Thursday, March 20, 2014

tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh'a'?*

Do you speak Dothraki? Or Na'vi?

Last time I talked about me and languages.  Evidently, I am not alone with the language thing. Not that I ever thought I was.  However, there is a huge difference between wanting to learn a language and wanting to just make one up. We are, in part, back to Tolkien again. But, we are also far in to the future and creating jobs for linguists. Who knew that when they were taking this relatively obscure field of study that they might be able to make a living creating languages?

There used to be IS a great site called "Conlang" where you could STILL CAN learn all about constructed languages. Probably a whoooooole lot about constructed languages you don't want to know, but, if you need a reason to stay in school, linguistics with an alien touch might just be what you are looking for.  Analyze Dragon-speak, anyone?

There is also Omniglot. It's a collection of language tools and resources.  Lots of cool languages here, still.  Besides Elvish and Klingon, there is the constructed language--Laadan--of Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue.  (You can listen to a podcast about it here). 
It’s 2205 and lots and lots of aliens have been contacted, and a genetically related dynasty of Linguists exists to talk to the aliens, which they do by exposing small children to them so that they can learn the alien languages as native tongues.

We kinda expect there to be some language reference when we pick up a book about an alien culture, or when there is some high fantasy involved.  Most often it is in naming. The first thing I check when the cover calls to me, is the middle of the book. If I can't pronounce anything written with capital letters, I put it back on the shelf.  Not to say that constructed names must sound like English, or that they have to be reasonably familiar looking. Not at all. It's just that the name should have some sonic logic to it.  F'narr and F'larr (or however you spell their names without looking them up) are pronouncable.  I can hear them in my head and so, tell the characters apart.  Csikszentmihalyi.  Seeing that?  I'd not skip the whole book but if there were more than three instances of that on a page?  Back on the shelf.  OK. Here's my other real world favorite.  Remember when we heard about Eyjafjallajokull? I'll help: Eh-yaf-hetla-yok'tl. Got it?   Dw i ddim yn deall!

One of my favorite language-based stories is Samuel L. Delany's Babel 17.  It is the main character's knowledge of an obscure Earth language (Basque) that allows her to solve the alien language problem. Still, I am happy that writers don't usually use words that already exist in other languages.  At least not without a glossary. 

Language creates depth of culture in fantasy and science fiction.  Different words are used from one generation to another.  When was the last time you actually used a dial to dial a phone number?  Or why is it called a "ring tone"?  Many cultural conflicts are based in language and when the cultures are more alien to each other, greater opportunities exist for breaches and resolutions.  Language has other elements, like metaphor and idiom, that writers can use to build their worlds while keeping our inner reading voice happy.

Here's another World in Words podcast from the archives.

You never know when that odd turn of phrase will be the solution to a grave problem.
Do you have a favorite alien language?  Which one would you wish you could teach your friends?  How about a secret language?

*Translation: Do you speak Klingon?


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