Friday, September 17, 2010

Alien Language: an introduction to Aurrel

I had a question over in one of my posts on Science In My Fiction asking whether I'd ever done an in-depth description of one of my languages here on the blog, and in fact I hadn't! So I thought I'd take some time to discuss Aurrel, the language that appeared in my Analog Oct. 2009 novelette, "Cold Words."

Whenever I start designing a new language, I look for one critical feature that will make the language unique, and work outward from there. For Aurrel, the critical feature was non-reciprocal status language. Thus, in any conversation between two Aurrel people, one of them will speak one dialect and one another: the one of lower status will use Warm words as a sign of self-lowering and respect, and the one of higher status will use Cold words as a recognition of his/her right to dominate the other speaker. This is a form of politeness (pragmatics).

Higher status: Cold words -><-Warm words: Lower status

This of course requires that people always know which of them has the higher rank. The next language-building task then became differentiating the two dialects in a way that readers would be able to recognize. I didn't want to use phonology or morphology, because those would be too far under the radar for most readers. I wanted to minimize the number of actual alien words used in the story so as to maximize comprehension for readers! So I chose the discourse/sentence function level - let me explain.

Linguists will often talk about "speech acts," or what one is trying to accomplish with the things that one says. Some classic examples are requests and commands, which are accomplished simply by speaking them. "Go to bed!" "May I have that pencil?" Pronouncements and declarations are another example: "I now pronounce you husband and wife." "I hereby declare this park open." For Aurrel Warm words, these things are accomplished just as we would do them in English, without special marking. In Cold words, by contrast, each sentence (or series of sentences of the same function) has to be marked at the beginning with a word that indicates what kind of action will follow. Here are some examples.

Bow-bow: do as I say! Now, given that the Aurrel are wolflike people, this does tend to evoke "bow-wow," but in fact it's a command marker, which commands the other person to bow to them.

Bel-belly: I don't mean to anger you. When dogs or wolves want to show extreme submission, they show their bellies, so I chose this word to mark acts of submission. You may notice that this marker is redundant with the use of Warm words... However, the Aurrel have a special rule that Warm words must not be used in the presence of the Majesty - so in audiences with him, one would hear this marker a lot.

Sniff-sniff: what did you say? I decided that a curious wolf's sniffing would be used to mark questions.

I designed these markers intentionally to be repetitive: specifically, to duplicate the first syllable. Reduplication is often seen in morphology (word endings etc). Since my Cold words speakers had originally been tundra hunters, I reasoned that this style of speech would be consistent with having to communicate on the run. First you'd want to get the person's attention with a short bark, and then give a hint for what you were about to say, then say it when you were sure they were listening. In this way, a concept of general language evolution helped me to decide how to develop specific features of the language on the word level.

The Cold Words reduplication also extends to names of people and places.
  1. Rulii (Warm words) => Ru-rulii (Cold words) the main character
  2. Aurru (Warm words) => Au-aurru (Cold words) the planet
Other morphological features of the language were a bit more predictable. Aurrel uses suffixes, which are evident in the change between the name of the planet - Aurru - and its language/people, Aurrel.

This brings me to phonology. I designed the Aurrel phonology on the basis of the idea that these people had mouths like wolves. The language has no unvoiced sounds, like p/t/k/s/f. Thus, all sounds are voiced, like b/d/g/z/v. This wouldn't be a requirement for a people with wolf mouths, but I felt it was consistent with wolf howls as a language feature. I also felt that, with their long tongues, they would have multiple versions of L and R. Since there was no way for me actually to render the sounds I imagined (unlike in a film!), I used very small differences in spelling to mark them. Thus:
"rr" is not the same sound as "r"
"ll" is not the same sound as "l"

I also expanded the language's fricatives. These are sounds like "v" and "z" (and "s" and "f" and "th", though these don't occur in Aurrel). In addition to V and Z, therefore, I gave them a fricative version of g, which I spelled "gh."

the stop "b" corresponds to the fricative "v" (lips)
the stop "d" corresponds to the fricative "z" (alveolar)
the stop "g" corresponds to the fricative "gh" (velar)

At this point, I will ask you for fun's sake to imagine the pronunciation of this word:

gharralli (a small fierce toothy animal similar to a weasel)

In fact, when asked to pronounce Aurrel accurately myself, I feel rather nervous about it, because it does sound quite dramatically throaty! I'm afraid I would need more practice to get over the nervousness.

There are only a few more things which deserve mention here. I didn't do much designing of Aurrel syntax because the story had no need for complete sentences rendered entirely in Aurrel (as opposed to English). However, I did play with something called subcategorization. When we use certain verbs, we expect certain other structures to follow them:

He appears nervous.
He shows signs of being nervous.
It reminds me of my indigent childhood.
It drags me down with memories of my indigent childhood.

I deliberately switched some of these around. In Aurrel, you would say,

He shows nervous.
It drags of my indigent puphood.

What was great about this for my purposes was that it felt very alien, yet was pretty comprehensible in context.

Lastly, I did a lot of work on semantics. Using words like "puphood" instead of "childhood" is relatively simple. Naturally, a person born in the same litter is a "littermate" - but as a result of that, the word "mate" for a lover sounded odd, so I switched it to "consort."

However, there were a few more major semantic issues that came up in the story.

The first is that Aurrel has no word for "friend." The Aurrel have two major opposing concepts in their society: interdependence, and rank. "Friend" doesn't fit into this system because it implies interdependence without requiring a rank relationship. Thus, the names for relationships are somewhat different. A "huntmate" is a person involved in pursuing the same activity or project as oneself, but is not necessarily close. This is contrasted with the relationships of "littermate" and "consort" which are considered to be "skin-close," where interdependence is so strong that rank has little influence (none, in intimate situations).

The second is that the hunt is what I call an organizing metaphor for Aurrel life (much as the journey is for us). Pursuing a goal is equated with hunting. The goal itself is the "quarry." If a huntmate suddenly stops helping you toward your goal and tries to take the project in a different direction, they'd say he had "lost pace with you." These examples are extensive and can be found all over the language.

The third (and last, for this post) is the contrast between Warm and Cold. Warm is seen as comforting and intimate, but also as lowly. Cold is cruel, but also valuable and exalted. The Majesty's mark of rank is glass beads coated on the inside with silver, called silver-glass or "royal ice." Rulii calls the human character "warm" at one point in the story, but then feels obliged to add, "no insult, but from my Lowland heart." There are two Aurrel races: one heavy furred, the tundra hunter group, and one downy-furred, the Lowland group. The insulting/exalting characteristics of warm and cold came about when the tundra folk conquered the Lowlanders, and everything about warmth came to be associated with baseness and submission. The language gradually then developed in such a way that the tundra dialect became Cold words, or dominator's words, and the Lowland dialect became Warm words, or submissive words.

I hope that gives you an idea of how Aurrel works, and the different things I considered as I was designing it - and perhaps also helps you think through one version of the process you might take to develop your own alien language. There's a good basic description of this process by Megs over at Rabia Gale's blog today, for an additional perspective on the matter!


  1. Thanks, Juliette! That was fascinating and very helpful. I've played around, in a very amateurish way, with language construction, and as always it's useful to see a real expert at work.

    I particularly like your idea of finding a critical feature to define a language. That's a very useful hint for any would-be language designer.

    I also liked how you used history to explain how the dialectal differences evolved into the pragmatics. I know when I've designed my amateurish languages, they tend to be too regular and have no evidence of real-life history. This is a very good lesson!

    (The rest, the stuff about phonetics, etc, was also very interesting, too.)

    Thanks again for doing this--I wouldn't mind seeing more about this and other of your constructed languages.

  2. You're welcome, Calvin! I'm glad it was what you'd hoped. I thought it was a good idea, so thanks for the suggestion. I think I'll plan to do Khachee and Varinn in the future, but I'll need think about how to approach them (concisely!).

  3. It's really interesting how your Aurrels' culture and origins influence their language so much. I think this kind of deeply-thought creation is exactly what the fantasy genre needs more of.

  4. Thank you so much, Heidi. Any language seems so much more whole and real to me if it has these kinds of links.

  5. Fascinating...
    Though I'm interested in how language has evolved (and is still evolving), I don't think I have the knowledge needed to build a language.

  6. Brad,

    I think if you've got a situation where a language would be natural, it's worth doing even if you're not a super-expert. There are a lot of online resources available to help with the steps so that the language can be "sound" in linguistic terms. Not much of the language needs to be used in a story necessarily, which can also make the job easier.

  7. Awesome!
    Your story was clear enough that a non-specialist such as myself was able to deduce the basics, as you describe in the first section above.

    One comment:

    *** "rr" is not the same sound as "r"
    "ll" is not the same sound as "l" ***

    I have not studied many languages, but one with a similar feature is Korean. These 'double-style' consonants are more guttural, and pronounced more forcefully.
    Much as (I've read) with Arabic, to hear a Korean hail a taxi can sound to an American as though deadly curses are being rained upon the urban landscape. Ferocious!

    Best, Paul C

  8. Paul,

    How cool! I'm really glad that you felt so much of the language came through in the story. And yes, it's an interesting point about the other sounds in Korean and Arabic. I wasn't exactly thinking about them when I chose the spelling, but it's a very good real-world parallel.

  9. That is really cool! And I haven't even read "Cold Words" yet. I wonder if understanding a language the way you've explained Aurrel would make it easier to learn, especially when encountering new terms.

  10. Jaleh,

    It's a shame that my stories go out of print after Analog does. I am thinking of putting the story on my author website when I get it up...

  11. Juliette, I'm still telling myself to sign up with Anthology Builder. A great way for friends, and dare I say fans, to obtain our stories.

  12. Wow, you've really done a lot of work on the linguistic side of your story. You certainly put me to shame. Even after reading your article, I'm afraid I couldn't develop anything nearly that interesting.

  13. Shannon, it's not about putting anyone to shame, lol. It just reflects the fact that I'm a die-hard linguist, and that my stories have language and culture as their central focus - so if I neglected these issues, it would really detract from the story's success. For those who use language more tangentially to the main plot, it's a different story.

    Thanks for your comment!