Sunday, January 25, 2015

Word-building in World-building (Sci-fi & Fantasy)

To Frell and to Frak

If Captain Adama says so, it must be right! So say we all!

     Even if you've only just dipped your toe into the cosmic pool that is sci-fi, you're sure to have stumbled upon some of these words - from the old school "smeg" to the everyday "frelling, frakking, goram dren." Whether in book or TV format, it seems like every alien language has developed their own non-taboo F-word to spice up their dialogue without angering the censors. The question is whether or not "Frak" is anything more than an excuse to shock the audience and load up on F-bombs. Do writers do this simply to avoid interference from the censorship that might come from use of their taboo, human F-bomb cousin, especially as fantasy and sci-fi typically attract both adults and children?

     My answer would be both yes AND no! Yes, they're totally used to shock. However, also NO! That's not their only purpose! We (or maybe just I) neeeeeeeed these words for authenticity of character and credibility of self-expression. 

     Take into account how the words are used and by who: "Frell" and "Dren" are used by a group of convicts constantly on the run; "Frak" is the fave word of the remnants of an army who are facing the decimation of their species on a daily basis; "Goram" pops out of the mouths of smugglers dodging the law on the outskirts of civilized space; and, last but not least, "Smeghead" is a popular insult bandied about between a group of mismatched bachelors floating around in space with little else to do other than ridicule each other. It'd be weird NOT to swear like an irreverent space-sailor in these situations. Personally, average school teacher that I am, I've been known to let out a "Frell" when just dropping all my class notes on the floor. Who knows what would come out of my mouth if faced with an apocalypse. Give the wayward, potty-mouthed felons a break.

     The intergalactic potty mouth is not really the issue here, more it is the example. In fantasy and sci-fi, we create whole worlds and those worlds need NEW WORDS! We need to express our characters' feelings and thoughts but in a whole new world that surrounds them and the reader too. Sci-fi and fantasy are all about pushing boundaries to new worlds and new cultures. Writers need new words and new languages to truly express these new places!

Not Everyone Gets to Have a Babel Fish

     Books have characters and characters have cultures and cultures have languages - there's no escaping it! And the odds are that, if you are writing sci-fi or fantasy, you will have a mix of cultures and languages to deal with. Unless you're Douglas Adams and you have a babel fish handy, you're going to have to deal with different languages and clashes of languages and cultures between your different tribes or courts or space boundaries. Some people advise just ignoring the potential differences and assuming everyone speaks the same language as the reader, but that's not the way I'd go. Some of my favourite sci-fi and fantasy tales have succeeded (in my opinion) because of the strength of their excellent world-building and the intrigue that a good-old cultural clash can create. Good language-building goes hand in hand with that.

     You don't have to be J. R. R. Tolkien to pull this off though. He's my ultimate hero of world-building and a philologist too. Don't get intimidated and back away from your keyboard! We can't all be him! Also, not all of us want to master Anglo-Saxon, create multiple alphabets and imagine up entire languages before we put pen to paper. We also probably can't afford to hire David Peterson (the creator of Dothraki and many other languages for TV) to work his language-creation magic for us. However, there are definitely some lessons to be learned from Tolkien and others.

(1) Find your own Balance between Old and New Words!

Life Buoy On The Boat Stock Photo
Think of your poor, drowning reader!!

      How much is too much when it comes to introducing new words on a page? As much as I worship Tolkien and admire his commitment to detail, I do remember racing through some Entish chapters to get back to where the more active narrative was at. Sometimes you can fall so in love with your own invention (be it back-story instead of language) that the reader gets the chance to become impatient with you. My own personal and inexperienced view on introducing a new language and new words to your reader is simple: DON'T DROWN THEM! I love languages and world-building but minimalist pages are the way forward. 

     Use your own language as your base and if there's a word for it in your language that will suffice, USE IT. However, if there's something new or unique to your created world, then give it a new word. I'd say that wine is simply wine because, you know, it's wine. However, if you're introducing a new kind of booze to your tale - one say that is distilled from a plant only grown on the planet colony AYW-82 and drunk by the slaves on that planet, then by all means name it "dengastil"! If there's a swear word that you want to use, replace it with "aiggak"! However, you don't need to replace the name of every object that your characters are going to encounter. Think of your poor reader.

     If you want to avoid losing the flow of your tale, don't get caught up in an explanation of everything every few sentences or so. At a writers' group, I was once asked why I hadn't included more "alien" words to describe the ubiquitous market scene. I accepted and nodded along to this perfectly valid critique of my work. Traditionally, market scenes are a great opportunity to show all the cultures of a world coming together to trade so it's the perfect chance to inform the reader about this world they are in. I listened and tweaked and added some more and it was better, but I didn't want to go too far with it. I hate info-dumps where the author decides to tell the reader everything dead quickly, rather than slowly showing bit by bit - and this is true of introducing new names for things too. On one page, I was happy to suggest to my reader what a "daga bloom" was as well as showing that the "angma balls" were sticky globs of sweetened tree sap that the kids craved. But I felt like two 'explanations' on a page were my limit. Also, notice that I made it easy for my reader by making my new words a mix of the exotic "daga" and the familiar "bloom" so that they at least had a general idea of what I was talking about. I kept on world-building with details without more word-building on that one page, as I didn't want to drown my reader in more new vocabulary all at once.

(2) To Build a World, you need to Build a Culture!

Frank Herbert's Dune meets the Simpsons (by Gulliver63) 

     Creating a new language isn't just about chucking some syllables together and making a new word. You've got to stay true to the culture you're creating. Don't bother creating any new words until you've already thought out the culture that uses them. One of my favourite examples is Frank Herbert's Dune in which the Fremen have their own language developed from Arabic. Water being the ultimate wealth on Arrakis, it impacts every part of life, from birth and the drinking of amniotic fluids to death and the reclaiming of the water from the body. One of many water-related sayings the Fremen use is, "Now do we consume that which will one day be returned for the flesh of a man is his own, but his water belongs to the tribe." Wasting water is sacrilege and, even when the Fremen language is translated for the ease of the reader, a ton of new words and phrases, like 'water debts' and 'water bonds,' are needed to explain the essentially alien culture and the reverence that they have for water. If you're just making up random words, you might be better off using your own language. Keep your word creations purposefully focused on the culture you're trying to share.

     Taking it to another level... if you've ever read Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy, you might have been impressed by how Ness dealt with inter-species communication. The protagonist, Todd, has a pet dog called Manchee and we are allowed into the conversations between boy and dog when Todd is infected with the noise-germ and begins to hear the thoughts of everyone around him, including his pooch. It may not involve the creation of an alien language, but it's a great example of language creation in order to share a totally different way of thinking through different ways of speech. Worth a read!!

(3) Be Consistent!

     To be honest, the only real RULE is to be consistent. There are a ton of different ways to do this:

- DON'T BE SCARED OF USING LANGUAGES YOU KNOW AND ADAPTING THEM! Some novelists loosely base their alien lingos on real languages from today or the past, thereby automatically getting some cohesion of style.

- FOCUS ON THE SOUND OF THE LANGUAGE AS IT REALLY HELPS WITH CHARACTERISING THE CULTURE. Some novelists decide on a sound that appeals to them, be it lilting or growling or guttural, and simply decide how many consonants to chuck in to rough things up. Make sure you try out your words aloud. If you can't pronounce them, your readers will probably struggle with them too. You're aiming for exotic, not unintelligible.

- KEEP A LIST! While writing, it's a good idea to create a dictionary or glossary as you go, so you can check language consistency on a few pages, rather than the whole manuscript.

- CHECK YOUR LIST! Once you've completed your list, give it to a friend to read out loud and see if they feel like the words are connected to the same language - without the distraction of the story.

- KEEP TRACK OF THE ALIEN WORDS BY HIGHLIGHTING THEM! I tend to highlight the 'foreign' words every time I write one, so they are easier to go back to and review.

- USE YOUR SPELL-CHECKER!!!! It is your friend! Add your new words to the spell checker so it doesn't either accidentally change your words OR drive you crazy prompting you whether or not you're sure...really, really sure...that that's a word! 
You can do this in MS Word by: Review > Languages > Language Preferences > Proofing Tab > Custom Dictionaries button > Edit Word List.

You've got to admire the commitment!! What a guy!
Borrowing from Anglo-Saxon and then creating a whole wealth of other languages!


  1. These are some helpful tips. I recently read Dashner's Maze Runner with the kids, and I LOVED how he used his own made-up language to make the characters sound as if they were using gritty curse words. It really appealed to my 10-year old son, who likes that type of edginess, without crossing lines in what I want him reading. And of course, it gets even more complicated with more fantasy-driven sci-fi. I admire anyone who can keep up with that many new words. Great post!

    1. Thanks Anna! I enjoyed the Maze Runner too!! Very well done! And I didn't even have a 10 year old to read it with. However, the 2nd and 3rd book were a bit mental if you ask me. Have you tried them? Still probably worth reading but I feel like self control for plotting went on holiday!

  2. For my new WIP, I've been trying to answer Patricia Wrede's list of world-building questions. It's so incredibly extensive that I may not get through all of it, but when I get to the language section, I'll be keeping this post in mind. Thanks Pip!

    1. Good luck with that!! Aren't there literally hundreds of questions to answer!?! Tolkien would be proud of your commitment to detail, Liv!!

    2. Hundreds! But I might not get through all of them, even thought I know ol' JRR would want me to.

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  4. Good stuff, Pip! These are good tips for implementing those dialogue words of working career characters, like the words Drs. or truck drivers might use daily. I like the tips too.

    Well done, lady! :D

    1. Came to add a link and just saw this! Thanks Janice!

  5. A TED talk that relates :)

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