I am currently away on an Internet Vacation. I’ll be back online on March 31. Today, in my absence, as a special treat, I am so pleased to have a guest post by my friend, and fellow Analog-writer, Juliette Wade In addition to being a wonderful writer of stories, Juliette is also a linguist by training. I urge you to check our her website, TalkToYoUniverse, and follow her on twitter, @JulietteWade. And with that said, let me hand it off to Juliette.
One of science fiction’s defining characteristics is the creation of new words to describe worlds. While television and movies have seen a recent trend toward the creation of entire alien languages, word creation is vitally important also for written stories, even those set in worlds only slightly different from our own. I thought I’d take a look at some of the kinds of words which are created for science fictional contexts, and discuss how they work.
Created words can be arranged on a scale between most and least familiar. At the most familiar end are words from English which have simply been re-purposed for use with novel concepts. At the other end are completely alien words. Naturally, the further toward the alien end of the scale the words are, the more difficulty a reader will have in understanding them. Eventually, a narrative too full of alien words can become impenetrable, so my own rule of thumb says that if you want to create a sense of familiarity between the reader and the story, use as few alien words as possible, and if you want to create a sense of alienness, use more. If we look at examples from science fiction stories, we find that authors don’t use only one kind of word. They mix words from different areas of the scale.
Let’s get specific.
You typically know an alien word when you see one. They look like this: “Na’vi” (James Cameron’s Avatar) “Ariekei” (Embassytown by China Mieville) “Dirokime” (A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge). They bear no linguistic relation to English, other than being written in English characters. Luckily, English speakers do still have ways to pull meaning out of them.
We use our sense of onomatopoeia, our sense of the “feel” of sounds. We’re familiar with onomatopoeia from words like “bow-wow,” and “cock-a-doodle-doo,” but also from words like “drip” and “drop,” “gallumph,” “pitter-patter” and “smash.” You can read my article about onomatopoeia at this link: http://talktoyouniverse.blogspot.com/2008/09/bow-wow-boom-smash-onomatopoeia.html . We find that, even across languages, voiced sounds like “b” “d” “g” etc. tend to occur in actions or sounds with greater intensity or lower pitch, while their unvoiced equivalents “p” “t” “k” tend to occur in actions with lesser intensity. It’s no surprise that when I created an alien word for a large waterfall, I decided to call it “sàth,” using a wide-open vowel and two unvoiced fricatives (s and th) that make you hear the rushing of water. I didn’t plan that word consciously, but imagine how much smaller that waterfall would have seemed if I’d named it “sìth” — and if I’d called it “dìt,” it wouldn’t have seemed very waterfall-like at all. We also use resemblance between words to evaluate potential meanings, as when we see a word like Frank Herbert’s musical instrument, the “baliset” (Dune). Inside that word live the echoes of familiar musical words — “balalaika,” “quartet,” or maybe “quintet” — helping to give the word its “feel.”
Beyond those hints, a reader must rely on the author to teach the meaning of the word. This brings me to another type of science-fictional semantics, all the way on the opposite end of the scale. Sometimes authors will take English words that we know very well, and change their significance for alien worlds. Take the word “Net”, or “Hosts” for example. The trick with using these types of words is that they can’t be too specific to our own world. The vast distributed computer system that extends across the galaxy in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep is called the Net; it wouldn’t make any sense to call it the World Wide Web, or even the Web, because that term has come to seem archaic in our own world, and Vinge’s Net is anything but archaic. Frank Herbert uses “Voice” to describe a tone of voice that creates a visceral command in the mind of its hearers. China Mieville uses the word “Hosts” to describe the alien residents of the planet on which his fictional human embassy is located. In doing so he defines the social relationship that the aliens bear to the humans, one of hospitality and also of tolerance, while leaving room for the aliens to be powerful and inscrutable.
A word becomes generic when it has been heard in so many different contexts that no single context wins an overriding association with it. That makes it an ideal candidate for extension to an alien environment. As with fully alien words, the author’s job is to teach readers what the word means in that science fictional environment. You can even see authors telling readers to look out for extra or different meaning when they use Capitalization, which suggests Greater or Alternate Significance.
So what other features can put us on the lookout for words that signify new concepts in a science fictional world? When we see alien words, our simple lack of understanding tells us to look for a new meaning; with redefined English words, capitalization can be a hint that pricks up our semantic senses. In both of those cases, we’re looking for the author to teach the new significance using surrounding context. However, those aren’t our only tools. There are two other word types I’d like to mention here:
- Derivative words
- Translation-derived words
- Compound coinages
These are all very common in futuristic science fiction, because they are clearly words from our own world, yet they can be quickly understood on the basis of their derivations.