On Languages, Linguistics, the Future, and the Fantasy

I've been thinking a lot about language in fiction. And--I know--we've talked about this before on this blog. So, I'm sorry if I'm repeating what's already been said, and I hope you'll bear with me! But I can't quit thinking about language and it's use in fiction--in particular, in the two genres tend to make up at least some elements of the language--fantasy and science fiction.

Both of these genres use language differences to show (rather than tell) the differences in setting. For fantasy, it's a way of showing a different world, complete with different language. For the most part, I find this effective in the genre, particularly with names. When it becomes so complex that you can't reasonably pronounce the name (Hrthowhujar D'roofyn) or you need a glossary in order to understand the story, in my opinion, the author has gone too far into his own world to keep the story relatable to the reader.

Sci fi, though, has a different, but related, reason for using its own language--to show the evolution of time in a realistic way. The first thing in language to change from generation to generation is slang and cursing. You can see this now even within the living generations--many of my students had no problem whatsoever using the "hard" curse words, while my grandmother blushed at the idea of saying anything worse than "darn."

In my own work, I used the changes in slang as a clue--language takes a long time to change, and the level of change in speech was a clue about how much time had actually passed. I've gotten some criticism for it--I've read more than one review where people have felt that if I wanted to cuss, I should have just done it. I didn't use alternate curse words because I was afraid of damaging the young minds (after all, a side character from the present curses in Chapter 1)--I was trying to show that language had shifted.

And I tried to be logical about it--curse words and slang had roots in every day words--with the exception of "frex," which grew organically from the FRX, a detail that I left for closer readers to discover on their own.

Alternating languages in science fiction has a long-standing tradition. I'll wave my standard fan-girl flag and bring up what I think does language the best--Firefly. If you listen to the commentary on the DVDs, you'll discover that Joss Whedon felt that the two power-house nations of the world in the future would be America and China--so the language of Firefly is a combo of the two. You'll notice a Chinese influence in a lot of writing in the background and, of course, when the characters curse.

In dystopian works, you'll also often see made-up language as a background to the world. From Blade Runners to Panem, sexteens to Baddies, Therapeutic Forgetting Clinics to Plagues, a key element of any dystopia is showing what's changed through the way people speak.

Of course, some people hate the made-up words that authors try to show in sci fi or fantasy. There's really no way to please everyone, but whenever someone brings up language and whether or not you should show the change in it, I think of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. Whatever you think of it, there's no denying the role language played in the story--traditional Shakespearean language surrounded by a modern-day setting. Would it have been better to update the language, along with the setting?

For my part, I'm happy as long as the author has put some sort of thought in the linguistics. Even if it's as simple as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the super-convenient Babblefish, as long as the author doesn't ignore the elephant in the room and actually addresses some sort of language shift, I'm happy.

How about you? Do you like authors to play with language or not? What work do you think deals with language very well?


Pam said...

When it seems to flow effortlessly and enhances world building I am all for it.

erica m. chapman said...

I have trouble with this. In my WIP I'm trying to invent new slang (it's only 50 years in the future) so I didn't need to change much... but referencing pop culture gets hard... I think we need to be able to see how things evolve. I have some Spanish in mine, just here and there to show that we're all blended.

Great post!! It's funny. I was just thinking about this recently ;o)

symbolman said...

I wrote a book using only international symbols. Called Symbolman. Won a Hollywood Award in 2000 for animating part of it. Visual Esperanto.


NotNessie @ Today's Adventure said...

I think the use of language is a key factor in worldbuilding. If the characters in a story sound exactly the same as my neighbors next door, I have a hard time buying into concept that I'm reading about a different time and/or place.

I've alwasy thought that Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series does a good job with using alternate slang not only to show that you're dealing with a different time, but to delineate the various cliques in Tally's world.

Matthew MacNish said...

I like it when it's done well, but it can be a bit touchy. Too much of it too soon, or if it's just too cheesy, can ruin a story for me. But I thought you did very well in AtU, I especially like the part where we discover Elder has had a sort of accent all along, but we only discover it through Amy's point of view. Very clever.

Craig Rayl said...

When you think about language in a story you have to sometimes talk to people a couple generations younger than yourself to see how language really changes. For Young Adults so many words become slang or nicknames practically overnight. It is also an excellent way to mix cultures in a novel. What one word means in one language can mean something completely different in another.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I think it's an important element that can't be ignored. Or if you ignore it you better have a good reason for it. If you take THE MAZE RUNNER series by James Dashner, he has new slang for his modernistic society of boys. He explains it, and it works because it is realistic. When you engrain it into the society like he did it seems natural and you don't think about it. Like the background comparison. It shouldn't stick out like a sore thumb. I found myself at the end of reading the two books using the language in the books, or wanting to call my husband a 'slinthead' because it rolled off the tongue so pleasently =). So, it's all in the way you use it. Don't use it just because you feel like you need it, use it because it's the natural course of things.

karrijustina said...

I think there definitely needs to be a balance - my eyes tend to gloss over words I can't easily pronounce and so many fantasy novels contain overly complicated names. But like you said, if it's natural and fits, language can be a very effective means of developing your setting.

Juliette Wade said...

I use language all the time, because with my linguistics/anthropology background, I always feel something is missing if language doesn't take its place. I see dialect differences (as in sf) as a variation of character voice. I see alien languages and fantasy languages as critical background for worlds, but the more alien language is used, the more alienating it can be for readers. My approach is generally to let the "spirit" of the alien language change the use of English in a sytematic way if I want to portray the alien worldview from the inside.

Melissa said...

I think Firefly is an excellent example of creating slang for a story. The slang used makes sense to the world of Firefly and it isn't used so extensively that it gets in the way of the story.

Nick Smith said...

Try reading A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
He did a fine job of creating slang that sounded futuristic.
The key point was that he struck a fine balance between introducing too many words and not too few. He also made the words easily pronounceable you could sight read the words without having to worry about how they were pronounced. Finally he introduced them in context so that it was easy to guess what they meant.
Bye droogs.

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