Throughout speculative fiction of all genres, be it fantasy or sci-fi, we have certain tropes that are universal. There’s generally an ancient forgotten civilization, a more war-like race, some benevolent watcher species, and a species or individual with some sort of supernatural power. These supernatural powers have a variety of manifestations and uses, but some of the most common across all genres are powers of the mind. The ability to hypnotize, read minds, or see into the future are in almost all branches of these genres and will likely be there until the future they claimed to see finally comes to pass.
And why wouldn’t they be? The concept is fascinating on so many levels. We’ve even tried to see if it was possible in the real world, and found that it probably wasn’t (at least on this world). People still insist that they can do it though, often using cold reading techniques and research to try to fake the talent, and continue to keep the ability right on our collective minds. For every story where someone claims to be able to speak to the dead there are at least a dozen or so real world people who are claiming to do exactly that. And as a result these concepts are an inexorable part of our culture and will be for some time to come (maybe even forever).
But on a writing level, there are problems presented with such powers, problems which often result in a whole other set of tropes that are used as a compromise. It wouldn’t take very much effort to find episodes of shows where the psychic cast member has somehow been stripped of their powers or are somehow nullified. The entire point of Minority Report, both the movie and the original story, was whether or not these perceptions should be trusted. And almost every one of the X-Men movies has found a way to completely remove Professor X’s powers from the equation.
While writing languages for inhuman creatures, it’s important to remember just how different it would be. I covered part of this not long ago when I mentioned that fictional languages should sound somewhat like gibberish to us. After all, there are languages in the real world which sound like gibberish already, so it makes sense for it to be more true in a fictional one. But there are times when that should go even further – particularly with aliens.
Within speculative fiction we often hand-wave away the difficulties of communicating with aliens, hiding it behind universal translators. And, while this makes sense when all of the creatures involved are using the same methods of communication, we have to admit that it’s unlikely every creature we meet would “talk” to each other. When you really think about it, even on our own planet the way we communicate is somewhat unique. Throughout the animal kingdom we have creatures who communicate through chemicals, motions, colors and inaudible sounds. And, frankly, the creatures on our world have more in common with us by default of evolving on the same world.
Over the years I’ve often been a proponent of making sure that your story comes before your message. Though you should always include part of yourself, you should do your best to actually avoid ever putting your own opinions ahead of the quality of your work. Emphasizing your opinions too much can overwhelm the material and make it difficult for people to really get invested in the narrative – serving to diminish both. After all, if people don’t care about your story they certainly won’t care about the themes behind it.
So I’ve often talked about the need to present the discussion as a natural part of the narrative. Reeling back your message to allow the discussion to be had on its own will generally present a better result with a more invested audience. And, as a natural result of putting yourself into your work, the message you intended to put out there will usually shine through on its own. By being fair, not forcing the audience to see it your way, and giving them a view into the topic of discussion that lets them get there on their own, you’ll have people who not only receive your message but feel good about getting there. Essentially, if you present an issue in a fair manner and demonstrate why you feel the way you do, either people will agree with your assessment or you’ll have given them something to think about.
But there’s a risk in approaching subjects a little too neutral. While you always want to avoid “soap boxing”, both to ensure the audience is receptive and to ensure a stronger narrative, you don’t want to remove yourself entirely. It’s a tricky balancing act, one that many people stumble on, but an important one none the less. Because when you do remove yourself from the equation and try to approach a subject completely neutral you’ll rarely get the result you desire…. Continue reading Passionate Discussion→
In a time when every studio needs to have their own franchise of interwoven properties, Universal studios came to answer it with their “Dark Universe“. Starting with The Mummy (a decision they may be regretting given the reviews), the plan was to have Universal bring together all of its major “movie monster” properties in the same way that Marvel and DC had been doing over the last few years. Bringing together the likes of The Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein, and several other properties, the hope was to create something with the kind of cross promotional marketing power as an Avengers or Justice League.
But, while these properties are essentially chosen for their iconic status, they’re also chosen for being ostensibly within the same genre. They are, after all, old school horror icons which have been part of the cultural mindset for generations. Each of them, a movie monster that had been in film since the days before color, represent something with instant brand recognition. And for the longest time all of us have grouped them within our minds as being essentially a part of a single genre.
Within fictional worlds filled with fantastic or alien civilizations, there’s a tendency for these other civilizations to be marked with very specific personality traits. Sometimes these traits even translate across similar races in both genres. Elves and Vulcans both come across as cold and detached but are actually fighting back something a bit more primitive. In places where there is more than one kind of “elf”, each of them will represent opposing philosophies that have somehow physically altered them. Orcs and Orc-like races across both fantasy and sci-fi settings are usually savage brutes with a penchant for violence. And you’re always going to find at least one race that is devoted to the accumulation of wealth – some more blatantly than others.
And from a certain vantage this comes across as disingenuous or even lazy. People aren’t so uniform and those things that are universal between us all aren’t so instantly identifiable. The human race has a great potential for savagery if left to our own devices. The accumulation of wealth can easily overwhelm some of us, but the rest of us are likely to see that person in a negative light. And, of course, as self-assured some of us can possibly be, the kind of people who approach the sort of arrogance or detachment you find in several fantasy races would just be considered assholes in the real world.
But to each of these, we have to remember to keep in mind (especially for writers): these characters aren’t human, and that can make all the difference. Continue reading Fantastic Lineages→
One of the big questions for building a world in speculative fiction is what languages these characters should be speaking. We’ve seen so many softer science fiction properties fall back on the universal translator concept, but that isn’t always the case elsewhere. Joss Whedon’s Firefly franchise made a point that everyone speaks two languages, English and Chinese, and that most of them usually cursed in the latter (to get around censorship). The film Arrival spent a great deal of time focusing on just how exactly you can understand an alien civilization with a wholly different way of thinking and writing. And for all the flak that Star Trek: Enterprise got, it was the first time in the franchise where no one could deny the communication officer’s job was damn near impossible at times.
But in the fantasy setting the question gets even more complicated. These are ostensibly creatures that have lived on the same world we have and they’ve been trading linguistics with us for as long as we’ve known they exist. Few languages in the real world are entirely isolated from each other, loan words exist in almost every corner of the world. And even if isolated, languages have evolved to such a degree within our own history that certain languages would be completely unintelligible within no more than a millennium. Because of this, it’s hard to know what exactly Elvish, Dwarvish, or Orcish are supposed to sound like. In fact, while a lot of these have versions, the best example of someone coming up with languages for these races was done by a linguist who did this kind of thing for fun and had an obsessive compulsive need to world build.
But, if you think about it, you don’t have to be a Tolkien to come up with a believable fake language. After all, it’s supposed to sound like gibberish…
Within human languages there are so many distinct dialects that it would be impossible for any one person without the assistance of one of those “universal translators” to be able to understand all people. Yes, there are always likely to be translators available for people who speak one of the more prevalent languages, and more people learn certain languages than others. But the idea that there is a so-called “human tongue” as you find in many speculative fiction works is a little silly at best. In fact, one thing to bake your noodle is that, since all of them are using universal translators, Captain Picard may have always been speaking French while the universal translators just made him sound particularly British.
And, in fact, even when you are all speaking the same language it is incredibly difficult for people to understand certain dialects. While most people from the major English speaking countries of the world would have an okay time understanding each other, it’s generally accepted that any American tourist traveling the UK is going to run into at least one dialect they have no damned way of understanding. In fact, if you’re really unlucky, some sources say there are at least five you’ll struggle with.
So when thinking about other creatures that may live on our world there are a few factors that would make them even more unintelligible in their own tongues. Should they be using a language similar to one of ours it’s very likely that they would be using a completely alien dialect born out of being isolated from humanity for potentially generations to outright millennia. They could even be using a dialect of a language long dead to the rest of the world, last spoken in a time when they were closer to us, or be using one that they created all of their own. While it would be unlikely that their language sprang entirely independent of humanity’s languages, just given proximity alone, even some minor deviations in the past resulted in Indo-European languages becoming completely distinct from each other. For anyone who doubts that related languages could sound absolutely different from each other, keep in mind that Icelandic is in the same language family as English.
So, in the end, while Tolkien certainly did it expertly, the real requirement for making a believable fictional language is that it follows some basic rules, starting with making sure it does sound somewhat like gibberish to us. The most common mistake I’ve seen with people who try to cook up such fictional languages is that they start with a basic language that we have and then think that they can’t make it sound too distinct from ours. The idea behind this approach is that if there’s something still partially recognizable then that would somehow make it feel real. In actuality, it should be nearly incomprehensible, constructed in such a way that we’d be able to pick up only a few loanwords at best (and not necessarily loanwords they took from us). In fact, outside of those few recognizable words, the only thing it should sound like is itself, maintaining internal consistency while only having a passing resemblance to regular languages.
The second biggest factor is that sense of continuity. Within the language there should be a set of sounds which you hear with some manner of frequency. There should be rules to when they show up, how often, and what they really represent. To put it in another way, is that particular grunt the Orcish equivalent to a vowel? If it is, then it should show up as frequently as a vowel would. Constructing an alphabet in and of itself is easier than a full language (alphabets lack syntax) but would quickly give you a series of sounds that can be strung together to create that distinctive feel. Maybe it’s not the way a natural language would evolve, but it would, at the very least, be its own thing.
The more difficult parts would be to construct a vocabulary and a syntax, both more involved but still well within the reach if you’re doing only limited dialogue with it. Vocabulary is generally a matter of taking some time to work out a few choice words. Rarely do people know more than a couple thousand and generally most conversations make use of only a couple hundred at any given time in casual conversation. And, as for syntax, a little study into our own cultures can show the various ways we’ve done it and give you an idea on how to do it yourself. It wouldn’t have to be a perfect thing, you’re still creating gibberish, but the difference between a good fictional language and a bad one is taking the time to establish those kind of ground rules. Is it perfect? Not all. But effort always shows.
Admittedly, it’s a weird thought to have, but I’ve noticed so many people who either half-ass it in an effort to avoid looking bizarre or convince themselves not to bother at all because they can’t match with the likes of Tolkien. Some resolve this by simply hiring a linguist, and those skilled few have made fantastic contributions to fictional worlds. Game of Thrones’ television adaptation, having only a few phrases from the original books to work with, hired a linguist to fill in these blanks. But it feels as though, for those of us who can’t afford to hire that kind of linguist, it’s not really such a crime to wing it with a little careful study and some effort to remain internally consistent. After all, given a few centuries…
The rest of our words won’t make much sense either.
(I write novels and dabble in screenplays, which haven’t had need for constructed languages yet. Meanwhile, I accidentally create a language through typos on twitter – though never as well as covfefe.)