Monday, March 26, 2007

Galactic Gabbing: Confessions of a Word Slut

I’m a word slut. In fact, if there was a Wordaholics Anonymous, I’d be right there in the front row, ‘fessing up to my addiction. So it was with great interest I read Margaret Carter’s recent blog here, WATCHING LANGUAGE.

A professional etymologist, I’m not. Strictly amateur here, from a life-long love of reading and a life-long love of eavesdropping and people-watching. (In fact, consider the word: “eavesdropping.” Wow, what a wacko word when you realize what it actually says. I’d love to know what the lower edge of a roof has to do with being nosy though visually I can rather see it.) See, this is what I mean. I’m easily seduced whilst reading or conversing by a flirtatious set of letters.

I recently taught a writing workshop in the Orlando, Fl area and—not surprisingly—at the luncheon after several writers and I were discussing words (well, golfers talk about golf clubs and golf balls, the tools of their trade!). One gal—and apologies but I forget who told me this delightful anecdote—mentioned her editor (who is an Aussie, I believe) questioned her use of …”All of a sudden.” As in…ALL of a sudden? Show me HALF of a sudden.

Wow, what a wacko phrase. That received a delighted chortle from me. Half of a sudden. ::snort!:: Love it.

So that brings me to crafting languages—as I do in my books—for non-Earth based characters.

I’ve blogged a bit on that last year (in case you missed them). They’re articles originally published by SFROnline. You can find them here:

So I know I’ve warbled on this subject already. However, Margaret’s blog renewed my fervor for galactic gabbing and how it’s done.

It’s done just as we do it here. Depending on how you structure your Not-Earth culture, you hone done or fluff out their language in the same way. If they’re not spacefaring, if they’re xenophobic, then chances are—and I do love the comment by Anon on Margaret’s post—their language won’t remotely suffer from the “cribhouse whore” syndrome. It will probably be predominantly purely their own and—depending on how you structure their religion and politics—there may even be a penalty for using anything but their “pure” language.

Spacefaring cultures, to me, would be the most likely to have a real mixture and far more slang, simply do to the taint of continuous exposure to other cultures. Those would be the most fun to create and write.

The hard part is translating this—kinda sorta—into English. I know someone’s translated Shakespeare into Klingon. But for the most part, a NY publishing house is not going to buy an entire SF novel written in Vekran or Alarsh. So as an SF/SFR author, you have the daunting task of doing all this delightful linguistic work knowing 90 percent of it will be backstory, and never make the pages of the novel.

But you have to do it. It’s as much a part of your required world building as religion or politics. The entire galaxy does NOT speak English. Yes, your novel is written in English (or French or Portuguese or Russian) but you have to be aware, when you’re crafting character, dialogue, etc.., that your character is the product of a Non-Earth culture (if that is, in fact, the case). Your character IS his or her (or its) local galactic culture and will be aware of speech patterns (and differences) from other galactic cultures. Not only does everyone in the galaxy not speak English or Portuguese but they don’t speak Alarsh, either.

In the same way you’re away of the accents and speech patterns of those around you—in the supermarket, at the airport, at a meeting—your characters are aware of others’ word use, word choice and accent. There are differences in the same “planetary culture” just as there are here: someone from Alabama speaks differently from someone from Maine. Or London. It’s not just accent. It’s also slang. Cadence. Rapidity (or not) of speech. And at this point, it’s still the same language.

How about a “universal” language? In a spacefaring culture, I’d deem that possible. English has been crowned the official language of the air: commercial pilots and air traffic controllers all over this planet are required to speak English. There’s also Esperanto, that kind of one-size-fits-all attempt at a global language.

So I think it’s reasonable to posit an official language of the spaceways as long as you remember—when crafting characters and dialogue—that someone from Cirrus One Station may not pronounce the words in the same way that someone from Delos-5 would. Again, Alabama and Maine. Or even more, a Frenchman or Italian speaking English (as a secondary language) or an American speaking French (as a secondary language). There will be a noticeable accent. There will even be mispronunciations. Which lends to…unique characters and believable world building.

And slang—well, that’s my favorite part, as many of you know. Slang will be the one thread of constant miscommunication through it all. I have no idea why something that’s soda in New Jersey is pop in Michigan. But I really, really want to see a “half of a sudden.” And I want to know how my character would say it in Alarsh.

(From THE DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES by Linnea Sinclair, coming November 2007 from Bantam)

Blurb: After almost twenty years on the job, Bahia Vista homicide detective, Theo Petrakos, is used to the fact that almost everyone in Florida is from somewhere else. Then a mummified corpse and a room full of high tech computer equipment sends Guardian Force commander and intergalactic zombie hunter, Jorie Mikkalah, into his life. And ‘illegal alien’ takes on a whole new meaning...

The rear cargo door of the vehicle suddenly flew open. But no weapons turrets protruded, nothing lethal emerged. Jorie slowly let out the breath she didn’t realize she had been holding and watched him transfer the small black boxes to the rear cargo area. The long box went in, too. She was considering how to take him from behind when, damn! damn! He stepped back to the door on the navigator’s side, bent over and came out with the T-MOD in his grasp.

There it was. She had to take possession of it now. It shouldn’t be difficult. He was a nil, a civilian. She was an expertly trained military commander with the element of surprise.

She rose in one smooth, swift, practiced movement.

And her scanner screeched out an intruder alert.


So much for keeping a low profile.

“Run!” Jorie screamed at him, her heart pounding in her throat as she tabbed the laser in her right hand up to hard terminate. “Run!”

She grabbed her other laser and barreled across the lawn. “Drop the T-MOD! Run!” A sickly green glow formed in the night gloom off to her left. She laced the spot with both her lasers, aware the stupid nil was still standing there, T-MOD in his hands, staring at the expanding portal.

Just as she reached him the green cloud erupted into hard form maybe two maxmeters away, about level with the top of the high hedge. Its diameter was small. Bliss luck, she’d done some damage. But she hadn’t stopped it. Yet. She fired off three more bursts then swung around to face the nil, bringing her micro-rifle across her chest as she did. “Drop the unit, damn you!” Her breath was coming in hard gasps. “That’s a zombie. It’ll kill you!”

The man stared down at her. And then Jorie remembered: the entire universe did not speak Alarsh.

But that was the least of her problems. The zombie had arrived.

SFRomance from Bantam Spectra


  1. Anonymous2:02 PM EDT

    (In fact, consider the word: “eavesdropping.” Wow, what a wacko word when you realize what it actually says. I’d love to know what the lower edge of a roof has to do with being nosy though visually I can rather see it.)

    The term comes from the fact that people would literally hang out in the eaves of large houses and manors to listen for secrets when others were having private conversations.

  2. Cool excerpt. Kind of has a Men In Black feel to it.

    I love languages and have blogged about it several times too. Makes sense. We wrangle words in our writing. We gotta love 'em or we're in the wrong busines! ;)

    One way I used it in Star Captains' Daughter is I imagined a child who grew up on a deep space starship would be naturally very good at learning new languages and be multi-lingual. Since this child had also been in telepathic contact with an alien for a long time, when she finally visits his planet she picks up his language instantly. Though she can't remember their telepathic contact while awake, she's already fluent in his language in her subconscious mind.

    I also imagined these children who grew up in space would be rather irritating to the adults who grew up, as you say, dirt-side. So, there's the occasional rolling of grown-up eyes and a groaning. "Space-Brats..."

  3. I love learning how an author creates their worlds. Thank you for a look into that. Also, I can't wait for your next book!

  4. **The term comes from the fact that people would literally hang out in the eaves of large houses and manors to listen for secrets when others were having private conversations. **

    Which is what I surmised but it's still a neato peachy keen way to describe it.

    But why not then call them eavesHANGERS? Why eavesdroppers? Did they routinely fall down? ;-)


  5. Anonymous10:13 PM EDT

    Oh, absolutely! The potential for a comedy of misunderstanding is one of the things I most enjoy in a story. Not surprisingly, it's a fundamental condition in my current work-in-progress. My protag is from a primarily Terran, colonial ag world. Situated in the heart of an alien solar system (and yes, there's a deep, dark, back-storied reason behind that). He speaks at least three languages, only one of which is of Earthly origin. This, and his greater familiarity with the aliens' culture than with Earth's makes fertile ground for misunderstandings, a word which can often be spelled c-o-n-f-l-i-c-t. It's so much fun playing Loki (god of mischief?) with all these characters, not to mention watching them tippie-toe around somebody's cultural/social/language taboo only to trip and fall on their face over another one. (big evil grin)

    Looking forward to those "Space-Brats" too.

  6. david, I love stories like that! Let me know when yours comes out. Loki was the Nordic god of mischief. Anyone who likes 'Q' from Star Trek would like Loki.

  7. Anonymous7:44 AM EDT

    Kimber An, I certainly will. And Q! Oh, that guy was so obnoxious and smug I just wanted to smack him. BUT. He did throw out interesting scenarios. He was a What-If-er's what-if-er if ever there was one. Try saying that three times, fast. ;-)