That’s Not Even a Real Word! How I invent languages for my fiction

This week in the continuing (and penetrating) discussion of The Shadow of the Sun on her Week Two readalong post, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

You have used language throughout the book as a way to sew culture clash, create bonding, and swear creatively. How did you go about building the various languages into your story?

The master of the invented language, of course, was J.R.R. Tolkien. I am not fit to dust his dictionaries. But even for those of us whose artistic talent & impulses don’t run towards inventing languages, the development of language is a useful tool for fantasy & SF. Languages both arise from and reflect cultures: words and phrases so commonplace we don’t even hear them are profound indicators of our culture’s assumptions and norms. And the etymology and linguistic underpinnings of a language tell the story of where a culture comes from, what other cultures it has encountered, and what its problems and conflicts are.

You just made that up,
didn’t you?

Nope. A couple examples to get you started thinking about this:

Gender assumptions:

In English, we say “men and women”; where gender is mixed or uncertain, we use male words to cover all the unknowns. When we speak of both, we speak of males first–except when we’re being self-consciously courteous, as in “Ladies and gentlemen”, which embodies reasoning too convoluted to get into here. These habits reflect entrenched patriarchy. In The Heart of Darkness, the sequl to The Shadow of the Sun, some of the point-of-view characters I’m writing come from a matriarchal society. Maleness is not their linguistic default. The choices I make when my matriarchal characters speak about mixed or indefinite gender tell a story about their assumptions: right down to the fact that where my human characters say “priestess” to apply to a member of the Danaan clergy, the Danaan characters say “priest”. Because in their culture all priests are women, so there is no need to specify gender.

Swearing and Insults:

How we swear, what is considered profane or taboo, bespeaks our religious and moral norms. Americans, who as a group tend towards religious fundamentalism and puritanism to a much greater extent than some other cultures, find great shock value in blasphemy against Christian religions, sex, and bodily functions. How we insult others speaks to what our culture values and abhors. Because we tend to be very narrow-minded about sex lives that are in any way different from our own (see also: fundamentalism and puritanism), Americans can be heard using “gay” as an insult.

In other cultures, notably pagan cultures in which magic is mixed in with the religion, there is frequently a strong taboo against speaking the nmes of gods aloud, particularly in the presence of nonbelievers: because the names of the gods confer power. It may also be considered inappropriate to use the names of gods outside the context of prayer and magic, whether in the presence of nonbelievers or not. (That’s a tradition that carries over in modern Christianity as well, at least in the U.S.) I’ve made some use of both of those taboos in The Shadow of the Sun: my Beallan (human) characters, both of whom are deeply religious, rarely speak the names of their gods outside the context of religion, and certainly never in front of the Danaan, who have their own gods; and the Danaan, who believe themselves to be in a collective state of disgrace before their great goddess, no longer invoke her name outside the context of prayer. It’s the lesser goddesses and the great goddess’s consort with whom they feel themselves sufficiently close to swear by their names.

But as nrlymrtl notes, swearing is a bonding activity. People love swearing, and in swearing together we relieve the tension both of whatever made us want to mouth off and of the transgression of swearing itself. Learning one another’s swear words is a moment of cross-cultural bonding, a means of building bridges between our cultures. Kumbaya, baby. We see that in The Shadow of the Sun, too, in the moment when the Danaan mock Ellion because he is unable to pronounce one of the sounds common to their language and he turns around and challenges them to swear in his–and then they all laugh at the results.

So where did you get
those crazy words?

If you’ve been reading along lately, you will be unsurprised to learn that I stole. A lot. To reinforce the cohesiveness of the cultures I had built on a basis of ancient Irish myth as history, I drew heavily on ancient Irish and Gaelic languages and naming traditions, with a bit of Iberian thrown in for development of the Essuvian names and words. Where I could, I lifted words whole; where the word I wanted either didn’t exist or was too hard for someone with my VERY meager command of those languages to track down, I started with the etymological roots of those words in that end of the human language genome and built new ones. I also drew on ancient Greek and Egyptian sources for words that are, in the context of my tale, of yet more ancient vintage. In the course of developing the traders’ culture in The Heart of Darkness I stole from Basque and Romani language and naming traditions. And the ubiquitous profanity fouzh, which Ellion can’t get through an entire page without, was invented out of whole cloth: I wanted something evocative of the “f-bomb”, as it is delicately styled, which would be satisfying in the English-speaking mouth but wouldn’t require me to litter the pages with something that makes a significant percentage of readers flinch, not to mention bringing our cultural norms into an entirely different culture.

I love playing with language, maybe even more than I enjoy playing with the rest of reality. And I adore taking apart the components of our culture, looking at them, and putting them back together in entertaining/disturbing ways. It helps me think, and I hope it gives readers the opportunity to think some thoughts they would not have otherwise. It was probably inevitable that I write speculative fiction.

Explore posts in the same categories: for writers, The Heart of Darkness, The Shadow of the Sun, worldbuilding, writing

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5 Comments on “That’s Not Even a Real Word! How I invent languages for my fiction”


  1. [...] That’s Not Even a Real Word! How I invent languages for my fiction: Barbara Friend Ish’s response to nrlymrtl’s Week 2 question [...]

  2. nrlymrtl Says:

    Here in northern NM, we have several languages that people use – with the Pueblos and Hispanic cultures. A few years ago, i was working with a Hispanic crew and learning their swear words was definitely a bonding experience. Of course they all enjoyed my accent when I swore.

    I really enjoy the effort you went to in considering languages in your work. I have studied 5 languages within my life time – never enough to be proficient – but enough to appreciate the use to languages in fiction.


    • I worked in a Tex-Mex restaurant in TX, back when I was in college: one of three gringas on staff in the midst of a lot of guys from Central & South America. I had never studied Spanish, so I just picked it up as I went along. I was never sure what precisely some of the swear-words meant. They never stopped mocking my accent.

      I have never really mastered any language but English, though I have had brief encounters, or long-term low-exposure acquaintances, with a few others. So basically I have a pretty firm grasp of the experience of not being entirely sure of what I or anyone else in the room is saying. :)


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