Category Archives: Cultural Appropriation

Pre-Post: Fantasy Counterparts Cultures

So,  I promised a post yesterday on the challenges and responses to the challenges of creating unique new cultures for fantasy worlds.  But as I was writing my draft, I realized I needed to talk about something else first.  You see that post was going to be a response to a common trend in fantasy and what I dislike about it.  So I realized I should probably go into that trend, what it is, what I don’t like, and what it does do well.  On that note:


One of the most common criticisms of is that so much high and epic fantasy is just a pseudo-medieval European setting, with actually quite a few historical simplifications and misunderstandings.  Not least of which is because “Medieval” relates to a span of approximately 1000 years following the fall of the Roman Empire in approximately 500 AD to the start of of early modern age in approximately 1500.  These dates are rough generalizations, no need to nitpick.  My point is that it was a long and complex period over a broad swath of territory, the complexity of which is generally crushed down to knights and feudalism and chivalry.  (There has been subversion and counter-exampling of this trope throughout the history of fantasy, but overall, this generalization holds mostly true.)

In order to combat this issue, people began to make more of an effort to use alternate settings than they had in the past.  Different cultures and mythologies were incorporated into fantasies in an attempt to ride the wave of pushback against this trope.  Which led to the rise of a new over-used trope: Fantasy Counterpart Cultures.  (Evil lurks here!)  If you don’t want to get lost in the wasteland of TVTropes, this is basically when a for-all-intents-and-purposes real world culture is has the serial numbers sanded off in order to become a semi-consistent “new” culture in a fantasy setting.  Most commonly seen with Rome, China, and Japan.  Occasionally Egypt and Russia.  Making up new cultures, which are both consistent and believable, is pretty hard, I think most would agree.  Why not just give a new coat of paint and some sweet new rims to an old ride from Earth?  People will be able to grok the basics of the culture from prior exposure.

However, there are a few issues with this method.  That prior exposure is likely to be made up of stereotypes, misunderstandings, propaganda, and even occasionally  down-right racism.  You might think you know all about pharaohs and chariots, but did you know that Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian?  (You’re reading a blog about fantasy world-building, so you might, actually.)  Most people who aren’t history majors probably don’t.  (Did you know bushido was propaganda?)  It can also lead to lazy writing as the author relies too much on reader knowledge to hold together aspects of the story or world.

There are obvious benefits to the method, of course.  You can rely on reader knowledge, take world-building shortcuts.  It’s quicker.  It provides an exotic flavor to the world without info-dumps, flowery prose, and intense research and understanding of the world.  When well-done, it can be enormously appealing to readers.  There’s a great deal of Rule of Cool that can be applied to the story, both because of ignorance of historical facts underpinning the real-world culture that inspires the story and the verisimilitude it provides.  That way, the writer can “concentrate on a good plot” or build in-depth characters without all the hassle of good world-building.  There are outside rules known to everybody which can be exploited for the writer’s benefit.  The shared cultural context, regardless of its accuracy, can be a major driver in interest in the story.

Bushido is pretty cool as an ethic, much like chivalry.  And why not?  It was intended that way.  It allows for a lot of subversion and the creation of moral dilemmas that can provide depth to characters and explain otherwise odd plot developments.  The same for Rome.  The legions were a unique military construct.  The Empire was both inspiring and open to the sort of darkness that makes for good story-yelling.  Same for the Norse Gods.  And good historical fiction is fucking hard to do.  You have to find a story that fits your goals, or fit a story into the ambiguities and cracks in the historical record.  All while doing tons of research.  Or you could just create a “new” country in a fantasy world where that convenient but historically inaccurate river location just happens to exist, while all the other stuff is the same.  Where there’s no inconvenient “fact” to run your perfect plot idea.  After all, it’s just as hard to create a new living, breathing, believable world as it is to fit non-existent plots into our real world.

But, I’d argue, it’s a lot more interesting.  As I’ll discuss in the next post.


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Linguistics and SFF: Appropriation and Dialect

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Etymology

An oft-debated topic in all fiction is the subject of using dialect as dialogue.  Many famous writers have done it, and many not-so-famous writers have tried it, to varying degrees of success.  Since dialects are a very linguisticky topic, I thought I’d take a look at why and how writers use them, some of the effect of using them, and how it all relates to the whole debate on cultural appropriation.

First, a few thoughts on dialect:


1. A dialect is a unique language system characteristic of a group of speakers.

2. A dialect is a variety of a major language carrying connotations of social, cultural, or economic subordination to the culture which speaks the dominant language.

These two definitions exist simultaneously.  For our purposes, the second one is the most relevant.

Dialects under the second definition are culturally, socially, and economically stigmatized by the dominant culture.  Speaking a dialect is often portrayed by dominant cultural institutions as just “bad [Dominant Language]”.  For example, “bad English”. (We’ll keep this example, since I’m discussing literature from primarily English-speaking countries.)  Many children are taught in school to speak “proper English” in school, and punished for using their native dialect.  “Proper English” actually takes a few forms:  In America, it is a dialect known as “Standard American English(SAE)”, which is most similar to Midwestern dialects of American English.  In England, there is Received Pronunciation(RP).

Most other countries with official “languages”, have a similar pattern of official and unofficial dialects.  What is considered a language is often up to whichever dialects can get state support, and it has been said that “A language is merely a dialect with an army and a navy.”  Or, in the case of France, “a dialect with a national Academy.”

Almost all other dialects are usually considered inferior or degraded versions of the official dialect.

So, onto the use of dialect in fiction.

For the most part, dialogue in English-language novels is written in the standard form of written English, which reflects more or less the standard form of spoken English in the country in which it is printed.  Although, depending on the orthography used, this reflection could be rather cloudy or warped.  Dialect, then, is represented in an attempt at “phonetic” spelling and non-standard vocabulary and grammar.

Most commonly, because the author does not often speak the dialect natively that they are attempting to represent, dialect in fiction falls back on stereotypes of usage related to the cultural perception of the spoken dialect.  This can lead to a continuation of prejudice and stereotypes, and is also a form of linguistic and cultural appropriation, as a member of the dominant culture makes use of minority culture for their own ends.  Rarely in the cases we’re examining are these ends malicious.  But they are often still quite problematic.

There are many English dialects that have been popularized in mass culture, with varying degrees of difference presented.  For example: Italian American English, Chinese American English, African American English, Cockney English, Appalachian English, and Southern English.  In fact, they are so parodied, mocked, and appropriated that they have “accents” associated with them.  The cheesy Italian accent a la Mario, the “Oy Guvnah” of Cockney, and “tree dorra” of Chinese American English.

Some of these “dialects” are actually accents or inter-languages, rather than stable dialects.  However, they are all commonly referred to as “dialect” (or occasionally “accent”) in regards to their representation in fiction.  And for the most part, rather than actual depictions of the stated dialect, what is really present is the set of stereotypical markers associated with the dialect by mainstream culture.

Next time, I’ll look at some examples, both made-up and used in novels, of dialect appropriation.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Artemis Fowl and the Eternity Code

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Posted by on August 9, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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Linguistics and SFF: Signs and Signals and Story-telling

In my past few posts, I have been using the words “signal”, “sign”, and “signifier”, and rather haphazardly at that.  But these are real linguistic concepts, and that have concrete meanings.  And, perhaps more relevant to this post, these concepts can be useful tools in constructing not only your speculative world, but the character arcs and themes underlying your narrative.

So, first some definitions:

Language is made up of a set of signs and the rules that govern their interactions.  You can, for most purposes, consider a sign to be a word in context.

Every sign has three(1) parts:

The signifier is the group of sounds (or letters, for written words) that make up the word.

The signified is what we think of when we hear or see the word.

The referent is what the word refers to in the context in which we encounter it.

For example:  we have a sign with the signifier “president”.  It’s signified is the head of the executive branch of the US government. (Strictly speaking, that’s just its denotation.  You can include the connotation, as well.)  And the referent currently would be Barack Obama.  In 1992, the signifier and signified would have been the same, but the word would have a different referent when used in the US in the absence of any modifiers.

Now, when working in speculative fiction, you can use these aspects of a word (or sign) to decide what English word to use, or if you might like to use a foreign word.

For example, what do you want to call your political units?  We have many choices for this, many possible signs.  We have empires.  An empire is a political unit consisting of many smaller states brought together by forces–most commonly conquest.  An empire can have connotations of bureaucracy, soaring capitals and primitive backwaters.  There are many real-world referents, such as sophisticated Rome, far-flung Alexandria, brutal Azteca, and powerful Britain.

And you can capitalize on aspects of those various referents, much as you could capitalize on the various connotations.  Or, you could pick a kingdom, and capitalize on the myriad kingdoms throughout history.  The same is true for anything, from religion, to clothing, to character.

In the next post, I’ll look at how you can make use of the written form of a sign in your world-building, and I’ll give some examples of foreign signs and how these concepts can influence their use.

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Posted by on July 18, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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Linguistics and SFF: Language and Exoticism

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Why Non-English Words?

One of the most powerful abilities of language in fiction–and this is true in general, although we’re going to be talking about dialogue and foreign language in particular–is the ability to signify the unfamiliar.  Going back to our previous posts, I can say the word “samurai”, and immediately we know that we’re no longer in our own personal culture.  Unless of course, we’re Japanese.

To make a quick distinction, the unfamiliar is not the same as the exotic.  There’s a perspective and an attitude in exoticism that the merely unfamiliar doesn’t have.  With the unfamiliar, we lose our bearings and don’t really know where we are.  The danger of the exotic is that we think we do know where we are, even though we don’t.

Now, when I said “samurai”, many people who are not Japanese may have believed they knew the world I was invoking.  And that could have been true, if I was looking for the exotic Japanese ideal that informs Western stereotypes.  But what if I said “Heian-era Japan”?  You know we’re in Japan because I’ve said so, and you might even know if I just said “the Heian era”.  “Heian” after all sounds like a Japanese word.  But either way, you probably wouldn’t feel on as firm of ground as when I was just talking about samurai.

The fact that I can use words that are equally Japanese, and yet which conjure such competing feelings in the person reading them should suggest a bit about the power of words as signifiers.  And as humans have amply demonstrated, for better or worse, if we can do something, it’s hard to keep us from doing it.

Humans will always use language to signal things, so the question to consider is not ho to get them to stop, but how to get them to do it better, more respectfully.  There’s nothing inherently wrong in using words to signal the approach of unfamiliarity.  It only becomes exoticization when it’s approached from the wrong angle and for the wrong reasons.

So, the prime use foreign words by a story-teller is to signal unfamiliarity.  But how can we do that without falling into the trap of exoticizing?

1.  Figure out why you want to invoke this specific unfamiliarity.  Is it to explore a culture that interests you?  Is it to speculate on the consequences of events in a specific context?  Or might it be because you’re tired of the “same-old medieval pseud-Europe”.  Or maybe an escapist fantasy?  The first two reasons can be legitimate, but the other two are taken you dangerously close to the territory of exoticism, if not over the line completely.

2.  Figure out whether the culture you’re invoking is really the culture you think you’re invoking. This is mostly for real-world cultures or cultures transparently inspired by them.  But all of these steps can apply to a constructed culture, as well.  This is the point where you start doing preliminary research.  You don’t have to learn everything about the culture or the language.  But you should be able to spot most of the big holes in your perception of that culture.  If the two images don’t agree, seriously consider not trying to invoke your false idea of this culture.

3.  Figure out whether the invocator you’re using really invokes the culture you intend it to.  Does it signal what you want it to signal?  Does that word really mean what you think it means?  Are there connotations, or folklore relating to that word that makes it unsuitable for the use you intend?  Do you really need to resort to such a problematic signal?  Do you need a linguistic signal at all?  Is there any reason you can’t just use English?  Does your desire for an unfamiliar “atmosphere” really outweigh the danger of engaging in linguistic (or cultural) appropriation?

4.  No one is a representative of their entire culture.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t run your signals and the work in general by someone who has a bit more experience with the language/culture than you.  Make sure that your signifiers match up with what you want to signify.  That possible disconnect is what’s going to get you in trouble. (I’m assuming a good-faith desire to respect the other culture here.)

Now, if you’ve passed all of those tests, then you have a chance of having done this right.  It’s simply impossible for someone who isn’t a native speaker(liver) to never make a mistake.  But if you follow those steps, you should have weeded out the big errors.

Now, a final piece of advice:  It can be reasonable in some cases, especially the case of “inspiration” to move away from historical/linguistic/cultural accuracy.  But the farther away you move, the more careful you want to be about what signals you use.  Signals, linguistic or otherwise, are all about manipulating expectations.  That’s why the four steps are focused so firmly on your own expectations.  It’s hard to know how to signal others if you don’t know how you perceive those signals yourself.  But because the expectations of your use of foreign words are so firmly rooted in the real world where those signals were developed, moving away from reality not only weakens the effectiveness of the signals, but makes it possible for them to betray you.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Exoticism


Posted by on July 18, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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Linguistics and SFF: Why Non-English Words?

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Connotations and the Failures of Dictionary Definitions

One of the issues that often gets brought up in cases of linguistic appropriation is why the author wanted to use non-English words.  There are a few possible reasons for using non-English words in an English language novel:

1. To create a sense of exoticism, or an atmosphere associated with a certain real-world culture

2. To create a sense of otherness compared to the perspective culture (the protag’s culture)

3. To express concepts not expressible in English without a wordy paraphrase

4. To signal to the reader that the culture being presented differs from their own

5. To distinguish when a character is speaking a language that is not the perspective character’s native language

In this post, I will address the first reason, since it’s arguable that it is the most common, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Each of these reasons have positive and negative ideas underlying them.  Many people have argued, and often convincingly, that exoticism is never an acceptable reason to appropriate someone else’s culture–or in our case, language.  Nisi Shawl quotes a beautiful if uncomfortable poem by Hiromi Goto in her article Appropriate Cultural Appropriation:

Removed.  Please see the full version at the link above.

The problem with exoticism is that it doesn’t truly relfect the culture in question, but only those attributes that the exoticizer finds attractive.  Of course, SFF is not necessarily about accurately depicting real-world cultures.

However, what exoticism does is perpetuate (sometimes harmful, often disrespectful) stereotypes of real-world cultures.  And even if they may not think in those terms, that’s exactly what the story-teller making use of it wants.  Because the goal of invoking that culture, with language or otherwise, is to bring the reader in mind of the cultural stereotypes that society has instilled in them towards the target culture.

To make an analogy to my previous discussion of words, what the exoticizer is invoking are the connotations associated with the target culture, instead of the denotation.  And language is a powerful invocation of culture, because words signify the cultural perceptions.  To use Japanese and Japan as an example, “samurai” is a symbol of the culture, especially in the West.  The Western concept of samurai, based on beliefs of which many have proven to be erroneous, is a strong invocator of Japanese culture.

But samurai has been established in its position as an English loan-word.  It by itself is not enough to call forth the stereotypes of Japan to complete the atmosphere and the appropriation.  But then we have the concept of respect/honor/humility, part of the Western perception of Bushido–the way of the warrior.  And so Kristoff, for example, makes use of honorifics in his dialogue.  This appropriation–and an incorrect one, at that–calls forth stereotypes of Japan that fit Kritsoff’s character arc, in this case, the conflict between duty and righteousness.

As an example of exoticizing, I’d like to do some linguistic and anthropological analysis of the concept of Bushido.  Bushido is a concept invented at the end of the 19th century to reflect the warrior ethos in Japan.  As with many such concepts or supposed ethical systems–such as the Western code of chivalry–Bushido represents and over-simplification of a myriad of personal and local philosophies/codes of ethics present in Japan during the various historical periods during which the samurai were a prominent aspect of Japanese culture, society, and politics.

Inazo Nitobe wrote and published Bushido: The Soul of Japan in 1900, as an original english language(OEL) text.  It was eventually translated into Japanese after achieving popularity in the English-speaking world, influencing such people and organizations as Robert Baden-Powell, found of the Boy Scouts.  Many people don’t even realize that one of the most iconic aspects of Japanese culture was not even an originally Japanese invention.  Although the concepts espoused in the book were rooted in some historically accurate ideals of Japanese culture, thus the enormous popularity of the book with Japanese citizens of the time, it is not an accurate depiction of the way in which so-called “feudal” Japanese culture worked.  Primary sources, such as letters, diaries, and even books of ethics written by many Japanese lords and warriors, do show that there were ideas of ethical behavior that reflect many of the concepts of bushido.  But rather than a universal code of ethics, they were the results of many people with a shared history and culture based in Shinto, Buddhism, and a certain political and social climate.

The construction of the word Bushido is interesting in its etymology.  “Do” has the meaning of “way” or “path”.  It comes from the morpheme /to/ in Japanese, as seen in Shinto, “the way of the gods”, and other similar belief systems.  “Bushi”, a Japanese word for “warrior” comes from the Chinese “bu” and “shi”, which originally was a compound meaning not “warrior”, but translating roughly as “to stop the spear”.  And “samurai” itself actually referred to servants or retainers, rather than warriors in its original conception, and it was used by the aristocratic Kuge class, rather than the warriors who preferred bushi.

Getting back to our main topic, the desire of the story-teller to romanticize the connotations of a foreign culture rather than explore and appreciate its denotation is one of the main factors that marks something as appropriation.  Goto’s poem touches on this idea in the stanza quoted about (#5), and the other stanzas quoted in Shawl’s article, pointing out the idea of the appropriation as art, the shared love of the romanticism inherent in most appropriation, and the lifelessness of the metaphorical girl in the kimono.  What the appropriator loves so much is no the culture itself, but what they can get out of it, and when that culture crumbles to dust as Goto describes, it’s okay, because the appropriator can merely build it up again.  It is, after all, merely their own creation, and not a living, breathing thing which matters to others because they live it.

In the next post, I will address reason number four, since it serves as a powerful set-up for the remaining reasons, and ties in so strongly with what I had to say in this one.  In order to understand the use of language in fiction, it is necessary to understand why it has such a powerful effect on us.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Language and Exoticism


Posted by on July 17, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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Linguistics and SFF: Connotations and the Failures of Dictionary Definitions

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Shadow and Bone and the Russian Language

If you’ve been reading my posts on linguistic appropriation and foreign languages in SFF, you might have noticed that a great deal of the problem comes from the misuse or misunderstanding of foreign words and their meanings.  There’s a fairly simple reason for this, and it’s something that online machine translation efforts have greatly contributed to:

Words have a denotation, the literal meaning of the word: “cat” is a four-legged animal of the genus Felis.  Further, words have a set of connotations, the set of cultural or emotional associations that are connected to the word.  Cats are often considered solitary, imperious, curious, etc.  Connotations are what lend words to the various metaphors (and more generally, all forms of analogy) found in human language.  Then, many words have cultural or historical baggage.  Finally, there is idiomatic language, which provides another layer of meaning to word.

How does this relate to linguistic appropriation and translation failure?  Dictionaries, the most commonly available resource for learning the meaning of foreign words most often include only the denotation of a word, and very occasionally limited historical, idiomatic, or connotational information: ethnic slurs in a dictionary may contain a note that the word is a pejorative.

And, if that isn’t enough, there’s etymology.  This could be construed as a historical association,but I think it has enough relevance to be treated as its own category.  Etymology is the linguistic history of a word: when it first entered the language, the language it came from, changes it has undergone even while part of the current language.  All of these things are relevant.  Consider English.  Words of a Latin or Greek source are often considered more sophisticated than words of Germanic origin.  People who speak mostly in Latin or Greek roots are often considered elitist or snobbish as opposed to those who speak with Germanic roots and grammar, who can be considered un-intelligent, or homey.  This is an association that all native speakers of the language make.  But it may not be immediately obvious to a non-native speaker.

Similarly, Japanese has a strong Chinese influence, especially in literature or religion, for example.  Japanese words with Chinese origins are used and perceived differently, than those of native Japanese origin.  Many languages have similar dichotomies.  Loan words are perceived differently, and a non-native speaker may not know which words are loan words, and whether their source language gives them negative or positive associations.

In order to use a language that is not your own effectively and respectfully, you have to be aware of all of these things.  What may seem like a perfectly reasonable translation may shock or offend a native speaker.  One of the things a writer has to accept when using a language that is not their own is that they will mess up.  They’ll miss something.  It’s inevitable when you consider everything that goes into choosing even a single word in the mind of a native speaker.  But you can do things to lessen the chance of such an occurrence, even before you consult a native speaker.

What you cannot do is attempt to include a real foreign language in your story just by consulting an online bilingual dictionary.

And of course the same issues apply with any historical figure, or pop culture icon, or myth, setting.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Why Non-English Words?


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Linguistics and SFF: Shadow and Bone and the Russian Language

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Japanese Language

In today’s post, I’m going to analyze the linguistics involved in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and BoneThis post is going to be a little different than the last few posts, because the differences between Ravka and Russia are more exaggerated.  However, it’s ingenuous to suggest that this separation is an excuse for ignorance of the Russian language and culture, or linguistics itself.  Bardugo uses actual Russian in the book alongside her faux-Russian, and that leaves us an opening to analyze not only the linguistics of the book itself, but the linguistic appropriation present here, and the stereotypes that exemplify it.

(Disclaimer:  I am not a fluent speaker of Russian or any Slavic language, nor am I an expert in Russian linguistics.)

First, I would like to direct you to a previous post on the topic by another blogger:

1. Rose Lemberg posts on the historical linguistics of Indo-European and its relevance to the Ravka discussion.  This takes a slightly different approach to mine, but the linguistics is spot-on, and it’s a great perspective on the issue.

2. About Friday posts on some of the mis-use of Russian in the book.

I’ll be addressing some things that overlap with these posts, because they make note of some of the most egregious issues.  I hope that for those overlaps, I will have something useful to add.  I am also writing this post with the book right on my lap, going through page by page looking for non-English language to analyze.

Now, let us begin:

We begin on the two pages containing the map:

The first non-English word/name we see is “Djerholm.”   Now, I don’t know the origin of “djer”, and I can’t find any references to it as a word or name.  However, the word “holm” is of Old Norse extraction from “holmr”, meaning a small island or flood area near a river.  Now, Djerholm is on the sea, and we are given little information about it.  It appears to be the capital of a large nation of Swedish inspiration to the north of Ravka.  It’s hard to say whether the author was aware of the meaning, or chose the word for its Swedish/Norse “flavor”.  Djerholm is on the coast of “Fjerda”.  It just so happens that “Fjerda” is a Norwegian word meaning “fourth”.  Hard to say if this was intentional, although there’s nothing in the book to say it is.

Another word that stands out is “Novokribirsk”.  That looks a bit familiar… Could it be that it sounds a lot like Novosibirsk, Russia’s third most popular city?  And not only that, but across the Unsea, we have Kribirsk, making it clear that the “novo-” is the Russian morpheme meaning “new”.  This lends quite a bit of credence to the claim that the language spoken in Ravka is in fact Russian.

We also have the country of Shu Han in the south.  It’s hard to be more obvious about a pseudo-China than to call it “Han”, the name for one of China’s major ethnic groups and also a historical dynasty.

Now we arrive at the first page, and already some Russian, or whatever.

“malenchki” is said to mean “little ghost”.  Well, the word “malen(j)kij” in Russian does mean “small”, but I’m wondering where the “ghost” fits in here.  Perhaps my Russian just isn’t good enough?  I’d love for someone to help me out with this one.

The next word is “troika”, which means a triplet.  I don’t have the grasp of idiomatic Russian that Lemberg and Friday do, so I’ll have to assume that the issues they mention with the use of the word are correct.

Then we have “kvas”, which is a drink made from fermented grain.  It is weakly alcoholic, but not liquor as Bardugo apparently thinks.

Next we come across a “kefta”, which is apparently a robe of some kind.  According to Bardugo herself, it’s based off the Russian kaftan.  A bit of a linguistic digression: the term “kaftan” comes from Persian and described a form of robe.  Either way, I would classify this as actually the right way to use inspiration.  The word is similar but not the same because the garment s not the same.

Finallly, we have the word “Grisha”, which is appropriately Russian sounding, but a rather odd thing to call a group of soldiers or mages.  As Friday mentions, it’s the diminutive of Grigori, the Russian form of Gregory.

That’s from the first three pages of the novel.  Since we’ve mentioned, Grisha, I’m going to go over the name issues present in the book in the next post.  And then hopefully after that, we’ll move through a few more pages of the novel.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Connotations and the Failures of the Dictionary Definitions


Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Translation Convention

Back for Part 2 of my linguistic analysis of Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff.  Last time, I talked about Stormdancer and the Japanese Language.  In this post, I”m going to address the issues Kristoff had with something called the translation convention.  The translation convention is an idea in SFF that when a story is set somewhere else than Earth in an English speaking country, the characters in their own reality are not speaking English, and the story is merely being “translated” into English from whatever language it’s really written in.

There are two main versions of the convention:

1.  The book itself is just an English translation of the original.

2.  The dialogue in the book and the characters’ thoughts are in translation; the general prose is not.

For the purposes of this post, we will make the second assumption, since the use of scattered Japanese makes a strong argument that the characters in the novel have Japanese as a native language.

Now, in order to adhere to this convention, the author must treat dialogue and interior monologue as if it were written in the language.  For example, if a character thinks about the words they are speaking–or would like to speak, in many cases–the description of those words must treat them as they exist in the native language of the characters, not in English or whatever language the novel is actually written in.  No language is a complete word for word cypher for any other, so things such as syllable counts or word counts are going to be different, as is the shaping of the sounds of the word in the mouth.

Kristoff provides us with several examples–or mistakes–of this type to analyze:

1.  Goodreads user Cyna points out several of these mistakes.  First, the word “impure” in this sentence:

“‘Impure.’ Yukiko whispered the word […] It was such a simple thing; two syllables, the press of her lips together, one on another, tongue rolling over her teeth.”

As Cyna notes, the Japanese for “impure” is “fuketsu”.  Now, that’s almost irrelevant here, since in neither word is there any sort of “tongue rolling”.  But if we do consider it, then we realize that the Japanese word would have three syllables, not two, and there is no “press of her lips together”.  Such a sound is called a “bilabial”.  In the English we have both the nasal bilabial stop /m/, and the oral bilabial stop /p/.  Neither of these are in Japanese.  The closest we come is /f/, which in English is a labiodental fricative, meaning that the bottom teeth approach the upper lip.

The prime reason I’m citing this is because it violates our translation convention in that it discusses (and inaccurately) the English word “impure” which is not what Yukiko would be using, which should be Japanese.

2.  The second example citied by Cyna is “arashi no ko”, literally translatable as “storm child” or “child of storm(s)”.  The griffin “Buruu” asks her what it means.  Now, since it’s pure Japanese, he ought to know, or how else have they been understanding each other all this time?  It’s nice of Kristoff to give use a translation, but it could have been done much more simply, and without violating the translation convention.

3.  Cyna’s thrd example is this passage:

‘”I lo-”
She kissed him, stood on her tiptoes and threw her arms around his neck and crushed her lips to his before he could finish the sentence. She didn’t want to listen to those three awful words, feel them open her up to the bone and see what the lies had done to her insides.’

The words obviously being “I love you.”  However, that’s English, not Japanese as she should be speaking.  Japanese has several ways to say “I love you.”  “Aishiteru”, which is considered very strong and rarely used.  “Suki desu”, or more commonly “suki”, which literally translates to “Like [something].”  Or, if you want to push it to three words, “Kimi ga suki [desu].”  Kristoff gets lucky here, since you could argue he meant the last example, although his use of Japanese previous suggests it was un-intentional.  Here we consider something interesting: a set-phrase.  This is a phrase with a culturally legislated and rigidly formed phrase, generally with a ritual meaning.  They’re generally used for greetings or apologies or any other very common act of speech.  IN English, the culturally weighted phrase is the three-word “I love you.”   You can see it in the extremely common mention of “those three little words”, which even Kristoff references in the scene.  In Japanese, especially the anime-style register that Kristoff is drawing his material from, the set phrase is not “kimi ga suki”, or “anata ga suki”.  Kristoff is clearly referring to the English set phrase.  So again, he breaks the convention.

There are some other examples, I’m sure.

The reason I wrote a whole post focusing on the translation convention of SFF is that it highlights the mindset behind this mis-use of language.  It’s not intentional, or aimed at helping readers.  It’s just ignorance, and it makes you wonder what’s the point of the other language.  Is it just for cheap exoticism?  Is the author just ignorant?  They’re certainly not achieving the goal of immersing the reader in another culture, or another mindset.  There are so many wonderful ways we can use language in fiction, and I include the ever popular entertainment in this.  When you write a book about another culture and another language, there needs to be more there than just making things seem foreign, especially considering anyone with a basic idea of how Japanese language and culture works (and the number of those people is growing, due to the spread of Japanese soft power propagated by manga and JDramas and all of that) isn’t going to find this book foreign but rather fake.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Shadow and Bone and the Russian Language


Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Japanese Language

This is the first post in my series on Linguistics and SFF.

Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer was released in September of 2012, and was heralded as a brilliant steampunk novel set in an alternate Japan.  There are a few facts I want to establish before I begin this analysis:

1. The book is not steampunk.  It is in fact much closer to the genre of dieselpunk, where the power of “chi” substitutes for gasoline.  I’m not just nit-picking at genre.  This directly affects some of the conclusions that can be drawn about the language used in the book.

2.  I will be talking a bit more about culture in this book because one of the major focuses of this article will be linguistic appropriation, a sort of sub-concept of cultural appropriation.

So, we begin.

Kristoff makes use of the Japanese language in this novel.  I wish to establish right now that this is clearly intended to be “real” Japanese, and not some sort of pseudo-Japanese, as many people have claimed.  He used Japanese words and grammar, albeit often incorrectly, and I have zero interest in debating over this.  Many of the previous reviews and analyses of the book have had strong debates about this in the comments, and I am not interested in getting involved in anything like that.

Now, because Kristoff makes use of primarily single words of Japanese used in English sentences with English grammar, I will be primarily focusing on the use of single Japanese lexemes and morphemes.

1. A lexeme is generally equivalent to a complete word, but actually includes all forms of that word.  “Run” is a lexeme.  “Ran” is part of that lexeme, as are all the conjugated forms of the “run”.

2. A morpheme is a unit of meaning, and does not have to be a complete word.  Morphemes are generally affixes, such as the suffix “-ly” used to create an adverb.  Many English words with Greek roots are made up of morphemes.  “Geology” is a word made up of two morphemes: “geo-“, meaning “earth”, and “-ology” meaning “the study or science of”.

Now, we can look at some examples of the mis-use of Japanese words by Kristoff in his novel.

1. “hai” is a japanese word that is often considered to mean “yes”.  In reality, the meaning is more complex.  It can be used as a form of assent, as in, “Yes, I will go to the store with you.” or the common anime scene of calling roll, where a name will be called, and a student will reply “Hai!” meaning that yes, they are present.  It also has a connotation of understanding, or of acceptance of a command.

Kristoff’s error is in viewing the word as a complete equivalent of the English word “yes”.

In English, the word “yes” has many of the functions of “hai”, but can also be used as a tag.  A “tag question” is a form of question where a declarative statement such as “It’s hot in here.” is converted to a question by the use of a tag: “It’s hot in here, isn’t it?”  “It’s hot in here, yes?”  The idea is generally to encourage the other person to agree with the sentiment expressed in the declarative portion of the sentence.

In Japanese, however, “hai” is never used as a question tag.  The most common question tag in Japanese is the particle “ne”.  “Atsui, ne?”  Which translates to something like “It’s hot in here, don’t you agree?”  Kristoff seems to either not know, or to ignore the fact that “hai” is not just the Japanese word for “yes”, and so often puts “hai” at the end of a sentence to create a tag question.

2.  Our next example is the use of the Japanese honorific “-sama”.  Do you see that dash before the “s”?  That indicates a bound morpheme, in this case a suffix.  A bound morpheme is a morpheme that requires another morpheme to be added to create meaning.  You would never see an English speaker say “Till the geo.”, even though “geo” is often translated as “earth”.

In order to make use of the honorific “-sama”, it must be added to a name or title, and has a connotation of respect.  When talking to your lord in historical Japan, you would add this suffix.  So, if your lord’s name was “Yamada”, then you would call him “Yamada-sama”.  (Strictly speaking, the choice of honorific in historical Japan was slightly more complicated, but all honorifics would follow the pattern described.)

Kristoff makes the error of using “-sama” as a free morpheme.  A free morpheme is a morpheme that can exist on its own without being attached to any other morpheme.  “Hai”, for example, is a free morpheme.

A sentence in Kristoff’s book that makes this mistake is “Thank you, sama.”  Here Kristoff attempts to use “sama” as a free-standing word for “lord”.  The issue of bound morphemes aside, that is simply an incorrect translation all by itself.  “-sama” does not mean “lord” or “sir”.  The meaning is much less specific.  Another phrase often seen in the book is “young sama”, apparently intended to mean “young lord” or “young lady”.  There are in fact words for this in Japanese, although they are generally used by a retainer towards his own lord.  An example is “waka-dono”.  “-Dono” is another honorific, and throughout history, it has been equivalent to, greater than, or lesser than “-sama” in terms of respect.  “Waka” is a Japanese word meaning “young”.  So “waka-dono” would in fact be a more accurate translating than Kristoff’s “young sama”.

These are the two most obvious, and most often cited examples of misuse of Japanese in Kristoff’s books.  There are others, however.  For example, he trans lates “arashitora” as thunder tiger.  Strictly speaking “arashi” means “storm” in Japanese, as he acknowledges in another construction, “arashi no ko”, translated by Kristoff as “storm girl”.

Another odd usage by Kristoff is a common referent to the Shogun used by the characters: “Yoritomo-nomiya”.  “Nomiya”, actually “no miya” is way of referring to something connected to the Emperor in Japanese.  For example, palace compound, such as Katsura-no-miya in Kyoto.  Over time, it began to be used as a way to designate princes or princesses.  However, the Shogun is not technically Japanese royalty.  He is a military ruler, not the Emperor.  So it would be technically incorrect to use this form of address.

Other oddities include the name of the pseudo-Japan created by Kristoff.  “Shima” is literally translated as “Island” in Japanese.  There are similar uses of Japanese words as names in this manner, such as “Yama city”.  “Yama” means mountain in Japanese, and it is odd to see the bare word used as a name like that.  The same is true for the “clan names” in the book: “tora”, “kitsune”, etc.  None of these are real family or clan names, and it would seem odd if they were used as such.  In fact, all of the clan names in the book share this odd trait.

Another inaccuracy is the use of “aiya” by the characters as an expression of exasperation by the characters.  Although there is a lot of intermingling between Japanese and Chinese culture, really Japanese people do not use this Chinese expression.

Now, the reason I made the distinction between steampunk and dieselpunk is because some words are correct Japanese, but belong to specific historical periods.

“Zaibutsu” is a Japanese term for a corporation.  THe clans are often referred to by this term in the book, which is inaccurate, and depending on when this story is supposed to take place,  didn’t even exist.  The word is from the 1930s.  Similarly for the term “salariman”, which is a Japanese borrowing from the early 20th century.

And slightly more controversial, the use of Bushido, or “the way of the warrior” in the book.  While popularly believed to be the code of the samurai in the west, and used in the east, it is a relatively modern term popularized and likely created by a Japanese man writing in English at the end of the 19th century.  Looking at primary sources from the time, there was no such universal code of behavior, although Kristoff can be forgiven for using it in light of its commonality in pop culture.

There are also many cultural inaccuracies in the novel, but if I discuss them, it will be in another post.

Because there is so much to look at here, I will be writing a follow-up post to discuss some of the less clear-cut problems with the book.  There were many artifacts of the translation convention of SFF novels in the book, where the author seems to forget that these characters are really speaking Japanese as opposed to English, and I will go into some of them in-depth in the next post.

If anyone has any disagreements with my analysis, or feels there are some inaccuracies in this post, feel free to mention it in the comments.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Translation Convention


Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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Linguistics and SFF: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I’ve been thinking about ways in which I could use this blog to discuss things that I don’t see a lot on other blogs.  There are so many, many blogs out there, even if we limit it to writing blogs, or SFF writing blogs.  I don’t have any published SFF novels, so writing process is right out for a main topic.

But something I do have is a completed major in Linguistics, knowledge of several diverse foreign languages, a background in con-langing, a love of world-building, and an irritation with incorrect portrayal of culture and language.

So I’m going to do a series of posts about language and constructed language.  I’d like to highlight both good and bad examples of language and con-langing, and while I’m at it, I’m sure there’s going to be some stuff on cultural appropriation.  Because mis-use of language and con-language comes hand-in-hand with mis-use of culture.  As my first example is going to demonstrate.

The first post in the series is going to be an analysis of Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer, an Asian-inspired steam-punk fantasy.  There’re some lovely examples of linguistic appropriation, and of a language that gets a great deal of attention in popular culture, but is often misunderstood.

There have been several analyses of this book before, and some of them really good, but none that have gotten into both the technical aspects of linguistics, the appropriation of culture, and the mechanics of writing in the way that I hope to get into them.

Now, many of those posts have been very critical of Kristoff, and I can’t deny that mine will have some criticism as well, but I will do my best to avoid some of the ad hominem and attacks on Kristoff that I have seen in other commentary.

I want to give this clear disclaimer:  I do not normally read books I don’t enjoy past the point I realize I don’t enjoy them.  However, for the purposes of this series, I did read the entire book.  My goal isn’t to declare this book good or bad, or to declare Kristoff a good or bad writer.  My only goal is to shed some light on how language–and, in some cases, culture– is perceived and used in SFF writing and the SFF community.

I will be using some technical linguistic terminology, and possibly some sociological and anthropological terms.  I will try to explain the terms and the necessary background behind them, but this is not a linguistics lecture course.  I’m going to assume some familiarity with language and linguistics in my discussion.  Because there should really be more of it in the SFF community.

Update:  Since I couldn’t even read every book that might be relevant to this subject in three life-times, much less dredge through all of SFF for examples, I’d love to hear suggestions from people as to what books they’d like to see analyzed.  (Tolkien and Paolini are currently off-limits, sorry.)

Update 2: List of Linguistics and SFF posts: Linguistics and SFF

Linguistics and SFF: Stormdancer and the Japanese Language


Posted by on July 12, 2013 in Cultural Appropriation, Linguistics


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