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November 2008

November 2008 -- Ice



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  • Xenolinguistics: Making It Up As You Go Along
    by Elizabeth Barrette

    In writing speculative fiction, we often find ourselves confronted with situations that we would not normally encounter in our everyday lives. That makes it difficult to describe those situations accurately, because we may lack words for important but alien concepts. Many writers solve this problem by borrowing words from the "local" language, be it Elvish or Galactic. Other writers like to use borrowed words for local color, to give the reader a better sense of the characters and setting. The issue then becomes one of style and technique: which words do you borrow, and how do you create these fragments of an alien language?

    Also, linguistic science requires the same attention to accuracy as any other science. In presenting ideas on xenolinguistics, I assume a basic understanding of linguistics on the part of my readers. If you need a refresher, or if you have never studied how languages work, I recommend The Language Instinct, which is written for the intelligent layperson rather than the professional linguist.

    Allow me to introduce a few useful definitions here. I use the word "xenolinguistics" to mean "the study and/or creation of alien and/or invented languages." For this article, I needed a term for "a word borrowed from an alien and/or invented language" so I coined the word "xenobyte." Also, I like Suzette Hadin Elgin's practical rendering of "translate" as "To translate an item from Language A to Language B, find the item that native speakers of Language B would say or sign in exactly the same situation." (1) Most writing falls into this category because the characters must make sense to the readers; therefore writers of speculative fiction usually describe things as an English speaker would. However, you can see why this creates a problem if the speakers of Language B have no experience with the situation and therefore no words to describe it! Then you need to fall back on literal translation, creative circumlocution, or... xenolinguistics.

    First, decide which terms to present as xenobytes. The majority of your story must appear in English (or some other popular language) so that readers can understand it. Therefore, every xenobyte carries a great deal of weight. They leap out and grab your reader, so make sure they relate to key issues. What kind of words should you pick? Consider these guidelines:

    Suitable Terms for Borrowing

    1) Social words and phrases, like: hello, please, excuse me.
    2) Proper names and titles: Ms. Amy Green, Springfield, Mt. Everest, Excalibur, the Grand Canyon.
    3) Interjections, such as: Ouch! Help! Oh no! Ready!
    4) Insults, expletives, and other derogatory terms: bonehead, junker, cockamamie, crud, rats, darn it!
    5) Anything that does not translate easily into English. Explain the concept the first time it comes up, taking as much space as necessary to convey all the important details; then use the xenobyte in later cases.

    Each of the above categories tells the reader something important about your characters (and their culture) through their language. Social words and exclamations are the easiest and least obtrusive to use. They provide subtle reminders that the action takes place in an alien setting. In Oathbreakers, Mercedes Lackey employs the Shin'a'in xenobyte vai datha (which literally means "there are many ways") as an expression of agreement and exasperation. (2) Proper names and titles identify the people, places, and things in your world as coming from somewhere other than here-and-now. Expletives and insults provide wonderful opportunities for cultural revelation and comic relief, especially if you translate them into something insulting or ludicrous in English. For instance, "Your father ruts out of season" does not apply to the human reproductive cycle but its derogatory intent comes through quite clearly. Finally, you can save time and trouble by using xenobytes to discuss concepts which do not exist in today's world, thus adding depth and believability to your setting, while avoiding the need to repeat awkward descriptions in English. Both of the last two categories apply to the Simelan word shen from Jacqueline Lichtenberg's novel Unto Zeor, Forever: "One of the most common Sime expletives. Literally, it refers to the shock of interrupted transfer..." in which the motion of life energy from one person to another stops, wreaking havoc. (3)

    You can invent xenobytes from scratch or you can adapt them from existing languages. Generally, invention works better for fantasy and alien languages, while adaptation works better for futuristic languages or those derived from human influence. Adaptation tends to involve less work than designing fragments from scratch, so let's start with a few ideas on this:

    Tips on Adapting Terms from Existing Languages

    1) Apply common rules of linguistic evolution, such as doubling, back-formation, cropping, onomatopoeia, specialization, compounding, blending, pejoration, and so forth. (4)
    2) Using English as a base, choose words from an earlier period (such as Middle English) or a related language (such as German) for a "familiar but different" sound effect. (5)
    3) In selecting a base language, choose one which ties into your characters' cultural heritage or which reminds you of them. (6)
    4) To make a new word, alter one letter or sound in an existing word. This works in any language (as long as you follow its rules) and works especially well for names. Make up some rules for doing this so that you get a consistent effect, such as changing every "b" to "p" and so forth. (7)
    5) Acronyms deserve special attention here because eventually they become words in their own right. Besides their obvious suitability in the original (as with "NASA") they offer an ideal opportunity to "date" your story by progressing current acronyms into regular words, which happens naturally over time. Familiar examples include "radar" and "scuba." (8)

    Language evolves in patterns, and linguists have identified a wide range of common traits. In cropping, syllables disappear from common words, giving us "plane" from "airplane" from "aeroplane" for example. People often make new words by blending old ones, as with "smog" from "smoke" and "fog." To show the evolution of a language over centuries or millennia, use your imagination to "age" key words and sprinkle them through your story. Expect colonists to speak a different dialect than people back on Earth, and a different language if they aren't in close contact: linguistic drift is as inexorable as continental drift and a great deal faster. A good book on linguistics should contain enough rules and examples to give you an idea of how languages change. Please treat linguistic science with the respect you would any other science: if you don't know the answer, look it up, don't just make it up! Whatever you do, keep everything consistent so that it makes sense to your readers.

    Alan Dean Foster's colorful and compact writing in Mid-Flinx offers the following example which demonstrates tips one, three, and four:

    "Once, there came a succession of deep, reverberant booms that had to arise from a throat of generous dimensions. It escalated for a while, then drifted away, swallowed by the rhythm of the rain. At that moment, it personified perfectly the world on which he found himself. He nudged Teal, who responded sleepily to his question, 'It's a thumber.' " (9)

    The name "thumber" resembles both "thumper" and "thunder" from English, describing the creature in sound and effect. The word choice also shows Teal's language as having descended from English (by way of symbospeech, Foster's "galactic language").

    In fantasy settings, you can add a touch of local color by borrowing terms from historical languages. This technique combines effectively with evolutionary patterns such as specialization and pejoration. For instance, you could take the old word "sparth" for ax and apply it to a particular type of ax, such as an enchanted one. (10) Choose your xenobytes from a period that closely matches your setting's social and technological level, and the terminology helps support your imagery. Subtle modifications of familiar words also work well here. Like artificially "aged" words, archaic words evoke a sense of wonder by sounding almost familiar.

    For a more dramatic effect, create words or phrases from scratch. Use these when dealing with alien languages not related to human speech. You do not need to construct an entire language, although a few dedicated people have done so; a small handful of relevant terms will give the illusion of a complete language. (11) However, you can employ xenolinguistics more extensively in a novel, where you have room for development such relations between xenobytes from different but related languages.

    Tips on Creating from Scratch

    1) As much as possible, avoid sounds which cannot be pronounced or spelled in English; when you can't avoid them entirely, anglicize them. Reserve the most exotic elements for places where you can do them justice, such as a novel whose plot depends heavily on linguistic science.
    2) Choose sounds that match the physical or psychological qualities of the characters who created that language.
    3) Remember that few people understand linguistics as well as they do other sciences. This does not mean you can get careless; rather, it means you must take extra care to make your points clear, or risk losing your readers.
    4) For the most part, follow the underlying structure of human languages: Each language possesses a set of phonemes (sounds that combine to make words), an order (such as subject-object-verb as in Japanese), and so forth.
    5) If you want your language to seem dramatically alien, break one of the "universal" rules consistent in all human languages. (12)

    Strive to present an evocative yet comprehensible whole. Unpronounceable creations like "qq*otl" seldom appeal to editors or readers. You can still suggest a character's physique or personality through phonemes; for instance, sibilants like /s/ and /sh/ remind people of snakes while a rolled /rr/ and lots of vowels sound more feline. The Dwarvish word chod (meaning "soft metal of slow harm" or lead) from Dennis L. McKiernan's Dragondoom demonstrates the first two principles; it is pronounceable but its abrupt sound suits the dour dwarves well. (13) Breaking linguistic rules successfully requires finesse and justification. Provide any necessary explanations either in the story itself or in an aside, just as you would for any other science.

    Since language influences thought just as thought influences language, by working with language directly you can also touch thought directly, and thus call into central focus things which usually remain in the background. Xenolinguistics evokes the sense of wonder by tapping right into the software the runs the rational part of our brains. It demands thoughtful handling but produces magnificent results in return... and once you start exploring the field of xenolinguistics, you may find it impossible to turn back.


    1) Linguistics and Science Fiction Sampler p.18.

    2) Oathbreakers p. 285.

    3) Unto Zeor, Forever p. 16.

    4) The Origins and Development of the English Language pp. 240-295. Chapter 10: Words and Meanings, and Chapter 11: New Words from Old, demonstrate many common trends in the evolution of words.

    5) The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-Earth p. 7. Tolkien used English as a substitute for Westron, the language of hobbits; he then adapted words from other sources such as Old English and Old Norse to suggest relationships between the languages of Middle-Earth.

    6) An Introduction to Elvish pp. 6-12 and 166-168. Tolkien gave his elves the beautiful Quenya language with its musical phonemes, while the Black Speech used by Orcs has a coarse and ugly sound to it.

    7) The Origins and Development of the English Language pp. 170-173. For a historic example of this phenomenon, study the Great Vowel Shift in the English language.

    8) The Origins and Development of the English Language pp. 273-275. This short but entertaining section explains not only acronyms but the related alphabetisms like "TV" and "OK."

    9) Mid-Flinx p. 119.

    10) "The Uncommon Tongue" p. 48. This excellent article includes a generous list of Middle English terms suitable for use in fantasy settings; aimed at the role-playing market, it covers adaptation, grammar, pronunciation, and other issues at an accessible level.

    11) Examples of reasonably-complete invented languages include Suzette Hadin Elgin's Laadan, Marc Okrand's Klingon, and Tolkien's Quenya.

    12) The Language Instinct pp. 233-241. In 1963 linguist Joseph Greenberg studied 30 languages from various families and found over 45 universals: "For example, no language forms questions by reversing the order of words within a sentence..." This section appears in a chapter which also speculates on how aliens would perceive all our languages!


    Allan, Jim, ed. 1978. An Introduction to Elvish and to Other Tongues and Proper Names and Writing Systems of the Third Age of the Western Lands of Middle-Earth as Set Forth in the Published Writings of Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Frome, Somerset: Bran's Head Books.

    Andersen, Gregory. 1986. "The Uncommon Tongue: Modify Modern English to Add Spice to Your Game." Dragon magazine #109, pp. 44-48. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin: TSR, Inc.

    Elgin, Suzette Haden. 1988. A First Dictionary and Grammar of Laadan, Second Edition. Madison, Wisconsin: Society for the Furtherance and Study of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Inc.

    ----- 1994. Linguistics & Science Fiction Sampler. Huntsville, Arkansas: Ozark Center for Language Studies Press.

    ----- 2005. The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Sam’s Dot Publishing.

    Foster, Alan Dean. 1995. Mid-Flinx. New York, New York: Ballantine Books.

    Kunitskaya-Peterson. 1981. International Dictionary of Obscenities: A Guide to Dirty Words and Indecent Expressions in Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Russian. Oakland, California: Scythian Books.

    Lackey, Mercedes. 1989. Oathbreakers: Vows and Honor Book II. New York, New York: DAW Books.

    Lichtenberg, Jacqueline. 1978. Unto Zeor, Forever. New York, New York: Playboy Press.

    McKiernan, Dennis L. 1990. Dragondoom. New York, New York: Bantam Books.

    Noel, Ruth S. 1974. The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-Earth: A Complete Guide to All Fourteen of the Languages Tolkien Invented. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company.

    Okrand, Marc. 1985. The Klingon Dictionary: English-Klingon / Klingon-English. New York, New York: Pocket Books.

    Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York, New York: HarperPerennial.

    Pyles, Thomas and John Algeo. 1993 (1982, 1971, 1964). The Origins and Development of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

    Schumaker, David, ed. 1978. Seven Language Dictionary (French, Italian German, Russian, Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish). New York, New York: Gramercy Books.

    Elizabeth Barrette writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in the fields of speculative fiction, gender studies, and alternative spirituality. Recent publications include the short story "Clouds in the Morning" in Torn World and poem "The Forest of Infinity" in Star*Line. She serves on the Canon Board, editing and selecting material at Torn World. She hosts a monthly Poetry Fishbowl on her blog, The Wordsmith’s Forge (, writing poems based on audience prompts. She enjoys suspension-of-disbelief bungee-jumping and spelunking in other people's reality tunnels.

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