Invented language vs. familiar words in fiction?
November 21, 2012 8:33 AM   Subscribe

As a reader, how do you feel about invented language versus familiar words in imaginary worlds?

I've been working on a novel for a very long time. But I've realised over the past several months that one of three huge blocks keeping me from committing words to paper is a central debate within myself as both writer and reader about how to describe things in an imaginary world without being twee, annoying, or boring. Now I've thought about it too much, and need help untangling it.

I do like when authors invent language worth remembering to describe things that live only in their heads. I'm not positive I'm capable of doing as well, but trying would be both interesting and challenging. I like that, but not sure how readers will feel about it. How do you, as a reader, feel about invented language in speculative fiction?

Some authors go to great lengths to describe something that is obviously familiar to readers in their daily lives and then give it a made-up name to fit the world and emphasise the separation of their creation from "reality". Sometimes this is very clever, but I think it comes off as overly precious most of the time. Is this worth trying - inserting some familiar things and giving them invented names - or is it better to go with the name they are likely known to the reader by? Or should I avoid using familiar items at all?

Lastly, and this is somewhat of a bonus point, I'm very sensitive to words based on very specific Earth-culture experiences being used in totally removed invented worlds. Somewhat ridiculous example: "rhinestone", as it depends on the existence of the Rhine for its etymology. Not to pick on Deutschland, but "barbaric" has a similar issue and is more likely to come up. As a reader, does this ever bother you? If it does, how do you prefer to see it handled?

Super bonus: I sometimes get discomfited when a character uses modern slang, thinking, "they wouldn't say that! they don't have that reference point!" But sometimes it grounds the characters as identifiable and relatable. What about informal, or slang, words in an invented world - is there a line that shouldn't be crossed with characters in a non-Earth, non-modern/post-modern setting as far as casual language we're used to in our current time?

Thank you so much for any help in getting out of my head and putting words to "paper"!
posted by batmonkey to Writing & Language (65 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I find invented languages fairly annoying. A few neologisms are prefectly fine, but beyond that I also find it overly precious.

There are a lot of interesting ways you can use different registers in English to achieve a similar effect.

I think David Mitchell does this really well. Check out The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, where almost every character is speaking Dutch or Japanese in the story, but it's almost entirely presented in English. (The novel also takes place in the late 18th century.) When writing dialogue, lower class Dutch speak in a lower register of English. Japanese characters speak in flawless English with each other but in stillted English when speaking to the Dutch. The reader instantly gets it. The edition I had even as an afterword from the author describing his process in generating his lexicon, you might find it useful.

His earlier work, Cloud Atlas, (it's better than the movie!) also displays his skill at this. The two stories set the in the future are interesting ways of really bending English but keeping everything readable, and without developing an entire (eyeroll inducing) sytax/vocabulary on your own.
posted by spaltavian at 8:41 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here are three examples (nb: I haven't actually read one of these books)

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (this is the one I haven't read so feel free to correct me) uses imaginary words with a pretty thick glossary. Most of the words can't be figured out in context. The fact that these words exist eventually mean something narrative-wise. As in, the fact that "honkertron" means "foot" (or whatever) is used for a deliberate effect. Some people find this obnoxious, some enjoy it. Again, I haven't read Anathem so I can't really comment on how successful it is, but I can see how it can work. It will, however, alienate readers (as made-up language always does.)

Dune by Frank Herbert also uses a lot of imaginary (or culturally appropriated, but not in the "bad" way, IMO) words, but provides excellent context for them. There's a glossary as well, but it's really not that necessary 75% of the time. There were few times I looked up a word and it either a) wasn't contextually explained later or b) was far removed from what I thought it meant. Dune is a masterpiece, and the invented language is an aspect of that.

Neuromancer by William Gibson uses a lot of made-up words for technology, but is really, really good at contextualizing them. The cyberpunk milieu is supposed to be alienating (that's where the whole "punk" part comes from) and the onslaught of all these new terms is alienating at the start. But he gives you a hand up pretty quickly and if you're paying attention, there's a lot of interpretation you have to do, but there's not a whole lot of things that just don't make any sense. There are a few, granted, but even those are intentionally maybe half the time.

Bringing it back around to Stephenson, before Anathem, his post-cyberpunk books (Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon) had almost Melvillian levels of exposition about concepts and "new words." That was, too, on purpose. And it could have gone wrong very, very easily (and some contend it it did!)


What you want to do depends on how good of a writer you are, and what faculties as a writer you already have/wish to develop. If it works, it works, and people will appreciate it. If it doesn't, well, you're sort of risking your whole narrative if you overuse it, or creating an annoying part of a narrative if you're not.
posted by griphus at 8:41 AM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Personally, I always find it jarring. The rest of their speech has been "translated" for us, and then this mutant word shows up. Kind of like French people speaking "french" as english with a french accent in movies, which also drives me nuts.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:42 AM on November 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: When I'm reading a story set in a fantasy/non-Earth setting and yet all the characters are somehow speaking English, I don't worry too much about the Earth-based etymology of the English words I'm reading. I either suspend disbelief or pretend that whoever translated the work into English from fantasy-world-speak chose those words because they were close analogs.

Now, if we're dealing with characters who are the direct ancestors or descendants of modern Earth people who can actually themselves be expected to speak English, and they're using slang very specifically contemporary to the time of the writing? That grates, unless it's done with a wink and fits the feel of the piece.
posted by contraption at 8:43 AM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I concur with griphus on how well this is done in Dune. The invented language there is present enough to make the portrayed culture feel real and alive, but not so much that it becomes a nuisance or a distraction. Herbert really toed the line well.
posted by DWRoelands at 8:47 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: See:

I almost always hate it - especially for objects that exist in real life. Star Wars has some dumb word for paper that I can't remember. (nm, thanks Wookiepedia: "flimsi") It feels very try-hard, and I hate having to keep track of what all these new words mean, and it just feels so pointless. Now, if it's describing something that doesn't exist in real life, I have no complaints about new words.

I don't mind made-up slang as much, for whatever reason. (See: "frakking" on BSG, "kriffing" in Star Wars. Totally worked, to the point where I occasionally/embarrassingly find myself saying them in real life.) Maybe because swear words are, in real life, markers of particular cultures/social classes/types of people, and so vary a lot - unlike the words "paper" or "television," which mean the same things to any English-speaking person.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 8:49 AM on November 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I think it's okay, even preferable, to use new words for new concepts.

Using new words just for the sake of flavour is 99% going to be annoying. And if you spend a lot of effort in trying to bridge that 1% gap, the rest of your work is probably going to suffer.

Let meaning flow effortlessly unless there's a spectacularly good reason it should (or can) not.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:49 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Personally, I'm not a fan. I agree with spaltavian, too precious.

For a really interesting use of invented slang, A Clockwork Orange is as good a place to start as any, my droog.

Certainly, you can invent futuristic or non-Earth slang, if you Grok that.

Trying too hard at this just hampers the story.

When you're reading Anthony Burgess, you rather know what you're in for and the slog with the language is part of it.

Unless you're an amazing writer, philosopher and scholar, too much effort will make you look pretentous or like one of those nerds who's mastering Klingon.

Write your story in English, just to get it out on the page. You can revisit a new language with syntax and all of that nonsense in the second draft.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:51 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: Hi, I'm a reader who reads a lot of fantasy. I don't mind at all when fantasy settings use exactly the same language as us, idioms and slang and all. "Rhinestone" wouldn't bother me. After all, why does everyone speak english in the first place? Like contraption I think I usually assume there's actually some sort of translation happening. So making up words for magic and rituals and things that we don't have? Fantastic. Making up words for stuff we do have just because? Annoying. And for me is actually worse because it pokes holes in the "translation" theory.

Really, don't do it, unless you're very confident you can do it well and it actually adds something.
posted by stillnocturnal at 8:52 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I like the idea of new words for new concepts, even if they're just a little different. My friends and I in Romania always used the Romanian word for "bus station," both because it's shorter and because a Romanian bus station is nothing like what we were used to in the U.S. If the thing you're describing is different enough from what your audience is familiar with, I think using a new word is great.

Is this an alternate version of Earth in which some form of English is spoken? If not, when reading it I would imagine that everything I'm reading is a "translation" of some kind. It's just as illogical for your characters to say "was" and "he" as "rhinestone" if they don't speak English.

Dialogue is a tough one. Look at how fantasy books you like handle this. I'd rather have some kind of slang than No Conjunctions syndrome - no one talks or has ever talked like that.
posted by chaiminda at 8:53 AM on November 21, 2012

Just to make one point about Dune a little clearer: everything is explained in context and appropriately. Stephenson, for instance, will do formal asides where he basically sits you down and explains to you what the hell a thingamabober is and how it came to be. You have to be really good, and know your audience, at that to pull it off.

Herbert, on the other hand, will have characters or the narration discuss history or anthropology and the thingamabober is explained as an aspect of those concepts. I mean, thanks to Paul, there's a lot of places where "hey, what the hell is this new thing neither I the protagonist, nor the readers, have the slightest conception of?" but it's never that obvious.
posted by griphus at 8:53 AM on November 21, 2012

Re: Anathem

> Most of the words can't be figured out in context

Actually most of the words *can* be figured out in context.
posted by dgeiser13 at 8:54 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: 1. I find invested languages nearly impossible to deal with, personally. I agree that Gibson is good at introducing new vocabulary without making it taxing and awful for the reader. I could not get through A Clockwork Orange, for example. Ursula LeGuin does this somewhat successfully also, I think.

2. I would not create new words for familiar things unless there is some reason the people in your world would call it something specifically different [and above the conceit that they are probably talking to each other in English for whatever reason, in the first place]

3. I never every thing about words at an etymology level like this if I'm reading a story and I have a linguistic background

4. I find that some slang that is very current can sound weird when transported to another world. However words that may be casual but are not currently slangy [i.e. saying something is cool] do not sound weird and, yes, can give a character realism.

But yeah this fails more often than succeeds and if you're someone with an established track record or you really think you're in the higher echelon of "This is super worth it" maybe it's good but most of the time I find it really difficult for me personally to read and enjoy.
posted by jessamyn at 8:54 AM on November 21, 2012

A fascinating series that uses a great deal of invented/altered language is the Monster Blood Tattoo series. I'd argue that it does it fantastically well, but it's not a super popular series, and I could certainly see where the language might put someone off.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:54 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Actually most of the words *can* be figured out in context.

Sure am glad I prefaced it then. I read quite a bit about Anathem when it came out and the "these words have no good reason to be other words" needless-obfuscation complaint was nearly-universal.
posted by griphus at 8:56 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: Most of the time, I find the invented words annoying (I'm particularly sick of words for what is clearly coffee. Either imagine a world without coffee or just use the word.) There are, however, exceptions. To make it work, I think you need to put in a lot of effort behind the scenes thinking about the language and culture but then slip the words seemlessly into the story in a way that doesn't call too much attention.
posted by Area Man at 8:58 AM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

the "these words have no good reason to be other words" needless-obfuscation complaint was nearly-universal

Yeah, without being too spoilery, that's a criticism that quite neatly misses the entire point of the book.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:58 AM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: The original title of this question was going to be "Can the barbarian grok the fracking wahooni, my droogs?"

...and then I realised that would be perhaps ironically unclear and went with the more explanatory approach.

So, yes, definitely consider in your answer that I'm a HUGE fan of Burgess, Heinlein, Pratchett, Stephenson, Herbert, and others who have executed works that reveal deep love of language or a delight in linguistic playfulness.

Great stuff so far!
posted by batmonkey at 8:59 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: How do you, as a reader, feel about invented language in speculative fiction?
Here's xkcd's rule of thumb regarding made up words.

Is this worth trying - inserting some familiar things and giving them invented names - or is it better to go with the name they are likely known to the reader by? Or should I avoid using familiar items at all?
Some authors will rename the days of the week (or even change the number of days in a week) to add that sense of otherness. I find this annoying, as I'm always mentally translating them back into English. It's unnecessary.

RE: etymology As a reader, does this ever bother you? If it does, how do you prefer to see it handled?
It's all about conveying meaning. I always prefer a word that I can understand (either from context or because it's English) to a word that makes me stop reading to figure out what the author meant. Or worse, where I miss understand the word at first and it later becomes a problem as the story progresses.
So where a word comes from doesn't matter at all.

Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed with characters in a non-Earth, non-modern/post-modern setting as far as casual language we're used to in our current time?
If you think the reader will need to use the urban dictionary to figure out what you mean, choose a different word. And some what related, I despise reading accents.
posted by zinon at 9:03 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think Mieville did a really good job of this in The City and The City; the neologisms were used sparingly and thoughtfully, and were often derived or derivable from existing words. I don't have the book with me, but imagine an "inversation" instead of a "conversation" and you get the idea.

Tolkien, I think, set the standard for this, and his success seems attributable to the fact that he was a trained linguist and professor of languages.

But I think the average fantasy novel falls short when resorting to made up words. It really turns me off--I find it more lazy than inventive.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:07 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think it depends on how often you do it, how well it's contextualized, and why you're doing it. Richard Adams came up with a whole other new language for rabbits in Watership Down, and I was able to get a lot of it and follow along - but it was still kind of annoying to interrupt myself to keep flipping back to the glossary at the end of the book to figure out what the fuck a hrududu was or whatever. But he still was right on the edge of it being "too much bother," and I rolled with it. Russel Hoban completely re-wrote English in Riddley Walker, by contrast, but it was to reflect "English as it would have been spoken over a thousand years in the future after a holocaust, and it was a perfect balance between "different enough to sound different" and "familiar enough that you caught on".

In addition to the XKCD reference, have a look at the TV Tropes page named Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:08 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Crap, forgot to clarify something - I think the point at which you need to put a glossary at the back of the book, you may be pushing it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:09 AM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I found the invention to be mostly successful in Riddley Walker - I liked that you could sort of suss out the etymology of the words if you really wanted to. On the other hand, it was obviously a massive undertaking and probably alienates a lot of people right out of reading the book.

So I guess my answer to question 1 is: "it depends, on the effort and the underlying theory". For the other questions, I think that as long as usage is consistent, I don't mind. Of course you'll always find some people who feel strongly about language on the tail end of the curve.
posted by kris.reiss at 9:10 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: Yeah, without being too spoilery, that's a criticism that quite neatly misses the entire point of the book.

I think this is actually a really important lesson: you can be ostensibly successful in what you're trying to do and still fail because people won't pay the proper amount of attention to it.
posted by griphus at 9:10 AM on November 21, 2012

If it's a thing or concept that doesn't exist on Earth and thus is untranslatable into English, then using an invented word for it is fine. But if it's a thing that *does* exist on Earth, and everything else is in English, why would that one word not be translated?

Rhinestones are rhinestones -- yeah, there's an etymology there, but almost no one who uses that word knows what it is. They aren't thinking 'faux gems made near the Rhine river', they're just thinking of the general style/shape of rhinestones.

If it's a proper noun in English -- if rhinestones were still Rhinestones -- then translation may not make sense, but otherwise, injecting made-up words in presumably translated language is just annoying.

The exception is if your characters are meant to be speaking English-as-a-Second-Language (humans visit alien worlds type stuff), but that the characters themselves occasionally pepper their dialogue with their native tongue because they can't quite find the right English word. That should show up in other ESL markers in their dialogue, though, not perfectly fluent characters who occasionally mention their etrazon instead of rhinestones.

There's also an element of linguistic evolution that's fair play -- you can make the English seem futuristic or old-fashioned depending on the analogs you want to create with the real world. In that case, you should avoid obvious anachronisms -- a pre-industrial agrarian culture isn't going to have idioms that relate to cars or computers or electricity.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:12 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: I don't think it's a proportion as much as a use. Concepts important to the culture of the people in the story may or may not deserve their own words depending on your goals as an storyteller. A Clockwork Orange is written in a made-up street lingo, which may not have been strictly necessary to but served to immerse everyone who committed to learning it in the character and his circumstances. The lapine vocabulary in Watership Down simply highlighted important words in the life of the rabbits, whether or not there was an English word for the concept (sometimes there was, sometimes not).

Etymology may be a useful thing to be concerned with. Poul Anderson tried to restrict himself to mostly simple anglo-saxon words for The Broken Sword. This is a tale based on Norse mythos and that restriction served the aesthetic he was trying to achieve.

Tolkien invented whole languages around which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings orbit, but they don't get used much in the stories. Instead he established distinct voices for the dialogue of his characters. Style, as much as vocabulary establish differences between the characters. Middle Earth, especially the Shire, is so detailed and dense it practically established itself when I read it.

TL;DR: consider your aesthetic goals, trust your instincts.
posted by wobh at 9:13 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

As L'Estrange Fruit says, I think there's normally an assumption that it's been translated for us. So it's not necessary to worry about etymologies. (E.g. How can they wear a leotard in a world without Jules Leotard?)

The exception is works set in the near future or a parallel universe where they're known to be speaking a different variety of English.

I think it's a bad and jarring idea to use made-up words when there's a real word for something. If you want to give an exotic feel, you need to put the work in and create a different thing which couldnt easily be described with a single English word. It's best if you can do this subtly though. I think if a character needs a horse-like thing to get from A to B, you're best off just using a horse, instead of inventing a six-legged purple fnarghbeast to do the same job.

Rather than do it generically, it's probably best to start with your imaginary world and think about what sort of language suits it, and what's different about it. You might want to sprinkle in some french-sounding words if you want a romance feel, e.g. a character might ride a destrier. Or if you want a broken-down feel, he might load his items on a packbeast.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:16 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am against needlessly made-up words for objects. If the hero is going to be using a sword, don't call it a "klarjabber" and expect me to not get pulled out of the story. Particularly don't use made-up words as a bait-and-switch to hide an important part of the plot until you are ready to reveal it: "Oh ho ho, you thought a 'klarjabber' was a sword because I sort of made it sound like one, but actually it's a feather with three spines, which puts our hero now in quite a pickle!" Made-up words for things that don't actually exist in our world don't bother me. The Harry Potter books are good examples of that: when they climb a staircase, J.K. Rowling calls it a staircase; when they encounter an unusual magical creature, it's got its own name. Made-up slang words as swears or as descriptions of groups of people (e.g. frell, frack, drood, muggle, mudblood) don't bother me, because people in real life are always finding new ways to swear or to insult each other or to mark their in-group status.
posted by colfax at 9:17 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think that it works better with nouns than it does with verbs or adjectives, though I'm not sure why -- maybe because we're used to encountering more foreign nouns in real language?

Further I think it works better for a humorous writer like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, where the made-up nouns are often kind of a joke, and as the reader I don't feel like I'm being asked to really take them seriously. When Adams writes about the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, I don't think "what real cocktail is he referring to" because the name itself is so ridiculous. Harry Harrison was pretty good at this too, e.g. I never tried too hard to picture the "porcuswine" from the Stainless Steel Rat books but it was still an entertaining word. You don't need a precise understanding of these words to follow the plot, maybe that's what I'm saying.
posted by pete_22 at 9:18 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I much prefer to read books that are written in normal modern English. Riddley Walker was impossible for me, and A Clockwork Orange barely tolerable.

That said, there's one place I think invented words are totally justified, and that's as names for things that do not exist here and now.

That is, ask yourself "Suppose this thing I'm writing about showed up in my back yard tomorrow. Would I already have a word for it? Or would I have to invent a new one?" If it's the latter, then go ahead and invent a new word. Your readers will be working out a new concept anyway, so it's fine to give them a new label to go along with it. It only gets unbearable for me when you force your readers to learn, like, a new word for milk, or even a new word for telepathy or warp drive.

(My favorite edge case for this sort of thing is "ansible," which for some time was a standard name in science fiction for "faster-than-light communication device," with easily a half dozen different big-name authors and who-knows-how-many smaller ones using it in their work. Some of them felt the need to lampshade it — "Oh, yeah, we call this an 'ansible' because one of our engingeers found that word in an ancient novel from way back in the 20th century" — but some didn't even do that. And, yeah, okay, in a certain sense it's unrealistic — but oh man, it makes things way easier on the reader. I think part of what's irritating about the invented-vocabulary thing is that so many authors feel the need to reinvent vocab that's already been invented within their genre, just for the sake of novelty. To me that's distracting rather than fun.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:21 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: I just finished Dune so I'll use that as an example.

There are two cases where Herbert uses invented words:

(1) concepts/objects that don't exist in our English-speaking world ("gom jabbar", "Bene Gesserit", "Mentat"). Clearly a culture with Mentats would invent a word describing "human who has been trained to think computationally", rather than say that phrase over and over. There are some borderline cases - he invented geographic words to describe features of Arrakis that could probably have used English words, but there's also an argument that the geography and geology of Arrakis is nothing like we've every seen, so we don't really have words to describe it.

(2) To differentiate between various cultures, primarily the Fremen who are an isolated diaspora and would naturally have different religious and technical terms for things. He does this rather sparingly and mostly for stuff that isn't too important - it's flavor and character-building more than anything else.

Herbert also makes it pretty clear that the people in his book aren't speaking English, so I don't know why I'd have a problem if he says "orange-colored lips" when the culture probably doesn't have what we consider to be oranges anymore.
posted by muddgirl at 9:26 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'd write whatever you want and deal with the fact that sometimes, depending on the mood of the reader they're going to get pulled out of the story for a second. Even with non-made up words this is going to happen. I'm a big fan of China Mieville who uses made up words all the time, and for some reason what pulled me out of "Perdido Street Station" was when he had one character use the word "Quisling".

For a split second I thought, "Sure. This fantasy world happened to have WWII and a Norwegian politician who collaborated with axis power and..." then I got over myself and got back to ignoring that fact that some words are coined after real people like sandwich and silhouette. After all, all words have origins bound up in the very real history of our planet.

Use made up words when you need to, use them sparingly and with a purpose, and you'll be fine.
posted by bswinburn at 9:31 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: ...concepts/objects that don't exist in our English-speaking world ("gom jabbar", "Bene Gesserit", "Mentat").

Herbert also uses etymological hints/imagery in his "new" words to make them less alienating and jarring when encountered on the page: "gom jabbar" has "jab" right in it, "Mentat" and "ornithopter" have pretty obvious etymology, "stilsuit" and "crysknife" are a piece of clothing and a weapon with special properties, "ghola" resembles "ghoul," etc.
posted by griphus at 9:33 AM on November 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Note that in the case of A Clockwork Orange, Burgess was writing in the first person from a near future, so it makes sense that he would write it in a transcriptive style rather than a translation style. If the book had been in the third person, the choice to heavily use invented slang would have made much less sense.

A Clockwork Orange is a good example of how a good writer with good instincts can break a 'rule' to enhance a story, rather than detract from it. It's not to everyone's taste, but then again no art is.
posted by muddgirl at 9:34 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I guess I'm an outlier here.

I love conlangs--intelligently developed conlangs even more. I loved Riddley Walker and A Clockwork Orange and enjoyed the Sloosha section of Cloud Atlas, even though I thought it wasn't as convincing as Riddley Walker (the apostrphes! They made no sense for a language spoken, not written).

But I'm also fiddly with regard to word usage. For example, on a non-Earth based fantasy planet, use of the word "apple" is confusing. Is the writer referring to an actual apple? Does this mean that the people here evolved out of Terran people? What's hinted with that word choice, as opposed to "fruit" or "muldaak" or whatever.

If you're writing a post-Earth society, though, quite a bit of this goes out the window. "Rhinestone" is fine on an alien outpost colony of the first settlers once spoke English. There are plenty of words whose etymology is essentially orphaned in English. I'd also be wary of going too far with it. I attended a con panel once where a writer said that his society was one where humanity had long-since given up taboos about religion, but was terrified about medical plagues, and so people would say "pox," not "damn" and while that's fine in moderation, I find the extremes--which many less skilled writers reach for--incredibly cheesy. Like, just because your characters are in space doesn't mean that have to say "stars!" instead of "shit!"

This is also all different with a third versus first person narration, as muddgirl says. But I still wonder about the identity of the narrator when a muldaak is called an apple.

NB: In my own first novel, I have characters using Yiddish (for historic reasons that later become apparent to the reader); in the second novel, I use an elaborately invented conlang for untranslated alien speech. I have a spreadsheet to generate conversations and phoneme families and everything. There is also a translator present. Like I said, I geek out on this stuff.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:39 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: I think most of the time you can find an existing word with the right feel rather than invent a new one. But it's still a matter of picking a fitting one, which might often not be the one most used in everyday contemporary settings.

I don't want to hear about hobbits eating in a diner or drinking in a bar, but doing either in an inn or hostelry will work. And I probably don't want to hear about an alien species launching drone strikes against terrorists, unless it's some kind of satire, but if they send probes to hunt down their enemies, I'll be ok with that.

But if you were going to talk a great deal about those probes, and want to make a point of the fact they are fully sentient and it will transpire that some will develop qualms about their missions, you might want to invent a term for that kind of entity.
posted by philipy at 9:47 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: Generally, the more I think about it, this is really a question of both worldbuilding and intent. If your intention is, say, to tell a run-of-the-mill fantasy story where special attention paid to linguistic choices will likely get in the way of that story--where the world's origins aren't particularly important--then I would use Earth-based terminology without worry. If your goal is to create a more immerse reading experience, if the origins of the world are pertinent to your themes, then I think it's a good idea to think long and hard about your worldbuilding. People who arrived on a fantasy planet via a portal from Earth in the dawn of time will have different cultural and linguistic roots than people who were spawned from Elder Gods on a fantasy planet. People who are culturally and physically similar to humans on a fantasy planet are likely to have similar cultural taboos; people who are very dissimilar may not. Aliens with completely different societal mores might not go around screaming "shit!" and "fuck!" but might say something else; these things are likely more relevant if part of your goal is to say something about the world at hand rather than just to tell a story. Hoban was immersing his audience, not just telling a story about a boy whose dad dies in an accident.

I also think it's important to do what makes you feel comfortable as a writer. For me, this means doing the worldbuilding work and only showing some of it, because I feel like it enriches the overall experience. If you don't like these things or don't care to think about them, that's fine. If you enjoy it, I think you should indulge it. Books are better when writers are happy writing them.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:52 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I attended a con panel once where a writer said that his society was one where humanity had long-since given up taboos about religion, but was terrified about medical plagues, and so people would say "pox," not "damn"

I always appreciate when writers think their language through, one way or the other. I was reading a series in which the gender/sexual/family structures were such that women could bear children within or without a marriage, with or without an acknowledgement of the father, without reaping the sort of patriarchy-based stigma that's been common in the history of places like the US. So that was working fine for me--until, as the series continued, I noticed the characters' heavy use of the word "bastard" as an insult. That actually started to bug me. Like, maybe commit to your worldbuilding a little more, wouldja.

Also, please no random apostrophes. If you must use them--and I wish you wouldn't, because I am scarred by sloppy usage and would probably not give your book a fair shake--please have them stand for something specific, like a click or a glottal stop.
posted by theatro at 9:59 AM on November 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Last comment, I promise:

or like one of those nerds who's mastering Klingon.

I think this as at the root of a lot of it--fear of perception of outsiders who find conlangs to be unbearably nerdy. I struggled with that for a long time, and half-assed my worldbuilding, and didn't challenge myself. But you know what? Deep down, I think Marc Okrand is awesome. I think that it's great that we have authors like Hoban and Burgess to push the boundaries of speculative language. It might be geeky, but it's thoughtful-geeky, and smart-geeky, and I was much happier when I let myself get down with my geeky self.

So, yes, definitely consider in your answer that I'm a HUGE fan of Burgess, Heinlein, Pratchett, Stephenson, Herbert, and others who have executed works that reveal deep love of language or a delight in linguistic playfulness.

I say do it. Write what you love. Be a nerd. It's better on the nerdside. Especially if you're writing nerdy shit (speculative fiction!) already.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:59 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I only like it when it has its own significance.

In Clockwork Orange, the strangeness and difficulty of the Russian-derived words was the point: you were supposed to gradually understand that this was a post-Communist-takeover world, and that the takeover had happened long enough ago that young people used the Russian slang naturally and plentifully.

In Game of Thrones, there's an ancestral "High Valyrian" language, and words from it show up here and there; it's supposed to show how that older civilization has devolved to the roughness and primitivity of the present day Westerosi world where the series takes place.

If there's no literary device that's being served by the intro of the new words, then they're just a distraction.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:01 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How do you, as a reader, feel about invented language in speculative fiction?

99% of the time I hate it, and done badly it's the first thing that will make me stop reading. Overuse of this sort of thing is especially bad in the fantasy genre; I just can't bring myself to wade through yet another garbled etymology papered over yet another generic Arthurian feudal system with dwarves and elves sprinkled on top.

The book, even though it's purportedly a first hand account of life in some fantastic far-future universe, is written in english. Because that is the language the reader speaks. So all the dialogue has presumably already been translated from whatever far future language the characters would really be communicating in in order for me, the reader, to understand it; leaving a few words "untranslated" here and there is just off-putting and disbelief-unsuspending.

Made-up words for something that is clearly just a normal thing, or a minor variation on a normal thing, or an otherwise already familiar concept with a familiar name, are especially grating (mostly because of the demonstrated lack of inventiveness in having your far-future multispecies spacefaring culture still e.g. drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in the morning, even if you're renaming them Kafeinathro'tvash and personal fumesticks.)

It's equally offputting and distracting to do the opposite, though, and have characters in far-future societies use slang or idioms that feel too closely dated to a particular present-day or past era (except in cases where that's part of the given premise, that we're doing Victorians In Space or whatever.)
posted by ook at 10:33 AM on November 21, 2012

Response by poster: All right. That's a lot of good stuff to think about in this realm, and I do look forward to more - I knew this was absolutely the best place to get this sorted as soon as the problem was identified, and I'm glad I was right.

Narrowing in on "translated" vs. "untranslated" - let's say there's a fruit that's a combination of what we call mulberries and peaches, taste-wise, but looks like a lumpy kiwi fruit.

For those of you who can't abide invented language or have low tolerance for it, how is that handled in a way that keeps you in the story?

Forget the likenesses in my head and go with straight description: "The tree had brown, lumpy, oval fruit covered with fine bristles. The flesh inside was sweet, juicy, and pleasurably fragrant." ...?

Or go with the literal translation from the gnarled image in my head: "It looked like a lumpy kiwi fruit, but tasted like a cross between mulberries and peaches." ...?

Would I then call it by some invented name or kiwi-mulberry-peach or sweetbrown treetfruit?
posted by batmonkey at 10:43 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: Unless there's a context for kiwis, mulberries and peaches in your story AND you're doing a first-person or very specific sort of third person narration (agh the exacty term escapes me at the moment but the word "detached" might be in it) you're better off just describing the fruit by non-referential qualities and then calling it a "donglefruit" or "spaceberry" or whatever.
posted by griphus at 10:48 AM on November 21, 2012

(Also, if you're in the United States, you can go ahead and assume most of your readership has no idea what a mulberry or kiwi fruit tastes like. The variety of fresh fruit available in most of the country is not great.)
posted by griphus at 10:51 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: Forget the likenesses in my head and go with straight description: "The tree had brown, lumpy, oval fruit covered with fine bristles. The flesh inside was sweet, juicy, and pleasurably fragrant." ...?

Or go with the literal translation from the gnarled image in my head: "It looked like a lumpy kiwi fruit, but tasted like a cross between mulberries and peaches." ...?

Given that the reader should care about this fruit, the second one seems appropriate for situations where, say, a human narrator discovers a new fruit. The previous one for situations where a non-english-speaking narrator, or an omniscient narrator, is describing a fruit.
posted by muddgirl at 10:59 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: griph is probably going for an omniscient or simply a distant narrator.

I think the question raises that of narrative identity. Even in third person, even if never specified, your narrator is a character. The question is, really, how much are you assuming that the narrator is like you (or like your readers). As griphus says, this also carries some cultural baggage with it. I think deciding on the identity of your narrator helps quite a bit with many of these questions.

In your example, I actually find the straight description to be a better piece of writing. I think it's fine to describe or define something before you refer to it, too. "The tree had brown, lumpy, oval fruit covered with fine bristles, a delicacy which the locals called 'sweetbrown treefruit.' The flesh inside was sweet, juicy, and pleasurably fragrant." That's unobtrusive and naturalistic. It sounds like how people talk, but it avoids a lot of the problems with reference described above.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:59 AM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don’t care about the fruit and don’t really want to hear about it unless there’s a point, but that’s another debate; how much do you like detailed descriptions and/or lists? I always assumed that everyone hated those things until I read some recent debates on MF.
posted by bongo_x at 11:05 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I haven't read the previous posts, so sorry if I'm repeating something.

But I think in a fictional world...

a) There would be a completely different language. So when I read it in English, I'm assuming all of it is magically translated anyway, and I would prefer they use English words than weird foreign words that I have to memorize and that slow down my reading.

b) If there's something that you specifically want me to pause and think about every time I read about it (i.e. an important artifact or magic thing) then make up a foreign word for it. But please, keep it to less than 5, preferably less than 3. I don't want to need a glossary. (Even in English, we have words like kimono and czar, because there aren't any other good words for it.)

c) If it's obvious that your world has a different language--and thus everything is translated--please, please, PLEASE do NOT make puns. Puns rarely translate well (I speak 3 languages fluently, and have studied more) and it just grates.

d) As for your mulberry-peach-kiwi fruit thing... Do you REALLY need it to be a different fruit? What I mean is, in English, there is "onion" and "spring onion." They are different plants, but alike enough that they share the name. Can't your fruit be a "peach kiwi" or some such after the initial description? Something descriptive enough to give the reader the feel you want to give them. But unless it's central to the plot somehow (e.g. it's a sacred fruit that delivers immortality that everyone thought was extinct...), I wouldn't bother giving it a name, or even necessarily making it that different.
posted by ethidda at 11:05 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: There is also Gene Wolfe's approach in his Sun Cycle books: use existing but obscure English words.

In the appendix to The Shadow of the Torturer, he says:

"In rendering this book – originally composed in a tongue that has not achieved existence – into English, I might easily have saved myself a great deal of labor by having recourse to invented terms; in no case have I done so. Thus in many instances I have been forced to replace yet undiscovered concepts by their closest twentieth-century equivalents. Such words as peltast, androgyn, and exultant are substitutions of this kind, and are intended to be suggestive rather than definitive."

Though this is in character as the "translator" of his novel, it provides a useful insight into the writing: all of Wolfe's terms (fuligin, carnifex, thaumaturge, etc.) are real words, but their meaning should be implied by context. Knowing the words, or re-reading with a copy of an English dictionary at hand, can offer further insight into the story.

Obviously, depending on the nature of your book and the number of invented / obscure words you want to use, this could be: a) impractical; b) a lot of work; and c) potentially alienating for readers who don't want to crack open the OED every fourth paragraph. On the other hand, if done well it neatly sidesteps the whole issue of using invented words.
posted by inire at 11:07 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Free indirect speech was the narrative style I was thinking of, but PhoB's point about identifying/defining the narrative-voice makes the point better.
posted by griphus at 11:09 AM on November 21, 2012

I really liked how Yves Meynard handled this in Chrysanthe. He basically created one 'verse where Greek rootwords were dominate because the Romans/Latin never really emerged as the dominant force in the same way. It was really interesting, because that meant that words/concepts were familiar enough to get but still unusual. He contrasted that with the "real" world, where most words were Anglo-Saxon-y.

Also, because the rootwords for each are common enough, I registered that they were different, but didn't really think about it.

Re: other languages... IDK, sometimes I LIKE made up languages... like in Pirates of Dark Water, where the characters are different ethnicities from one another, so the language slips reveal who/what they are.
posted by spunweb at 11:10 AM on November 21, 2012

Context does a lot, I think. I'm remembering one Anne McCaffrey's books from the Pern dragonriders series; occasionally she made reference to a drink called klah. She didn't really define klah, but she would make contextual references that I could understand, like characters being sleepy until they'd had their first cup of klah or being grumpy that all they had for breakfast was a hunk of bread and a cold cup of klah, and that helped me parse that as "okay, coffee. Got it." even though I was only twelve.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:16 AM on November 21, 2012

How do you, as a reader, feel about invented language in speculative fiction?

Slang works. Certain "cultural" foods, drinks, and drugs-- coffee and cocaine might not exist but something like it would exist, and it makes sense that they would have their own words for it.

I found even the Harry Potter books irritating to get through because not only was it overloaded with jargon, but the jargon-words were just unbelievably cutsy and twee that it made me embarrassed to read them (that said, it's a children's book, so standards differ).
posted by deanc at 11:35 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: I didn't see any notes from anyone with reading disabilities or differences in reading comprehension, so wanted to chime in that people who have trouble reading generally have a more difficult time with made-up language.

Specifically, as someone who does not do phonics (I learned to read by recognition only, sounding out words still doesn't make sense to me), made-up language in literature always breaks my concentration and makes it more difficult for me to comprehend what I am reading. Sometimes my brain actually reads a word as another word that's close to it and I don't realize I've lost the thread until much later. With heavy sci-fi and fantasy, sometimes it is so bad that I have to get the book on tape. While this does not diminish my enjoyment, it does mean that it takes me much more effort to enjoy that literature. People who are not as committed to reading may simply close the book and move on.
posted by juniperesque at 11:41 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If it's a totally new thing that people have a name for, then it's necessary to some extent. The only author I'm aware of that has ever pulled off anything more is Lewis Carroll.

I'm very picky about it. "Frakking" in BSG completely prevented me from enjoying it.
posted by cmoj at 11:43 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: Unless it's very well done (consistent, thorough, not absurd-sounding and not excessively explained), I despise artificial languages. They must ring true, not be gibberish, and not sound like some english speaker was just making shit up.

Good: A Clockwork Orange. Bad: Watership Down. (Language creation; I'm not talking about other aspects of the books).
posted by windykites at 11:47 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: The use of invented words can be done well, but usually isn't. It depends on the literary effect you want and the nature of your narrative voice or narrator.

Personally, I'd flinch at rhinestone, but forgive it. I'm pedantic that way and probably a rarity. Most readers get the idea and move on.

I would also be momentarily shocked out of the story if I read about a fruit that is described to look like a fruit from Earth and taste like a mixture of two other fruits from Earth, unless it was clear to me that the narrator has that knowledge of Earth.

But, also, what's the point? Is the appearance and taste of this not-from-Earth fruit important to the narrative? Or is it just a world-building detail to remind the reader that this isn't Earth?

You might be interested in the preface to Asimov's and Silverberg's novel Nightfall, where they discuss this issue. They mention that the setting isn't Earth and the people aren't human, but they're human-like enough that readers can relate and sympathize. The authors opt for English words where English will serve.

The speculative/alien aspect of the book is that the planet gets light from many suns, thus the people have never experienced the dark nor seen stars. (Probably, also they don't have what we consider circadian rhythms and whatnot, but I don't recall that coming into play.) Their astronomers predict all the suns will set in the near future, revealing the stars and plunging the world into darkness for a short time, which their leaders and thinkers believe will trigger widespread panic.

The authors do not refer any of this with invented language. Darkness is still darkness despite how much less common it is and how much more fearful it would be to these people. The stars, which they only know of from ancient religious/mythological texts, are still just stars.

To illustrate how terrified these people would be of the dark, the book opens by describing a thrill ride of sorts, which keeps people in the dark for a few minutes. Many people who have been on the ride experience high levels of stress and some have mental breakdowns. Through these passages, the authors describe how this world and these people are different without having to load up on invented words. The "show don't tell" principle.

[Admittedly, though, these people are fundamentally human (at least psychologically) and the story reads very much like a commentary on human nature.]

Gene Wolfe takes a different route in The Book of the New Sun, which has inspired its own glossary. Wolfe's Urth is Earth in the very, very far future, with bionics, energy weapons, and social classes resulting from inter-breeding with aliens. He uses obsolete and antiquated words rather than invented words to refer to the things that are different from modern day. Because the words are somewhat familiar, yet exotic, the reader can get the point without complete understanding.

For example, early in the book a reader can tease out that an exultant is a member of the upper classes and gets the hint that there's more to it than that. Later it becomes clear that they are genetically distinct from regular humans.

I guess my point is that it's possible to avoid using invented words and still have an alien, speculative feel. If you do use invented words, do so for specific effect and as sparingly as possible.
posted by Boxenmacher at 12:05 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is the story of the only time I ever worried about etymology in a fantasy novel.

There's this set of kid's/YA books by Diana Wynne Jones (the Chrestomanci series) which are set in what's called "the Related Worlds," which are alternate worlds that have all divided off from each other at various points. The main world where things happen is a lot like our world, but sort of Edwardian (they're mostly set in England), and our world also exists, close to that pseudo-Edwardian world.

There are also further-afield worlds: a very mountainous world where England is connected to continental Europe; a world where the only land is islands in a big ocean; a futuristic world with flying trains.

Anyway, in I think the third book, the Related Worlds are specifically described as having the same languages. This did not bother me at all. Whatever, magic!

Then in maybe the fifth book, it was mentioned that in the mountainous-Europe world, in England "the Conquest" was not by the Normans, but by Eastern Europeans. And then I started thinking, "Wait, why is English the same if there was no Norman influence? Why does everything change except language?"

So I guess I (sometimes) have a (fairly minor) problem with alternate worlds where lots of things are similar-but-different to our world but the language is the same to a person from our world. It's very specific, and it's not a big deal. If you don't have a person from our world traveling to your speculative world, I totally give you the benefit of the doubt and assume translation. If there is a person from our world in the story, I want a difference in her use of language and the use of language by the natives of the alternate world or an explanation for the lack of difference.
posted by mskyle at 12:34 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: See, I wouldn't even use "rhinestone" if I was translating from 16th-century Chinese; I'd write "glass jewel" or something. Seeing it in a non-Earth setting would give me a blip of annoyance.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:48 PM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

EmpressCallipygos: "In addition to the XKCD reference, have a look at the TV Tropes page named Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp"."

THANK YOU for that. I'd been wracking my brains trying to remember where I'd seen that.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:12 PM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: Going back to Anathem for a minute - Neal Stephenson pointedly doesn't use invented language for mundane objects that aren't plot-critical. He describes his choices, IIRC using the example of the "phenotype equivalent of a carrot", in the Foreword.

I have mixed but mostly positive feelings about the invented language in Watership Down - the species names were a little bit precious, but sparingly used. I liked the language related to limitations of "Lapine" counting. I love the euphonious "hrududu" for generic motor vehicles/tractors, and I think it was helpful for Adams to emphasize the "otherness" of the rabbits when they interacted with peoplestuff.
posted by janell at 5:44 PM on November 21, 2012

Made up language is good if it's convincing. It's rarely convincing.
posted by latkes at 6:18 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I usually find it jarring, especially when there is a lot. What I find less jarring is adopting a pre-existing word and slightly modifying the meaning. In the Golden Compass (series) the author sort of stretches the word daemon.
posted by jander03 at 6:33 PM on November 21, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, all! I'm open to more commentary on this, but wanted to go ahead and lock down the responses that clarified, polarised, or better identified the various elements of the quandary. Used a mix of best answers and favourites to sort between them, for those wondering if I really meant to do that.

bongo x, I'll be sure to ping you when I put up block-removing question #3, which should be in a couple of weeks, as that's the precise subject of that one (will be reading the several existing questions on that topic before I do so, though).

Just in case that left curiosity for anyone, #2 will be about a certain portion of world-building that is going to kill me if I don't pick an approach and stick with it ASAP.

My "thanks" page is going to be very MeFite-laden.
posted by batmonkey at 8:44 PM on November 21, 2012

See, I wouldn't even use "rhinestone" if I was translating from 16th-century Chinese; I'd write "glass jewel" or something.


Is the hypothetical 16th-century chinese word weirdly formal and unusual? If so, then "glass jewel" might be appropriate. But if not, why not use an English word at the right level of colloquiality?
posted by kenko at 8:52 PM on November 26, 2012

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