Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Language Design, with special guests Lawrence Schoen and David J. Peterson: a Google+ hangout report

The Language Design hangout finally happened, and it was a resounding success! We had fabulous guests with us, namely Lawrence Schoen and David J. Peterson, and great participants including Barbara Webb, Leigh Bardugo, Leigh Dragoon, and Megan Hutchins.

We started out with introductions, talking about what brought us to the evening's discussion.

Lawrence Schoen is the founder and director of the Klingon Language Institute. He has a Ph.D. in Psycholinguistics and also a man with a great sense of humor; he says he is where he is today because he "fell in with a bad crowd," and that soon he'll be teaching Klingon to people in Atlanta. He had us laughing quite a bit during the session.

David Peterson is the president of the Language Creation Society, and has been creating languages since 2000. He's best known for his work creating the Dothraki language for HBO's Game of Thrones series, based on the works of George R.R. Martin.

At this point there was a digression about who would most likely win in a fight: a Dothraki or a Klingon. Opinion was somewhat mixed but the general consensus was that the Klingon would come out on top. We learned that Lawrence has a real mek'leth at his house. Trespassers beware!

Barbara Webb is a writer who loves second world fantasy and making up random words.
Leigh Bardugo is a writer whose Grisha trilogy is coming out in June this year. It's a fantasy based on 1800's Tsarist Russia, using a Russian-inspired fantasy language that she designed with David Peterson's help.
Leigh Dragoon is a writer who is looking to add structure to the words she's already been using in her work.
Megan Hutchins started conlanging as a teen and gravitated to linguistics in college; she enjoys Mayan glyphs and language invention. Both she and David knew Dirk Elzinga, a linguist at BYU.

From there we started with basics of language construction. Lawrence stated quite clearly that his favorite thing is to tie culture into language - it's something I love too! - but we moved quickly into the question of language sounds, which are often the first element people start working with. David recommends asking for the purposes of languages which will appear in written stories, "What sounds can I represent with the Roman alphabet?" Although, as Lawrence observed, there are typewriters and fonts for the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and SAMPA (Speech Assessment Method Phonetic Alphabet), these aren't going to be much use for typical story-writing. David mentioned that not too many people know that the Mexican "x" indicates a "sh" sound, and said one should stay away from it; he does think that George R.R. Martin did a good job rendering Dothraki using the Roman alphabet. My own sense is that so long as you're not wedded to readers pronouncing your words accurately (a big if!), you can develop Roman-alphabet shorthand for some of the sounds you're creating and leave it at that.

Barbara mentioned how critical it is to figure out names early on; names are often the first (and sometimes also the last!) place where unequivocal evidence is available for an underlying language system. Lawrence urged everyone to make sure that whatever names you use in your work, they fit into the system of the underlying created language. I mentioned my own experience in my early years working with Varin, which was that I'd created all kinds of names and some years in realized that I wanted to have them to conform to underlying language systems, so I had to sort them into piles by what kind of system they seemed to match with, delete some, change others, and figure there were three different languages underlying the use of names. As David aptly remarked, the earlier you start with the idea that you want a language system to underlie your story, the less work you will have to do later on back-forming it.

Lawrence mentioned a character of his who had been cursed with the inability to use voiceless consonants (these include t/p/k/s etc.). Instead of having him mispronounce words, he had the character very carefully select the words he used so that he never had to use the sounds he couldn't pronounce, which apparently made his language use rather unusual! He recommended to us China MiƩville's book Embassytown, which he said (and I have also heard) is wonderful for language geeks.

David explained three ways he's encountered to incorporate a created language into a story (and did so heroically, in spite of technical difficulties!). The first way is that used by George R.R. Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire. He uses the Dothraki words in his text and then follows them up with an immediate English translation in the same line, written in italics. Lawrence mentioned that this is actually a real-life approach to foreign language translation, where an Anglo-Saxon word in English would be immediately followed by the word with the same meaning in French. The example everyone has heard of is "Will and Testament." We briefly mentioned how Tolkien sets his elvish language poems and songs apart from the main text; this can work well because non-linguists and those not interested in the language itself can skip those sections. Mind you, as David noted, that means it's important not to put critical plot information in those sections!

The second way was the approach taken by the folks subtitling the Japanese TV series One Piece. With certain Japanese words - the example mentioned here was "nakama" - the English translation is not entirely accurate, so after translating it for a while, the group basically said, "okay, we're not going to translate it any more" and that way they could allow the watchers to learn a more Japanese-like interpretation of the word from the contexts where it appeared. Letting readers deduce the meaning of an unfamiliar alien (or foreign language) word from context is a very useful approach. David also mentioned the word Khal from Dothraki, whose interpretation is not entirely translatable (he's the head of a Khalasa, don't ya know...). Lawrence suggests (mischievously) that you teach just a few words for beginners, but give poetry and word games to those deeper in.

The third way David mentioned was one the used by Juliette Wade (cue sound of my jaw dropping) from my story Cold Words, where the language Aurrel was used as a translation template to alter English - another way of saying this is that the English I used was a relatively literal translation from Aurrel. David compared this to taking the phrase "Me encantan los tacos" in Spanish, and instead of translating it to the English "I love tacos," reflecting the literal Spanish meaning by translating it as "Tacos enchant me." One of the special things that my character Rulii did linguistically was that he never used the present progressive tense - which dramatically changed the flavor of his narrative.

I mentioned that my favorite elements of alien language, the ones I most enjoy incorporating into my stories, are cultural concepts and pragmatics. These are much less commonly used by language creators whose work I've encountered in the past, but Lawrence and David are both into them. Lawrence in particular says he'd love to see aliens who make speech errors or who don't speak properly, aliens with different speech styles, etc. For those of you less familiar with what pragmatics is, it's basically how you get things across that aren't restricted to the literal meaning of the words you're using - this includes manners and social posturing, speech acts like requests and refusals etc., implied meaning, and things of that nature. As an example of cultural concepts I explained how in Cold Words, I took the concept of "friend" and made it feel foreign to readers by showing how Rulii struggled with it - a "friend" is not "skin-close, as a littermate or consort," but closer than "huntmate" because somehow (and he can't figure out how) it's supposed to be independent of Rank. One can do a similiar thing, backwards, to teach alien words and cultural concepts to readers.

David mentioned a special technique he uses to enhance the realism of his created languages, that is, to invent them and then to "age" them by about 100 years. The language you've created gains a much more authentic feel if it has been subjected to the forces of language change. Lawrence notes that too few authors consider language change when dealing with time travel. He suggests that we have people time travel in Iceland more often because the language has barely changed since its ancient roots. This made me think of Stargate (the movie) in which the linguist had knowledge of a language that was an ancestor of the language spoken by the aliens he met, and therefore had to try to "update" his knowledge to learn the new language. I also have a similar book idea where a Tolkien-like student of ancient languages and religions accidentally discovers the descendants of the ancient people whose archaeology he's exploring.

Leigh Bardugo also gave us a glimpse of the language she's using in her forthcoming book; both the fantasy setting and the language are Russian-inspired. She notes that in YA you have to be very careful with fantasy language, because though Game of Thrones may have changed some things, people reading YA aren't generally prepared for the high fantasy approach to language. Each word has to have resonance even if you are skimming. She used her first person narrator to help scaffold the language, allowing what didn't make sense to the narrator to be opaque to the reader as well. She used little tricks like using cognates with Russian.

Watch out when you're writing stories. A linguist will tend to know too much about the language, and want to push it too far. A writer (i.e. someone who is primarily a writer) will tend to embed it more subtly into the story.

David pointed out that he liked Leigh Bardugo's language because, since it used Slavic, it had a real sound-feeling. If you use a particular Earthly language as your basis for naming, then it will often sound more authentic and integrated. Leigh was looking for a non-medieval setting around the 1800's which would feel textured and present yet exotic. Russian, including slang, worked well for this. Janice Hardy did a similar thing by using Afrikaans as a linguistic source when she was writing The Healing Wars series. Avatar: the Last Airbender (the TV show) also did a wonderful job with this kind of linguistic and cultural incorporation. Lawrence mentioned Shogun as a very successful instance of language use, because you get to learn Japanese along with the character.

This was a fantastic and inspirational discussion for me, and I hope we can have another one of these in the future. If you missed it and would like to attend a future session, please do contact me so I can put you on my Google+ language hangout circle and make sure you are informed about any future dates. Participants: please let me know if I have made any errors in my report (based on your recollections) and if you would like to have me provide a link to a web page for you, please do give me the URL and I'll add it.

Thanks so much to everyone!


  1. Thank you so much for hosting, Juliette. It was a real pleasure. (And you guys were very kind and welcoming to such a conlang noob ;)

  2. Wonder why not more conlangs aren't used in sci fi stories? Universal semantic primitives have not been discussed as a possible experimental language (cf. Language of Space)

    1. Andrea, I think they are not used for two major reasons. First, not many people know how to create a truly original language. Second, using alien languages in text is very challenging because they have a tendency, if overused, to overwhelm the story. I think people have looked into semantic primitives in various contexts, but they haven't appeared very often in stories.