Saturday, January 24, 2009

How semantics can help you! Part 3

Tonight I thought I'd discuss that ubiquitous genre activity - the one that always drives my spell-checker insane - making up words. Thereafter, I'll give a little thought to the idea of redefining existing words.

I'm guessing that after my last post you can imagine how making up words contributes to an effect of foreignness. Whenever you replace an English word with a foreign one, you lose every connotation and context associated with that English word. The feeling provided by the newly created word will depend on the evocativeness of its pronunciation. This may come from an association with Earth languages that it resembles (which will give the new word some of the contextual association with the language in question), or from general principles of onomatopoeia (such as the association of voiced sounds/o/u with large or loud things, and voiceless sounds/a/i with small or quiet things). Any further associations will have to be deliberately provided by the writer.

I've often heard it said that "if it's a rabbit, call it a rabbit." I tend to agree with this. After all, why put your reader to the trouble of divesting a word of all its associations if the people in your story use a word with precisely the same associations?

Another created word context is that of words coined from combinations of other words (or parts thereof). This most often occurs in science fiction, when you'll find people using comlinks and any number of other more exotic things. These words retain and combine associations, provided that the parts of the word are recognized and can be successfully extrapolated.

If you're using a created word, think through what associations you want it to have. It's not hard to show a reader through demonstration what the denotation of the word is. By all means, do so - but don't stop there. For your word to take on life and feel real in the world of the story, it will help if it comes with some of the other types of associations that our words commonly do. I'm thinking of emotional connotations. Here's an example.

Let's say you have a word, Korinye, which means a particular type of police officer. In order to define it for the reader, you put one of these on a street corner (or chasing the protagonist, etc.) , point him or her out and say "watch out for the Korinye." But that alone doesn't tell you how the Korinye group is regarded in society, whether for example they're a secret police for a fascist government or whether they're just a friendly policeman on the beat (who nevertheless won't be on your side if you steal from the shops). As you go through the story, think about whose point of view you're in, and how that person regards Korinye in different contexts. Their view of Korinye can even change over the story. Or you can have alternate points of view to show that some people consider the Korinye to be upholders of the law, while others consider them to be ruthless brigands who pillage in the name of the law. Don't just let your word sit; let it expand just a little each time you use it.

In general I'd suggest that you keep the most subtlety, the most extensive building and explanation only for words that are key to your main conflict. This may be a bias of mine, but why make people put a lot of effort into a word that will give them little reward? Of course, this does assume that you want the reader to feel like an "insider" with the word(s) in question. If you have a human going to an alien planet and feeling lost because all the words are different, then keeping to the human viewpoint will probably mean not explaining any of the alien words.

You can also turn this around. What if you're in the alien viewpoint? It may surprise you, but my first suggestion for an alien viewpoint is this: Minimize the number of created words.

Part of putting your reader in an alien's head means making him or her feel comfortable there. So have the alien give not very much thought to things he/she doesn't feel are important. Names of animals, for example, can be tossed in with just a couple words of context, and even used as metaphors for other things, like "he was mad as a cornered ughara." Give much more attention to those concepts that will allow readers to understand the alien's motives. These concepts don't even need to have made-up names.

Yes, I am suggesting that you can redefine English words rather than putting in created ones every time. Sure, your alien may have an idiosyncratic sense of honor, but you don't have to call it "zinni" or anything else. Instead, use strategically designed context and explanations to designate the associations that you want, and pluck away the ones you don't. In my forthcoming Analog story, Cold Words, the aliens have a very distinct set of social judgments associated with the words Warm and Cold (but not Hot). Since these are integral to the plot, I spend some time building them up contextually. The other word I change in that story is "friend." This one works slightly differently because it is a concept that the aliens do not have. I have to treat it carefully because as you might imagine, this does not mean they don't have close relationships. In order to change it, I have my character give some conscious thought to what it means and how it fits into the relationships he is familiar with.

I love this stuff - in particular the relation between words and social meaning, which will lead us into our next topics, pragmatics and sociolinguistics. This will be the final post on semantics unless any of my readers have specific questions. If you do, please feel free to comment and ask.

I'm still planning to invite submissions to the language design workshop during the first week of February. As with the last workshop, the number of participants will be limited to five.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, everyone!


  1. Consider those few words that SF authors have created, and got their meaning across so well the word has become a part of the language.

    Jack Williamson coined the 'combined' word terraforming, which is now common, if only in a wishful sense.

    Robert Heinlein coined 'waldo' for a type of device which is now real, and commonly employed in engineering circles.

    Ursula LeGuin coined 'ansible,' which many other SF novels now employ. (Too bad we don't have real ones, as yet.)

    Any more?

  2. I didn't know Jack Williamson coined taraform. Interesting.

    This post has stirred up a lot of thoughts, but I'm much too tired to sort them out. Thanks, Juliette, for always making thought provoking blog entries.

    Could you give a trifle more detail on this upcoming workshop? I don't really grock what's going to be involved.

  3. I always liked the ansible concept. Thanks for your comments, pc.

    Catreona, I'm giving some thought to what I'd like for the workshop and I'll post about that very soon.

  4. BTW Juliette, I sure hope you're feeling better.

  5. Thanks, Catreona. I'm much better. It's a relief.

  6. Last week my wife had a horrible winter cold. :-(
    I fought it off, but felt woozy for a couple of days.

    Hmm . . . by wind gust, her workplace in south Hayward is not very far from Juliette's home . . .

  7. pc,

    I hope she didn't have vertigo...
    Since my kids are 3 and almost 6 years old, I get every virus that comes through town. It's slowly improving, but it wears me down in the winter season. Flu shots for me every year!