09 August 2011

It's all Ghoupallean (or Zetin) to me!

And now, without further adieu, the culmination of our three-part series on alien languages!

In the first post, I discussed reasons for using an alien language in a science-fiction or fantasy story as well as what others have said about the practice. I used the language of Klingon for several examples. In the second post, I got out the ol' grammar book and deconstructed the nature of language itself. At a minimum all languages need a few classes of words as well as a few rules to guide the construction of communication, no matter what the actual words are.

In this post I will use examples from The Dream Land trilogy to illustrate how alien languages can be used without becoming tedious to readers. (At least, I think what I've done is not tedious to readers.)

In The Dream Land (Book I: Long Distance Voyager), our hero, Sebastian Talbot (who has adopted the native name of Set-d'Elous) sets up shop in a city near a vast field of buried gemstones in order to mine them. He meets his neighbor, the golden haired Zaura-Matouszs, who reminds him too much of his long-lost high school sweetheart, Gina Parton.

He had to acknowledge her, not wanting to be rude, but his poor Ghoupallêan language came out as the mumbling of a child.
Ghou’n däl-farnim mêtik?” she spoke.  She was asking him if he had an illness.
He was too entranced to reply but she had smiled politely, bowing her head slightly in greeting or farewell, then moving off along the corridor with smooth, heavenly grace.

. . . and several paragraphs later . . . 

She was always kind to him, and her soft, luscious invocations—even through such basic phrases as Daot-meju-mê (“Good day to you.”), or Uran-tem ben om-dakal (“What fine weather it is today!”), or especially Gur amannê-se Êr passouren-ga zoulêm pan (“I beg forgiveness for the interruption of your solemnity.”) when she had been noisy the previous evening—always melted the resilient anger tattooed on his soul from before, when he had left Gina back in Siti.  He would never admit that Zaura had any passing resemblance to his former lover.

 In these two excerpts we can follow the protagonist as he encounters someone (the "alien" woman) speaking her native language. 
In the first excerpt, the reason is simple: the protagonist doesn't know what she is saying yet he hears the words. Writing out the alien language is a way to introduce the setting: a world where he doesn't understand the language. The paraphrase which follows offers a translation but does so in a non-intrusive manner--as part of the protagonist's "figuring it out."
In the second excerpt, the use is more obvious and potentially distracting. And yet, it works to develop the protagonist's growing fluency--which will become important as the story proceeds. He needs to become fluent in order to be able to function fully in later adventures, of course. By juxtaposing the Ghoupallean phrases with the English equivalents we also can get a sense of the way the natives think, their customs, and what constitutes polite speech. 
Granted, some readers may still find it unnecessary or intrusive. I continue to believe a little use is not only permissible but does add to the texture of the story. The right place, for the right reason, and in the right portion is essential to getting away with this device!

Using an alien language in a more extensive dialog can be tricky, but the same reasons for use apply: texture, clarity, strangeness. Take this example, where our hero, Set-d'Elous asks a pair of old Zetin women where his wife and infant daughter have gone:

“How long ago did she leave?” he had asked the woman in his broken Zetin, seeing her becoming exhausted by his interrogation.  But he had to know: “A month, two months—a year?”
Xaa-jz,” she replied, shaking her head, her crumbling voice flowing unevenly in the rough Zetin tongue.  Requesting a drink from her younger sister, wrinkled with age herself, she asked her about the date.
Gsut dromru dot’, baxo’et zaxj’ st-raye dem tonn kaxj’,” the sister said.  ‘I remember the cabin burning; it was a month after she left.’
Uz’a smiled then, satisfied her memory was still intact, then spoke in a stronger voice.
Bax zaxj’ cinn-saz’az’,” she said to him.  ‘It was ten years ago.’

First of all, the Zetin language is consonant-heavy; thus, I wrote it using small caps to approximate the rougher pronunciation compared with English or Ghoupallean. It may seem a petty thing to do, but it also helps distinguish Ghoupallean as a foreign language (thus in italics according to the rules of typography) and Zetin, the other foreign language that otherwise would have been rendered in italics. Try pronouncing the words one phoneme at a time: the XAA-JZ is the sound of the letter X (/ks/) followed by the sound of A (/ah/) and so on.
In this excerpt, I wanted to depict the realistic action of translation. That is what would happen, so as any good writer tries to do, I attempted to depict a believable scene. Our hero asks the old women: I say he said it in his imperfect Zetin as a way to introduce the fact that we are now stepping into Zetin. The women answer in their native language, Zetin, so readers "hear" what our hero hears; we experience it along with the character. It also, I believe, carries more emotional weight to have the crucial words spoken directly rather than offered to readers only as a paraphrased translation. (Yes, I include the translation in this case, but it comes after the crucial words; again readers experience the impact as the character does.  At least, that was my intention.)

Another example comes only at the end of one chapter, when three Earth women accidentally fall through the interdimensional portal in pursuit of our protagonists only to find themselves lost in another world. Eventually they are found by nomadic merchants riding giraffe-like animals. The effect I wanted to create is to have the three women innocently believe they are being rescued, even as the opposite is true. They do not know what the nomads are saying to each other but the reader does:

The women, weary of their ordeal, drank down the water, tried the toop, and looked hopeful.
A’ajahalomoha’emena’ahopefal’le’oha’ame’e,” the Rouê leader then announced in his native tongue, lowering his magal enough to display a mouth toothless except the four front incisors.
They must be Ghoupalle, he decided when they showed no response to his statement.  He turned to his left and gave a command.  One Rouê climbed down from his oñacha and removed from his saddle pouch a fine amber cloth.  Stepping forward, he extended it to Donna Mae, motioning for her to cover herself.
Wilma bowed her head in thanks at their kind act, not knowing that what the Rouê leader had said was: ‘The old one we can sell to the villagers for a house servant.’
 “O’olama’efe’ah’pehe’osama’ame’osama’bulo’egama’o,” their leader spoke then, as the other Rouê jumped down from their mounts.  ‘The other two we’ll keep for ourselves until they no longer please us.’

The "funny" thing here is that the Roue language is very melodious, a language seemingly of pleasant tropical beaches; think Hawaiian. But the meaning of their nice-sounding words is actually crudely efficient. As I stated above, my intention was to juxtapose the innocence of the Earth women (not knowing the language) with what is actually being spoken and let readers feel the threat that the characters do not feel.

The final example of using languages does not actually use an alien language but the language known as French--which for some people is just as bad as an alien language. But the use of both French and Ghoupallean, along with English, again is intended to create a believable scene. What is written is what is spoken and heard, understood or not understood, and readers experience that effect as the characters do. 
This example comes from the latter chapters of The Dream Land Book II: Dreams of Futures Passed. Because French is another Earth language like English, I did not italicize it in the text. I don't intend for readers to know French but simply to experience hearing French the same way our hero, Set-d'Elous (a.k.a. Sebastian) experiences it: half understood, half guessing. Then we come to understand that what he hears as French is actually spoken Ghoupallean, the "alien" language. (Yes, it's complicated, but it is also fun.)

She smiled warmly and her bare arm reached out from under the covers and brushed his cheek. He tried to smile but felt his lips stuck together. Suddenly, he could not speak.
“T’avez été habiles dans l'amour la nuit dernière,” she cooed, pouting.
He nodded, trying to retrieve some high school French from a locked vault deep in the basement of his mind.
“Tu n’êtes pas l'homme qui m’aime?” she said, giggling.
Again he smiled, hiding his linguistic terror, worried about revealing that in his three years of French classes his grades were never higher than B+.
She stretched up to kiss him and the sheet fell, leaving half of her chest exposed: the pale breast with its wide, brown aureole and large nipple. He recognized the breast. And yet, how could he, or any man, turn away from this stroke of divine luck? A naked woman in his bed! He laughed and she seemed momentarily offended.
“Pardonnez-moi,” he spoke. He was surprised at the words coming from his mouth. He smiled at the woman. “J’ai pensé,” he muttered, “que vous étiez habile, trop.” In his ears, the words sounded Ghoupallêan. And yet they clearly were not. He was speaking French. His lover was also speaking French. He must be in some fancy hotel in France, he considered, looking around the elegant room. Probably Paris. He had always wanted to visit. The room had a Louis-some-number appearance to it, stately and ornate, very old-looking yet in perfect condition.
Or it must be a dream, he decided.
 “J’ai attendu pour tu, mais tu semblez n’apparaissent que dans mes rêves!”
“Huh?” He returned his attention to his mistress.

Our hero awakens and finds a woman speaking French to him. He half understands. I help the reader by having him think about his French class, so we know his level of fluency. The French helps sets the scene for both the hero and readers. Is he back on Earth in a hotel in Paris or is he dreaming it all or is he on another planet but strangely hearing the native language as French.
(I recognize this section is more challenging so I've included footnoted translations.)

He smiled to himself, remembering his sense of relief then, and the relief he felt as he watched his troops sail away on the freighter—
“Je pense que je voudrais que vous d’arrêter de parler français maintenant,” he said, now losing the caché of the exotic language and growing tired of having to translate everything in his head. "Et l'ensemble du personnel, aussi. Pas plus francais.[1]
“Alors, comment devons-nous communiquer?”[2] asked his secretary, wondering how they would communicate with each other.
“Que diriez-vous de Ghoupallêan?”[3] he said, suggesting they continue in Ghoupallêan.
The secretary seemed surprised, his face pale.
“We are speaking Ghoupallêan, My Lord,” the secretary responded.
“We are?”
The man cleared his throat, then: “Zil, Kalmonê!
Okay, that was Ghoupallêan, he recognized. Why had it all sounded French?
He gave an embarrassed smirk. There was a moment of pressure on his heart, like a fist squeezing out all of the blood, and just as quickly he was back to normal—or what passed as normal in this elaborate dream. He had now awakened enough to understand what was really happening, but he kept his expression in check so as to not let his personal secretary notice that he finally understood everything. He finally could see through the filmy beige curtains that had made everything so mysterious. In his gut, the world had broken wide open and the ancient microscope and modern telescope embedded there had shown him, at long last, the unbelievable yet unmistakable truth:
“I’m not in France,” he let slip out of his mouth.
The secretary inquired politely about his remark. Did he need anything?
“I must send a message,” he announced, clearly in Ghoupallêan.

[1] “I think I would like you to stop speaking French now. And the entire staff, too. No more French.”
[2] “Then how should we communicate?”
[3] “How about in Ghoupallêan?”

All right, it is tedious to have to look down at footnotes to figure it out. It may be fun to some readers but not to others. I'm still working on how best to present the scene. I want to keep the strangeness of it yet keep it real. Our hero thinks he is hearing French but his secretary is actually speaking Ghoupallean--and the silly narrator, your humble narrator, is using English.

The lesson of this post and perhaps all three of them is this: If at all possible, choose Earth as the setting of your science-fiction or fantasy story. Or, as Isaac Asimov and others have stated, keep it all in English and let readers imagine they are speaking some strange alien language to their heart's content. It's not  as though we still read The Iliad and The Aenead in Greek and Latin today (other than the linguistic exercise of it)!

In closing, I'll leave my dear, patient bloggites with this thought, cleverly written in Romanized Danid: Kai tašiom xes, xet gel-ymazk.


  1. By the way, that final phrase in Danid literally means: "We did it, the plan has succeeded."

  2. I have to admit I tend to skip over any alien language. If it's a real language, however, I will spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to translate. That being said, I now have a new nickname for my Sebastian. When I say it out loud it sounds a lot like Sept d'loupes. Seven of wolves-I wonder if I can get him to respond to Seven of Wolves?

  3. I sympathize, Johanna. That's why I recommend alien languages in small portions and in relevant situations. Plausible explanations along the way are useful, too. But like the details in wallpaper, we see them and it adds to our landscape yet we do not focus obsessively on the details; we feel them, we don't study them.

    As for the protagonist of The Dream Land trilogy, while his birth name is Sebastian Talbot, he comes to prefer his adopted name, Set-d'Elous. The name is not an acronym or anagram; rather, it is explained in two separate chapters.

    Set is a nickname his high school sweetheart Gina gives him, as in "Set, the God of Destruction." [Set is an Egyptian deity.] His adopted surname, D'Elous, comes from a nickname given to him by his military comrades and means literally "distinguished, famous, renowned, venerable" in the Ghoupallean language.

    Roughly translated, our hero is "The Venerable Lord of Disaster"--and he spends his time living up to his moniker.