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Tag Archives: Xenolinguistics

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.