Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Alien Language for Writers 101

This week our theme is Alien Languages.

I’m going to confess right now the only alien language I’ve ever heard is what’s babbled out of a one and a half year old’s mouth especially when they’re trying to tell you they want their favorite meal of ‘sketty’ :D Interestingly, when it’s your own 18 month old talking, you pick up on the nuances of their language very quickly...and you try to get them to learn yours mostly by repetition and enunciation.

But the worlds of our characters, well, they’re a little different, aren’t they? We can’t just create an entire phonetical/grammatical system. Mmm, I suppose we could but what would be the point? You’d have to include a primer with every book and, even then, your reader would quickly grow bored and disgruntled. Likely your book, no matter how good it was, would hit the wall or, worse, get relegated to the dusty, dark corner of your bookshelves ‘until you had the proper amount of time to spend on it’. Neither scenario is what an author wants.

No, what we want is to create a ‘flavor’, an otherworldliness, to help provide characterization or contribute to world-building. How do we do that with language? There’s a couple of ways.

First, one character will listen to the alien words or if not actual words, she or he will listen to the sounds and the cadence and remark on it, somehow, even if to themselves.

For example, in Heartstone, Keriam has been learning the names of objects they encounter on their travels and thinks:

With his very round and broad, soft and smooth accent, his voice alone could inspire her hormones into a heady rush.

In Altered Destiny, Liane hears Devyn’s accent (and accents are both easier and more difficult to use effectively) and thinks:

“‘Tis flattered I am you approve of my clothing.” His burr deepened and sent shivers licking over her skin. She'd always loved accents and the Scots accent was the sexiest of them all.

In neither case am I using actual foreign words because I want the reader to a) understand what’s going on and b) get a feel for what the non-foreign speaker is feeling or sensing.

Second, use of created words. I used several in Heartstone and in Altered Destiny when I had to deal with a subject not-of-this-Earth. (Just as an aside -- an author has to be particularly cautious about creating 47 character/ten syllable words that have one or maybe two vowels. Why? Because no one can either pronounce it or really wants to try. Back in the old days, you'd see characters named XFETJCTHYRWQFTPKLMWRTY. Try saying that name passionately. I dare you.)

Heartstone had Gawan (used as the proper name and species identification of the bad guy/villain/arch enemy of all that is good and proper), linlie (for the small dragon-like creatures one of which adopts Eric) and oorgh, the monstrous creature inhabiting the waterways on Neraldi. Broad sounds? Soft consonants? Yes to both.
In Altered Destiny, I used ‘Qui’arel’ to indicate the elf-like race dominating the Earth and, later, I have a scientist explaining the Qui’arel science/ magic to Liane by mentioning the following:

“Osholomai. It means...belief.”

So I give an utterly created word and follow it immediately with the definition since it’s something that can’t be seen or felt. Abstract concepts are just a bit harder to use in an alien language without a translation :D

So, rather like teaching our precocious 18 month old, I give bits and pieces, demonstrate similarities in sound, show variations in cadence and provide a sense of function or form to help provide a glimpse of an alien language. I want the flavor of the ‘sketty’, not the actual dish.


Bernadette Gardner and Jennifer Colgan said...

I just had to let you know that I'm reading 'Heartstone' right now and I want a linlie of my own. I just got to the part where Eric and Keriam have a fight over the water bucket - LOL! Love it.

MK Mancos/Kathleen Scott said...

I have a scene in Falling Stars where Daria is pointing to embrodiered words on she and Raven's robes and asking what they mean. Of course he tells her...and things heat up the closer she gets to asking about the words farther done on the robe...hehehhehehe

Lynda K. Scott said...

Thanks Jennifer!

Kat, I can just picture that :D

Jennah said...

There's some great advice here. Thanks for sharing.

Skylar Masey said...

Lynda-Great post!

I've gone through some of the same things in TIES OF VALOR. In fact, in one scene I have the heroine actually cringing over something that looks like green sauced "sketty".

When I create new words that are from another cultures vernacular, I try to make it easy to say (as if Vahezheno is easy!). And usually my words come from a combination of the words that make it and also the way it would taste (as in pouli or tropi).

Keep up the great work, and good luck with deciphering the 18 month olds' language.

Lynda K. Scott said...

LOL, the 18 month old is now 26 years old. We managed to make it through her 'alien' language stint until she entered her teens :D but once she got through that, we've been able to understand her and vice versa.

Sherry said...

Heartstone sounds wonderful Lynda! Going to enjoy the fun today on RoRR Chatters. :)

Anonymous said...

Just popped over to say I apply most of your thoughta on alien languages to dialect/foreign languages - that is, use just enough to give a flavour without overwhelming the reader.
On another topic I have to say not all Scots dialects are pretty or sexy. Broad Glaswgian, for instance, is fairly
horrendous! I don't know if Rab C Nesbit ever got shown in the US, but after half an hour of that variant my ears simply gave up!
Jen Black