21 July 2011

Saying "To Be or Not to Be" and Meaning It

People say I am clever in certain ways--clever perhaps meaning smart in nefarious situations. Others don't know me so well and thus believe I am innocent of all wrong doing. Still others would blame me for any hesitancy in the spin of the Earth, much less the various quirks of life that ruin their quirky lives. But one thing I do that tends to infuriate people around me is talk about language. More precisely, talk about inventing languages.

When it comes to science-fiction or fantasy, we often find ourselves in worlds new and different from our own (for most of you, that's a reference to Earth). Such new places will naturally have their own cultures, much of that based on the particular geography, history, and environmental factors of the place (for example, the floating mountains in the film Avatar). A monster part of any culture is language. It's needed to express everything in that culture, so how the language is born from the culture and how the culture infuses the language with meaning has always been a prime concern of mine as I read and write in these genres.

Which brings me to Star Trek. First the movies then the subsequent new television series made use of alien languages, especially Klingon. That was what intrigued me most when I saw the film: seeing Christopher Lloyd as a Klingon speaking the lingua franca of Kling! Then, for those who demanded it, a dictionary and phrase book was published for Klingon devotees around the universe. (There are now "institutes" of Klingon language study (here's one). My study of language* since then, however, has revealed to me that Klingon is essentially Greenlandic Inuit, the language spoken by the native inhabitants of Greenland**. Though no creditation is given (look here), it became apparent only through my studies. James Doohan is credited with originating a few basic phrases and Marc Okrand is credited with the subsequent development of the full-scale language. One significant feature of both languages is the way meaning is constructed through a root word with countless prefexes, interfixes, and suffixes to create huge words--like saying a whole sentences worth of meaning in a single 20-syllable word. Forget Klingon (for now).

By the time I first heard Klingon, I had long been at work on the languages used in The Dream Land trilogy (to catch you up, check this earlier blog post of mine here). Some critics (here's one) have slammed the use of "alien" languages in science-fiction and fantasy novels, but I believe they are crucial to the weave of the landscape setting of such stories. Use of alien languages, like the use of foreign phrases in literary or other genre fiction, is a device best used sparingly lest it tire the reader. (I, however, love the use of such phrases so I would be a reader who was not made tired by its use.)

The use of alien languages is appropriate in the following cases:

1) In dialog, when the character is speaking it. Why wouldn't a native speaker of Danid speak Danid? But then it is best to slip into a paraphrase of what is said rather than write it all out in the alien language.

2) To describe or refer to something for which English has no effective word, or when English cannot render the idea as subtly or with appropriate nuance as the foreign/alien word or phrase. As a writer, you could have another character or the narrator point out that the meaning is such that it needs to be uttered in the nuances of that language; English would not have a suitable equivalent. This is the case for alien flora and fauna, as well as distinctly alien customs which would take several paragraphs to explain.

3) To add to the soundscape of the setting. In this case, if my hero were on another world, he would hear people of that world speaking their own language. If he does not know the language himself, or knows it imperfectly or incompletely, he could only guess at the meaning. In that way, the reader can experience the hero's disorientation along with the hero. Again, don't tax your reader's patience by going on too long; learn the fine art of the paraphrase. Start the spoken alien language, then switch to the paraphrase or summary of what was said. Point out subtleties in meaning where appropriate. (Examples to follow next blog post.)

And so we see/hear that there are useful uses for alien tongues (besides mopping in the corners of the kitchen floor). Now, how in the alien world do we create one? 

Study all you can at one of the Klingon institutes for one example. Or wait until I find the time to scribble out another bloggette and I shall take you step-by-step through the process I used to create the principal language of Ghoupallesz! (Meanwhile, brush up on your grammar terminology, especially the parts of speech! Try here.)

So, the fateful question is rendered "taH pagh taHbe'!"  in Klingon.

(According to Klingon sources, everyone knows that Shakespeare was half-Klingon. Check out the Klingon Hamlet here.)


* In my day job I am expected to expound profoundly on the structure of language, with particular emphasis on Engish. Although I have formally studied only French, Japanese, and a bit of German and self-studied a dozen more Earth languages, I seem able to become fully fluent only in my first-language, American English. To compensate for such linguistic irony, I have developed the ability to speak English in 12 distinct accents.

** My study of Greenlandic comes from a project in a sociolinguistics course during my doctoral program a few years back, and not as preparation, some might guess, for my recurring role as one of the husbands in the Desperate Housewives of Nuuk television drama, which was just picked up for a second season.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's very fascinating that they created the entire language. Also, J.R.R. Tolkien created the entire Elven language and it's beautiful! I don't think I could ever create a language like that. Great post!