TT: To Conlang or Not

JANE: Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been escaping from the summer heat (here) and the winter chill (there) by discussing the fascinating subject of languages in SF/F.

Conlang Zones

ALAN: There have been a lot of excellent books and articles written about the subject, and rather than just recapping those, I thought I’d ask you about how you — to mangle Hamlet’s famous query – approach the issue of “To conlang or not to conlang.”

JANE: It’s certainly an issue I’ve thought a lot – maybe too much – about.  So, fire away!

ALAN: Have you ever felt the need to invent a language in order to give depth and flavour to the world you are writing about? And how far along that track are you prepared to travel?

JANE: Yes, I have.  Can I back up slightly?  I need to provide a foundation for my answer.

ALAN: Go for it! I’m all in favour of firm foundations.

JANE: As I mentioned a while back, my first several books were set either on our Earth or in a future of that Earth,  so the earliest novel in which I might have dealt with this issue was When the Gods Are Silent.  This was my first attempt to write what is often called “imaginary world fantasy” – which is just what it sounds like.

I did a lot of cool things, but I didn’t get into the issue of language.  I’m not sure it even occurred to me.  If it did, I dismissed it because in this world there had been global travel for a long time, and it seemed likely that the equivalent of a trade tongue would have been in use.

ALAN: I’ve actually just re-read When the Gods Are Silent. There’s a coincidence!

JANE: I hope you enjoyed.  It’s finding a new audience now that it’s available as an e-book.

Anyhow, the first book in which I really had to consider the question of creating a language or languages was when I decided to write imaginary world fantasy again in the “Firekeeper Saga,” which starts with Through Wolf’s Eyes.

But a funny thing had happened between my writing this and When the Gods Are Silent.  I’d written two books in which multiple cultures and multiple languages were important: Changer and Changer’s Daughter.  For Changer’s Daughter (originally published as Legends Walking) in particular, language was crucial.

ALAN: These are my very favourites of your books. The cultural and linguistic aspects give the stories a depth and solidity which I really enjoy. I think I find something new every time I read them.

JANE:  Thank you!

From the original proposal forward, Through Wolf’s Eyes and its sequels were intended to be “frontier books.”  This frontier – just like the American continents – would have been colonized by various nations, each with their own languages.  So, even before I wrote a word, I was committed to at least minimal conlanging.

But that wasn’t the only language problem I was facing.  Firekeeper herself introduced an enormous language challenge.

ALAN: What was that?

JANE: Firekeeper was raised by wolves.  Although she speaks their language – no quick and easy telepathic fix for me! – she doesn’t remember speaking any of the human languages.  Initially, I planned to write the entire novel from her point of view, but I rapidly realized that the readers would shoot me.  (I might have shot me, too.)

ALAN: Sounds painful. Why the urge for self-harm?

JANE: Since Firekeeper has a very limited background, when she starts encountering new things, they’re largely defined by what they are not.  A horse is a “not elk,” because an elk is the closest reference point she has to a horse.

ALAN: That’s an interesting approach. After all, a horse is not a lot of things. That could make it hard to be precise. But I take your point – I think I’d very quickly get annoyed with conversations full of nouns that are negatives of other nouns.

JANE: It certainly made any scene in which Firekeeper encountered something new exceedingly cumbersome, so I introduced Derian Carter as a point of view character so that each and every scene would not need to be an anthropological investigation.

Firekeeper’s twisted way of seeing the world is much more inviting in smaller doses.   Eventually, she does learn Pellish (the language of the first two nations she encounters), although she remains slapdash in her sentence structure.  You can tell when she cares about something because she takes the time to speak carefully.

ALAN: Are Pellish and Firekeeper’s animal talk the only languages?

JANE: Oh, no!  Even the two Pellish colonies, Hawk Haven and Bright Bay, show some linguistic and cultural drift.   Several other nations are introduced as the series advances, and each has its own languages.  Therefore, as Firekeeper encounters new cultures, she has to learn more languages, a process she finds very annoying.

ALAN: I’ve been in her position, so I sympathise. I generally find that I understand far more than I can actually articulate, which can be very frustrating indeed.

JANE: As for me, I rather liked creating the languages.  I didn’t actually “conlang,” but I did come up with basic rules of grammar, forms of address, and the like for several different cultures.  The languages, to me, were windows into the cultures and their values –a show, don’t tell, for those readers who care about these things.

But the question of comprehension wasn’t the only language problem Firekeeper created for me.

ALAN: What other headaches did she give you?

JANE: I did a great deal of research into how humans learn language.  One thing that most researchers agreed upon was that if the concept of spoken language was not learned early, a child will not be able to learn how to speak.

ALAN: Yes – there are many documented cases of feral children who were rescued from the wild quite late in their lives and who never really came to grips with the idea of language at all.

JANE:  I read about those…   The same is true – although the window is a bit larger – for written language.

ALAN: I always admired the way that Edgar Rice Burroughs gave Tarzan both spoken and written languages. Tarzan’s first spoken language was that of the Mangani, the great apes who adopted him, so the concept of speaking was very firmly part of his life. But interestingly, his first written language was English, which he puzzled out from the pictures and words he found in the books in the cabin his parents built before they were killed. However he didn’t learn to speak  English until many years later. (Amusingly, his first spoken human language was French).

Burroughs’ description of Tarzan’s initial struggles with the written word is beautifully written and very poignant.

JANE: Tarzan’s experience definitely had an influence on me.  I loved those parts of the story.

With Firekeeper, I made certain that I showed (through the nightmares that serve as flashbacks) that Firekeeper had been exposed to both spoken and written language before the deaths of her parents and her adoption by the wolves.

Maybe that wouldn’t trouble any of my readers, but once I knew the theory, I had to lay the foundation.

ALAN: I have another question…

JANE: I’d love to hear it, but let’s wait until next time.  I need to go invent another language for the book I’m currently working on.

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2 Responses to “TT: To Conlang or Not”

  1. Peter Says:

    Speaking as a reader who it would have driven up the wall, thank you for laying the foundation. (I think most readers have a button or two that can be pushed, and one of mine happens to be language.)

  2. Paul Says:

    A good lesson on how much care and thought goes into your books.

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