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Tag Archives: linguistics

In Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, a group of characters discuss languages in fantasy fiction. The point is made that fantasy and SF names and languages often fail to match up with reality, and that throwing apostrophes randomly in fantasy names and words would be like plopping an active volcano in the middle of a prairie. (I’m paraphrasing for the sake of simplicity, so please don’t bother to tell me that isn’t exactly what they said.)

Language presents a significant problem for writers of fantasy and SF. We casually develop character names, place names, and other examples of foreign language without any thought about how those languages actually work. One of the cultures that I developed with a friend of mine back in our Dungeons and Dragons days had an incredibly high vowel-to-consonant ratio. According to the World Atlas of Language Structures Online, less than 1% of the languages in the real world have a consonant-to-vowel ratio as high as what we created.

But worse than that is the fact that SF and fantasy tends to create different species and races who never seem to have trouble communicating with one another. Star Trek has the universal translator. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has the Babel Fish. Star Wars just has people understand each other, or has C-3P0 translate for them. But translation isn’t quite that simple. Imagine the seemingly simple question, “What’s up?” Speakers of American English (and English more generally) have no problem with this term, understanding it to be a simple greeting. But speakers of other languages might be confused as to why they are being asked to explain what is above them. Further, the question “How are you doing?” might receive puzzled looks, and the response, “How am I doing what?” Just because a person can translate the words from one language to another does not mean that the sense is recreated. The more culturally different language communities are, the more difficult translation becomes: speakers of American English are more readily able to learn culturally appropriate usage in German, Spanish or French than they are Cree or Tumbuka. If languages on one planet are so dissimilar that they create problems in learning and translation, how much greater would these problems be in the case of different races from vastly different planets?

Anyone who has ever played around with a simple translator knows that the results can be quite odd. The German word for “television,” for example, is fernseher. This is fine: it literally means “far-seer.” This isn’t a significant problem, because that is what the English word “television” means as well (tele, Greek for “far,” and visio, Latin for “sight.”) But imagine a language that used the term “far-seer” as a term for a prophet or holy man. A literal translation from our imaginary language might be “I want to talk to my television,” when really he means that he wants to talk to his pastor or religious leader. Or the term cul-de-sac: this is a term to mean a dead-end road or a court. But it literally means “butt of bag.” A universal translator would have a difficult time dealing with that. Imagine an alien being who wants to know where I live, and what he hears through his universal translator would be, “I live down that butt-of-bag.”

The problem gets worse when one considers inflections: some languages attach grammatical meaning to a word through a morpheme, or semantically meaningful units. In some languages, called “agglutinative languages,” many of these meaningful units can be attached to a word. A single word in these languages can express the meaning that, in English, would require an entire sentence. In a case like this, a universal translator might have to spit out some weird stuff. An alien who says, “Baetthakuerian” might have that word translated as “Feminine marker, plural marker, past-tense, leave.” The target “should” be, in English, “the women left.”  (“Ba” being a gender marker, “et” marking past tense, etc.) And if a universal translator manages to be good enough that it can translate sense-for-sense instead of literally there is the concern that important contextual meaning is lost. The Hebrew word yom can be used to describe the period of time in which the sun is shining, a full twenty-four hour day, or an unspecified period of time that could be days or centuries; context tells us which is meant. And, of course, sometimes contextual clues are absent. How would a universal translator handle that? The universal translator would have to know which use was meant. This means that translators would also have to have telepathic power.

I’m not suggesting that universal translation can’t be achieved with advanced technology or (in the case of fantasy worlds) through magic. But what I am suggesting is that some basic care needs to be taken when we create worlds. Unless we are engaging in an intensely personal process of creation that will never leave the space between one’s ears, the worlds that SF and fantasy fans create are meant to be consumed by others. They are game worlds that we share with our friends, worlds that we set novels and comics in, and we turn our creations into web series and LARPs. When a person sits down to create a world, it has to pass a basic “sniff test.”

This, then, requires that we know a little basic linguistics. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Many fantasy worlds I have encountered include jarring biological abnormalities, such as having two examples of an apex predator occupying the same ecosystem without coming into conflict. And the problem of fantasy races is another example: while I love elves, dwarves, and hobbits, it is a bit odd to think that they would all live in the same space. Wouldn’t one have crowded the other out, much as Neanderthals were crowded out/absorbed by Homo sapiens? And what about the maps that many of us randomly scribbled down while we should have been paying attention in our high school chemistry classes? Are we absolutely certain that the world we are setting our stories, games, and graphic novels in have fjords where they are supposed to be? And why is it that so many game worlds have Bronze Age raiders valiantly resisting or at least being completely unaffected by the numerically superior and better organized Iron Age empires on the borders?

Similarly, in SF, how is it that entire cultures manage to spring up on planets that have only one discernable ecosystem? (Really? Entire planets of nothing but desert, forest, or ice, you say?) Perhaps I am being too picky. I can already predict a reasonable response to this: “I play RPGs/read/write/etc. to escape from reality, not to make more of it.” I suppose that is fine for some people. But I am always impressed when someone gets it right. And that means knowing a little bit of physics, geography, history, linguistics, biology, and probably economics as well. While you’re at it, knowing some comparative mythology, music, architecture, and chemistry is probably smart. And some basic military history would help.

If you have the stories in you, go ahead and keep writing them. Keep naming your races things like “Ke’theqixa” and “Plixin’glaming” if you want to. Let them wear bastardized and a-historical armor. Let beam weapons and swords exist side-by-side if you must, and allow extremely low-powered space-faring races to somehow, against all odds, resist being colonized by super-advanced beings who can warp space-time to their will. But I hope you have some kind of internal logic that explains why every warrior in your metal-poor world walks around in full plate mail, or why your technologically superior race of conquering aliens seems to lack the basic social cohesion necessary to make lunch, much less get off their home planet.

And please, if you have to use apostrophes in names of your alien race (as I am guilty of, too), then have your language worked out well enough in advance that you can explain why they are there.

Anyone who read my last two blogs will know that I did the following things: dismiss the “X-punk” affix, (unintentionally) dismiss some sub-genres that use the affix to describe themselves, and then backtrack from my position. I’m nothing if not inconsistent. But in the discussions that followed, my good friend and fantasy/SF writer Marshall Maresca suggested (if I may paraphrase) that “—punk” serves as a useful shorthand. It calls to mind a subversive, rebellious attitude that transgresses accepted social norms to create a more liberated social space. He wrote, “If someone tells me, ‘I’m doing a teslapunk story’ or ‘I’m doing an atompunk story’, then I’ve got an instant sense of exactly the feel and look they want to achieve.” He then went on to agree that “nowpunk” makes no sense.

I was satisfied. I still disagree with the use of “—punk” on the grounds that overuse strips it of meaning. But I was willing to accept his argument. After all, that is one of the processes through which languages change. Linguistic communities (or, more accurately, interpretive communities) decide for themselves how a word is to be used, and set the term in ways that are useful for them. In Old English, the word “stench” (stenc) simply meant “smell.” It was possible to tell a woman that she had a lovely stench, and not get slapped. Words change as the community needs them to change. So I accepted Marshall’s argument, and accepted that he threw me a bone in agreeing about “nowpunk.”

And then, I woke up at 2:00 AM. Why not nowpunk? If we accept that “—punk” is a useful shorthand (which I haven’t completely accepted, I just don’t want to argue about right now), then what keeps “nowpunk” from being meaningful? If we are going to build a useful framework, nothing excludes this term from use.

My first thought was that “nowpunk” is really just “punk.” Not so under our new schema. If the “—punk” affix means that something about the setting or the characters therein transgress social norms and strive for liberation, then we have to accept that this carries its own meaning that is distinct from “Punk” in terms of the social and musical movement from the ‘70s. The terms are related, but not conflated. “Punk” in terms of the social and musical movement is a free morpheme: it stands alone as a unit of meaning. Meanwhile, “—punk” is a bound morpheme: it must be attached to another unit of meaning to be useful.

I was still unconvinced at that point. After all, if I were talking about the oatmeal that is sitting next to me, waiting to be eaten, I wouldn’t call it “now-oatmeal,” would I? My dogs that share my house are not my “now-dogs” (in contrast to the dogs I have had in the past). But actually, we do that all the time. People talk about “my current girlfriend” or “the class I am taking now.” It is a way of classifying the information. All of my objections to “nowpunk” had been put to bed.

I did have a final problem, though. What made “nowpunk” fundamentally different from, say, a techno-thriller by any number of Tom Clancy-esque writers? What made “nowpunk” different from Modern Warfare 3? At first, I recalled that in the discussion, CSI was suggested: they do impossible things with technology, but put into a modern setting. “Enhance the picture” was the example. But the characters in CSI don’t subvert the social order in any way. And it isn’t just subversion: Sterling, in his original suggestion about “nowpunk” said that “Gibson’s doing this too” ( The characters in Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History aren’t all about subversion.Some are, but others are just trying to navigate their way through a fragmented and splintered Modernity.

There is the key: I don’t think “nowpunk” is describing the characters or the technology, so much as the ways in which the characters move through technocratic Modernity. The modern world just has a different feel than the world of a few generations prior. Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikoli Leskov” (1936), wrote, “A generation that has gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body” (84). For Benjamin, the world had changed in ways and at speeds that culture was not capable of accepting or even understanding. And the pace of technological (and economic) change has certainly increased since the time Benjamin wrote his essay. Benjamin suggests that we live in a fractured, partial existence. But more than this, according to critic Ben Highmore, Benjamin suggests that the fractures of our existence are the detritus, the trash of previous eras. Highmore suggests that:

The ‘object’ of fascination that animates Benjamin’s later work is the Parisian arcade, not in its heyday but as a ‘ruin’ existing in a time when it has been superseded, outmoded. The rag-picker [Benjamin’s image for those in an uneasy relationship with Modernity] deals in the second-hand, in the dreams of the past for a future that was never realized. (Everyday Life & Cultural Theory, 65).

We are the ragpickers, the people who deal in trash culture. We are trying to take the failures of modern culture and repurpose them into new ways of dealing with the ruins all around us. That, I think, is what Nowpunk probably is.