Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Etymology

25 Jul

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Vowel Systems

In this post, I’ll be discussing orthography and etymology.  Etymology is the study of the history of words–basically tracing the forms of a word through time all the way back to its origins.  Since I’m writing in English, I’ll mostly be using English examples for etymology.  And that’s great, because English has such a complex past.

Now, where the orthography part comes in is that you can often tell the origin of a root in English by the orthography.  English spelling will use a letter combination for words from one language to represent a sound, even though we already have a perfectly good letter for that sound.  And its based partially on how orthographies interact, and partially on language change.

So, English has several alternate spellings based on etymology.  For example, the use of “ch” instead of “k” for the /k/ sound.  An example is the word “chemical”, which comes from Medieval Latin “alchimicus” through the word “chemic” in the late 1500s.  It goes back to the Greek form “khemeioa” through Arabic “al-kimiya”.

“Ch” is called a “digraph”, meaning two graphemes used to represent a single phoneme.  It is common to many roots received originally from the Greek.  These roots often passed through Latin,which used the “ch” digraph to represent the Greek /kh/ an aspirated voiceless velar stop, which Latin lacked.  The pronunciation became /k/ in Late Latin, and is thus the one we’ve inherited into English today.

I go into detail here for a few reasons.  First, understanding your own orthography can be useful ind designing others.  Second, most novels use strictly English orthography, so options are limited.  However, by considering the connotations of various loan word roots in English, you can achieve a certain amount of meaning.  For example, in order to differentiate a con-word in a novel, you can use common digraphs such as “ch”, even if the word would be pronounced with a normal /k/ sound.  In this way, you can make a word seem older, foreign, etc without resorting to special symbols, or that mainstay of conlang/foreign language typography, the italic word/phrase.

You can use similar digraphs/letter choices to create other differences.  Although it’s arguable that this is an appropriation rather than a proper usage, Jay Kristoff, in his book Stromdancer, spells the Japanese word “salary-man” “sarariman” in imitation of the most common Japanese romaji transliteration system, in order to make it seem more foreign.  I’d argue, however, that the clear English root makes a good case for spelling the word in English, to make clear its loan word status.

And this leads us to the concept of transliteration, which is spelling a word in Roman letters that normally would not be so spelled.  Chinese and Japanese both have a multitude of English transliteration schemes, such that the same word can look vastly different and be pronounced completely differently by a native English speaker.

This fact can be used quite effectively to manipulate orthography to create certain effects.  Really the only limit is your imagination.

Next time, we’ll be taking a bit of a side-trip while I talk about the use of “dialect” in speculative fiction–it probably applies to any type of fiction, though.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Appropriation and Dialect


Posted by on July 25, 2013 in Linguistics


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2 responses to “Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Etymology

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