A Word is Worth a Thousand Words

Middle EnglishI took a linguistics class as an undergraduate to satisfy my math requirement - formal reasoning, anyone? - and chose as my final project an analysis and presentation of Tolkien's Elvish. I played a truly cool clip of him reciting one of Galadriel's songs from The Fellowship of the Ring, "Namárië." Sweet on Middle Earth and sweeter on etymology, I had long belonged to a group of writers in my first blogosphere who shared my interests. While I wasn't among the devoted few who could actually speak Quenya, I was intensely interested in language creation - so much so that in the earliest of early drafts of The Hidden Icon, I included a great deal more of the language of Eiren's world.

In subsequent drafts, very few of the words of that language would make the cut. Partly because I wasn't confident of my skills, and partly because I ended up building the reality of her world in other ways. But, I had originally framed rules around tenses, pronouns, and verb conjugations, and had a tidy little vocabulary list typed up that was, sadly, lost in one of the many hard drive failures of my college career. I leaned on my purely academic understanding of the Spanish language - having had to pass a class in written translation to earn my Master's degree - and a semester steeped in The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. I even went so far as to carve into polymer clay a phrase that was repeated, with some ceremony, several times in the first draft:

Est a'maban du, na'tura ly.

I know it by heart still. But I can't for the life of me remember what it means.

I had some selfish reasons for creating my own language, too, beyond just the fact that it was fun. I did not and do not like the word "princess," and two of the principal characters are royalty. It's a pretty loaded term whose baggage didn't make sense for my story, and I found a way around it with some formal addresses that actually did make the cut: as a member of her kingdom's royal line, Eiren is addressed as Han'dra Eiren, and her brother and father were called by the male equivalent, Han.

Funny thing, I can't recall if the common polite address - Eiren'dra - is in the final draft of the book or not. But I can tell you that dudes are "Han" no matter what.

I think it only makes sense when you're creating your own world to imagine that the people there must speak their own language, or languages, and to wonder how you might work that in or pay homage to it. But there's a point in writing science fiction or fantasy where, at least for me, there are some things you just have to let go for the sake of getting at what matters - the story. Of course they aren't speaking English. Of course they don't keep time the way we do or navigate with the same tools as us or wear clothes in styles we'd recognize but whatever. Eventually I just need to accept that those things they're riding with four legs and shod feet and manes, they're called horses, okay? There are horses on this fictional planet in this fictional universe and it doesn't matter how they got there. There's a suspension of disbelief that is required of speculative fiction readers, and if I'm doing the rest of my job right, hopefully these questions are fleeting, if they occur at all.

Ultimately, I felt silly asking readers to learn a new language, even a little bit, to follow parts of the story. Speculative fiction especially, I feel, has a very short window in which to hook readers, and if there's one thing I've learned from some very fine editors, it's that you have to build the strangeness, bit by bit. Frontloading the weird is as perilous as doing so with too much exposition. There are some writers whose world building is spectacularly and unapologetically strange - Octavia Butler comes immediately to mind - but I'm not one of them.

Who knows, maybe the books of the future will allow for some sort of experiential component, a roided-out electronic ink that transforms as you read it, a translation that's responsive to your understanding, your perception of the narrator's intent and trustworthiness. Maybe I'll have the chops then.