A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 4

by syaffolee

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Sometimes, no matter how many pictures you take, they all come out blurry. Or some random person’s head is in the way. Nonetheless, I have notes from the panel on constructed languages called “Creating Realistic Languages.” The panelists were Diana Pharaoh Francis, James Glass, and George R. R. Martin. (AQ is an audience question.)

JG: Is it really a requirement to make up a language in fantasy and science fiction?

GRRM: It’s not required. You might need a new language in a fantasy or ancient setting or in a world where it makes sense because the people speak multiple languages. Usually you render the main language as English for the reader. Tolkien set up different languages for us to follow by saying something like, “This rock is called Weathertop, but in Elvish it’s this and Dwarvish it’s that, etc.” But I have a problem coming up with one name let alone five names for every damn rock. Tolkien was just showing off. It’s like an iceberg. Nine-tenths of his work was below the surface. But for the rest of us, we give the illusion that we’ve created a language–it’s more like ice cubes on a rack. I once had a fan who asked me for a dictionary on High Valyrian. But I had only made up six words. In Game of Thrones, we hired a language creation expert to make it up. He was part of an entire language creation society.

DPF: That’s called “passing the buck”! You want consistency of language. Language helps create the world, so it must be developed in conjunction with the world. One easy way is to use a language that already exists. In my work, I’ve used Latvian and Estonian. Do you really need to have a foreign language in your work? No. But do readers expect you to? Yes.

JG: In science fiction, I never made up a language. But I have used French and German. You can also use English inflection–different formalities can be used to simulate another language like Chinese. If you want to create a language, how do you go about it?

DPF: If you have countries side by side, they should have similar languages because of crossover. They should share language commonalities.

GRRM: You have to consider: How do you render the language on the written page? Does the viewpoint character understand the language? If the character already understands French, then you can render it in English. If not, keep it in the original language. This will vary if you have different viewpoint characters with various abilities to understand language. And how does this translate to screen? A lot is about ear. Elvish sounds different than Dwarvish.

JG: You can describe the sound of the language. For instance, with Polish and Russian, you can say one sounds softer than the other and then translate it to English.

DPF: I agree.

JG: What do you think establishes language to match culture?

GRRM: Language not only fits the culture, but it also shapes it. In science fiction, different languages shape culture. See Jack Vance and Samuel R. Delany. If there is no word for one thing, then that thing does not exist in that culture. For example, there are many Eskimo words for snow so they can recognize many different types of snow. If a language has no word for thank you, then that culture has no concept for it.

JG: It’s the same for a jungle culture…

DPF: Language also reveals religion. How people swear and curse reflects culture. What’s blasphemous and taboo in that culture and why? Culturally, you expect that certain classes of people can or cannot say certain things.

GRRM: In Deadwood, David Milch determined that the characters didn’t speak like those in other westerns. Thieves and criminals were foul-mouthed, so he wanted to capture this in speech. But during the Victorian era, the worst that was used was “hell” or “damn”. So if he reproduced this for the modern audience, it didn’t seem unusual. So the writer had to ratchet up the speech to capture the flavor of the time rather than go for accuracy. In other words, he had to convey the feeling of accuracy by being inaccurate.

JG: What about the reverse: what does culture censor? For example, making a comment about someone’s dress is punishable by death.

DPF: In my Crosspointe novels, people live by the customs and by what people are willing to do or not do. There’s lingo, like on a sailing ship or what you do for a living. Here, we have the terms soda, coke, and pop. Dialects tell where you came from and the economic situation. Language also builds the world through syntax and word order. Readers tend to hate arbitrary apostrophes in names.

JG: Readers also hate words that are not pronounceable.

DPF: I once found an angel name in real folklore and used it in a story. But apparently no reader can pronounce it. Instead, they call my character “Tootsie Roll.”

GRRM: I don’t use any long names, but I still get letters from fans about pronunciation. In LeGuin’s Earthsea books, she’s very particular about the pronunciation of “Ged”. It’s “Ged” [hard “g”] not “Jed”.

DPF: Also “Shannara” by Terry Goodkind.

JG: What if the language isn’t spoken or written?

GRRM: In The Long Price series by Daniel Abraham, verbal language is supplemented with gestures and poses. There’s a pose of submissiveness that the character takes while saying “sorry.” But he doesn’t describe any of the poses! What does the pose “I don’t give a shit?” look like? Nonverbal speech looks good in prose, but does it look good on screen?

DPF: That’s like manners during the Victorian era. When you bowed, how did you bow? There were different bows for insults, asking for marriage, etc. It’s called a physical language.

JG: Chinese is a tonal language. In a sci-fi story where tone is used, the language is sung rather than spoken.

DPF: Or the African Click language. Another example of tone is how you say it. For instance the phrase “bless your heart” can be meant as an insult. It’s not so friendly. The speaker can kill with words without you knowing it.

GRRM: In Donnie Brasco, “fuggedaboutit” has many different meanings.

JG: What about other means of communication? Like color. What’s the color of pain? Is there nonverbal language in fantasy?

DPF: There are gestures. For instance, our gesture for “okay” actually means “flicking people off” in Brazil. The word “bloody” doesn’t mean much to us, but it’s a pretty bad word in the UK.

JG: What if you were forced to make up a complete language like Klingon? How would you go about making up the words and grammar?

DPF: When I was getting my Ph.D. in lit theory, I learned that language is arbitrary. You just assign a name to something. You make words up.

GRRM: It’s a daunting task. I would hire someone to do it. I would go back to the roots. Is it fantasy or science fiction? Who are the people? What is the culture? What type of people are they? What are their vocal capabilities? What’s the technological level? However, you can’t just call a rabbit a “snerp” and say it’s science fiction. That’s not a language but a code.

JG: For grammar, I would just follow the grammar in a modern language. But there would be words missing because in some cultures there would be no concept for certain things due to differences in environment.

GRRM: You also need to consider sexual codes and habits. Asimov had three sexes in one of his stories. So what pronouns could be used? Another example is LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. Language also tells us about the sexual attitudes of that society. For instance “waiter” and “waitress”–“waitress” and words like it were discarded after the feminist movement.

DPF: It also tells us about how people think about race. Like “black” and “African-American.”

AQ: In speculative fiction, how much thought is put in on the change of language over time? Language changes over thousands of years and different time periods.

DPF: Look at England. Over a time of a thousand years, there is a considerable difference. Some people keep some words the same as the past, but others changed. Words enter the language due to religion, technology, and physical changes.

GRRM: Language changes over time, but some languages change faster than others. If you compare Portuguese in Portugal and Brazilian Portuguese, it’s like Victorian English and modern English. But Spanish is pretty much the same everywhere. Except in Barcelona. But you have to cheat about some things or your book will end up being more about the language than the story. That’s why in science fiction there’s the universal translator.

JG: Groups of languages can also combine into one so that only one language is left. There are different evolutionary paths for language. Even just by adding new words for technology, language gets more complex as time goes on.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 5, which is on the query letter.