L is for Language

L is for Language

“Your lesson,” he growled. “Tiyavek sa sen channan.”

She had to say it twice before he was satisfied. “What does it mean?” she asked.

“Teach me,” he said, nipping at her throat. “Teach me my lessons.” —Heat

* * *

 The door yanked itself open inwards, and there he was—the alien. Seven feet, dark brown with black streaks, snapping mouth palps, twitching antennae, and dull red eyes, glaring at her. He spat out a curt series of grumbles and clicks. “Fuck off,” said an electronic voice in her ear. He slammed the door. —Cottonwood

* * *

Many years ago, when I was still writing the book that would become Olivia, I attended a writer’s panel at a sci-fi convention. The subject was worldbuilding. It was hosted by no-doubt impressive sci-fi authors whose names I no longer remember, although I do remember none of them looked like they particularly wanted to be there. When the issue of language came up, the entire panel took several minutes to make fun of the various books, movies and TV shows who use English-speaking aliens and then, without missing a beat, started making fun of the various books, movies and TV shows that created a fictional language. “Unless you’re a physicist,” one of them concluded, “you should never try to introduce and explain alien technology. And unless you’re a linguist, you should never make up a language.”

Well, with all due respect to that esteemed bunch of boy-bitches, they’re wrong. Language is right up there next to physical appearance when it comes to setting aliens and humans apart. I believe strongly that non-humans should have their own language and they should revert to it in moments of passion. Should they have separate names for every rock and tree and sit around singing to each other in dialects incomprehensible to the reader, using fonts full of extra dots and squiggles and generally making a nuisance out of the otherwise enjoyable past-time of reading?

No, of course not. A little alien goes a long way, but too much alien is worse than none at all, even when you are a master linguist and a master storyteller like Tolkien. The trick lies in using language minimally, appropriately, and above all, realistically. Now, I’m not suggesting you take up linguistics, because if you’ve got ten years to devote to a hobby, it ought to be writing your book, not researching it, but do keep track of the words you use and how so that you remain consistent in your speech patterns. And while I realize that many non-romantic-root languages don’t follow this next tip, for the sake of your readers, make words that are related look related so that meanings are easily grasped even if you don’t stop immediately to translate.

“Can’t I please just take the linguistics course?”

I have a tendency to overthink things, which I’m sure will come as a shock to exactly nobody, but I like to think I’ve lightened up a bit over the years. When I wrote Olivia, freshly-chastened by that so-helpful sci-fi panel, I was afraid to use language, so very little gullanese appears in the final product beyond names. But in Heat, oh boy. Confidence bolstered by my total lack of sales on Olivia, I whipped up a Jotan vocabulary of something like a thousand words, complete with morphology showing past, present and future tense, common suffixes and sentence structure. I went on to pepper nearly every chapter with alien words and phrases, offering no translation whatsoever for the vast majority of them, and just sort of hoping the reader would ‘get it’.

I think for the most part I was successful. At least I’ve never had anyone come to my house and whallop me in the face with a copy of the book. Although I didn’t consciously know it at the time, I had subconsciously glommed onto the writer’s secret that certain sounds set certain moods. Jotan swear words are short and hard. When they get amorous, the words are hums and throaty growls. Looking over the book today, I know I used too many alien words, but I don’t think it’s too tough to figure out what they’re saying.

By the time I was working on Cottonwood, I believe I had reached that happy medium between too much and not enough. My list of yang’ti words is only two pages long (and I still used less than half of them). I allowed for a ‘magical’ translator for ease of communication and let the alien words fall naturally where they wanted to go. The result is, I think, much more otherly than the gullanese of Olivia and much friendlier to the eye than the Jotan in Heat. So if there’s a lesson to be learned from my experiences, it’s to treat alien words like toilet paper: use less and use it efficiently.

And don’t be afraid to have fun with it!

Okay, so now that we all feel comfortable making up languages, where do we find the words? I’m fortunate in that speaking gibberish comes naturally to me—practically no one understands me as it is—so as usual, I’m full of good advice. First, think about the kind of sound you want your language to have. Do you want a harsh, aggressive sound? Use more fricatives—hard consonants and glottal stops. How about an ethereal sound to go with your wispy air elementals? Use sonorants—lots of vowels and trills. Readers have an expectation that insectoid races will speak in insectile sounds—lots of clicks, taps and rattles with plenty of hard consonants in-between. Similarly, what reptilian race isn’t portrayed dripping sibilants and dipthongs from a flicking, forked tongue?

If you find yourself struggling to come up with enough words or if, like me, you suddenly notice that most of them begin or end with the same letter, there are a ton of alien word generators online that you can turn to in a pinch. I’ve tried out a few and find spacecorsair to be the most user-friendly. It has a number of pre-programmed templates (they’re all named, although I’m not nerd enough to recognize their origins, but you can pick up on their sound with a few samples), which can generate short lists of words or even sentences, but this one allows for customization, for a more unique sound. I’ve used Seventhsanctum in the past, but despite the initial impression of variety, so much of what they present is meant ‘ironically’ that it can be difficult to wring something useful out of them. Just beware of relying on any generator too heavily; they’re only programs and too much can leave your language sounding unusable and artificial. Unless that’s what you’re going for, go it alone as much as you can.

So now you have a fully-developed fake language and you’re ready for your alien to start quoting Shakespeare. Unfortunately, this only highlights your next problem: the language barrier. As I said at the start of this article, or at least close to the start…or at least closer than I am now, I believe alien languages should be used realistically. For me, realism means always acknowledging the language barrier. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass to stop the story and get everyone speaking the same language, but at least that’s a temporary stop. When I read a First Contact scenario where the alien speaks perfect English, I close that sucker and never open it again. The only people in my opinion who ought to get away with universal translators are Gene Roddenberry and Douglas Adams. Everyone else needs to admit the very notion is right up there with fairy magic and find another way around the problem.

“But R. Lee!” you cry. “You used a universal translator in Cottonwood!” The hell I did. I used a device that took years of development and only serves to translate the alien yang’ti into one of a set number of Earth languages, in Sarah’s case, English. I’ll be waiting for your written apology, but in the meantime, without a babel fish, how do we proceed?

Before he went balls-out cash-crazy, George Lucas made a pretty good movie called American Graffiti. Then he made a better one called Star Wars. Star Wars handled the language barrier by having some characters act as interpreters for others. Occasionally, aliens spoke one another’s language; more often, they understood one another, but lacked the physical ability to vocalize alien speech correctly.

But say you don’t have a protocol droid handy. How much time can you expect to waste teaching your alien to talk? Short answer: A lot. With full immersion and effort on both sides, it’s still two months before the average person can be conversant in a foreign language.

Fox, The Simspons S.1 E.11 The Crepes of Wrath

Source.

And if you don’t have two months to sit around signing at each other and talking like Tarzan? Well, I watched three days of Spanish television recently and I know a few more words than I used to. I think if I’d had two weeks, I could have elevated my level of communication from WTF to merely Confusing.

Still not good enough? Then hell, I give up. Use the babel fish. Se tasleal ema die.

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4 responses to “L is for Language

  1. I love a bit of an alien language but too much and I ignore it, not big on huge dictionaries at the back of books either, quite like to figure out how to pronounce the words myself too! Love how it’s always written in a different typeface, like that makes it more alien!

    • I agree. Having a glossary is like having a cast of characters…it’s too much like cheating. Your readers should be able to figure things out without the author providing Cliffs Notes.

  2. I suppose I am not of the “norm” because I love all the barriers that come with “meeting” an alien. Including the language. I have read books with the magic translators, mechanical as well as organic, and I place them in a category all their own. (Interesting, cute, sometimes entertaining… but not realistic! And really? Isn’t that why we read? To be transported into another world?) One of my favorite parts of Gann was Meoraq’s reluctant tolerance of Amber’s inability to pronounce his name correctly. Because REALISTICLY she doesn’t have the physical properties to add the proper resonance. I also appreciate the attitude conveyed often that the humans are the aliens in Gann. Of course they are! These things elevate your books to the top.

    I am learning so much from these posts. Thank you for doing this. For taking it seriously AND making it fun!

    • I’ve had a lot of fun doing it, actually. I rarely get a chance to showcase my research or my personal library (for good reason, I suppose. “R Lee Smith’s Bibliography” is hardly the title of a runaway bestseller). I have been accused before of “blithering on about little details that only interest the author” in my books, so it’s especially nice to know someone else likes the blithering too.

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