Posted by: kshayes513 | March 10, 2010

Boskone 47: Language in Worldbuilding

The Boskone 47 panel on language and linguistics in SF and F featured Tom Shippey, Geary Gravel and Lawrence M Schoen.

As always, I don’t have the comments attributed, and my notes are a bit sketchy, so I may misquote what was said or meant.

First, a couple of the major language sins in worldbuilding:

  • Just one language for a whole planet or fantasy world
  • Every non-human race talks in the “British received version” of their language, ie, always in proper English (and if on screen, with a British accent!)
  • though language has many different elements and aspects that can be used to express alien-ness, hardly anyone does this in their stories

An example of the third item might be that English and most western European languages have verb tenses, which locate the action in time. Hopi and many other Indian languages have no tenses, which is virtually untranslatable to the English speaker. Its a whole different way of thinking.

Another observation about language and anthropology: US anthropology is naturally interested in Native American cultures, and particularly in the huge number of different cultures and languages in a relatively small geographic area (especially when compared to the Eurasian landmass, which has far fewer distinct ethnic groups for its relative size)

We might speculate that this anthropological fact is one reason why American SF is so interested in the conflict of wildly different cultures in close proximity. (or I might speculate that its simply because the clash of cultures between European and Indian is so recent and so important a part of our history, whereas in Europe, the culture clashes are very old and very familiar, like siblings quarreling – how long have the English and the French disliked each other?)

And of course, in the midst of this discussion, one of the panelists observed that a realistic portrayal of alien languages and linguistics is actually quite a nuisance for a storyteller. You don’t want to hold up the whole story while characters spend months or years learning each other’s languages! So: “gimme my universal translator!”

This discussion made me aware that I could be doing more with the languages of Khasran. I am, of course, writing dialog and internal monologue in English, yet I’m often aware that I’m actually translating. Sometimes I get at this through specific word choices that wouldn’t perhaps be the first choice in ordinary English, and sometimes I just have to make up new ways of saying and thinking, that will still be clear to an English reader.

For example, it’s been challenging to come up with names for the different kinds of psychic powers, since these are, on the one hand, very specific (a telepath is not the same as a clairvoyant), but on the other hand, the Khasrani words have none of the occult associations that come along with “psychic,” “telepath” and “clairvoyant” in English.

And English has some fundamental concepts and distinctions that we don’t even think about, because they are built into our grammar; but these concepts and distinctions simply don’t exist for the Khasrani. Sometimes that makes it hard to write exactly what a Khasrani would really be saying!

But, the panelists agreed, grappling with the language issue to the level of realistic linguistics, would probably make an unreadable story, 90% of the time. So if it’s a choice between getting at exactly what I know a Khasrani would really be saying, and making the language of the story work, I’ll fudge the language a bit. Especially in short stories, where there’s not a lot of room to play with language. When I get to novels, then I can have more fun!

And finally, a short list of stories mentioned in this panel, that do grapple with language in some depth and with some realistic effect:

Janet Kagan, Hellspark

R Scott Bakker, Prince of Nothing series

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others

Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed

And a story called The Lotus Eaters, for which I can’t find an author or reference. Can any one identify this story?


  1. I have tried to focus on one major cultural element in finding the voice of my characters. In my present novel, I deal with the 1800’s and one character is a slave while another is a Nubian female. For the slave, I wanted to develop a cadence and listened to lyrics in early Blues music.

    For the Nubian, I decided to use her closeness with nature to become part of her linguistics. She sees a mountain of a man and worries about the valleys of a bad decision.

    Finding a cultural item the character would identify with seems to help in the development.

    What do you think?


  2. Perhaps the quintessential “language” SF story is H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual”, which details the efforts of a Terran archaeological expedition to decipher the written language of an extinct Martian language. The story is actually available for free at the Project Gutenberg website.

    I mention this because it is a (short) story about language translation that remains interesting, exciting, and readable, and explains the logical touchstones that can be discovered and used to found a translation basis.

    Another Piper story, “Naudsonce”, is also about language, in a very different way (also available at Project Gutenberg).

  3. In re: “The Lotus Eaters”, the only reference I can find aside from a so-new-it’s-not-yet-published novel, is the classic 1935 Stanley G. Weinbaum short story of the same name; it is available at the Australian Project Gutenberg. It features a sentient plant that learns English; while the story doesn’t strike me as being completely pertinent to the language-building topic, it is at least somewhat germane, although it’s really about nonhuman intelligence.

  4. Tom: I love the idea of using music to develop the cadences of a character’s voice. I read an article not long ago about a study of music that shows that virtually all of the tones and tonic relationships that make up human music are in fact those of the human voice.

    J J: thanks for showing up to comment! The H Beam Piper stories are here on Project Gutenberg:
    For anyone not familiar with Project Gutenberg, its an archive of downloadable texts in print and audio versions, that are in the public domain. If the story you’re looking for is old enough that the copyright has expired, you’ll likely find it here.
    I didn’t know there was an Australian version, though!

  5. Sorry for the long delay in replying. There are multiple versions of the Gutenberg Project, which are based on various national and international copyright laws (Joe Blow’s works are copyrighted until 2099 in the US, but only to 2009 in the UK and 2001 in Oz.. that sort of thing). So it can be worthwhile to look around the various GPs for something, as it may be available on specific national GPs.

  6. […] Language in Worldbuilding: This has some helpful ideas about how to use language to reflect cultural attitudes and other ways of thinking.  You know how Eskimos supposedly have ~30 bajillion words for snow?  Starcraft’s Protoss need just as many ways to say “we’re screwed.” […]

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