Grammar of Old and New Worlds

True confession time. I’ve been watching Spartacus: Gods of the Arena on Netflix.  This is not Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus. This show is a guilty pleasure obviously designed to emulate 300, which, oddly enough, I wasn’t a big fan of.  The Starz channel production uses that bleak 300-esque cinematography and the same stylized stop-action, blood-flying-everywhere fighting. (It is about gladiators after all.) The style can get on your nerves after a while. However, for me, John Hannah and Lucy Lawless as the scheming owners of the ludus (the gladiator stable) make the show worth watching.  Think I Claudius (with a touch of Caligula) meets Gladiator. 

But I come not to praise Spartacus. What has really fascinated me about this show is its use of diction. (Didn’t see that coming did you?) You’ve got the usual stilted language that writers rely on to indicate you’re reading or watching something classical or high fantasy.  But the writers of Spartacus took it a step farther. They tweaked the grammar of English to emulate Latin. Just a bit. They dropped the articles.  Well, most of them. They really aren’t consistent about it, but they did it just enough to give the English the flavor of ancient Rome.  

Here’s a few PG-13 examples (there aren’t many of them) from Spartacus:

When has son denied father?

Man of ambition is capable of anything.

I will not die faceless slave forgotten by history.

This is but glorious beginning.

You get the idea.

Latin, you see, doesn’t have an equivalent to “the” or “a.” (Another true confession.  I took many years of Latin in school. I am geek. I am so geeky that I won the Latin project competition one year with my carefully crafted wax tablets. ) Latin is a very different language than English.  Latin is all about cases and endings, and the word order is flexible.  So, dropping the articles was the simplest way to give the English tripping off the tongues of the citizens of Capua a ring of Latin.

This strategy got me thinking about all the ways diction might be used to create the flavor of other worlds—either fantastic or futuristic.  Vocabulary is one way to do it. [Elana did a great post on slang a few weeks ago.] You get a great sense of the world from this bit from Clockwork Orange:

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence.

Style is another.  You can definitely tell high fantasy from a noir detective story by the style of the language. For instance, it's a no brainer which one of these is from Lord of the Rings and which one is from Mildred Pierce:

“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.”

"You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can't, because you'll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing."

So, manipulating the grammar of the language can be a third way to create the feeling of a new world.  I don’t mean using bad grammar to indicate an incomplete grasp of our language. No, I mean changing the grammar or sentence structure of English to emulate an alien language or maybe a profound change in a human one. 

Think about how English has changed since Shakespeare or Chaucer's time. What's it going to be like 400 years from now--if we're speaking it all.  Or what would the language be like if we didn't have certain concepts anymore?

The only good example I can think of at the moment is Babel-17 by Samuel Delaney.  In that story, the humans learn a language that actually designed by aliens to be a weapon.  The language doesn’t contain words for “I” or “self,” which theoretically limits the speaker’s ability to think about those concepts (at least in that language).  This is the same idea as Doublethink in Orwell’s 1984.  If you reduce the words in the language, you limit the speaker’s ability to think about concepts outside their vocabulary.

Can you guys think of any other science fiction or fantasy works that have used some tweak in grammar as a world building technique?  What are some of your favorite works that use diction—slang and/or style—in a creative way?

10 comments:

LM Preston said...

It's my guilty pleasure too!

Bittersweet Fountain said...

I loved studying Latin in high school. It's cool to see a show actually trying to sound Latin, though I'm glad they're not trying to take it too far. Getting rid of word order in English would just be a bad idea.

As for books that use diction, I have to say that Speaker for the Dead has changed my vocabulary. I'll be talking with my friends or even professors and I'll find myself wanting to use the words framling, ramen, or varelse. Sometimes I forget that those words haven't actually been adopted into the English language.

Anne said...

The Hubs and I have been watching this one too! I was thinking the exact same thing, though you nailed their technique while I was trying to figure out how they managed it.

Maggie Desmond-O'Brien said...

Haha, this has been the favorite show of the 'rents lately. That dialogue is fantastic, and I'd never even thought about it - great post!

Catherine Denton said...

Such an insightful post!! I needed to hear this.

Jan Dohner said...

The Vulcans, in all of the Star Trek universe, always sound so formal and use lots of big words. They never use contractions, slang or idioms. They profess to not understanding idioms as well. Even though they speak English, they always sound like Vulcans.

Stephsco said...

Loved this post! I've been paying more attention to things like this since I started writing. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a good example; Ford Prefect says a lot of great hoopy stuff that immediately clues you in that's he's different. But, that whole book is brilliant.

Krispy said...

I love this topic, and I totally watch Spartacus as a guilty pleasure too. I had no idea they were doing that with the dialogue! I'll have to pay more attention this week. :)

Nahno McLein said...

I really liked Orwell's 1984 language. It really made me thinking. You're right, language twisting can be really powerful. Lord of the Rings, that's always a good one. Robert Jordon's Wheel of Time is similar to that.
Nahno ∗ McLein

Angie Smibert said...

Great examples, guys! Psst. I think this week is the last episode of Gods of the Arena.