Language in Speculative Fiction

So, I hit a bit of a block with my next book.

The good news is, after taking the story apart and analyzing it (with some help from my wife), I feel like I’ve resolved the issue, which means I’m ready to get to work on it again.

The bad news is that the 10k or so words I wrote for it already will have to be re-written. Not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but still a little disappointing. It’s not a total waste–the characters and plot ideas I developed can mostly be re-used–but the text itself is no good, mainly because it was reading too much like science fiction.

That may sound weird coming from someone who is allegedly a science fiction author, but from the beginning I had planned to make this book a science fantasy, of the sort that takes place in the far future, with (somewhat) solid scientific rules underlying it, while relying on common fantasy tropes to drive the setting and plot. But old habits die hard, and my tendency to let sci-fi ideas “leak” into the setting meant that the book wasn’t turning out the way I wanted it to.

Of these leaks, one that I found interesting was the use of language, specifically invented language. One of the irritating (to me) things about writing is that you’re constantly dabbling in things which you have very little knowledge of, but which you must appear to have absolute mastery of for the sake of fooling the reader into thinking you know what you’re doing (actually, this is my beef with much of modern life as well, but that’s another story). I, like most people, have only a cursory knowledge at best of  comparative linguistics, phonology, and other things I can’t name because I don’t know enough to know that I should know them. It was thus to my great relief that I found out that when it comes to making up words, most sci-fi and fantasy authors are essentially winging it. Just listen to what George R.R. Martin had to say:

A few years ago, I got a very nice email from a reader who wanted to know more about the vocabulary and syntax of High Valyrian. I blush to admit that I had to reply, “Uh… well… all I know about High Valyrian is the seven words I’ve made up to date. When I need an eighth, I’ll make that up too…

Not that authors don’t construct entire languages from scratch for their stories (otherwise known as conlanging), but that is usually the exception, whereas from what I can gather, Martin’s approach is much closer to the rule.

Here’s a question that’s always interested me: are the characters in your favorite speculative fiction story speaking English, or not? It’s the sort of question which seems simple to answer, until you realize it isn’t. After all, we almost always see characters in science fiction novels set a hundred or two hundred years in the future speaking English which wouldn’t seem out of place today; are we really expected to believe that our language wouldn’t continue to drift the way it always has, such that the speech of these characters would sound as strange to us, as ours would to a participant in the American Revolution[1]? In some cases, we can defend the author by assuming that what we’re reading is a translation–a rendering of the real dialogue into a form we twenty-first century earthlings can understand. It’s worth noting, however, that since older English tends to sound more stilted and formal, that the language of the future might very well still be understandable, while sounding rather crass and immature. Thus the “translation” in this case isn’t really saving us from incomprehension, but rather making it so that our badass space ranger character doesn’t come off as speaking like an unbearably silly child.

But what about fantasy? The situation appears to be more clear-cut here: after all, how could English be spoken in a completely invented world with an invented history, in which there was never an England (or a Rome or Germany etc.)? But still, there are complications: for example, in GRRM’s own Song of Ice and Fire series, it’s heavily implied that the “Common Tongue” spoken in Westeros is some form of English, not in the least because Westeros itself is clearly modeled on Great Britain, complete with Hadrian’s Wall[2]. Another example would be the Kingkiller Chronicles, which while giving (to my knowledge) little detail about the structure of the native language, contains many rhyming songs and chants. Now, it’s not that difficult to translate a song from one language to another and have both songs rhyme, but to my ear doing this too much is a mark of suspicion that something may be inconsistent. Then again, Tolkien did this more than anyone, and he apparently didn’t intend for any of his characters to be speaking English, going so far as to come up with native “Westron” translations of their names.

Now, assuming an author has decided whether or not their characters are speaking English (you have decided this, haven’t you?), here are the approaches I know of for inventing fictional terms:

1. Take an existing word and re-purpose it; this works especially well if the word in question is obscure[3]. This technique does raise a question for “translated” works, however: when is it appropriate to translate a word literally, vs. giving the sound of a word as if it were a proper name? Take Star Wars’ “the Force” for example; does it make sense for the name of a ten-thousand year old (or however old the Force is supposed to be) religion to be rendered as a common word in whatever language the characters are speaking? Don’t we say “Jesus Christ” instead of “Jesus Anointed” (or perhaps “Joshua Anointed” etc.)?

2. A Portmanteau. For those not involved in Wikipedia edit wars, this is where you take two words and smoosh them together to create a new one. Much more common in scifi than fantasy (think GravDrive, LasRifle, etc.), probably because they tend to sound a bit like corporate brand names.

3. Garble an existing word by changing one or more syllables, giving an ostensibly new term which nevertheless may give the reader a contextual clue as to its meaning. Neal Stephenson used this to great effect in Anathem, and it’s also the logical choice for science fiction/fantasy stories that take place in the far future, say five hundred years or more. I’ve seen it used in fantasy as well, especially for words the reader is expected to understand right away without an explanation, but if overused it might make readers (or at least me) wonder whether your characters are indeed speaking some form of English, and if so, why[4].

4. Just make up the damn thing. Difficult to pull off convincingly (at least for me), although some people seem to have a knack for coming up with combinations of sounds which evoke their desired meaning while still not resembling a term in any common language[5]. To help, try applying the Ron Perlman test: picture Ron Perlman, or some other actor known for playing badasses, speaking your word in a completely earnest fashion. If you burst out laughing, it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board (or at least the conlang board).

Have I missed anything? If so, let me know in the comments. In the meantime, I have some worldbuilding to do…


1. Lest it be thought that I’m throwing stones, I’ll admit I’m guilty of this as well. As for examples to the contrary, maybe I just haven’t read enough near-future sci-fi to think of any off-hand. Anthony Burgess did a great job with A Clockwork Orange, but as far as I know only the gang members spoke Nadsat, whereas the “respectable” characters spoke proper English.

2. It’s significant here that the Common Tongue of Westeros is the language of the Andals, who bear more than a slight resemblance to the Angles, and who invaded Westeros in the pre-feudal era, displacing the native population except for the far north, similar to the real Anglo-Saxon displacement of the Celts. This is (one of the reasons) why George R.R. Martin is awesome.

3. I’m looking at you, Gene Wolfe.

4. Again, this is something GRRM does a lot (sir -> ser), and which he can get away with because of his world’s well-thought-out history.

5. Of course, what constitutes “evocation” is highly subjective; would you know what “Kwisatz Haderach” meant just by its sound?

2 thoughts on “Language in Speculative Fiction

  1. Here’s my suggestion. Play Scrabble or the app Words with Friends and see how many times you think you’ve made a word that doesn’t exist, though it seems like it should. That can be in your language. Seriously, that happens to me all the time: haflaf, exil, spart, swither…and so on.
    I love the George Martin quote at the beginning, by the way.

  2. The method you choose to “create” your language is based on your purpose in including it.

    Martin has little to say about language and its use and value in ASOIAF, so there’s little need for him to create a true constructed language. Further, no one in the novels really speaks it on the page.

    In a story where language is more relevant, such as when an author has chosen to avoid the use of a “common tongue”, or where a plot point involves a character not speaking a certain language, there’s more value in doing some conlang work to achieve your ends.

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