Tag Archives: language

Guest Post: “Created Words in Science Fiction — how do they work?” by Juliette Wade

I am currently away on an Internet Vacation. I’ll be back online on March 31. Today, in my absence, as a special treat, I am so pleased to have a guest post by my friend, and fellow Analog-writer, Juliette Wade In addition to being a wonderful writer of stories, Juliette is also a linguist by training. I urge you to check our her website, TalkToYoUniverse, and follow her on twitter, @JulietteWade. And with that said, let me hand it off to Juliette.


One of science fiction’s defining characteristics is the creation of new words to describe  worlds. While television and movies have seen a recent trend toward the creation of entire alien languages, word creation is vitally important also for written stories, even those set in worlds only slightly different from our own. I thought I’d take a look at some of the kinds of words which are created for science fictional contexts, and discuss how they work.

Created words can be arranged on a scale between most and least familiar. At the most familiar end are words from English which have simply been re-purposed for use with novel concepts. At the other end are completely alien words. Naturally, the further toward the alien end of the scale the words are, the more difficulty a reader will have in understanding them. Eventually, a narrative too full of alien words can become impenetrable, so my own rule of thumb says that if you want to create a sense of familiarity between the reader and the story, use as few alien words as possible, and if you want to create a sense of alienness, use more. If we look at examples from science fiction stories, we find that authors don’t use only one kind of word. They mix words from different areas of the scale.

Let’s get specific.

You typically know an alien word when you see one. They look like this: “Na’vi” (James Cameron’s Avatar) “Ariekei” (Embassytown by China Mieville) “Dirokime” (A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge). They bear no linguistic relation to English, other than being written in English characters. Luckily, English speakers do still have ways to pull meaning out of them.

We use our sense of onomatopoeia, our sense of the “feel” of sounds. We’re familiar with onomatopoeia from words like “bow-wow,” and “cock-a-doodle-doo,” but also from words like “drip” and “drop,” “gallumph,” “pitter-patter” and “smash.” You can read my article about onomatopoeia at this link: http://talktoyouniverse.blogspot.com/2008/09/bow-wow-boom-smash-onomatopoeia.html . We find that, even across languages, voiced sounds like “b” “d” “g” etc. tend to occur in actions or sounds with greater intensity or lower pitch, while their unvoiced equivalents “p” “t” “k” tend to occur in actions with lesser intensity. It’s no surprise that when I created an alien word for a large waterfall, I decided to call it “sàth,” using a wide-open vowel and two unvoiced fricatives (s and th) that make you hear the rushing of water. I didn’t plan that word consciously, but imagine how much smaller that waterfall would have seemed if I’d named it “sìth” — and if I’d called it “dìt,” it wouldn’t have seemed very waterfall-like at all. We also use resemblance between words to evaluate potential meanings, as when we see a word like Frank Herbert’s musical instrument, the “baliset” (Dune). Inside that word live the echoes of familiar musical words — “balalaika,” “quartet,” or maybe “quintet” — helping to give the word its “feel.”

Beyond those hints, a reader must rely on the author to teach the meaning of the word. This brings me to another type of science-fictional semantics, all the way on the opposite end of the scale. Sometimes authors will take English words that we know very well, and change their significance for alien worlds. Take the word “Net”, or “Hosts” for example. The trick with using these types of words is that they can’t be too specific to our own world. The vast distributed computer system that extends across the galaxy in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep is called the Net; it wouldn’t make any sense to call it the World Wide Web, or even the Web, because that term has come to seem archaic in our own world, and Vinge’s Net is anything but archaic. Frank Herbert uses “Voice” to describe a tone of voice that creates a visceral command in the mind of its hearers. China Mieville uses the word “Hosts” to describe the alien residents of the planet on which his fictional human embassy is located. In doing so he defines the social relationship that the aliens bear to the humans, one of hospitality and also of tolerance, while leaving room for the aliens to be powerful and inscrutable.

A word becomes generic when it has been heard in so many different contexts that no single context wins an overriding association with it. That makes it an ideal candidate for extension to an alien environment. As with fully alien words, the author’s job is to teach readers what the word means in that science fictional environment. You can even see authors telling readers to look out for extra or different meaning when they use Capitalization, which suggests Greater or Alternate Significance.

So what other features can put us on the lookout for words that signify new concepts in a science fictional world? When we see alien words, our simple lack of understanding tells us to look for a new meaning; with redefined English words, capitalization can be a hint that pricks up our semantic senses. In both of those cases, we’re looking for the author to teach the new significance using surrounding context. However, those aren’t our only tools. There are two other word types I’d like to mention here:

  1. Derivative words
  2. Translation-derived words
  3. Compound coinages

These are all very common in futuristic science fiction, because they are clearly words from our own world, yet they can be quickly understood on the basis of their derivations.

Continue reading Guest Post: “Created Words in Science Fiction — how do they work?” by Juliette Wade

Using words

I take some occasional heat from friends, family and coworkers for my vocabulary. There are, it seems, times when I use a word that those around me are unfamiliar with. I am asked what the word means, and give the definition to the best of my ability and then try to move on. It is not always that easy. Sometimes, I am accused (mostly by close friends or family) of using a “fancy” word when another more common word would have suited. This is not at all my intention and I generally have two responses to this:

  1. I try to use words that precisely convey my meaning. Often times the word I chooses means exactly what I say, whereas substituting a simpler word subtracts from the meaning.
  2. What is the point of learning all of those SAT words if not to put them to practical use.

I sometimes get the feeling that people think I am joking when I make that remark about the SATs, but I am not. I try to put to some practical use everything I have learned. Else, what’s the point in learning it in the first place? There has to be more to learning than just grades and degrees.

This is on my mind today because I had the need to make use of the word “holographic” in its pre-modern sense this morning and hesitated to do so, thinking of the grief that people give me. A coworker had sent me an email which contained a scanned-in article upon which he’d made some handwritten comments. In forwarding the article to my boss and grandboss, I asked them to take particular note of the “holographic comments” in the article. Most people today are probably familiar with the term holographic as a trope of science fiction. But it has an even older definition that means “of or being a document written wholly in the handwriting of the person whose signature it bears.” Clearly the term “holographic” in this sense is a much more succinct description than a phrase such as “so-and-so’s handwritten comments.”

Continue reading Using words

Fu(n)ky Monkey

There are some thing that I knew I wouldn’t be very good at as a parent. This afternoon was an example of one of them. I was changing the Little Man’s diaper and he asked for his monkey, which he saw sitting off to one side of the room. I got it for him and continued to change him and clean him up. Seeing the monkey brought to mind the Beastie Boys song, “Brass Monkey”. So I started singing that song to him, “Brass monkey, that funky monkey!”

The Little Man has been getting better and better at imitating us and repeating what we say. He liked the song at once because it had the word monkey in it. There was just one problem. He was not pronouncing the “n” in “funky”. I’ll let you infer the result yourself. Needless to say I was helpless with laughter which is precisely the wrong response to have in these situations. I brought the Little Man downstairs so that Kelly could finish dressing him. I was a broken reed.

A few minutes later, sitting on the couch watching TV, he starts blurting out the verse again, once again leaving out the “n” in “funky”. I lost it, laughing so hard there were tears in my eyes. The Little Man picked up on exactly which word I was laughing at and dropped “monkey”, focusing his attention entirely on the n-less “funky” again and again and again. Kelly muttered that my laughter was not helping but I could see a smirk on her face.

We all calmed down but Kelly made it clear that I can explain to the teachers at his school if he starts to sing the song there. Oh, what the heck, it’s all an innocent mistake. Hilarious, but innocent.

Continuing adventures of the Little Z-Man

The Little Man is communicating more and more every day. Today I noticed he had adjectives. He knows when something is hot, for instance. If he has food that is hot, he’ll say, “Hot!” and he’ll make like he’s blowing on it. He does the same thing if he feels the heat coming in through the floor vents in the house.

He knows “big”. Today when we were walking home from the park he pointed to a tree and said, “Big tree.”

He’s gotten so many more words now I don’t even try to keep up. “House”, “road”, “car”, “park”, “swing”, “slide”, “sand”, “shoes”. One of his favorites is “shower” we he pronounces in true Brooklynese as “Show-wuh.” He’ll come to me in the morning and say, “Daddy, show-wuh.” Or he’ll hear Kelly in the shower in the morning and say, “Mommy, show-wuh.”

We’ve told him, of course, about the baby. We keep reinforcing that the baby is coming, and that mommy is growing a baby in her tummy. Depending on his mood, if you ask him, “Hey, buddy, where’s the baby?” he will either tap Kelly’s belly and say, “Baby!” or he’ll pull up his own shirt, pat his own belly and say, “BABY!”

He’ll put three word sentences together with some regularity and he picks stuff up incredibly quickly. I’ve pointed out a stop sign to him twice and told him we stop at stop signs. Today we came to a stop sign on our walk and I said, “What’s that?”

“Stop sign,” he said.

“What do we do?”

“Stop!”

He’s very good at sharing, but I think he interprets it as trading. He’ll offer a toy of his to another toddler in exchange for a toy of theirs.  But then he refused to give their toy back. “No, mine!” he says. He can get very petulant in those instances.

He will ask for things that he wants to do. “Daddy, car?” he’ll say, meaning he wants to go out to the car and sit in the drivers seat, something he and I do from time-to-time.

“Okay,” I say, let’s go.

We head for the door and he’ll become suddenly concerned. “Daddy, keys!”

But there’s one word that I’ve taught him that he’s finally learned and it just cracks me up to hear him say it. It has replaced “yucky!” as my favorite of his expressions. I’ve taught him to say, “Tushie!” and he’ll say it and reach around to grab his backside.

The End.

The SHAPE of things to come

Sometimes I am taken aback by how quickly the Little Man is learning things. I mean I am made virtually speechless. When Kelly and I go to pick him up from school, we sometimes watch him play for a little while before going into the classroom. If he sees us, he stops what he’s doing and runs to us, lunging himself into our arms.

Yesterday, we went in while they were doing an activity. All of the little kids were sitting around while one of the teachers showed them flashcards with shapes and ask them what the shape is. You know, circles, ovals, stars, triangles. The Little Man jumped into my arms when he saw me. Then the teacher showed a flashcard with a star on it. “What is this?” she asked.

“‘Tar!” replied the Little Man–and I was stunned. I had no idea he was learning shapes, let alone could recognize them and say the words.

Continue reading The SHAPE of things to come

Where daddy speaks about the Little Man speaking

Because I haven’t written about the escapades of the Z-man in nearly a week, I felt that a post was overdo.

It seems like the Z-man’s language is expanding in some Hubble-like function. I picked him up from school earlier in the week and his teacher told me that he is constantly saying “Please” when he wants something. This is my fault. I say fault because the Little Man quickly learned that Kelly and I find it adorable when he says, “Peeeez!” He understands quite well that he is virtually irresistible and we will usually cave in to his request. We only do this, you understand, to reinforce  his good manners. Yes, that. In addition, his teacher told me that he also says, “Thank you,” which was new to me. But sure enough, I’ve heard him say it a couple of times.

Granted, when he says “Thank you” it comes out more like “Cha-Choo!” but the context is right. His teacher also told me that he’s constantly saying, “Daddy at work” which was also new to me for a number of reasons. I don’t think I’d heard him utter a 3-word sentence. Kelly later told me that they were working on that Monday when they both had the day off and I was stuck in the office. All of his little friends will think I’m a workaholic.

Beyond that, he has really got his animals down. He says, “animal” when he’s not sure what else to call it. (Of course, it comes out as “amimal.”) But he can say “puppy” and “lion” very clearly. And if you ask him what a lion says, he’ll say “ROOOOAR!” He can say “kitty”, “duck”, “bird”, and “elle” which is his was of saying “elephant”. He can say essential words like “cookie”, “candy”, “soda”, and “juice”. (Really, he does have a healthy diet, vocabulary to the contrary.) He knows just about everything in the house, “door”, “window”, “kitchen”, “bathroom”, “bedroom”, “shower”.

Recognizing all of these words is one things, but he has been putting them together into sentences. And not only that, he’s going from abstractions to the real thing. For instance, there is a painting of a flower at one end of the upstairs hallway. When we walk up to his room, we name all kinds of items we pass by and a few months ago, I pointed to the picture and said, “Flower”. Since then, when I point to it he’s gotten very good at saying “flower” very clearly. Last Sunday I picked up some roses at the grocery store for Kelly and she put them in a vase. When the Z-man saw them on the kitchen table, he pointed at them and said, “Flower!” That impressed me considering they don’t look much like the picture of the flower on the wall.

Other than that, he is his usual jovial, fun-loving self. He can say “TV”, “Spongebob”, “Mickey”, “Timmy” and name other cast members of the shows he likes to watch. He is very big on all kinds of vehicles: cars, trains, planes, boats. Watching a replay of the shuttle launch last night, he grabbed my hand, pointed to the TV and said, “Daddy, eh-pane! EH-PANE! Eeeeerrrrrrrr!” I read to him every night and at this point, I can hardly wait to start reading some simple science fiction stories to him. There are lots of “eh-panes” in those yarns!

Using words

My friend Monica used the word “prophylactic” in its classical sense (meaning “preventative”) the other day and it got me thinking about using words and the flack I occasionally take for my vocabulary. When you read a lot, you can’t avoid learning lots of words. When you write, it’s an occupational hazard. And it just so happens that I am a fan of words and have a natural attraction to them. Yet if I am in a meeting at work and use a word like “opprobrious”, it can stop the meeting cold, which surprises me. Didn’t anyone else in the room ever take the SATs?  I generally get one of two reactions:

  1. The oooh, that’s an impressive word, I’m going to have to look that up, reaction; OR
  2. Well what the hell does that mean and why don’t you just say what it means instead of using a fancy word. Force me to go look something up online, boy I’ll tellya…

And it often seems like I get the second reaction much more frequently than the first. The fact is that I try to use the most appropriate word to convey my meaning. But more to the point, English has a lot of words and way back when I took the SATs, it seemed like I had to memorize all of them. Not one to waste an experience, I kind of made a promise to myself that I wasn’t simply going to learn all of these words for the sake of a test and then forget them the next day. I was going to use them, by god! If the producers of standardized tests think that I should know the meanings of words like “meretricious” and “contumely”, well, then I was not only going to know them, but use them. And serves them right, too, for forcing them on me in the first place.

Still, it seems like I often get a negative reaction to using a full vocabulary, as if using the words you learn is a sign of pretentiousness or something. To me it is simply a sign of memorization, no different from the fellow who can reel off baseball statistics from memory. No one complains about that guy.

The one place where I am more careful about my vocabulary is in my writing, but in that case, it is more due to the fact that written English is a different beast from spoken English, and in fiction, some of the words that I would use in conversation would only serve to confuse the story.

Anyway, I applaud Monica for her sagacity in diction the other day. I wish more people enjoyed words as much as we do.

Two new phrases

The Little Man’s vocabulary is expanding by the minute. Two new multi-word phrases emerged just this evening. The first is “Help, please!” We taught him this as an alternative to whining. He likes playing with the vacuum cleaner and not five minutes after learning the phrase, he said, “Help, please!” when he couldn’t get a little door on the vacuum open. All of the sudden, he’s using it more and more.

Tonight is bath night, and before dinner, I mentioned a bath to the Little Man. He seemed completely neutral. But after dinner, out of the blue, he ran up to me in the kitchen and said, “Daddy, shower!”

I said, “Do you want to take a shower?”

“Yeah!”

“Okay!” So we took a shower and he loved it.

His teacher at school says he knows the name of every kid in the class and that there is one girl, a few days younger than him, that he is particularly fond of. He always tries to sit near her. Apparently, he has a girlfriend.

Language explosion

I am behind on my posts on the Little Man, who is coming up on 20 months. I tried really hard to keep a list of all his words as he said them, but he’s had such a language explosion in the last few weeks that I’ve lost track and will never catch up. He is fascinated by keys and will walk down the main hall to the entryway where the keys hang and say, “Keesh! Keesh!” He will go to the shoe box, and say, “Shoosh!” and then try and put his shoes on his little feet. He knows every form of transportation: “Cahw”, “Eh-pain”, “chump-truck” (which can be dump truck, garbage truck, or tow truck depending upon the context). He knows various directions, especially “Upah” and “Downnn”. He loves to turn on and off the “Laya” (light). His favorite drink after mee-mee (milk) is “appajuice”. There are so many more I can’t even list them all. But I must say that at the moment, my favorite of all his words is “dough-uh” (door). It just sounds so a-dough-uh-rable when he pronounces the syllables.

In addition to vocabulary, he’s developed quite the personality. At present, he doesn’t like no for an answer and when you say no, or tell him that he can’t so something, he performs what can only be described as a kind of whining bow. I have to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. He knows how to play hide-and-seek and tag. And he still has the Best. Laugh. Ever.

I really wish I’d kept better track of the progress of his vocabulary, but I can’t imagine trying to keep up at this point, especially now that he’s getting into multiple word phrases like, “Daddy upah” and “Mommy shoosh.” But I’ll continue to report those amusing things that he says (or will inevitably say) probably well into his middle-age.

Ah, linguistics!

I’m not sure why I find linguistics and language so fascinating, but I do. I started reading Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules this morning and quickly discovered what the book was about. Quote from the preface:

This book tries to illuminate the nature of language and mind by choosing a single phenomenon and examining it from every angle imaginable. That phenomenon is regular and irregular verbs, the bane of every language student.

Yes, I am reading a 287 page book about verbs and how they are formed.

I’m sure some people have seen this before, but I hadn’t and so I simply have to quote it here as well. It’s from bit of comic verse by Richard Lederer called “Tense Times with Verbs”:

The verbs in English are a fright.
How can we learn to read and write?
Today we speak, but first we spoke;
Some faucets leak, but never loke.
Today we write, but first we wrote;
We bite our tongues, but never bote.
Each day I teach, for years I taught,
And preachers preach but never praught.
This tale I tell, this tale I told;
I smell the flowers, but never smold.
If knights still slay as once they slew,
Then do we play as once we plew?
If I still do as I once did,
Then do cows moo as they once mid?

For some reason, I get a kick out of that. Okay, lunchtime. Back to my book.

The Language Instinct

I finished Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct this afternoon and I thought it was terrific. I never thought I would find grammar and language so fascinating, but Pinker hooked me and I am eager to start the next book, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language.

The Language Instinct convinced me to ease up on some of my pet peeves with English grammar. The main thrust of the book is that our brains are wired for a universal grammar and much of the books goes into detail with examples and experiments that demonstrate this. Still, I was particularly impressed with the chapter called “The Language Mavens” where Pinker drew a distinction between “prescribed” grammar and something being grammatically correct outside prescription. He made a logical, reasonable argument and convinced me. By no means was he arguing that language should be a free-for-all; in fact, he argued the opposite: that it can’t be a free-for-all, even if we wanted it to be. But things like split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions are all grammatically correct from a syntactical perspective. It is the evolution of English to conform more with Latin that makes them, to grammar school teachers, seem incorrect.

The book was published in 1994 and the edition I have has a P.S. section at the end where the author briefly brings it up to date based on research and discoveries that have taken place over the last 14 years. I found that section to be very useful and interesting.

I plan on starting Words and Rules this evening, but no before getting a little bit of writing done.

Contranyms are cool!

From my almanac, while waiting for a meeting to start, I discovered contranyms, which are words that have opposite meanings depending on their context. Some examples:

cleave: “to split apart” or “to stick together”.

clip: “to cut” or “to fasten”.

sanction: “approval” or “punishment”.

screen: “to shield” or “to present”.

trim: “to cut away” or “to ornament”.

I’m sure there are others. What more could you ask for from a language than a single word that can take on two opposite meanings. Boy, am I glad I don’t have to learn English from scratch!