Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Linguistics For Writers

Those who haven't read past posts on this blog should take a look at the post and comments by Rowena Cherry

And the other post she put up on Sunday Nov 23rd and its comments.

All this is about the publishing industry's disarray, especially in Oct. 2008, due to the economy -- and as I noted, the even more destructive wave of events yet to happen to publishing due to the freezing in the credit markets.

Worldbuilders note: there is a vast distinction between "the economy" and "the financial system" -- a distinction many people don't make because they are linked. Our economy is still in fine shape (healthy economies hold recessions periodically) but it is vulnerable to the heart-attack stoppage in the financial system which is in horrid shape. No industry, not even autos, is as vulnerable as publishing to an interruption in financial flows.

Publishing (on paper) is undergoing a crisis at least as great as that of the US auto industry, maybe more jarring than that of the credit markets, at a moment of fragility perhaps more critical than ever for the storytellers of the world.

The Fiction Delivery System and the Fact-Delivery-System are in melt-down and re-organization. There is still a market for fiction and fact -- some opportunistic businessman will see a way to serve that market at a profit. Meanwhile, grocery clerking is probably better paying than writing.

As I noted in my comments, this is the greatest opportunity for new writers, and seasoned professionals, to swarm forward with solutions that will elevate the prestige level of genre fiction in general, but most especially of the multi-faceted Romance genre.

So now is the time to aggressively train to write fast, to write with precision, to create worlds in profusion but with verisimilitude that will shock every reader into memorizing your byline. Now is the time to learn and to do.

So my post this week is reaching far out into the very foundations of story idea generation, into the very source of ideas -- worldbuilding. "What if...? If Only ...? If This Goes On ...?" At what level would a change in our real world produce a world so different, it would be incomprehensible and thus interesting to readers living in an incomprehensible world?

Comprehension is facilitated by language, and language forms the foundation of our own subjective world, and thus of all our fictional worlds.

Slip into the skin of your alien character who lives with magical perceptions of reality, or to whom the plasma surface of a sun is a pleasant atmosphere. Now feel what it's like for him or her to converse with others of their kind in front of a mundane human of Earth. The language your character needs to use is rooted in his/her perceptual reality -- and that language would have words for things no Earth language has words for. A teleport would have syntax no Earth language would have for position.

You wouldn't think that the dry, objective, confusing field of Linguistics would be a prime source of unique, new ideas for Romance novels - or would you?

It is definitely the primary field to study if you want to write about an Alien From Outer Space -- or an Elf From Cross-Space.

I want to toss you an idea that came to me as I was trying to figure out how to explain another idea that follows from my post of Tuesday November 18 on GIFT: GIVER: RECIPIENT


I was going to use the analogy of phoneme, which I assume everyone reading this blog understands. I have long been familiar with the way the human brain, ear, and tongue combine to narrow the possibilities of all the sounds a human can make into those that have "meaning" in the linguistic sense not the animal sense, and those that don't carry meaning.

As a result, if you learn a language or dialect at an age above 3 years -- or 7 years in some cases -- you will always have an accent that is detectable if not by native speakers then by machine reading the speech sounds you make.

EXAMPLE: some oriental languages don't have the r sound, so learners of English substitute the l sound and can't hear the difference.

EXAMPLE: Mary, Marry, Merry sound the same in some English dialects. Likewise Pen and Pan and Pin sound the same in some English dialects.

Unless you are strongly talented in languages - or have learned many languages "natively" at age 2-4 so you have the whole phoneme set that humans can make, you can never learn to hear and produce those kinds of differences reliably. Think about the clicks used by various African languages. Think about the difference between Aleph and Ayin in Hebrew (two glottal stops, one higher in the throat than the other) -- it was preserved in the Sephardic phonemes but not the Ashkenazic. Americans never learn it right.

In my Nov 18, 2008 post,

I talked about the blank spot in our culture's way of looking at life, the spot which should be filled with the mystique, mechanism, proprieties, privileges, taboos, and magical power of RECEIVING.

We think we know what it means, but for most people it's just a word. That blankness in perceptual space regarding RECEIVING produces a blank spot in the perceptual space occupied by GIVING.

So this morning I was trying to figure out how to explain that. Yes, I know, most readers of this blog don't understand at all what I'm going on about or why -- or what it all has to do with Romance, nevermind Love. Trust me, it's all connected, mystically and practically.

So I'm washing dishes (where a lot of my best ideas occur) and suddenly I know how to convey the concept I have in my mind that has no words for it.

Being an SF writer, I boldly go where no one has gone before -- I invent language.

So I invented a word that would explain everything I have to say in one simple word, and then we can get on with the discussion of what the blank part of our Giving/Receiving paradigm has has to do with writing SF/F Romance.

My word?


OK, now on with the important part of the discussion.


What if someone else has used this word to mean something different from what I mean by it? Uh-oh. Google quick!

AUSTRALIAN LANGUAGES?????!!!!! (sorry Linnea)

Google-google-google. Aha! Some people called "Language Typologists" have coined this word before me -- in the 1980's it seems, so it is possible I've run across it before and it soaked into my subconscious. But their definition is not the one I need to explain my point about what writers who invent Elves, talking Unicorns, and Vulcans (nevermind Simes) need to understand before the Elf falls in love with the Vulcan.

Here's a pdf file I found on the web and a quote from one of its 58 panels -- I think it's a slide presentation that goes with a lecture.


Here's the quote from slide 41:

More comparative concepts (3):
• generalization: Wh-movement is always to the left.
• definition: Wh-movement is a syntactic construction in which a
wh-word occurs in a special position in which its non-whcounterpart
would not normally occur.
• definition 2: A wh-word is a word that can be used as a
question pronoun, i.e. to represent the questioned content in a
content question.
• comparative concept vs. descriptive category: In many
languages, wh-words are also used as indefinite pronouns and/or
as relative pronouns. Alternative terms such as epistememe
(Durie 1985) and ignorative (Wierzbicka 1980) have therefore
been proposed. Still, these fall under the above definition.


Now I didn't go look up Durie's 1985 work -- likely it's not on the web. Someone with a university library access might locate it, but it's probably the same approach as used by Martin Haspelmath in this lecture.

Haspelmath demonstrates the purely linguistic approach -- which is very limiting from the point of view of a writer trying to people a world he/she has built.

Linguists take the whole bunch of languages humans use (or have used if they can crack them) and analyze the bits and pieces of speech. Linguists study language, not communication (though most of them would argue that point vociferously since they talk a lot about sememes in semantics.)

Writers of fiction are wholly focused on COMMUNICATION among our characters. Or we resort to the Universal Translator and forget all the problems.

Haspelmath's academic slide presentation demonstrates one of the reasons that it is impossible to TRANSLATE anything accurately. It gives some examples of the use of prepositions and pronouns across language families and within a language family.

It does not discuss WHY the typology doesn't correspond exactly from one language to another, but the "why" is the interesting thing to a writer building a world.

Psychology, brain development studies, magic or maybe even genes might figure in, though I doubt genes have anything to do with it. I think the diversity among our languages is a reflection of the origin of human COMMUNICATION.

When inventing aliens that human readers will accept, you need to know how the aliens came to be able to communicate with one another, the stepwise origin for them, and what drove that necessity, but you don't necessarily have to know this consciously.

Thus understanding the root origin of language at the philosophical level can allow your subconscious to create in an instant what your conscious mind could never achieve - an alien language with dramatic potential.

We've learned recently that the human brain, even in older folks, can rewire itself, recircuit around stroke damage, restructure the neurons. People who use computers a lot, even if they start when older, show distinctive brain structure changes. (I read that in an article on the web and don't have the reference handy.) If you dig up any of these references, please post them to the comments.

But our Language Centers don't change so easily in adulthood.

Song birds (mocking birds and I think Canaries?) have a few weeks in infancy where they learn their SONG(s), and then they sing that song the rest of their lives. Humans too, have a "song" (i.e. languages) that a part of our brain circuits itself to handle, and then that's IT for life. When you learn languages later in life, the brain handles the knowledge differently.

Teens learn the cant -- or SONG or TUNE or ACCENT -- (the Valley Girl) -- they absorb from those they associate with. There is such a thing as a Harvard Accent, and you can tell those who learned it from their parents from those who just learned it when they arrived on campus.

Human language is BIRD SONG.

Bird song is used much for MATING.

Isn't that interesting?

But humans don't just repeat mating song. We communicate abstract ideas and describe concrete things and events.

What is it that binds a bunch of individuals into a community?

I saw an interesting National Geographic TV feature on Monkeys the other day -- chimps -- social structure. I've seen lots of those over the years -- but I watched a good 15 minutes of this one, enraptured.

The origin of communication among primates. Food, reproduction, survival. Primal basics which Blake Snyder recommends as the driving force behind a plot. He says make it so simple a cave man could understand it.

So I had this idea. What binds a group of individuals is an AGREEMENT on the nature of reality. An epistemology, or a paradigm that explains existence and how to keep on existing.

The important element is the agreement part - social sanction - that which is unquestioned.

Individuals all live in their own subjective realities, bubbles of assumptions. In an unbound group, just about every "epistememe" (my definition) would exist, just as an infant babbles every phoneme the human can make.

In order to bind into a tribe, a co-bonded survival structure, SOME assumptions have to be thrown out, excised, declared not to exist, ignored to death. Membership in the group, and thus survival itself, is rooted in one's absolute rejection of the forbidden, taboo assumptions about reality.

Groups don't bind on what they have in common.

They bind on what they have commonly rejected.

I don't think I've ever seen that idea examined academically, but I think it doesn't have to be true to be useful in building a fictional world.

Though I can't COIN the term "epistememe," I can add a definition, make it a technical term, jargon just for writers whose job under World Building and Plot-Conflict Integration is to imagine the languages of non-humans.


The definition of epistememe for writers then is the smallest indivisible segment of a philosophical idea, of an epistemology.

Phoneme is defined as the smallest indivisible unit of sound in a language.

Atom is defined (but in reality isn't) the smallest indivisible unit of matter.

Defining and studying the smallest indivisible units is one of the most powerful tools of science, and we are writing Science Fiction (even Fantasy writers are -- but their science is philosophy.)

So I think we need this concept of Epistememe to discuss the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy writing.

The origin of "language" is the need to survive and reproduce, which for us weaklings means forming groups that can cooperate in food gathering and defense. "No Man Is An Island."

Group formation depends on excluding certain ideas, focusing on the ones which carry meaning that cause the group to survive.

Audible Language depends on excluding certain sounds to lend meaning to other sounds (phonemes) -- to sort the sound-spectrum and assign meaning which can be transmitted. This is a group-agreement necessary for survival. When you cry HELP, someone has to be able to know what you mean.

Groups that have the "word" DUCK! survive better than those whose only Song is 'EEEKKKK!'

But that verbal sorting of our Song probably has to happen AFTER a general agreement on the structure of reality (an epistemology) is reached. (Linguists don't think so.)

But from a writer's perspective, I see the "unthinkable" embedded so deep in language that it is an unexamined premise behind what vocabulary and syntax exists.

For an interesting example and discussion see my series of posts on this blog http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/ on the Swords and Pentacles of the Tarot -- discussing the philosophy that describes the shape of existence which lies outside existence. That magical view of the universe is an example of those unconscious "agreements" that bind a community. The content of the agreement doesn't matter nearly as much as that it is agreed, that it is a Pact.

The Pact Agreement on the concept "is" disallows conceptualizing non-existence as existing. We are trapped by our language in a reality that lacks a structure and function for non-existence. Look at how dependent English syntax is on the verb "to be" in all its conjugations. Not all languages are that dependent.

Language puts epistemological blinders on us. Or (as I suspect) it's the other way around -- first come the blinders, then comes the language that functions in the space defined by the blinders.

EXAMPLE: biggest, meanest male is BOSS. His females get fed first. He can take any female he wants.

This paradigm excludes romance, chivalry etc. Such ideas are literally unthinkable because they have no thinkable epistememe behind them. Like "r" is unpronounceable and un-hearable, chivalry is unthinkable. It's in a blank spot. Chivalry is not an epistememe of this Pact.

If you can see the structural concept I'm playing with here, you can then see how to construct an alien who would have a bunch of trouble communicating with a human in any matter (Honor, Peace Treaty, Defense Alliance, Trade Agreement, Friendship, Love).

Poul Anderson did this repeatedly in developing his aliens. C. J. Cherryh's FOREIGNER series has it nailed.

20th Century American Culture seems to lack a major portion of the "epistememe" RECEIVING.

What trouble would an American Woman have with an Elf (or other magical being; or Bug Eyed Monster) whose cultural Pact originated in RECEIVING, and all of whose cultures and languages lacked some portion of the epistememe for GIVING?

And yes, I said "epistememe" means smallest indivisible unit, but so does Atom. We have to look within the indivisible to discern the structure and to see what happens when the epistememe or the atom is split.

If you've been following what I'm developing here, you should be skipping ahead to think of the whole GOOD Vs. EVIL paradigm blithely assumed as common by Fantasy writers today.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg




  1. Anonymous8:18 AM EST

    As far as learning another language, is concerned, can I put in a word for Esperanto?

    I know that Esperanto is a living language, but it has great propaedeutic values as well.You might like to see http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU for other detail.Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    The argument for Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  2. Brian:

    You are absolutely correct, Esperanto is one of the more hopeful developments in our world today.

    It garnered huge support in the SF community when it first was promoted, and still enjoys a respected position.

    However, this post was focused on writers who don't know anything about Linguistics and probably only know one language well.

    Fantasy today, in the wake of Tolkien, seems to require Elves, Trolls, and Goblins to have languages - and Bug Eyed Monsters too. So people who aren't steeped in Linguistics are inventing languages for fictional purposes.

    This post was aimed at honing curiosity among this group of writers, so maybe they'd learn something about the various fields that study human communication.

    The other side of the coin is the reader -- if a writer truly expert in all the fields of communication relevant to creating non-human languages actually created one and used it in a novel, the READERS wouldn't find it amusing.

    It would seem arduous.

    So likewise, if a writer used Esperanto in a fantasy novel, it would seem arduous not amusing.

    We are in the field of entertainment, and everything we explore and learn is sliced and diced and slanted to being useful as an entertainment tool.

    We are stage magicians who use words instead of slight of hand.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Your musings reminded of a book I've been meaning to read. It's Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction. I'll have to get it from the library.