Monday, October 23, 2006


There's an old-- and somewhat disparaging-- anecdote in which Mr. Average American travels to Paris, France and complains to his wife, "Know what's wrong with this place? Too many durned furrinners who can't speak English!"

The problem with some of speculative fiction and science fiction/fantasy romance is the opposite one. For some unknown reason, everyone in the universe speaks English. American, Canadian or British version, but they all speak English.

Maybe this is a reaction to too many visits to Paris (can there be too many visits to Paris?). More likely, it reflects an author's fear of not understanding how to build a realistic language or of confusing the reader with alien phrases or terms.

Fears well founded. On the other side of the intergalactic literary coin, there are those spec fic and SFR novels in which the use of an alien language is a jarring distraction. It's overdone, comically done (and the intention is not to be comical) or snobbishly done (what, you mean you haven't memorized the Klingon dictionary?).

One of the necessary parts of world building, one of the necessary parts of crafting a believable spec fic novel, is the inclusion of alien concepts, religions, cultures and terms. Words.

“I want you. Yav chera.” His hoarse whisper filled her ear. “Yav chera, Trilby-chenka. Tell me you want me.”

She turned her face slightly to look at him. There was a softness in the lines of his face she’d never seen before. An openness. A vulnerability. It tugged at her heart.

Yav chera,” she replied softly.

His thumb covered her lips. “Yav cheron. If you want me, it is yav cheron. When I want you, which is all the time, it is yav chera.”

He moved his thumb and brushed his lips against hers.

Yav cheron,” she told him. She laced her fingers through his hair and pulled his face back to hers.
(from Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair)

The trick is to make the inclusion of the words, the phrases, the names, the terms as natural and effortless as possible for the reader. The reader will be reading/hearing this language for the first time. But that's not a unique situation in spec fic. The reader is also encountering sickbays and starship bridges for the first time, or alien city streets, or space station corridors. Or forests thick with flora and fauna heretofore unknown and unimagined.

If you can make a reader see those things-- those station corridors, those lofty forests-- you can make them hear and understand your alien language.

One of the easiest ways I used above: make one person explain the language to the other. “I want you. Yav chera,” Rhis says to Trilby, thereby informing the reader of the meaning of the words 'yav chera'. He goes further by correcting her: Yav cheron is what she should say to him. So the reader begins-- consciously or unconsciously-- to see a pattern: chera/cheron. Female/male.

I use this same template for Rhis's language Zafharish, through the rest of Finders Keepers. But it's not a template I invented. I gleefully filched it from two workbooks I have on my bookshelf: Italian Made Simple and Vamos Apprender Portuguese.

And I've just taught you something else: you may not speak a word of Portuguese, but by comparison, by equivalency, you're going to at least figure that Vamos Apprender Portuguese is a book with the same function as Italian Made Simple.

“Ground forces. Like your marines,” he said, plucking at the insignia of crossed swords on his chest, “but we call ourselves Stegzarda. Stegzarda means perhaps ‘strength command’ in your language. We assist the Imperial Fleet when it comes to border outposts.”

Farra nodded. “Especially with recent

“Aggression.” Mitkanos corrected her.
(from Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair.)

Farra says the word in Zafharish (Trilby's at the table listening to all this). Mitkanos, her uncle, corrects her. He also, conversationally, defines another term for Trilby.

Just as a good writer weaves in essentials elements and clues through dialogue (never, never using an info dump!), so a good spec fic writer can weave bits and pieces of a language into conversation.

But let's get back to using Vamos Apprender Portuguese as a template. You don't have to use 'We're Going to Learn Portuguese' (which is what that title says). You can use Russian or Japanese or Swahili as a template. Or you can combine templates of several languages. The point is, start with a basic linguistic template and it'll make your language-world building go so much smoother.

In Vamos, we learn o amigo and a amiga both mean 'friend'. We also see that our amigos are male and our amigas are female. (And yes, this is the same as Spanish and Italian - which is another point to keep in mind). We also see that the subject pronoun is often dropped (I, she, we) and the ending of the verb denotes the subject pronoun: Eu falo (I speak) is the same as Falo (I speak). Falamos is We speak. Same as Nos falamos.

Bear with me. I'm not trying to prep you for a trip to Rio de Janeiro, nice as that would be. I'm trying to show you that if it's done on this planet, you can do it on your planet.

Find a language template and use it. In Finders Keepers, I used Portuguese, Polish/Russian and un petite peu of French. Not the words - but the structure and conjugations. The sequence of words. And obviously, the sound of words.

Which brings me to another point about language-world building: not everyone sounds the same, even if they speak the same language.

Drogue’s bright-eyed gaze ran up and down my length, or lack of. “Captain Chasidah Bergren. Yes.” He stuck out his hand.

I accepted it.

“You are well?” he asked.

I tried to place his accent. South system, Dafir? Possibly. “All things considered, yes.” Some of my wariness returned. The Englarians were invariably cooperative with the government. I still had visions of a firing squad as a reception committee, Sully’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
(from Gabriel's Ghost by Linnea Sinclair.)

When I was a wee kidling, my parents gave me this enormous dictionary that contained a number of appendices, including 'Regional Variations In American Pronunciation' by Charles K. Thomas, PhD. Of course, even at 11 years old, I knew not everyone sounded alike. My grandmother, from Poland, spoke nothing like my teachers at school. And my neighbor Patty's parents, who were from Tennessee, sounded very different from anyone in my small town in New Jersey. But I'd never before seen those differences in writing. Dr. Thomas delineated ten different speech regions in the US of A. Ten! Eastern New England, North Central, New York City, Middle Atlantic, Western Pennsylvania, Southern Mountain, Southern, Central Midland, Northwest and Southwest.

And yet we have spec fic novels that while, yes, they include an alien language, all the aliens in the entire galaxy sound the same. No, they won't. They may read the same to the reader but they won't sound the same to your characters. Someone--like Chasidah, above--will notice the difference. You want your character to notice the difference. Different languages are as essential to world building as different religions, customs and even climate.

And just as with the weaving in of your alien culture or climate, use of an alien language must be done with a delicate touch. You're still writing for an English-speaking audience (or whatever other language your novel is written in). You must provide your reader with enough of a story they can understand or they won't slip into your fictional world.

Pick five or six key phrases; eight or ten key words, sprinkle your dialogue with them just enough times for the words to feel familiar. You don't jump when you walk into a French restaurant and are greeted with "Bon soir". The words, the sound, the accent belong in the setting. Your alien language should work the same way. Make the language flow easily with the scene any time you use it. Don't force your reader to stop and puzzle over it, or it might draw him out of the story. And then he'll put your novel down, grumbling… "Too many durned aliens in that book!"


(This article originally appeared in SFROnline)
To learn to speak Zafharish, click HERE


  1. Anonymous6:24 PM EDT

    Alien world building, alien language creation, knowing which end is up, and which isn't on a starship, etc., etc, pulling it all together to form a coherent, action-adventure, sometimes danger-filled, (however much the danger can be foiled by a bit of humor and fun and--ahem--appropriate and much needed romance, for that all important happy ending.)

    Ms. Sinclair, I genuflect in your direction of inimitable brilliance.

    Oh, and when you have a sec that you aren't in Zombie mode, *snort*, would you please meander to your nearest post office, and priority overnight me about a quarter of your energy, and just a few of your brain cells!!

    Hugs, Captain. Great article.

    Carla : )

  2. Anonymous1:43 PM EDT

    Linnea, I just looooove that excerpt from FINDERS KEEPERS. sigh. I melt every time I picture Rhis saying that, "When I want you, which is all the time" ~
    Thanks for re-capping a particularly favorite moment from one of my all-time favorite stories!

  3. Great article, Linnea,

    I spent nearly nine years in Germany, and became reasonably fluent, so my alien Djinn have a few German conventions, like compound words and lots of capitals.

    You wondered about the capitals?

    In Insufficient Mating Material, my Miss Marple-like Empress eavesdrops on alien conversations. I have one alien language -- spoken by villains (of course) -- which has no articles (a, an, the).

    Hermaphrodite languages are fun to create, too.

    Best wishes,

    Rowena Cherry

  4. Anonymous2:44 PM EDT

    Great article! Templates, eh? I'll have to check that out. I have a character , my protag in fact, who is slowly and painfully learning Russian to please his Earth-born, English-speaking, Russian-American lady love. He is from a human-inhabited colony planet and has an appropriate colonial accent, though I've not yet concluded what it sounds like. He, on the other hand, is quite fluent (or as fluent as humans can become) in the two-toned speach of the alien race which dominates known space in that universe. I hope to convey in my story that multi-lingual capacity is very common, even necessary among space-faring societies, but that nobody can know ALL the languages and their many nuances of meaning. It's the trips and stumbles over words and customs that give me so much material for conflict and or humor. Thanks again.


  5. Anonymous1:59 PM EDT

    My only questions is - what to do if your alien character doesn't know a word of english, and is speaking to a human who doesn't know a word of the english language? Or what to do if the alien is by themself and is saying something in the alien language? I'm in a quandry. I'm about ready to just put in all of the alien language and just "subtitle" - translations in the footer.


  6. Rachel:

    Well, then you made a huge error in the beginning of building this Universe you want to write in. The story is not yet ready to be written. You have much fundamental work to do.

    Unless of course, you are writing hard SF in which case the solution to your problem has already been given in many great novels -- math, physics, chemical element structure, light wavelengths -- all kinds of properties of the physical universe are common to all species everywhere and can make a foundation for communication.

    ROLLBACK by Robert J. Sawyer is the most recent I've read (and reviewed it this year but the review hasn't been posted yet.

    NEEDLE by Hal Clement is the oldest one I know of that really works and a very early example of Intimate Adventure in hard SF.

    Supreme among them all is, I think CUCKOO'S EGG by C. J. Cherry (definitely Intimate Adventure) and that novel precedes ROLLBACK and uses a similar premise with different situation. (Hugo candidate)

    But mostly, I think you MUST read the entire FOREIGNER series by C. J. Cherryh starting with FOREIGNER itself (real serious romance base for a pure Intimate Adventure forray into SF Linguistics).

    Once you've read all of those, completely disassemble your universe and begin again with pieces that actually go together and work to tell your story.

    Remember you wrap the background around the story -- background and backstory SUPPORTS the story, not the other way around.

    C. J. Cherry's first novel (which I can't recall the title of) is about a human lost among non-humans (seriously, really non-humans) who are impossible to communicate with and he's clueless.

    Whatever you decide to do with your story, you must have internalized this previous material (Suzette Hadin Elgin's novels too -- she's a Linguist by trade) because all your readers know of at least some of it.

    If you try re-inventing the wheel, the awkwardness will destroy the immediacy of your story's power.

    You must work with what has been done before, without copying it, and add something new, fresh and a new twist.

    Of course, you can always cop out on the SF and do it the Star Trek way -- "Universal Communicator" -- but then if you have to do a sequel and another sequel, you will find eventually you've got to explain how the UT works in your universe.

    Better to do your universe building meticulously first.

    Jacqueline Lichtengberg

  7. rachel asked: **My only questions is - what to do if your alien character doesn't know a word of english, and is speaking to a human who doesn't know a word of the english language? Or what to do if the alien is by themself and is saying something in the alien language? **

    ::Linnea points to Jacqueline:: Uh, what she said. ;-)

    No seriously, you pose several questions here that are very worthy.

    As Jacqueline said, you need to do your world-building before you get mired in the story. In most of the books I write, I'm not dealing with "future Earth" or "Earth colonists" so the issue of English--other than in The Down Home Zombie Blues--doesn't come up. I've already posited a "world" (ie: my world building, more so that just one planet) where there is a standard language (and this is a commonly accepted thing in SF) and then regional languages. Just like on our planet. English is the official language of airline pilots. If you don't know that or know why that is, google it. It's a concept you can use when world building.

    In Europe, where countries are small and languages can change at the border, people are multi-lingual out of necessity. If you posit a space-faring culture that has for eons been interacting with other worlds, then they've either developed a standard language for trade (see airline example above) or they force themselves to be multi-lingual. Or like Jacqueline says, they have some sort of translation mechanism (not all that far-fetched. You can get those programs for PDAs and iPhones today).

    Your question, though, also seems to key on English. What if the characters don't speak English, it seems you're asking.

    Well, why should they? If you mean how can you WRITE in English if the characters don't speak it, it's because you're writing for an English speaking audience. You, author, are translator.

    Not every book on our planet was originally written in English. The bible was written in Coptic Greek then translated hundreds of times to various languages. There are contemporary authors today who write in Spanish or Portuguese, whose works are translated into English for an Anerican/UK market. Just as American authors are translated into other languages. You can find Harry Potter books in Russian.

    Yes, there are movies out there, like Gibson's Apocalypto which is totally in the obscure Mayan dialect with English subtitles (when it's shown to an English speaking audience--I assume when it's aired in Japan is has Japanese subtitles). But movies aren't books. You can't subtitle a book and to have dual translations (I've seen this with some of the lost books of the bible, with the text in English on one side and Coptic on the other) isn't a valid fiction medium right now. It's not something--especially if this is your first manuscript--I'd encourage you to try.

    On that same vein, even if the only thing your alien character speaks is Klingon, when s/he's thinking, s/he will be thinking in a language UNDERSTANDABLE BY YOUR READERS. The point of a fiction novel is not to show readers how well you can reinvent the dictionary but rather to take them on a character's journey of conflict.

    Hieroglyphics on the walls of Egyptian tombs are lovely to look at--and certainly tell a story--but will never outsell the worst Harry Potter.

    Now you can, as I've pointed out in my blog, spice your fictional work with your alien character's native language, especially when the word isn't directly translatable. As you may or may not have guessed, I'm multi-lingual and there are simply some expressions or combinations of words that don't carry the full impact when translated into English(or vice versa). In cases like that, using the alien version adds something to the story--a texture not otherwise found. But overdo it and you've lost the reader--and it matters not if you're writing in English, Spanish, Russian or Coptic.

    Is that what you wanted to know? ~Linnea

  8. Linnea is spot-on with that previous comment and reminded me to point you at some of Andre Norton's earliest work. Again I've forgotten the titles but she posited an intersteller corps of translators called HERALDS. This was I think a 1940's title. And I think it was a story in an anthology she edited -- so it might not have been by her, but I think it was.

    It was done again after that, and has been done in some magic based fantasy universes -- where certain Talented individuals have the knack of translating alien languages.

    A. C. Crispin hosted a multi-author universe (shared universe) where an interstellar college recruited young people with this special talent and trained them to be interstellar translators and facilitators at interfaces where cultural differences could cause war (and often did). Bridge or Tower were the symbols she used.

    Again, don't re-invent the wheel. Do your research. It's so EASY on the internet these days. Haunt for their weekend micropay rebates and so on -- lots of the classics are available.

    Some of the younger readers might not be aware of these older works, but with and Kindle providing them as e-books, you can't afford to assume your readers are not very well read.

    Besides, the classics provide a whole inventory of "devices" you can use without explaining them! Because everyone knows them already.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg