Monday, February 09, 2009

Speaking and Swearing in Alien Tongues: Reprise

For those of you with little time to go poking through the archives here, and in keeping with Jacqueline's posts on dialogue, here are the two posts I did eons ago on speaking and swearing in (intergalactic) alien tongues:


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 Z'fharish, 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 jhavedzga—”

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

Farra says the word in Z'fharish (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!"

Conceiving The Heavens by Melissa Scott
How to Writer Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

The Language Construction Kit -
Pegasus Nest // games // languages in role-playing games -
Patricia C. Wrede's Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions -


Is everything okay?

An innocuous question; one posed daily, if not hourly in our society. Yet several years ago, answering that question almost put a friend of mine in the midst of a full-blown melee.

You see, he was in a restaurant in a foreign country and was asked by the restaurant owner (via an interpreter) if “…everything (meal, wine, service) was okay.”

Not being fluent in the local language, my friend responded by making the good ol' American 'okay' sign: his thumb and index finger forming a circle, the other three fingers extended.

As the proprietor bellowed and tables almost overturned, my friend realized he'd evidently made a big mistake. He had. In his present locale, that hand gesture was synonymous for a lower body orifice, and not a pleasant orifice at that.

For all intents and purposes, he'd just called his host an… well, you know what he'd called him.

When I write my science fiction romance novels, I think about things like that. Not lower body orifices, mind you. I think about what we in this country, on the planet, deem as insulting. And how that might translate to the culture I've built for my novels.

The first lesson I've learned from the above example is that profanity is not planet-wide. What's okay in America may well be a reason to riot in Rio. Though admittedly, it was what the gesture stood for, and not the gesture itself, that was found so offensive.

Which brings me to the question I always ask myself when I'm world building: Self, what would this alien culture find offensive, and why?

It's rather a nice question to ask yourself as well, as you embark on your SF&F world building. Because answering it will make your worlds and your characters that much more complete, that much more alive to your readers.

In general, those that reside on this planet we call Earth find the following categories offensive and fertile fodder for foul language: blaspheming a revered deity, excrement, sexual acts, illegitimacy, body parts relating to excrement and sexual activity, and sexual activity with culturally unacceptable participants, including oneself.

All fairly obvious and self-explanatory to us here on Earth (and if you want to explore the matter further, the tome most oft cited is Geoffrey Hughes' Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English, (Penguin USA). But we're not writing about here on Earth. We're writing about Rigel-V and Tatooine and the Skolian Empire and Moabar. Or maybe the Vash Nadah or the Khalar.

So we need to understand what those people in those places value, or don't, in order to understand how they swear.

Couldn't they value the same things we do? Sure. But why stop there? Moreover, why would they value exactly the same things we do? If the fictional culture you're creating is a carbon copy of Freehold, New Jersey set but set on the planet Gryck-2, then, in my humble opinion, you're cheating your readers. People don't read SF because they want to be immersed in the common. They read it to explore the uncommon.

If you read C.J. Cherryh's Chanur series, you'll see that one of the most common insults the feline race known as the Hani has is to call another Hani “an earless bastard.” And it isn't the bastardy that's the serious part of the insult—it’s the earless-ness. Ears, and the adornment of ears, are symbolic of success. (Being owned by cats myself, I can confirm that ears and tails are sources of great pride.)

So what does your fantasy or sci fi culture hold dear, and what do they disdain?

If parentage is taken lightly, then calling someone a bastard will most likely not be effective (this is true of some aboriginal cultures here on this planet). If there are no restrictions on sexual practices or partners, then perhaps your character could start a fistfight by calling the bad guy a monogamist.

How would those who spend their lives in the space lanes—perhaps are even born in space—view those who've never left the planet? “Dirtsuckers” is a term I've used derisively in my books, showing a prejudice by the space-born against the planet-born.

The entire issue of prejudice fueled the culture, and many of the insults, in my Gabriel's Ghost. The Taka are a furred race that, for the most part, work only in the lowest-paying and demeaning jobs. Prejudice against them, by humanoids, is common in the world of Captain Chasidah Bergren and Gabriel Ross Sullivan:

Sully stepped up to the worker. “Pardon, brother. We seek a Takan brother with urgent family news.”

The man barely glanced at Sully as he ran his hand through his thinning hair in an exasperated motion. Chatter still came from the podium speaker.

“What’s that? Hang on, I got some religious guy here needs to find a furry

The term 'furry', inoffensive to us, is a slur here.

But the Takas aren't the only species looked down upon in Gabriel's Ghost, as Chaz knows when she's speaking to Captain Philip Guthrie:

[Guthrie]: “No. The Farosians. With a Stolorth Ragkiril. We know that. How you would get involved with them, how you would get involved with that I cannot understand.”

‘That’ meant a Stolorth. A Fleet-issue sentiment of disgust.

As readers of Gabriel's Ghost learn, Stolorths are feared. Takas are simply dismissed as lesser beings. But both are recipients of prejudice, and often out of prejudice are insults born.

Blasphemy is born out of devotion. What gods or goddesses do your characters revere? What edicts has their religion placed on them? Is there a place, like hell, that your characters long to send their enemies? Or, if your characters are star-travelers, is it sufficient simply to sneer, "Oh, go suck dirt!" in order to be insulting?

A caution on using invented words: Oh, grzzbft! tends to sound more comical than threatening to English-acclimated ears. That doesn't mean you can't utilize your alien language in order to create alien profanity. Just try to anchor it to something the reader can identify with—an alien word or concept already used in the story, for example. Or use the 'comparative' method I noted in my previous article on constructing alien languages.

I used both methods in my Games of Command— which is, by the way, considerably lighter in tone than Gabriel's Ghost—so I wasn't quite as worried about the giggle factor:

She heard the smart click of the cabin door lock recycling. She dove under the desk, fitting her small form into the kneehole, and shoved her com badge down the front of her shirt. If it beeped now, she was toast.

Cabin lights flicked on. Heavy footsteps moved across the carpeted floor as the door swooshed closed.

Damn! Shit! Sonofabitch! Sass ran through every swearword she knew in five languages. Frack! Grenzar! Antz-k’ran! Trock


“I’d love to launch a raftwide mullytrock, but then we’d have every other damned jockey in straps burning bulkheads. ’Course, that would work too. RaftTraff wouldn’t know which one of us to send the sec tugs after first.”

Mullytrock. Definitely Lady Sass. He remembered Ralland at fourteen getting his mouth washed out with soap for saying that.

Don't ignore the foul-language factor when creating your world. Take some time to see how and why and when we on this planet swear (references below cited to assist you with that), and integrate that knowledge with your alien or fantasy culture. Your readers-- and your characters-- will thank you. After all, your heroine does need something appropriate to say when she drops a sonic-wrench on her toe.

For Further Study:

Four-Letter Folk Etymology and the “Bald Anglo-Saxon Epithet" by Lauren Mahon

Constructed Human Languages

Maledicta Press - Uncensored Language Research

Elizabethean Insult Generator

HOPE’S FOLLY, Book 3 in the Gabriel’s Ghost universe, coming Feb. 24, 2009 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

“If we can’t do the impossible, then we need to at least be able to do the unexpected.” —Admiral Philip Guthrie


  1. I know these are old post but is that beautiful cat one of yours?

  2. Nope- stock photo. My cats are on my website. Daq cat is also PART OF my website. ;-) ~Linnea

  3. Has anyone here read Mary Gentle's Book of Ash series? The plot involves a scholar uncovering a secret history while translating the papers of a 15th century mercenary. At one point in the frame subplot of the book the translator has a footnote explaining how he "updated" the cursing and foul language used by the mercenary band to modern curses that carry the same weight because the profanity that upset people 500 years ago won't phase people today and visa-versa.

    I have always though that was a particularly clever way around the foreign curse issue.