I thought it might be fun to revisit this terrific, invitation-only hangout that I had last year, featuring special guests 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.
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.
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.
is a writer whose Grisha trilogy I recommended last week, the first book of which is called Shadow and Bone. 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
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 Miéville'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
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
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
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!