TT: Brain Snakes

ALAN: Last time you promised to share some of the brain snakes that occur when you start to conlang. The image of something wriggling around inside your skull is gruesomely attractive. I can hardly wait!

Brain Snakes

JANE: Right…  Most of my brain snakes hatch from an element of conlangs we discussed last time.  If you create a language – even to the extent of implying that your characters are not speaking English – then you’re opening the door to a whole raft of issues.

ALAN: Wait!  How can you imply your characters are not speaking English?  Surely it should be quite clear?

JANE: Actually, a lot of would-be SF/F writers don’t seem to realize that even giving characters or places weird names implies a different language is at play.  By weird names, I don’t mean simple phonetic spelling, like “Soo-san” instead of “Susan” but calling a character Gyriitink or M’ff’mn.

Names don’t come from nowhere.  I’ve discussed this some in a past Wandering, but let me repeat the basics.  Names start out meaning something.  They may indicate that you’re the third male child (Number Three Son).  Or they may refer to some characteristic that your parents hope you will have (Faith, Hope, Charity).  Or they may indicate where or when you were born or where your ancestors came from.  Eventually, however, even names with meaning become ciphers.

ALAN: You mean like my name being “Alan”?  According to what I’ve read, “Alan” comes from the Breton and it means “handsome” (or possibly “little rock”, but I prefer handsome because clearly that describes me more accurately). Apparently there was also an Iranian tribe known as the Alans who migrated into Europe in the 4th century. The name might derive from them as well.

JANE: You can be a handsome little rock from Iran, if you like…

When numerous cultures come into contact, the cipher problem increases because people don’t just chose names from within their own culture.  They name to commemorate famous people, or relatives, or a good friend – any of which might have a root in another culture.  Or they just like the sound of a name and borrow it.

I’m curious.  Your wife is named “Robin.”  Was she named for the bird or for some other reason?

ALAN: She’s named after a friend of her mother’s who was called Robyn. No one is quite sure how or why the spelling changed on its way to Robin’s birth certificate… Except that it seems to be a family tradition to spell names “wrongly”. Robin’s mum is called Phyllis rather than “Phylis” and Robin’s grandmother was Ilean, as opposed to the more common Eileen…

JANE: That’s fascinating.  Just to complicate the brew, I’ll note that I’m more familiar with the spelling “Phyllis.”  I don’t think I’ve ever seen the name spelled “Phylis.”

Anyhow, before I tempt myself into tangenting off into why I always check the spelling before signing a book for someone…

When I’m writing a book in an imaginary world setting for which I’m going conlang, one of the first questions I need to ask myself is what are the naming conventions, because names will be one of the major ways the reader will encounter the conlang.  Does the culture name for qualities?  Job?  Social position?  Or is it a cipher thing?  If a cipher thing, and the words are “made up,” that implies a complete language to go with the names, and so the names should at least sound as if they come from the same language.

 And, of course, in most cultures, a mixture exists, so, Gyriitink’s best friend might be named Trumpetvine.

ALAN: It seems to me that different naming conventions can be a good way to imply different languages being spoken.  Michael Moorcock’s anti-hero Elric had a best friend named “Moonglum.”  The difference in their names provided a quick and constant reminder that they came from different cultures in a multi-lingual world. Am I correct in that assumption?

JANE: I agree.  That’s what I always felt.

ALAN: Do you have any other snakes squirming around in there? What colour are they? Do they bite?

JANE: Many.  One that really “bites” (in the slang sense) is the question of titles or honorifics.  Do you make up new ones to go with the new language, or do you stick with familiar ones like “king” and “queen.”

For me, there’s a constant balancing act between risking alienating readers by providing too much information that has to be learned before they can settle in and enjoy the story, and falling into a cookie cutter universe.

For the Firekeeper Saga, I opted to stick with the familiar titles for the first encountered cultures, then slowly segue into different titles for new cultures, hoping that, by then, the reader would have a foundation and be willing to tackle a little more variation.

ALAN: But familiar titles carry a lot of cultural and linguistic baggage with them. We all think we know what we mean by the word “king,” but our meaning would not necessarily correspond to that of another culture. Therefore, using the word might give the reader a false impression of the society you are describing based on the reader’s own preconceptions. I suspect this might be slightly more true of American readers than it would be for readers from other countries because Americans have never lived with kings and queens or with aristocracy in general (except very briefly a few hundred years ago) so they might lack the necessary historical perspective.

So perhaps you might try and avoid that trap by using less familiar, but nevertheless very real, titles. Caesar – or “Kaiser” as I was (Germanically) taught to pronounce it in Latin class, for example. Or Vizier perhaps. But as soon as you do that you are back with the problem you were trying to avoid of potentially alienating your readers by using too many unfamiliar words. Where does the happy medium lie?

JANE: Oh… And that’s only part of it.  Remember, “Caesar” didn’t start as a title.  It started a one part of a Roman personal name, that of Gaius Julius Caesar.  So, if you use “Caesar” as a title, a reader would have every right to assume a tie to ancient Rome – and many would expect it and be disappointed when it didn’t develop.

Just to toss more into the soup kettle of complexities, “Tsar” is “Caesar” slightly mispronounced (that is, adapted for another language), so if you use “Tsar…”

Well, you see how complex it gets and why sometimes a writer just settles for “king.”

ALAN: I certainly agree that it’s a knotty problem of Gordian proportions. As with the original Gordian Knot I suspect that simple solutions are probably the best. So “king” it is.

JANE: But the brain snakes of conlanging get even more complicated.  I’d love to talk a little more about them, and toss out a question that’s bugging me as I write my current book.  How about next time?

10 Responses to “TT: Brain Snakes”

  1. Fred Bartholomaeus Says:

    Just to add a something completely tangential – your brain snakes remind me vividly of a nematode I worked on, which infested insects. The larvae got right inside the insect – in this case a sheep louse – and I saw several curled up inside the head capsule, JUST like your little brain snake picture. What a headache! Entomology is a fertile ground for fantasy world building.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    Interestingly, one thing that I almost invariably read as a “they’re not speaking English” marker is the use of fully-coherent names. Something that just doesn’t happen in English – nor any other modern west European language, although some use understandable names more frequently than others. I’m told that Amerindian languages use them exclusively, although that’s something I’d want to see confirmed by speakers of those languages, and I know that they’re quite common in Arabic, so seeing a pattern like all women having names like Frostflower or Thorn, and all men with names like Windbourne just screams “translation” whether the author intended it to or not.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I think “Amerind” languages is pretty sweeping — as I’m sure you do. Even here in NM numerous ones are spoke: Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, Keras, Apache, Navajo, Hopi, Zuni. (My spellings may be slightly off.)

      Most of the Indians I know have several names, making doing a survey even more difficult.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Which is why I remain to be convinced that my childhood source knew what it was talking about. OTOH, I’ve seen examples of people being given names in Coastal, Plains and Woodlands languages and there is _always_ a coherent English phrase given as the sense of the name. Likewise for several Mesoamerican languages. There’s also the fact that so many indigenous family names are English translations of names associated with the family. So unless there are several classes of name and outsiders are only ever named from the ‘it means something’ group there must be something to the idea.

  3. Peter Says:

    I think even titles like “Vizier” will carry with them some cultural baggage, from Disney movies or Burton, if nothing else – like “Caesar” it creates assumptions about what kind of world you’re living in.

    This sort of thing can also be used to show the character’s cultural baggage – I remember once reading a book (author and title escape me) where the main character, while travelling, was shocked to discover that the name of one of his gods was a common given name in the area he was visiting.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Like Jesus is a common given name in Spanish? Yeah.

      I avoided getting into how and where titles are placed. We’re used to Title Followed by Name. But Japanese (to use just one example) the title follows the name. Or substitutes entirely FOR the name.

      And the title doesn’t need to be a hugely formal one. Relationship titles are very important in some cultures and substitute for given name frequently.

      All these decisions need to be made… Or, I should say, I need to make them before I’m completely comfortable.

      • Peter Says:

        Precisely like that, yeah.

        Relationship titles are another one that carry a lot of cultural baggage – in some cultures “aunt”, “uncle”, and “grandfather/grandmother” are used to refer to any adult of a certain relative age to the speaker (we do this a little in English: I’m sure a lot of us had “uncles” or “aunts” as kids who were family friends, not blood relations.)

        And questions of order don’t just apply to titles – I remember once trying to explain classical Roman naming systems to somebody who was a native speaker of Mandarin. It was…interesting.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Here’s a good one for you: in Persian, some titles change significance in a major way depending on whether they come before or after the name. “Mirza”, for example, in the form Mirza Abbas is simply ‘Mr Abbas’, whereas Abbas Mirza would be ‘Prince Abbas’ [mirza itself is a contraction of amir zadeh, ‘son of a prince’]

        You can just imagine the confusion that would engender among readers who were being asked to deduce the convention from the use of a title in your story.

      • Peter Says:

        I’ll see your Persian and raise you a Khmer, in which “Preah” can translate as either “King” or “God”, depending on context (and as an adjective can mean either “Holy” or “Royal”.)

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