Tag Archives: exoticism

Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Vowel Systems

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Exoticism

Last time, I discussed some basics on orthography and its function in writing systems.  I’ll be doing a bit more of that in this post, but in the context of using that insight for the purposes of writing speculative fiction.  I’ll be focusing, as the title suggests, on what the vowel system in a language suggests about the best orthography for that language.

First, considering the structure of the three major types of writing system, they have advantages and disadvantages, and these are in part based on the structure of the language to be represented.

The difference between alphabets and syllbaries is much smaller than the difference between them and a logography.   They both represent the sounds of a language rather than its meaning.  So I’ll be focusing first on them, and why you might want to us one over the other.

An alphabet is best for a language with a large number of sounds(phonemes).  English, for example, has a great many sounds, and not only that, it has far more vowel sounds than most languages.  English is most commonly described as having about 16 distinct vowel sounds.  The most common system of vowel sounds in the world is a system of 5: /a/ /e/ /i/ /o/ /u/.  English has equivalents of all those vowels.  I bet you can guess what they are.

The number of vowels matters for a very specific reason.  Vowels differ from consonants in that a consonant phone or phoneme has a very limited variety in its articulation.  Consonants have four major features:

1. Place of articulation describes where in the mouth you place your tongue when making the sound.  These are generally divided into laryngeal, the back of the throat, velar, the soft palate, palatal, the hard palate  alveolar, the ridge behind the teeth, dental, the teeth, and labial, the lips.

2. Manner of articulation describes how the breath is released during speech: stop/plosive, when the tongue/lips create a closure or “stop” of air, and the air is then released, affricate, where there is a stop, followed by a protracted release, fricative, where there is no closure, but rather a proximity of the tongue/lips to the place of articulation and a protracted release of air, and sonorant, which (basically) is everything else.

3. Voicing describes whether the vocal folds(vocal chords) are vibrating during sound production.  The major voicings are voiced, a clear vibration, unvoiced/voiceless, no vibration, and some other, less common voicings.

4. Aspiration describes the strength of the airflow.  It’s generally divided into aspirated, with a noticeable puff of air, and unaspirated, with no noticeable puff.

Now, these features are in general fairly binary, either “on” or “off”.  And that means you can’t vary your phones too much without changing your phonemes.  But vowels are different.  Vowels have basically two features.  However, there is quite a bit of room for variance, and so a sound that one speaker would perceive as an English short “e” might be considered by another to be an English short “i’.

The point being, that most languages have smaller systems of vowels because they divide the space up less finely.  It is possible to have a language with as few as two vowels, and three is not uncommon.  There are also many systems with seven vowels.  So, English is rather uncommon in the number of vowels it has.

You might have figured out already why the number of vowels is significant: even English with its many vowels and large number of consonants has only about 50 phonemes at most.  Fifty letters is not an over-large number to memorize.  But what about syllables?  With 12 vowels, 25 consonants and just using a (C)V syllable structure there are about 300 possible syllables. And English has fairly permissive structural rules for syllables, so the real number is much greater.  By contrast, Japanese, a language which uses a syllabary, has that five vowel system we mentioned before, and about 12 consonants.  That’s a little over 60 possible syllables with its (C)V(n) structure.  And even then, Japanese has shortcuts.  Consonant voicing uses a diacritic mark rather than a whole second set of syllables, and rather than having syllables with the coda (n), uses a single symbol for it, which is simply added after the (C)V syllable variant.  So in order to have a syllabary, a language must have relatively simple phonotactics, few phonemes, especially vowel phones, since vowel and consonant numbers are multiplicative under a syllabary.  Hawaiin, for example, has five vowels and 12 consonants and a (C)V syllable structure, and is thus perfect for a syllabary, whereas German, with its vowels and complicated consonant clusters is not.

A logography, of course, has no such issues, since it doesn’t care about sounds.  Logographies are great for languages with little morphology, since they aren’t alterable for tense or number, but require separate symbols for each.  They do, of course, have the same issues with massive memorization that an English syllabary would have.

Since writing systems tend to develop based on the languages they represent, you can do some fun and efficient world-building based on how you choose to represent a language orthographically.  Obviously you can’t really do much about an actual writing system in a novel, but it is something to keep in mind, especially when using a real-world language that doesn’t actually use English orthography.  When you think about that language and how the various characters feel about it, you can use that in description.

For example, many people think Chinese orthography is particularly beautiful or elegant, and the discipline of Chinese calligraphy arose from the type of writing system Chinese uses.  Whereas though English has forms of calligraphy and also medieval illumination, it is not seen in quite the same light.

In the next post, I’ll be discussing two things: etymology and orthography’s effect on the reality and perception of it, and also how you can use your chosen orthography to illuminate language and culture and also how when writing a real-world language you aren’t a native speaker of, you may mis-understand or mis-represent it because of your own prejudices and pre-conceptions based on your own language having a different writing system.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Etymology


Posted by on July 20, 2013 in Linguistics


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Linguistics and SFF: Orthgraphy and Exoticism, Part 1

Last time on Linguistics and SFF: Language and Exoticism

In part one of this post, I will be giving a short introduction to several linguistic concepts relating to writing systems.  This is somewhat technical, but that’s kind of the point of the post series.  The actual application of these concepts to speculative fiction will take place in the second post.

[] shows a phonetic representation

// shows a phonemic representation

<> is the identifier for a gramphemic/orthographic representation, but I’ll be using double quotes for simplicity.

The technical term for the way a language is presented visually is a “writing system.”  Writing systems are made up of pieces called “graphemes”.  Each grapheme represents a discrete element of the written language–generally they each represent one of the smallest semantically distinguishable unit of the written language.  Together, the set of graphemes used to visually represent a language make up that language’s orthography.  Technically speaking, an orthography is a standard system of graphemes, but there are plenty of non-standard systems.

Graphemes, and therefore orthographies tend to come in three major types:

1. An alphabet is an orthography where each grapheme (at least theoretically) represents a single sound, or phoneme, in the language.

2. A syllabary is an orthography where each grapheme represents a syllable in the language.

3. A logography is an orthography where each grapheme represents a word or morpheme in the language.  It’s also a word I just made up–although it might exist somewhere–through derivational morphology.

Now, since a lot of people have trouble with this and many lay people use a non-technical form of linguistic terminology, I’m going to explain what phonemes, syllables, and logograms are.

A phoneme is the set of phones–individual sounds formed by articulation of the human mouth–that a language considers to be the same “sound” for the purposes of distinguishing words.  The two major types of phoneme are the consonant and the vowel.  They are demonstrable by a minimal pair, a pair of words considered to have different meaning which can be used to show the phonemic difference between two phones.  For example, “mitt” and “kit”, with the phonetic representation of [mit] and [kit].  The difference in meaning is distinguished by the two phones at the beginning of the words.

The symbol for a phoneme is called a letter.

A syllable is a collection of sequential sounds made up of a vowel and the consonants associated with it.  Every language on earth has a set of rules–called phonotactics–which describes the possible structures of syllables in a language.  Japanese, for example, has a syllable structure consisting of (C)V(N), where C represents any consonant, V represents any vowel, N represents a nasal consonant–in the case of Japanese, these are /n/ and /m/–and parentheses mean the phoneme is optional in that position.  Thusly, “kan” is a legal Japanese syllable of the structure CVN, and kar is an illegal syllable, because the structure is CV!N, where the “!” means the following consonant type is not accurate.

A few technical notes on syllable structure: The group of consonants before the vowel is called the onset.  The vowel is called the nucleus.  The group of consonants following the vowel is called the coda.  The combination of the nucleus and the coda is called the rhyme–hopefully obvious reasons.  You’ll understand why I mention this in the analysis post.

The symbol for a syllable is called a syllogram for the purposes of this series.

A logogram is a grapheme representing a word or morpheme in the language.

Now, these types of system are theoretical constructs.  Very few systems are exactly as described above.  For example, English has an alphabet, but there is not a 1-to-1 correspondence of letter to phoneme.  So, despite what you may hear, English is not a phonetic or even phonemic writing system as the various IPA(International Phonetic Alphabet) alphabets are.  And Japanese makes use of both syllograms and logograms.  And even then, some words in Japanese that are written in syllograms(kana) use a seemingly incorrect syllogram.  For example, the topic particle “wa” is spelled with the syllogram for “ha”.

English is an example of a type of non-phonetic(phonemic) alphabet called a morphophonemic alphabet.  For example, the English words “electric” and “electricity” are spelled with the same letters, even though phonemically, they should be represented as “elektrik” and “elektrisity”  The same is similar for many morphemes with Greek or Latin roots where derivational inflection–the creation of a new word by the systematic addition of morphemes–is applied.  This is because advanced reading is not done by sounding out each letter, but rather by recognizing the shape of the word.  This is why the two gimmicks or removing the vowels in a word, or scrambling a word while keeping on the first and last letters the same don’t interfere significantly with the readability of the text.  This is a valuable tool in a writing system, even though it may make learning that system more difficult.

Another example of the oddity of English spelling is the famous “alternate spelling” of fish–“ghoti”, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw.  It was used to highlight perceived “irregularities” in English spelling.  However, it is based on mis-understandings of how spelling works, in English and in general.

“gh” only makes the /f/ sound in the coda of a word.  “enough”.  It still makes a /g/ sound in the onset position: e.g. “ghost”.  In the so-called word “ghoti”, the “gh” is in the onset position, where it makes a  “hard g” like in ghost.

The “ti” is supposed to represent the “sh” sound.  However, it does so only in the “medial” position–that is, between two other syllables.  It always makes the “ty” sound in the final position as in the word “ghoti”.

Finally, the “o” is supposed to make the “i” sound, as in “women”.  However, that is not a regular pattern of English, but the fault of some other very simple rules.  In an unstressed syllable, such as the “-men” and “-man” of “women: and “woman”, the sound represented by the letter “e” becomes a schwa instead of an /e/ or /a/ as in the stressed syllables of the male forms “men” and “man”.  This causes the words to be indistinguishable in spoken English.  So, because the rule of a vowel becoming a schwa in an unstressed syllable has priority, the “o” in the stressed syllable is altered to distinguish between the singular and plural forms.

But as we learned above, English writing is a morphophonemic alphabet, meaning that it works to preserve the clear relation between two allomorph–different forms of the same morpheme–over maintaining phonemic accuracy.

Further, writing systems in general are made static at a certain time in the languages development.  So, because writing systems care less about the accurate phonemic representation of a word than of readability, when the spoken language evolves, the written language does not, creating these odd orthographical artifacts.  And this is visible in many writing systems, not just English.  Something to consider in the follow-up post, and while deciding on the orthographic representation you choose to use in your story.

Next time on Linguistics and SFF: Orthography and Vowel Systems


Posted by on July 20, 2013 in 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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