Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for Language

Ghosts of Innocence is set in the far future - fifteen thousand years from now. Of course, after millennia of expansions and collapses nobody by then will be speaking recognizable English. Heck, in this setting they don't even remember Earth!

Equally of course, the story is written in English. I just write in modern day English, as the language of my target audience, and I think this is the best way to convey the setting as being somewhere the inhabitants of the story feel at home.

Most of the time, therefore, language doesn't get a mention. It is just there in the background, and not something I want to draw attention to.

However, subtleties of language do make their impression on the story.

There's the slightly stilted speech patterns I use for the key Imperial characters. Not quite enough (I hope) to draw comment, but enough (I hope) to hint at the entrenched hierarchies and ancient etiquettes Shayla has to immerse herself in.

I deliberately chose to use feet and miles for distance, rather than metric. You'd think the latter would be a natural choice for a far future spacefaring setting, but I wanted to convey, not modernity, but deep tradition and antiquity. This is a place with history.

In some of the unstated backstory, Shayla's preparation included learning not only the northern fishing dialect of the woman whose identity she steals, but also the inflection that such a dialect would bring to the standard Imperial tongue. She went further, and softened the accent to match the more refined circles her target had moved in.

There are more explicit mentions of things like the Firenzi military tongue that Shayla reverts to when talking to some captured soldiers.

The most unusual examples, though, are the secret languages Shayla and Brandt invented. Some of Shayla's security software "talks" in code by modulating the tones and rhythms of abstract meditation music. She can be listening to a detailed report while an eavesdropper wouldn't be able to tell there was a coded message in there.

At one point, Shayla and Brandt talk about this language, called Chirple, and later Brandt sends her a message using it. Here Shayla reflects on the message and its meaning:

Fortuitous intel!

It was said that the local dialect in Prandis had fifty different words for sunshine. The brazen midday sun in a clear sky. The caress of a spring dawn. The umber glow through an afternoon dust storm.

Chirple had equally subtle distinctions to denote varieties of intelligence. Shayla pondered Brandt's choice of wording. Fortuitous. Arrived at by chance. Neither knowingly revealed by the target, nor specifically sought by the recipient.


  1. I like the device of altered language you use to convey the 'hierarchy' in this story! I'm not usually into fantasy/futuristic fiction, but this has piqued my interest...! :-)

    Happy A-Z'ing!

    SueH I refuse to go quietly!

  2. When it comes to foreign languages, I don't mind so much as long as the author isn't constantly mentioning the translator during the conversation. And even if it's a new language, I think having English (or whatever language the book is published in) as the default makes sense. Do I think about the English names for everything I'm looking at? No, because that's my native language. If I'm in a foreign country, maybe, but probably not that often.

  3. Dialect is a very difficult thing in novels. A little goes a long way. It sounds like you've nailed it.

  4. I didn't think about it until you mentioned it but you're right. If we're still around our language will have totally evolved by then.

  5. Interesting. I have a dwarf in my story that I give a bit of an accent. Other than that, language is not mentioned and serendipitously universal across all the races. I just didn't want to have to mess with translation.

    Sounds like you hit on a good way of handling it too.


  6. Sue, speculative fiction isn't all elves & dwarves, or big boys' toys :) Always pleased to pique someone's interest.

    Kimberlee, I use the character's POV as my guide. For example, if the character is in a foreign country with an unfamiliar language, then they (and hence the reader) would be very much aware of it.

    Matt, I am certainly cautious around dialect.

    Johanna, that's right. But at the same time, the inhabitants then wouldn't think twice about it.

    J, a bit of an accent? :) I like Traunick, and I think what you did with his accent works well, else I'd have mentioned it in critiques by now ;)

  7. Thanks for stopping by my blog in your a - z travels. I'm getting to as many as I can. Enjoy!

  8. It's always an adventure, dealing with language when your creating new or unknown worlds. I do have to say it's kind of funny that you think of the foot and mile as indicating "deep tradition and antiquity." I think of a backwards country that can't keep up with the rest of the world that is just south of your border! ;)

    (I'm just kidding. I know what you mean)

  9. Creating languages in a new world is always a challenge. Great post.

    Hope you’re enjoying the challenge so far!
    --Damyanti, Co-host A to Z Challenge April 2012

    Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  10. I like to use diction to add voice to a character. What words they use should be in context with who they are. Great post!

  11. Laurie: You're welcome :)

    Danette: OK, there's that perspective too. I'm coming at more as a Brit, which does have a bit of antiquity to offer ;)

    Damyanti: So far, so good, but it's tough keeping up with everyone.

    Emily: Exactly!

  12. Really interesting post. As a writer of alien worlds, I was fascinated by your analysis of your characters' languages. I completely enjoyed this. Is your book available yet? :-)


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