I saved this xkcd comic in my feed reader, knowing that it would eventually be discussed in this blog (be sure to read the alt text by letting your mouse hover over the image).
While in junior high, I aspired to write a science fiction/fantasy trilogy. I am ashamed to admit that I peppered my prose with nonsense words. I thought I was quite clever. If I were to do a complete rewrite of that trilogy from junior high, how would I get across the ‘otherness’ of a different world without bogging down the writing with too many made-up words?
I won’t argue that authors should throw a completely new vocabulary set at their readers but, for the sake of a ramble, I would like to explore the possibility that one way to convey a foreign idea or world is to force someone to stretch their language knowledge. It’s a bit like reading travel writing. People who read about other countries or civilizations are bound to run into words and concepts with which they are not familiar. Readers of travel writing expect this. Do those who read fantasy and science fiction also have the expectation that they will come across strange words? If so, when does made-up word usage become obtrusive to the storytelling?
Linguists teach that a society’s language creates a framework for how a society thinks about and experiences the universe. How do you experience a strawberry? Food. Fruit. Seeds. Sweet. Red. Smallish. Does any single word or a combination thereof convey what a strawberry is? Does my understanding of a strawberry change if I call it a jumjum (winks in Russell’s general direction)? Does language limit our experience as well as our understanding? By using made-up words, can an author alter a reader’s experience? When does an author cross the line between creating a richly-realized fictional world and irritating the hell out of the creator of xkcd. Why are Carroll and Tolkien exceptions counted as exceptions in this strip? Do sci-fi/fantasy authors have the right to demand a level of investment from their readers? Should readers have to work at fiction in these specialized genres? If readers are cognizant of the effort they are expending, does this kill that reader’s enjoyment?
No answers from me at the moment. I’m not sure that there is a right answer- there are a number of variables not considered here: what group is the writing being marketed to and was this marketing effective? Personal preference also weighs heavily here, thus blurring a clear cut ‘5 made-up words or less per story’ quota.
In any case, I wanted to record the questions so that I have a place to start from should I come back to this topic later.