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Construcying Languages for Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

by Brian Loo Soon Hua 4 months ago in Fantasy
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Creative Linguistics

An 8-headed, bird-like species that communicates via regurgitating flavoured sacs of enzymes? Image by the author, © Brian Loo

Science fiction and fantasy, more than any other genre, offers writers a limitless creative canvas for pure linguistic experimentation.

Take J.R.R. Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings. He worked on the various languages that he constructed specifically for his iconic series populated by wizards and demons, men and elves, dwarves and hobbits, throughout his adult life, from 1910 till 1973. That’s a whopping 63 years spent on creating and revising languages that most people would never learn. Most writers nowadays just spend months writing their book and then zip it off to the editor / publisher without giving their imaginary world a second thought.

Tolkien on the other hand, was a craftsman. His worldbuilding was literally the stuff of legends and the sheer amount of work he put into his creations is mindboggling. This was a man who deconstructed the languages of Europe, then painstakingly built fantasy languages inspired by them. Fantasy languages that were not only complex but organic with language families and historical sound changes, borrowings, foreign influences, etc. just like natural languages.

On the other hand I was quite disappointed with The Day the Earth Stood Still both the 1951 version and the newer one with an expressionless Keanu Reeves. (Although some would argue that Keanu Reeves is pretty much expressionless in every film he has ever made, but I digress). Not so much with the script or the concept itself but rather with the premise that a conveniently human-looking alien would come to Earth, and after some shenanigans involving a giant robot, end up teaching humans to articulate a sentence in its language.

“Klaatu barada nikto”.

Sigh, how boring. There are languages on Earth (I’m looking at you, Piraha and Ubykh) that are more phonologically exotic than that! We’re talking about a language from a zillion light years away spoken by a creature that in evolutionary terms has absolutely nothing in common with us (other than looking 100% human for some reason that only Hollywood knows). It was like ordering fancy surf n’ turf and getting served fried fish fingers instead. Hollywood alien languages tend to be uninspired, except for Avatar's Na'vi and whatever language the heptapods "spoke" in Arrival.

Truly different

My work in linguistics has introduced me to some really fascinating languages. I spent most of last year trying to untangle the intricacies of Warlpiri — a language that does not use left and right, but instead navigates using terms the cardinal points like north, south etc. (“Open the fridge and look in the northeast corner. If it’s not there then try looking on the west side!”).

Or Halkomelem, a language with so many consonants that a spoken sentence sounds like clearing your throat and crunching on an apple at the same time.

So when I design an alien language, I go deep. Case in point:

A language made from coloured vomit

Meet the aeravati, a species of magic-wielding earth elementals indigenous to the island of Orlogion (more on that later).

They’re about the height of a grown man but that’s the only thing they have in common with us. They’re basically giant red fluffballs with eight fully-functional bird heads; four constantly facing up and four constantly facing down. They use their lower beaks to move around rather like the limbs of a terrestrial animal but because both their upper and lower sets of birds’ heads are identical, you could flip one of these creatures upside down and it still wouldn’t make a difference. Get this, they can walk in any direction. As such they have no concept of “up” and “down” or “front” and “back”.

An aeravati saying “hello”. Image by the author, © Brian Loo

Aeravati communicate by regurgitating (that’s basically the same as vomiting) small colourful sacs filled with enzymes that have specific flavours. The sacs are bound up in membranous casings made from mucus (yes, I know, mucus!) that are often very beautiful and are unique to each individual aeravati. A sentence may contain more than one casing, all fitting inside one other like a colourful work of art.

The “listener” then eats the casing offered to it by the speaker, savouring the tastes of the morpheme enzymes inside each sac. The arrangement of morphemes and their relative locations within the sac (in other words, which sacs of flavour get tasted first by the listener as he chews up the casing) form the equivalents of words and sentences.

That’s right, aeravati speak by vomiting into each other’s mouths. Which means that humans learning their language have to learn how to appreciate the tastes of the regurgitated flavour compounds! Nicely wrapped up in decorated mucus. And no cheating, the colours on the flavoured sacs vary from individual to individual, so humans have no choice but to cut open and taste whatever their eight-headed friends have regurgitated. Some aeravati have learned how to understand human languages but humans linguists in this world have no choice but to taste their colourful vomit, so to speak!

But the aeravati are not the weirdest creatures in my little imaginary world. And their language is certainly not the most unusual.

The World of Orlogion

I’m currently working on a fantasy novel set in a city of immigrants — both human and non-human. Magic is common and takes the place of technology in our world. While humans can wield magic, it is the non-human sentients like the aeravati who have the most unusual and most powerful varieties of sorcery.

The largest city on a subtropical island (bearing the same name as the island itself), Orlogion’s population is made up of humans, aeravati, sea goblins, hinn and phorcydians. Each one occupies different districts and have vastly different languages. I’ll be writing about each and every one of these creatures and their languages over the next few days.

Also, in the next instalment, we’ll take a look at the basic grammar of the aeravati language, regurgitated enzyme-filled sacs of mucus and all.

Image by the author, © Brian Loo


About the author

Brian Loo Soon Hua

Linguist and creator of off-kilter content. Likes everything from horror stories to cook books. And wombats, please let there be more wombats!

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