Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Making Up Words - a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

Making up words is one of the most wonderful things about working in science fiction and fantasy. Have you heard the word gargantuan before? That came from Jonathan Swift. What about the word grok?

Why do we make up all these words? Well, as one of our discussants said, sometimes English just doesn't cut it! (And sometimes we can make English even better! Lillian invented the word hemomancy on the spot...)

I described how in my story At Cross Purposes I had been happy to use the word "purpose" to capture my aliens' conflation of art with purpose, but that I had a much harder time finding a word that would successfully describe the principle of twin relationship, which included both a feeling of closeness and a feeling of conflict or pulling away. In the end I invented the word apfaa to do the job.

We agreed that in general when writing in English, it's a good idea to use English as much as you can until you can't capture something critical to the story. If it's a horse, or a rabbit, there's hardly any point in calling it something else. I mentioned that a reader had criticized me for using the English word "grouse" in Cold Words - but I had done it as an intentional translation of a bird that had the same characteristics as a grouse. So author choice is involved, and readers don't always agree on what is needed! (Grouse may also have been too non-generic a bird for that reader.)

Sometimes the words we make up are in English. For example, we can create compounds that give a sense of meaning without too much familiarity. I mentioned my own word "tunnel-hound," and another discussant mentioned "lizard-lions." Another good one is "ornithopter," used in Dune, which uses morphological play within the word to suggest the novel meaning, and also gives us a great sense of how the machine works. You can also use conlangs for made up words, but it's a good idea to think through the underlying structure of the language, both phonologically and morphologically, if you want to do that.

You can also borrow words from another language. One discussant mentioned that Theoden means king! Tolkien was very literal with a lot of his names, using translations of elvish or of other languages. Make sure, though, to check the meanings of the names or words you pick to make sure they don't mean anything nasty in another langauge! Lillian mentioned working with a culture based on Vikings and using Old Norse inspirations in naming. I mentioned how Janice Hardy used words from Afrikaans to name some of her characters - and how this did throw off some Dutch-speaking readers.

The feel of words we create often comes from onomatopoeia, which has some universal characteristics across language, such as the association of unvoiced consonants and high vowels with small things, and voiced consonants with larger, heavier things. The resemblance of the created word to existing words in English can also give it a "feel." We talked about the name Voldemort, and it turned out that I and one discussant had parsed it differently! She had thought of it as vol-de-mort "flight of death" where I had parsed it as volde-mort "wanting death." There are certainly lots of possibilities! I named a character Nekantor, which for me had some associations with death - "necropolis" has that "nek" sound, for example. However, I didn't want it to be explicit, so I didn't use the full morpheme "necr-".

Glenda talked about looking for a name for a social group that didn't quite fit with the concepts of clan, family, or house. She was looking for root words in other languages to help. Raj mentioned naming some catlike creatures "skald cats" because they were found by Norwegians, but having their appelation change later to "tregols" meaning forest gold.

If you decide to use existing Earth languages, do your research. Japanese people making up names in Japanese won't do it the same way that an English speaker would. Learn from Anime; research actual meanings; Lillian suggests looking for real names in credit lists from Anime or other foreign films.

Words from Earth languages bring context in with them, and that means baggage. Watch out for cultural appropriation. You don't want to slap on the trappings of a language or culture without honoring the core, so watch out for stereotypes. Similarly, if you are using the cultural details of a particular group but don't use the language, that comes across very oddly, as if you are trying to erase the language.

You can't always anticipate how people are going to pronounce the words you make up. Words have a visual as well as auditory aspect.

When making up words, consider having multiple terms for things that might be named differently by people in different social groups. Think about honorifics, endearments, curse words. Especially when you are applying names to a social group, consider how they will be named differently by people who relate to them in different ways - insiders, the government, outsiders, people who hold them in contempt, etc.

Thanks so much to everyone who attended! It was great to have you. This week's discussion will be tomorrow, Wednesday, November 18, 2014 at 3pm Pacific, and we will be discussing Hobbies and Craftwork. I hope to see you there!



  1. I try to use my made up words only when a native speaker of the language who is fluent in English would use them. If they find the gloss inadequate, then I either go somewhere else with the story or I use the word, gloss it, and spend some scattered bits of story time to develop the concept in action.

    1. Yes, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks for your comment!

  2. "Japanese people making up names in Japanese won't do it the same way that an English speaker would. Learn from Anime; research actual meanings; Lillian suggests looking for real names in credit lists from Anime or other foreign films."

    Even that research may not work very well. Korean names, for example, may sound and be transliterated exactly the same way; however, those names may have completely different meanings. The meanings of the words in the names are based upon Chinese characters. One of the more well-known examples of this situation is the homonyms for death and the number four in Chinese (and a number of other Asian languages). The pronunciation is the same, the English transliteration is the same, but the characters are completely different. I suspect the same issue happens for Japanese names as well.

    1. If you want to know the meanings behind the Chinese characters in a name, naturally you will have to research them. The trick with the made-up names in Anime is that they often are puns or jokes on English and other borrowed languages, which gives them an extra, often ambiguous layer of meaning. Take for example the green-garbed swordsman from One Piece, whose name is transliterated either as Roronoa Zolo or Roronoa Zoro. The latter is most likely the writer's intent, as it references the character of Zorro. But the manga series is translated into English with Zolo. It's a complex task. I just want to make sure people are thinking about how people of other cultures might make up words, because it is different from how English speakers make up words.