Fiction General

Make Your Own Words

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.

3 replies on “Make Your Own Words”

Carroll gets a pass, I think, because made-up words just fit so well in Wonderland. Too many made-up words can make a story, a world, feel unreal and false. In Wonderland, though, it’s *supposed* to feel made-up and unreal. Thus, the made-up words don’t interfere with suspension of disbelief as they would elsewhere.

Tolkien… is Tolkien. But aside from that, I *think* most of the words he made up weren’t so much individual words as they were part of a very well-crafted language construction project, which is different from just making up words. Those individual words he did come up with (say, “orc”) by this time are so integrated into the vocabulary of modern heroic fantasy that they don’t seem made-up anymore.

Tim and I were talking about this general topic, prompted by the same xkcd strip. My personal perspective on it was that you use a made-up word when there isn’t a perfectly good word for what you want to say in your own language. We both went to Pern for examples here. “Weyr”, for instance — there’s no English word for that. The closest is “castle”, I guess, but that carries connotations of a specific structure and a more hereditary government than “Weyr” expresses. My example was the omnipresent stimulant drink klah. It serves the same purpose as coffee, but it’s not coffee, and it makes sense that a different planet would produce a different plant from which such a drink could be made.

The other thing is… I think in most heroic fantasy and even sci-fi, there’s sort of an unspoken understanding that really what you’re reading is a translation. All these places don’t *really* speak English, right? The author has to translate for us. And when translating, sometimes you’re going to run up against some concept that’s just difficult to express in your own language. That’s true whether you’re translating from German to English or from Sindarin to English. I think that’s maybe where the made-up words really come from, and it really becomes a problem when an author loses sight of that and starts just throwing made-up words in for atmosphere rather than because they’re needed.

I babble. Gah!


Comments are closed.