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"Making" a Language

Discussion in 'Literary Arts' started by Bjørn of Helgåfjord, Aug 25, 2013.

  1. Bjørn of Helgåfjord

    Bjørn of Helgåfjord Himintelgja - Heaven Scraper

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    So I've been working for a long time on a novel (perhaps more like short novel) length story set in the future, in the year 2153, mostly on another planet (Theta IV) which is an Earth colony starting from 2136 soon after it is discovered.

    First, before getting to the main point of this thread, I feel that I should give you more context, so you "know where I'm coming from" and it all makes sense. Sorry it is a bit long but necessary I think.

    The planet of Theta IV (just called Theta usually) starts out for some years as a sort of penal colony similar to how Australia was. Criminals who aren't very bad, but still bad enough to get significant jail/prison time, and that behave pretty well, are offered a chance to do hard labor for awhile on Theta to build it up, where they earn their freedom and become free citizens of Theta.

    Given that there's very many criminals who work, and they work pretty hard, they're able to build up the capital of Theseus very quickly, relatively speaking, by about 2138. They then disperse, and start their own towns, etc. like Dashwood, Freetown, New Budapest, Fernfield, etc. Groningen Scientific, a fictitious Dutch company by name anyway, is also a pretty influential firm in...research on the planet.

    Wanting a sense of strength, unity, and identity, the former inmates launch movements for their own sort of language, even if just by name more than anything else, as well as autonomy of rule, later on. But that's for another time.

    SO, the main point of this thread finally! This new language, dubbed "Thetan," would pull from Dutch and other Germanic languages, and probably a few others.

    That IS, if I decided to actually implement it. That's where I ask for your opinion...do you think that it would be cool or more interesting as a reader, to read a little bit about this new language?

    Here's some examples of words I'm thinking:

    "Politzen" = "Police." Derived from the combo of "Polizei" and "Politie" the German and Dutch words for Police.

    "Eloden" = "Reloading." Seemed like a Germanic-zation of the English word. Seems legit.

    "Cüken" = ??? dunno. Maybe "Cooking"

    Also for this one Thetan woman, I made her last name "Cailín" which in Gaelic means "young unmarried woman." The word is used in the lyrics of the Celtic song "Star of the County Down" which is about a young man who is walking down a road, happens upon a "cailín" that is very beautiful and becomes very interested in her. And this is sort of what happens in my story with a particular main character.

    Anyways, I know that these languages already have words for things like reloading and police, but I'm thinking that a lot of what are likely ill-educated criminals from all corners of Earth who want to make a national identity of sorts with language, would probably end up jumbling things together!

    Anyhoo, I know that was a big wall-o-text so sorry lol.
     
  2. Cordelia

    Cordelia Global Moderator
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    Development of languages is popular among writers these days, I would say newer writers more often than established, but part of that is the tendency for more established writers to let go making new languages because of their unpopularity among readers. There's a trend in readers these days, in literature more than video games, to frown a bit at conlanguages appearing in the books they read. That's why the following advice is so important. You don't have to forgo your language, and you don't have to let popular opinion determine what you write (exclusively); it serves more to introduce you to how to pursue including what you want to include to enhance your writing and your world without it being layers of plaster and paint to be chipped away from a narrative that maybe didn't need it all in the first place.

    What you're describing isn't so much a separate language, but the natural evolution of language in nature. You take groups of people who don't all speak the same language, but speak enough to have a "common language" among them, and they start sharing words. Dropping in the shared words now and then, such as in referring to police, or other common objects and interactions, is perfectly acceptable in literature these days. I have some notes, however.

    I can't recall now who the original source of the advice was, but what it boiled down to was this: Start with including a reasonable number of words from your new language (say, zero), and fight for the right of every additional word to exist on top of that. We, as writers, invest a lot of time, energy, and pride in world and language building, and it's only natural that we'd then want to share that time, energy, and pride with our readers. The problem becomes the applicability, necessity, and fluidity of what we want to include. We can learn a lot through the contextual placement of a word -- it's how we learn words in our own native languages we've never before encountered --, but there needs to be some kind of justification behind the decision to use the words at all.

    I read a series with a quasi-Slavic language in it, and while I did enjoy the books, I found the quasi-Slavic language distracting and unnecessary. In addition to just being hard to pronounce, a reader stopping to suss out the proper sounds also stops them from reading, period; it breaks the mood and can eliminate their attachment to the prose and characters. The writer included a direct translation immediately after using the quasi-Slavic phrase or sentence to ensure the reader knew what they needed to know, but doing so eliminated any reason for them to have included the words in the first place. Removing the conlanguage words would have had no negative impact on the prose or narrative, and if you can say that about anything in your work, then it has no right, and no justification, to be left in the final product.

    If you can look at your story and say "The presence of occasional community words sprinkled throughout for common use illustrates the integration of multiple cultures into the Thetan Culture," then you have justification. Any words that fall outside of that definition, you'd need to give a really hard look at to find reasonable justification for their inclusion. Language can add to the world the same way giving a thought to new flora and fauna, the orientation of the stars, the color of the sky at sunset, and the quality of the air would add to the world the reader feels, and emphasize "This is someplace else." When it stops adding and starts demanding the reader pay attention to how clever the writer was is when you've gone too far.

    Also, pick a common theme for your Thetan dialect. You can pull from multiple language roots, and apply them to multiple objects or events, but have something unifying your choices, guiding what is translated and why. For instance, you have a culture of criminals working off their sentences with a chance to inhabit the planet they're making habitable; things like the tools they use, the people who watch them (bosses, wardens, guards, police, etc.), the common food they eat, clothing, times of day, what would the convicts communicate between each other to slip past the guards' notice? How might that integrate into common usage? You're essentially devising the planet's native slang, and converting that slang into common usage. Tossing words out there because you want it to appear like "someplace else" won't give your readers the feeling you actually want them to have. Understanding why a thing is said means you'll have a much easier time conveying that to the reader without having to then explain its meaning, and you won't have to fight for consistency.

    As a last note: Though this may fall somewhere between conlanguage and the natural evolution of language, pay a thought to what you choose.

    If "cuken" has a Germanic root and meaning, then use that root and meaning and let that define what it means on Theta. If it has NO root or meaning, I'd advise either to look for a different word already designed to suit your purpose, or establish a pattern wherein common English words are borrowed as heavily as other Germanic words, but morphed by used (as the others would be) to sound different, more heavily Germanic in this case. But as with all things I've said above, justify your choices in doing so, otherwise it reads like you have no attachment to the words or their meanings, but wanted to add something to the story that said "Other Planet, you guys! Get it?!" which you really want to avoid. In this, research is your biggest friend.

    Anything can be done in fiction -- that's what makes fiction so fantastic --, but it's all about how you do it that matters most. It is not about originality, and it is not about how unique your writing, story concepts, or characters are. It is all about how compelling you make the story, because a reader will forgive you a mountain of cliches and tropes, a sea of "I've seen this all before" if you do it in a compelling manner. You have a chance to become the source against which other similar stories are weighed, rather than another story dismissed for its "unoriginality". Whether you intend to go professional, or write for the pleasure, you're still writing for your piece to be read and enjoyed, and I think you owe it to yourself and your readers to do the best you possibly can, and that's writing compelling stories with solid justification.
     
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  3. Bjørn of Helgåfjord

    Bjørn of Helgåfjord Himintelgja - Heaven Scraper

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    Thanks so much for spending the time to reply as such. You are very right, that things need to be anchored well or binned.

    Now that I think of it, I committed a "fallacy" in explaining the word "Politzen." Here's the sentence:

    The Team had procured ten local law enforcement tactical gear sets including vests clearly labeled with “POLITZEN,” Theten for “Police.”




    Now that I see this, I think I better change it, eliminating the explanation. It may be a good idea to also compound the sentence with the next, if possible-some diction and/or syntax changes may be necessary for that, but perhaps:

    The Team had procured ten local law enforcement tactical gear sets including vests clearly labeled with "POLITZEN." Each man donned their gear, and loaded their weapons, placing magazines and other equipment in the various pockets.

    That way I still say the exact same thing really (the 2nd sentence was unchanged), but I don't use Captain Obvious to say it. A reader might see that they have "POLITZEN" in big letters, and *hopefully* think pretty quick that it's a wee bit like "POL-ICE" and maybe make the connection to actual law enforcement vests in real life that might say POLICE or SHERIFF. All without me telling them "Hey did you get that? I sorta made up this word that's like POLICE but it's not!"

     
  4. Cordelia

    Cordelia Global Moderator
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    Yes, between "law enforcement" and "POLITZEN", which does sound very Czech or Polish ("policie" and "policja", pronounced "pol-eets-yah", respectively), you definitely do not need the explanation to hammer the point home. Including it makes it seem as though you expect your readers to have a grade five reading level, whether you intend it to feel that way or not, as well as making it sound like you're having an aside with the reader to make sure they're keeping up, which definitely interrupts the flow of the text.

    To this point, remember that most perspectives require you give information only the POV character will have or notice. For example, if you place a really expensive, elaborate lamp in a living room the character has seen a million times, then the million and first time they enter the room (with the reader along for the ride, of course), they're unlikely to take several paragraphs to notice the intricacies of the lamp's appearance, or contemplate its origin, how long its been in the family, or its value. This is the writer wanting the reader to see exactly what they see, and for whatever reason this lamp is what the writer wants the reader to see the most, even if it has absolutely no plot relevance whatsoever. Want me to notice the lamp and how expensive it is? Have someone knock it over, or almost destroy it, then show me how the character, or those around them, react to the situation and illustrate its value. That said, in this instance, the character taking note of the equipment brought back by the Team is probably a Thetan who has adjusted to the local slang, and would not be taking the time to think "Ah, politzen; that's Thetan for 'police'," and that, more than the inclusion of the word itself, is why it would have no justification for existing there.

    As a stylistic note, using italics to denote words being in a separate language is maybe a little cleaner than quotation marks. It's a stylistic choice I would make, and prefer personally, but this is one of those matters that comes down to the preference of the writer, with no immutable rules to guide you.
     
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  5. Bjørn of Helgåfjord

    Bjørn of Helgåfjord Himintelgja - Heaven Scraper

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    Yeah I would do italics, but I already have it set (though I could change it later maybe) that italicized sentences/a sentence is a noteworthy thought by a main character, and italicized dialogue with quotes are radio transmissions, while normal dialogue with quotes is localized to people near each other or obviously not using a radio.

    However, as I don't expect that I'd be writing whole sentences and such in Thetan, rather just putting in a word here and there if justified, I could easily do italics for it.

    I know that I had made mention of there being a Thetan language, talking a bit about it, as well as a Thetan tradition. In line with not telling, I think it would be best to dispose of such descriptions-at least for the language. Chances are if the reader sees a strange italicized word they'd never heard before, and see a couple of them, they'll think "oh this must be some new language." Or maybe they'll look them up. Certain words or place names, if the reader doesn't know what they mean/refer to, it wouldn't hurt the reading experience, but if they do, or look them up, then they can see that it's an allusion. The allusion might speak of a certain theme or emotion or the like.

    Like my example of the Thetan woman being named Helena Cailín. I was researching name meanings for different countries/languages, and came across something that said that in Dutch, Helena (or a version of the name) means something like "light." This was great because it contributed to a story-wide motif I have of light vs dark which leads to a good vs evil sort of theme overall. I don't expect that every reader will know that, or look it up, at all, but those who do get curious are in for a literary surprise so to speak-a subtle one, but a motif-contributor nonetheless.

    And as I had said, "Cailín" is a Gaelic word for a young woman, or in particular, an unmarried one. Which she is. You may wonder why she has a Dutch sort of first name (or maybe she's just from the capital of Montana! Lol jk) and a Gaelic last name.
    That would be because of it alluding to the story outlined in the lyrics of the Irish song "Star of the County Down." The gist of it is that a man is remarking about this "cailín" coming down the road, and they both notice each other.

    IIRC the lyrics go:


    Near Banbridge town, in the County Down
    One morning in July
    Down a bóithrín green came a sweet cailín
    And she smiled as she passed me by.
    Oh she looked so sweet from her two bare feet
    To the sheen of her nut brown hair
    Such a coaxing elf, sure I shook myself
    To be sure I was really there.

    From Bantry Bay up to Derry Quay
    And from Galway to Dublin Town,
    No maid I've seen like the brown cailín
    That I met in the County Down

    Here, a reader might discover the lyrical origin of the word, and then derive from the theme of the song.
     

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