Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Conlanging for Beginners: Some Things to Avoid

       This is an addendum to the previous post. I wanted to discuss some bad practices and give some examples from a couple of my favorite TV science fiction series, as well as from a book I'm currently reading.  I'll put my summary first this time:
  • Don't gratuitously insert strange symbols or non-standard uses of Roman characters into your language in order to make it seem more alien or fantastic.
  • Always be aware that your language is not written natively in the Roman alphabet!
  • Try to devise names that carry weight.
  • Don't use words that suggest English words, even if that meaning is appropriate to the character.
        Here is an example of the first item above.  "We were taken into the presence of Ckatr F'ik the Xppelt of Ji'ma."  Your reader will not know how to pronounce these words.  You the author  may pronounce Ckatr as "Kahter" and Xppelt as "Ekspelt," but nobody else will know that.  They may interpret the words as Chahter and Zippelt. Better to spell as phonetically as possibly for English speakers (or for whatever language is native to the people who will most likely read your book). Simply write "Kahter" (The "c" has no function, and if you put "Kater" it's going to get pronounced like the English word "cater"); and to write "Ekspelt." (And why did you double the "p" if there was no reason?  And you turned "x" into a syllable of its own.  English speakers see an "x" as a consonant and they pronounce it "ks" or possibly "z.") 
       Of course, the best thing to do is to work out your phonology first, as I said in the previous post.  Then you can be consistent in your phonetic usage.  It may not look as "alien," but it will be more convincing.
       Keep the language as simple and unadorned as possible.  Let's consider the words F'ik and Ji'ma in the paragraphs above.  What is the purpose of the apostrophes?  In one case the marking comes before the vowel and in the other, after.  An apostrophe is sometimes used as the symbol for a glottal stop.  Did you intend for a glottal stop to fall in those words?  Probably not, because many readers will not know it's a glottal stop.  Are you using it to show something is omitted, as in English "it's" or "they're"?   That would be OK, but again you need to make rules. 
       I would suspect those apostrophes were inserted as another attempt to try to make the word look more "alien." So now you decide to change the spelling to Fiik and Jiima.  In that case how do you want the words to be pronounced?  Fee-eek? Or perhaps you intend the double i to represent the "i" sound in "like."  But nobody will know that, either.
       Now, if you've looked at my conlangs, you're going to say, "But you use lots of apostrophes, and you use a lot of strange, unpronounceable characters as well!"  That's certainly true, and I've been questioned for it, but I need to clarify what I said above: if apostrophes or any other characters have a function to play in your conlang, then they're OK.  In !Ka<tá (the Bird language), I use apostrophes to separate vowels, so the reader knows to pronounce them individually and not as a diphthong. Thus, if I wanted the words "fee-eek" and "jee-eema," I would spell them "fi'ik" and "ji'ima."  A word pronounced like English "like" would be spelled "laik" because when I wrote out my phonology I settled on the spelling "ai" for that diphthong.  But if I spelled the word "la'ik" it would be pronounced "lah-eek." There would never be a word spelled "fiik" because I have never assigned a pronunciation to the vowel combination "ii."
       As for some of the other strange characters in !Ka<tá, such as !, <, ^, and ♫, they represent sounds that aren't present in English, or indeed in any Earth language.  I don't have a lot of !Ka<tá in The Termite Queen and what does occur is largely for effect, I confess.  But what you do find there is constructed on some carefully worked-out rules.  If I ever get to the point in The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars where the avians become speaking characters, I will include an appendix with a summation of those rules.  Right now you can find information here.
       Always remember that your language is not written in the English alphabet!  It has its own writing system, whether you create it or not. It could be alphabetical or it could be syllabograms or it could be ideograms, but it's not written in any form present on Earth.  An alphabet symbolizes sounds and so is the most flexible.  Syllabograms represent syllables, which would be combinations of consonants and vowels.  This sort of system produces more characters.  Logograms represent words; this requires even more characters.  Ideograms represent ideas. 
       If your language has an alphabet, you write what is called a transliteration; you make a direct correlation between the sounds represented in the alien alphabet and the same or similar sounds in English.  An alien "b" sound is represented by an English "b," and so fourth.  The sound "ks"could be transliterated as "x," but if your book were to be read by a Spanish speaker, she might interpret it as "h."  That's why I avoid "x" and use "ks," and keep "h" for the normal English aspirate represented by the letter "h."  The "j" and "g" create similar problems.  I always stick to an English sound system, so I use "j" for the initial sound of "jar" and "gem."  I never use "g" except for the initial sound of "give."   
       !Ka<tá is written in an alphabet and so I transcribe it using a transliteration scheme.  The waveforms of Shshi are comparable to syllabograms; Shshi has no vowels or consonants, which are phenomena of vocal speech.  Shshi also has no written form (in the early stages of my stories).  Putting this sort of language into Roman characters is called romanization, not transliteration.  Kaitrin transcribed the language as arbitarily assigned English syllables separated by vertical lines. 
       Now for some real-world examples of bad practice.  I'll start with the book I'm reading: Mary Doria Russell's two volumes, The Sparrow and The Children of God.  I don't know how fully the author constructed the two languages of the planet Rakhat (Ruanja and K'san), but I do know that her apostrophe use is not totally clear.  I can't tell whether she had a system or not.  One of the peoples is named the Jana'ata, which appears to use my method of separating vowels with apostrophes.  However, the name of one of the main Jana'ata characters, Supaari, doesn't contain an apostrophe between the two a's.  Does this mean that perhaps the word is pronounced "Supari"?  Or perhaps the doubled "aa" gives the vowel a different sound, making it Supawri or Supeiri.  Personally, I pronounce it "Supa'ari" when I read it, but there's no way to tell what the author intended.  Similarly, I don't know why K'san has an apostrophe. "Ksan" would be pronounced exactly the same way.
       Another thing she does is to render the Ruanja word for Jana'ata as "djanada."  My question here is why spell the sound of English "j" two different ways?  It appears to me she does that simply to make the Ruanja form appear different.
       On the whole, though, I have no quarrel with Mary Doria Russell's naming language.  It works well in context and doesn't distract.   The same cannot be said for some of the gobbledegook that turned up in the TV series, Stargate: SG1.
       Now, I'm a big fan of that series -- I viewed it a number of times because it was rerun at a time of day when I wanted to sit down and watch something while I ate supper.  I consider it a most imperfect series that was highly entertaining even so, because it constantly pokes fun at itself.  One time I saw one of those programs where the producers and directors and cast discuss a series, and the producers said one of the hardest jobs they had was to come up with the alien languages.  And it shows.  They definitely could have used the services of the Language Creation Society!
       Here are two examples: the words "Goa'uld" and "Teal'c."  The first is the parasitic race that winds itself around peoples' brainstems and takes control of them.  If you have a villainous race, you should give it a name with a punch. Goa'uld has no punch; it's hard to enunciate and gets mispronounced all the time in the series, mostly as Goold. And if the apostrophe is meant to separate vowels, then you need one between the "o" and the "a" as well.
       But "Teal'c" is even worse.  This is the name of the powerful Jaffa warrior, a sometimes sinister and always intimidating presence.  And yet he's given a name that sounds like a little bell tinkling!  It's pronounced "Teelk," which is also hard to say, so it becomes "Tilk" a lot of the time, rhyming with "milk."  And what in the world is the apostrophe doing between the "l" and the "c"? It doesn't replace a vowel -- they never say "Teelik" or such.  Talk about giving a big, strong, formidable character a weak, ridiculous name!  I can't imagine what those writers were thinking ! 
       Just imagine if Darth Vader had been named Tink Ellia!  Would that have intimidated anybody?  That sort of character needs a name with strong, dark vowels that can be bellowed!  "Teal'c" can't even be pronounced without drawing your lips back in a smile!
       Goa'uld also has a word "kree."  The online dictionary of the language cited at the end of this post gives the meaning thus: "a military order. Loosely translated as attention, listen up, concentrate. Also appears to mean attack, retreat, move out, fall back, fire, cease fire, attention, stand down, etc."  They are constantly bellowing: "Jaffa! Kree!"  I can remember one episode where somebody asks Daniel Jackson what "kree" means, and he says, "Just about anything," and that certainly seems to be the case!  Stick it in front of any other word and it seems to create the imperative form.
       You could say that Goa'uld suggests the word "ghoul."  That's what I thought when I first heard it.  But that brings me to another thing to avoid in constructing a naming language.
       Don't model your words on some English word even if you feel that meaning fits the character.  My examples here are from Farscape, a much more ambitious and well-thought-out series and one of my favorites.  The heroine is named Aeryn Sun.  Remember, she is an alien from a distant galaxy, and she's not a delicate character, especially in the beginning.  But she gets named this romantic-sounding English name (Erin), with the spelling changed to make it seem far, far away.  Of course, you don't how it's spelled when you're watching the series.  "Sun" gets pronounced different ways -- sometimes like the English word "sun" and sometimes with the vowel in "book" or as "soon." 
       Similarly, the beautiful blue priestess had the exotic name of Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan, but "Zhaan" is pronounced simply "Zan."  It was a long time before I knew how it was supposed to be spelled.  Why spell it "Zhaan" if you're not going to pronounce it "zhahn" or "zha-an"? 
       Aeryn belongs to a race called the Sebaceans.  I found this one particularly strange.  Before I knew how it was spelled, I visualized it as "Sebatian" because I couldn't imagine how any writer would want to suggest that a sebaceous gland had formed the basis for a people's name! 
       The name of "Scorpius" of course suggests scorpion, which certainly fits the character.  Rygel was obviously inspired by the constellation Rigel, which I can overlook.  But nevertheless I would prefer to see a writer of a naming language avoid suggesting English or Earth meanings in their alien words. After all, you're not in Kansas any more!
       Here are a couple of references if anyone is interested in learning more about the names and languages in Stargate: SG1 and Farscape:


  1. One could hold the position that the reason why "Goa'uld" gets mispronounced so often is *because* they are the bad guys. (mangling names is as old as human history - off the top of my head, "jezebel")

    But what I want to know is this: where is the syllable break in "Ori"!

    1. Maybe, but I always figured that when Jack O'Neill pronounced it wrong, it was because of his general ineptitude with words!
      If there was no syllable break (i.e. apostrophe) in "Ori," it's because the writers of the naming language really had no rule. They just threw it in if they felt like it. I always envisioned the word spelled "Orai." I assumed they derived it from Latin orare, to beg, pray, beseech.

  2. Interesting! You really gave some excellent tips. :-)

    1. Thanks, Misha! I hope this post and the one preceding it will prove useful, especially for writers of fantasy and SF.