakers.

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    1. Tolkien had some weird beliefs about that sort of thing - he actually thought that your ethnic background and the place you came from gave you a kind of innate feel for certain words and sounds, if I recall correctly.

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  7. I look at fantasy languages for protindoeuropean roots - particularly names. Khal (kal: cup) Drogo (Driug: Dry).

    Every so often developers cheat and fall back on some obscure language or name.

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  8. To flee war, to protect the lives of themselves and their families.
    Pou Games , Dora games , K7x , Toon Games , Y8 , K6x , Yoob Juegos

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