Tag Archives: language

SpecLing #1: A Language Without Verbs?

This is the first in a series of posts on the subject of speculative linguistics, the study of language in a speculative context.  For example, studying constructed languages(conlangs), possible forms of alien communication, languages which violate earthly linguistic universals, etc.  Basically, it’s the application of real-world linguistics to non-real-world linguistic occurrences.

In this post, I’m going to talk about an interesting hypothetical situation involving a human-usable language without verbs.  I am going to get a bit technical, so to start I’ll give a short overview of the issues involved, and a refresher on some basic terms:

Parts of speech:  A verb is a part of speech, along with things like nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc.  It is generally considered that all human languages have at least two parts of speech, verbs and nouns.  When linguistics study pidgins–contact languages developed by two groups who speak un-related languages–there are almost invariably nouns and verbs, the suggestion being that these two categories are required for human language.

Content words vs. function words:  Verbs, like nouns and adjectives, are “content words”.  That means they contain some inherent meaning.  Function words are things like prepositions and articles, which have a grammatical use, but don’t contain basic concepts like nouns and verbs do.

However, if you look at a verbs, you can see that they do in fact have some similar grammatical elements beyond the basic concept they represent.  Tense, mood, aspect, person, number, etc, are all functions of verbs in various languages.  You can abstract out these features into function words, and in fact some languages do.

Something else to consider is that most languages have a very restricted pool of function words, whereas they can usually contain any number of content words–one for every concept you can devise.  And yet not all languages have the same number or even a similar set of function words.  So the question becomes, could you, by expansion of the categories of function words of various types and with assistance from other content categories, split up the responsibilities of the verb category?

Each part of speech consists, in the most basic sense, of a set of responsibilities for the expression of thought.  The only difference between function words and content words is whether there are some higher concepts overlaid on top of those responsibilities.  Now, there are, to an extent, a finite number of responsibilities to be divided among the parts of speech in a language.  Not all languages have the same parts of speech, either.  This suggests that we can decide a priori how to divide out responsibilities, at least to an extent.  Assuming that a part of speech is merely a set of responsibilities, and knowing that these sets can vary in their reach from language to language, it is possible that we could divide the responsibilities between sets such that there is not part of speech sufficiently similar to the verb to allow for that classification.

Even that conclusion is assuming we’re restricted to similar categories as used by currently known human languages, or even just similar divisions of responsibility.  However, that isn’t necessarily the case.  There are, to my mind, two major ways to create a verb-less language:

1. Vestigial Verbs: As this is a topic and a challenge in language that has interested me for a long time, I’ve made several attempts at creating a verb-less language, and over time, I like to think they have gotten less crude.  One of my early efforts involved replacing verbs with a part of speech I called “relationals”.  They could be thought of as either verbs reduced to their essence, or atrophied over time into a few basic relationships between nouns.  Basically, they are a new part of speech replacing verbs with a slightly different responsibility set, but sharing a similar syntax, otherwise.  I was very much surpsied, then, while researching for this post, to come across a conlang by the name of Kēlen, created by Sylvia Sotomayor.  She also independently developed the idea of a relational, and even gave it the same name.  Great minds think alike?

Although our exact implementations differed, our ideas of a relational were surprisingly similar.  Basically, it’s what it says on the tin, it expresses a relationship between nouns(noun phrases).  However, they have features of verbs, such as valency–the number of arguments required by a verb, and Kelen included tense inflections, to represent time, although my own did not, and rather placed temporal responsibility on a noun-like construction representing a state of being.

An example of a relational, one that appears to be the basic relational for Sotomayor’s Kelen and my own conlang is that of “existence”.  In English we would use the verb “to be”: “there is a cat.”  Japanese has the two animacy-distinct verbs “iru” and “aru”: “Neko ga iru.”  Kelen makes use of the existential relational “la”: “la jacela” for “there is a bowl.”  In my conlang, the existential relational was mono-valent, somewhat equivalent to an intransitive verb, but Kelen can express almost any “to be” construction: “The bowl is red.”: “la jacēla janēla”, which takes a subject and a subject complement, and is thus bi-valent.  In English we have a separate category for these kind of verbs, “linking” verbs, as opposed to classifying them as transitive, but both categories are bi-valent, taking two arguments.

2. No Verbs: Another experiment of mine in a verb-less language took what I consider to be the second approach, which is to simply eliminate the verb class, and distribute its responsibilities among the other parts of speech.  Essentially, you get augmented nouns or an extra set of “adverbial” (though that’s an odd name considering there are no verbs, it’s the closest equivalent in standard part of speech) words/morphemes.  This requires thinking of “actions” differently, since we no longer have a class of words that explicitly describe actions.

My solution was to conceive of an action as a change in state.  So to carry the equivalent of a verbs information load, you have two static descriptions of a situation, and the meaning is carried by the contrast of the two states.  A simple, word-for-word gloss using English words for the verb “to melt” might be a juxtaposition of two states, one describing a solid form of the substance, and the other a liquid form: “ present.water”.  There are all sorts of embellishments, such as a “manner” or “instrumental” clause that could be added: “ present.water instrument.heat”, for example.  (The word after the period is the content word, and before is some grammatical construction expressing case or tense.)


There are probably many more methods of creating a verb-less language.  A relational language would probably be the easiest for the average person to learn, because of the similarity to a verbed language.  However, a statve language doesn’t seem impossible to use, and depending on the flexibility of morphology and syntax in regards to which responsibilities require completion in a given sentence, could be an effective if artificial method of human communication.


Next time, I’m going to consider the possibility of a noun-less language.  I’ve never tried one before, and honestly I don’t have high hopes for the concept.  Especially if it had normal verbs.  How would verb arguments be represented in a language without nouns?  Well, that’s really a question for the next post.

If anyone has some thoughts on the usability of a verb-less language, or the structure, or can recommend me some natlangs or conlangs that eschew verbs, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.


Posted by on November 11, 2013 in atsiko, Conlanging, Linguistics, Speculative Linguistics


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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: Orthography and Etymology

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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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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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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