Sunday, July 27, 2008

Want to design a language?

I'm back after a great trip. Great adventures seeing sea lions and seals and kelp (in nature and in the aquarium) and playing with my parents and my kids and my brother's family too. Then I came home to the news of one rejection and one honorable mention from Writers of the Future - so quite a mixed surprise!

While I was away, I had this list floating through my head of the things I think about when I want to create a language. I always like to find reasons for the structures and words I create - because even though language is arbitrary in theory, in practice most of the things we say interconnect and make sense. Plus it's really hard to make up random strings of sounds off the top of my head. So here are some things to think about:

1. Language evolution. I've heard a number of people, particularly at the Analog forum, talking about the way they've thought through the physiological evolution of their aliens. So why not think about how their language evolved? What was it first used for? Distress calls across long distances? Cooperative activities of some kind? A language used for hunting might come out differently from one used while building tree homes, or one used to find other members of a family in a dark den.

2. Mouth shapes (sounds). The most obvious - but not the only! - application here is to aliens in science fiction. The sounds of the language have to be produced somehow, so if your alien has a lot of teeth, or a very long neck, that might influence the type of sounds in the language. Mouth shapes are also relevant to fantasy human languages, and to real-world languages. The sounds of English just don't require us to move our lips as much as French speakers do, but more than the sounds of Japanese do. Those general mouth patterns contribute to the feel of languages in real life, so why not in our stories?

3. Word structure (morphology). This means breaking down words into their component parts, such as re+cite, walk+ing, dog+s etc. And actually, it's one of the things most likely to be noticeable about your language in a story. Why? Because the language elements that tend to be included in a story are words for things, for languages and peoples, and possibly for activities. I've seen a lot of stories where the sound "i" is stuck on the end to make a plural. But why not use something else? Or, as the Japanese do, just (mostly) forget about plural nouns? The word for a town might have a prefix or suffix meaning "place." There are lots of options, and they can really add a sense of depth to your world. If you look at Tolkien's writings, you'll notice that all the elf names can in fact be broken into parts, and translated into literal meanings. I always thought that was amazing!

4. Sentence structure and above... Unless you're writing full sentences in your created language, you usually don't need to work out how sentence structure works. This is where it's good to turn around and consider how you want to capture the feel of your language in English. If you're not working with real world languages, then choosing an existing language dialect becomes problematic, because very often it will be recognizable. The last thing I want is for someone to ask, "I wonder why Wade's aliens are speaking Cockney?" So I go for alterations in rhythm and feel. English tends to have a natural speaking pattern of alternating high and low stress,

"x X x X x X x X" (iambic)

so you can reverse that, or alter it in funny places. In addition, you can have someone speak repetitively, or in very short sentences, or very long drawn-out ones.

5. Cultural concepts. Your people's belief system, and what kind of things are important or repugnant to them, can have a huge influence on language. This includes political ideology or religion. The Gariniki in "Let the Word Take Me" had an extreme version of this, where their view of the sacredness of their own language shrunk their public usage down to phrases without any sustained rhythm. The flip side of this was that when they spoke fluently, I tried to have them speak in a way that emulated the tone and language of sacred stories in English. I can hardly think of a world in which nobody ever swears (though maybe I should make one, hmm...), and the content of swearing has a lot to do with belief systems.

6. Language learning. Children in a society have to learn their own language, and they don't always need to learn it the same way. The Gariniki children learned to speak in the holy place by listening to stories and discussing them. In our society children generally learn to speak from their mother or primary caretaker. In some societies, children learn more language from their own siblings than from their parents. And generally, television- or computer-generated language is not responsive enough to play a significant role in child language learning.

Foreign language learning also comes to mind, but I need to end this post so I'll leave it for another time. I will say though that it differs in some key ways from child language learning.

I'd love to go into more depth on any of these points, so if you're curious about them just ask. Or it might be fun to do an example language. I'll think about it for upcoming posts.

1 comment:

  1. I need to figure out around half a dozen or more languages for my FOTS Universe. The gas giant dwelling, squidlike Hee'Dra speak in a language that is translated as a sing-song, poetic style, but I have the Saurians (saurian Mafia bosses), the Kon'ta/Py'ron (maybe the most alien of all the races in the FOTS Universe - they are 6-limbed (2 arms, 4 legs ending in spikes), exoskeletal beings whose bodies are made of of essentially ball-bearings), the Kahs (Neanderthal-like fuedal warlords; maybe with a Mongolian clan style to them), the Grymphon (grasshopper like aliens with a communal harmonic sense and a deified ruler), the Machines (well, they speak binary or some version of it probably), the Swarm (a cross-species infectious metamorphic hiveminded virus-based life form that probably speaks the language of any sentient it has absorbed), and finally the Arachnids (gotta' think up a new name for them; their body plan is base-5 - 5 limbs w/5 appendages each, 5 eyes, etc.; they have no problem with eating other sentient species as they see everything as potential food sorces (the Q'Tez view insectile aliens as food)), and recently the Rrowlk'aa (canines), the Dwa'Kim (dry-winged saurians somewhat bulkier than the Saurians who look like velociraptors), and the Jareen'qwar (caterpillar-like).

    Then, of course, there are all the human languages and blendings...