This is topic Need help using a fictional language in forum Open Discussions About Writing at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
In my story, Daisyworld, I have a group of mutated humanoids that have lost the ability to vocalise, however the language centres of their brains have been left essentially unchanged. As part of the plot, because their environment is filled with predators and quietness is essential, these mutants develop their own language: a mixture of combat sign language and clicks and other sounds created using the mouth and tongue instead of the vocal chords.

Great--in theory. Now the problem I have is how to represent this within the narrative.

Any ideas, no matter how insubstantial, would be better than me just pounding my head into my keyboard in frustration. It might just be the spark that lights my way.

Thanks in anticipation of saving my bacon.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
An analog possibility and interpretative paralinguistic written forms are the click consonants used by Khoisan languages of the Kalahari peoples. (Wikipedia)

Gestural language, mostly hand signals probably, some facial expression and other body language, means visual descriptions and their mythology development. "Mythology" to mean cultural meaning and "teaching" readers their meanings through the signals' influences on the action of the moment. Crossed arms, for example, may mean defensiveness, defense, defend, etc. Stacked arms, hands clutching forearms, could mean embrace, come close, they or we are close, etc. A body pivot to a lateral direction could signal a left turn.

Greater distances between signaler and receiver require broader gestures. Closer distances are amenable to subtler gestures. An upward eye roll could mean, for example, look that-a-way.

Consider developing both a gestural and a vocal "grammar" and a combined vocal and gestural grammar based upon signaler-receiver distance as well as need for quiet and consider "clicks" similar to bird calls as vocal though natural-world signals imitative of natural creatures.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
extrinsic, I had the Zulu language more in mind. There are three distinctively sounding tongue clicks, but I can't remember exactly when they are applied. The nk in Inkata (the political organisation) is pronounced with a click generated by using the tongue and the roof of the mouth.

That aside, the use of the tongue and shaping the cheeks to alter pitch and duration can result in a large number or word/meaning sounds.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
The Zulu click language purportedly diffused into Bantu cultures from Khoisan influences. Another possibility for consideration is the uniquely Australian solely nasal vowel click signals of the Darmin languages. Me, I'd consider them all and build a vocabulary uniquely different.

' ^ ' ! could mean fricative tongue click, velar ejective nasal click, fricative tongue click, vocal bird chirp "eep," for help!
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Perhaps my original post wasn't clear. I'm not searching for ways to construct a fictitious language, I can do that already, have done it. What I'm trying to avoid is turning parts of the story into language lesson exposition.

POV characters think in their own language, but if it isn't any form of human language, how do you treat it? My main character has a guide through this world, a la Campbell's hero's journey, who can interpret up to a point. But I don't want that intermediary distance within the main body of the narrative.

True, the main character spends a lot of her time isolated and alone, which is the usual state of affairs for the mutant humans whose society she is learning about, so most of the dialogue will be a form of internal monologue. But, there are times when the larger family comes together to reconnect. So, just how do I represent a conversation that will be minimalist at its most loquacious and where a normal conversation is almost silent?


[ February 19, 2015, 06:32 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
I see. How to represent partially vocal and partially nonvocal expression. Written word is largely verbal expression. Mehrabian's communication study suggests that 7% of in-person communication is verbal, 38% is vocal, and 55% is nonvocal. The ratio for the given circumstances is about 0% verbal, far less than usual vocal, and mostly nonvocal. The challenge, therefore, is using verbal expression to express vocal and nonvocal expressions.

Written nonvocal expression depends on visual and other sensations' descriptions more than aural verbalization.

Available writing modes include, (-ion suffix noun words for act or process circumstances and ease of mnemonics):
A character who receives some vocal and mostly nonvocal expressions internally processes the sensations that come from external sources: a mix of some aural and mostly visual reception, visual emphasis, probably mostly through indirect discourse, (more anon). The act and process of processing them is amenable to stream-of-consciousness methods; in other words, introspection. A character who expresses, signals (semiotics), some vocal and mostly nonvocal expressions doesn't consciously process them beforehand or during, if at all. They are expressed baldly, perhaps mostly as direct discourse, (below).

The variety of spice that appeals could use any and all of the above writing modes: description, introspection, action, emotion, and sensation emphasis. Note exposition is in the sense of introduction, which can happen at any moment in a narrative, not only at the start. Summarization and explanation modes cover what currently most writers mean by "exposition."

Another method for consideration is weight and determined criteria of indirect and direct discourse. Indirect discourse is a narrator's mediation of acts and processes through summarization and explanation, tell. Indirect discourse can be expressed through any grammatical person, first or third, and others. Direct discourse is a character's directly received reflections of perceived reality, show. Direct discourse mostly is third person, naturally anyway. Both may be either tagged or attribution free.

Indirect discourse examples:
Tagged (underscores bracket tags):_ik^lux clicked_ [said] no go there, _pointed_ at watery sand that is quick.
Tagged: _ik^lux pointed_ at watery sand that is quick. No go there, _he hand signaled_.
Free: ik^lux avoided watery sand that is quick, no go there sand.
Free: No go there sand -- ik^lux avoided the watery sand that is quick.

Direct discourse:
Tagged: Beside the trail bend, watery sand that is quick -- "No go there," _ik^lux clicked_. (though the tag is indirect discourse.)
Free: Watery sand that is quick beside the trail bend. No go there.

Unconventional syntax is a conventional stream-of-consciousness method. Timely, judicious, and brief sentence fragments as interjections are especially useful for expressing emotional commentary. Direct discourse baldly states sensations' and congruent emotional commentary descriptively. Indirect discourse descriptions and perceived external emotional commentary are intermediated.

Aristotle notes that significant words express as finite a time span and as concisely a specific detail as practical, and are process statements. State-of-being expressions are stasis statements and of a nonfinite time span and generic in detail. Dynamic voice is the former and is most useful for highly dramatic and realistic scene developments, which the appeals of for readers transcend otherwise unfamiliar and challenging expression methods. Static voice is the latter and is most useful for intermediated emotional expressions' packaging and for transitions between dramatic scene developments.

Expressed commentary, in any discourse or voice case, supplements meaning and is probably more essential to appealing comprehension ease than the assorted descriptions', and etc., expressions. Above, "watery sand that is quick," expresses neutral commentary. Emotionally charged commentary expresses subjective, personal emotional attitude. I'd imagine quicksand would be emotionally charged for a being who'd been trapped in it before, different for a being who'd self-rescued, different for a being who'd been helped out, and differently emotionally charged for a being who hadn't been caught in quicksand before.

The above are basic strategies that suit the given circumstances; they are standard conventions for the circumstances. And the examples are about as unimaginatively as bland as can be. I believe, though, that imaginatively expanding on them offers productive forward directions to consider.

By the way, developing and managing these methods are priceless writing skills for any narrative's circumstances. I applaud the effort's focus due to a particular narrative's otherwise unique challenges.

[ February 19, 2015, 04:12 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by rstegman (Member # 3233) on :
what about using whistles rather than the voice. There are a number of places where whistling was used.
In this case, there might have been a mutation that went through the colony that decimated the voice box other than grunts.
I remember hearing something on the idea that short, high pitched chirps are harder to track than lower ones or longer ones (birds for example).
A hiss through the teeth, really loud whistles for distances.
Posted by Kent_A_Jones (Member # 10234) on :
Interesting premise,
Language, however produced (auditory, olfactory, visual, tactile, [probably not taste]) is representative of symbols. Crying = Hungry for an infant. An equestrian controls a horse with subtle muscle movements of legs and posture.

I have noticed that primitive modes of communication use less abstraction, and fewer levels of abstraction. The more sophisticated the language, the more levels of abstraction are used.

If the humanoids referenced are subsistence level hunter/gatherers, I believe that their language would use few abstractions, few comparisons, few articles, definite or indefinite, and consist mainly of subject and verb combinations. Bob is fishing = Bob fish. Bob is the best shark fisherman in the family = Bob is shark. Names, condition of being (alive, dead, motile, sessile, hot, cold, dangerous), desirability, priority of need and other concrete ideas probably have words associated with them.

I think that the more sophisticated they are, the more modes of communication that they will use for the same idea: sign, touch, symbol made of twigs or drawn on rock or etched into dirt. The hobo's of the U.S. had symbols that they would leave for the next man indicating where to get a handout, who employs day labor for food, good man, bad sheriff, etc. So, for the humanoids, posture might indicate status, but so might a hand sign, a gesture of supplication, and a symbol either worn or placed on a lodge.

How does one represent all of this in English? I believe that removing articles (a & the), adjectives describing aesthetics and complex comparisons might do the trick. Since 'said' is a term used of auditory language, other term/s might be used. "Cool water," he tapped, signed, whistled, drew.

On the other hand, if they are sophisticated, perhaps their language includes all of the abstractions that we would use. In that event, the translation to English might only remove articles and certain aesthetics involving cultural differences; perhaps they view their environment through a lens of utility as Vulcans view their environment through the lens of logic.

On the gripping hand, Marvel Comics uses symbols to represent the fact that certain characters are speaking a foreign language. <Speaking strangely, I am.> Perhaps a change in font or change to italics would do, something of this nature can be used to represent non-vocal speech.

Good luck,
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Thanks extrinsic, rsetgman, and Kent, you've given me some solid ideas to work with. Unfortunately my humanoids can't whistle, their mouths can't make the shape. Think of a head like a cat but covered in reptilian scales, not fur.

In my character design exercises I realised that they could express a wide range of emotion and emphasis with how the use their ears, their eyes, and their nose, but they can't smile or whistle. Pity.

I want to try and avoid the language school approach and I don't like using odd fonts or scripts. Having said that, I have been forced to use italics when the voice inside the head of my main character is talking to her.

However, I do have about a chapter and a half in which I can attempt to get readers used to the idea that a few signs and a couple of clicks contains a complete, sophisticated, and meaningful sentence that the narrator translates into English for the reader.

That is, if I can find an acceptable (to me) method of doing it and then cross my fingers as I hope it works.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Another consideration for an English speaking person's attempts to interpret the language is the grammatical subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood perceives external stimuli, especially questionable signals like external emotion and thought cues, as contingent, maybe possible, or subjectively and emotionally, doubt, for example.

This too has an added potential of readers likewise wanting to be and feeling "smarter" than the agonist and leading her in her interpretations and feeling more confident than her about meaning she doesn't fully grasp; in other words, dramatic irony.

A slight reader lead for minor influence interpretations and a longer lead for major influence interpretations is a metric for consideration.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Originally posted by Kent_A_Jones:
Language, however produced (auditory, olfactory, visual, tactile, [probably not taste]) is representative of symbols.

Not to disagreeably contend, though taste is a possible language, a communication method anyway. I'm thinking of open-mouth kissing as an analog, which expresses, like, attraction or its inverse through how the other kisser's mouth tastes, and, of course, other expressions. I could understand a species that communicates through gustatory signals. Grumpy old guy probably doesn't want to use that method, though.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
I could understand a species that communicates through gustatory signals. Grumpy old guy probably doesn't want to use that method, though.
Ummmmm, no.

If I understand you correctly extrinsic, you are suggesting that my main character's interpretation of what she is being told in alien speak is to make an immediate translation of what she is being told and then to question herself and her own reasoning, thus drawing the reader into the moment as they attempt to compete in divining the true meaning.

Or am I on the wrong track?

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Right track as far as readers competing with narrator and antagonist personae to divine true meaning, and translation efforts. Doubt, though, is an example of what subjunctive mood expresses. Desire, suggestion or requirement, recommendation, and present or past or future condition contrary to fact -- imaginary or hypothetical -- are other subjunctive mood expressions. Most subjunctive mood expressions are expressed intuitively in everyday conversation, by ear, though deliberate use of them is a gauge dial's tick or two stronger appealing and smoother expression.


Use "if" for contrary to fact conditions: _If_ she _were_ faster and smarter, she'd already be done. "Were" nonnumbered and "she'd," she would contraction, subjunctive to be verbs.

Doubt in subjunctive mood as contrary to fact (this example, second person self-reflexive uncertainty, an introspection mode's stream of consciousness method): You were awful close last time. This time, you _were_ _unsure_ where at all you _were_.

Use "would," "could," or "might" helper verbs in a main clause for contingent (conditional) expressions that are contrary to fact: Hysterion protos _could be_ translated easier _if_ they for heck's sake stayed dang put (also emphatic mood overlap). Or "might" or "would" or "maybe" or "perhaps" or "may be," contingent helper verbs, not, per se, "may" or "shall" or "must" or "should."

Use subjunctive verbs in preposition-object clauses that follow preposition "that" after main clause verbs that express demand (also an imperative mood overlap), urgency, insistence, requirement, necessity, suggestion, recommendation, ask, request, or desire, etc.

Desire: She _wished_ [hoped] _that_ they _would_ pass by before high noon.
Request: Higher up muckity-mucks _asked_ _that_ she _come by_ their solstice camp.
Demand: The next cycle, they _required_ _that_ she _make_ an appearance, or else.
Suggestion: She _advised_ _that_ they _were_ best quitting their insistence for this season.

However, "that" is optional for prose expressions of a stream-of-consciousness manner: discretionary.

English has also indicative mood, which is mostly factual-like statements, whether factual or not, and is for usual intents and purposes a majority fraction of firm, assertive, and dramatic prose expression; and imperative mood, orders, commands, sometimes couched as polite requests: Bring me a bottle of water, please -- or couched as questions, Could you bring the water now, please? (question mark or period, optional), and emphatic mood: I _would_ _indeed_ like the dang water this _immediate instant_. "Would," in that case, overlaps subjunctive with the otherwise emphatic and imperative moods.

In any case, variety, as in all things, is the spice of writing. Subjunctive mood used timely and judiciously, proportionately interleavened with indicative, imperative, and emphatic moods, develops minor and major turning points, from doubt, for example, to greater doubt, to less doubt, to certainty, and so on, though certainty may in fact be misapprehension (for prose, not so much for formal composition). A best practice lead-up to developed and acquired knowledge of a circumstance oscillates back and forth between widely separated to less separated progress and setback along an antagonism axis, until a circumstance is affirmed or confirmed or refused, maybe dramatically tabled until later.

Subjunctive mood, in introspection and emotion writing modes, perhaps other modes, too, is a method for developing that oscillation type congruent to otherwise tangible action oscillation. Timely and judicious ongoing transformation, in expression and action, two or more steps forward, one or more steps backward, a few lateral steps here and there, a few elevation changes, so to speak, here and there, that's the E-ticket dramatic roller-coaster to ride.

[ February 20, 2015, 03:08 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
To avoid the language lesson thing, I think I might describe their speech a time or two early on (eg. he clicked the word so loud I thought he'd broken a tooth, or he fingered the word like he was polishing fragile ivory) then just write like it's plain English until another opportunity comes up. (Eg. a series of clicks and whistles emanating from the ravine resolved into Og and Gronk discussing dinner, or Blork had broken his hand and now he spoke like a child who hadn't learned half the gestures yet.)

That way we learn what the language is and sounds/looks like, but don't have to learn the language itself.

ETA: Now it occurs to me to wonder what their names would be like. Would someone be called "Three Clicks and Two Crooked Fingers" or "Gronk" ?? I mean, how would they say "Gronk"?? They couldn't, as such. Or did names 'inherit' from the before-times when they had conventional speech, and if so how are they represented in everyday language? What about written works?

Interesting problem. Fun to write, yes?
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Thanks, Reziac. That was one method I'd already experimented with. It doesn't work very well when writing on-the-fly, but it does an adequate job if planned out ahead of time. As for names: Aaaarrrrrrgggggh!!!!! Damn, there isn't a brain blowing up greamlin.

I'm trying to decide if one name or two and just what they would be. Another thing on the long list of things that are driving me crazy with this story.

Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Names derived from descriptions. Surnames and given names. Physical appearance quirks, activity attributes, personality attributes, behaviors, vocations, specialties, deeds, sometimes embarrassing deeds, aspects that stand out from the fray, like nicknames.

Philip or Phillip means friend of horses. Quail, well, a bird species, also imitative for the quail's song "bob-white." The "bob" note stressed, the "white" note less stressed start, stressed finish, hence, a trailed off or faltered song that finishes stressed. ^ v ^

The blacksmith of Loudon town, for example: Smith of beacon hill town, of London. John from ancient Hebrew means first of, as in first son. John Smith, neither a first born nor a blacksmith was John Smith.

The novel and film Dances with Wolves Sioux people name Lt. John Dunbar that because he plays with a wolf.

Kick Deer could be a name given to a hunter who shows off by sneaking up on game and kicking it.

If a person has a distinguishing feature, say a white crest, he or she might be named Pale Crown.

A three-click might mean the vocal equivalent of a grunt, someone who regularly grunts, say, translated as Ugh.

An appearance and behavior character sketch for each character would aid naming them.

[ February 25, 2015, 03:32 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Well, as these creatures are the progenitors of their species, I suppose I have the perfect excuse for keeping the language and naming conventions simple. They are, after all, developing it themselves; they agree on a word/phrase to use among their group for whatever they need a word/phrase for.


PS. Quayle is a name that's as common as muck on the Isle of Man; similar in generic terms as Smith or Jones. And, there's also a good chance I can't spell petatoe, potarto, potatoe. Oh, bugger!

[ February 25, 2015, 06:35 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
PS. Quayle is a name that's as common as muck on the Isle of Man; similar in generic terms as Smith or Jones.

I've been to the Isle of Man and would dearly love to go back.

What is your connection, Phil?
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Me? A many generations removed expat. My mother had the family tree traced a while ago and lots of stuff popped out. On my father's side, mainly Viking and Norman (same thing), the Isle of Man was a long-held Viking protectorate, for want of a better term.

On my mother's side, I am a scion of the Williams-Wynn family, an extremely wealthy and progressive family of central England, and my ancestors came out to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. He (I can't remember his name for the life of me) was in the Royal Marines (no convict blood in my family) and his wife (nee Williams-Wynn) had run away to marry him; thus ensuring my life of ensuing poverty.

Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Interesting, Phil. My husband is a descendant of a Cannon family that immigrated to the US from the Isle of Man. I've been there because we had an opportunity to visit the old home places, and I fell in love. (I've got Irish ancestry, but have never been to Ireland. The Isle of Man will have to do for now.)
Posted by Meredith (Member # 8368) on :
Just finished re-reading PALADIN OF SOULS by Lois McMaster Bujold.

In it, she represents the foreign (though obviously more conventional) language bits by setting them off with a ~ and then just writing the dialog out in English.
Posted by rstegman (Member # 3233) on :
Not taking time to read all the notes,
One thing you could do is have the translations in a different sentence structure and syntax.

Yoda is, of course, the most well known variation of sentence structure. Right concept, but do it differently.

a bad example of what I am talking about is where the translation comes out.

heal, rub, crush, pick, blue flower, water, skin,
A true translation would be Rub the crushed blue flower with some water onto your skin and it will heal you.

Look to how few words second language speakers use to convey what they need to communicate, and find ways to simplify.

One can also take, like my example, the specific words used and then give a full translation in the character's mind.
Posted by Reziac (Member # 9345) on :
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
PS. Quayle is a name that's as common as muck on the Isle of Man

Probably from the Norse "Kvale" (IIRC, you should imagine a little circle over the a).

Funny story on that:

One of my second cousins did a family ancestry book, with photos scrounged from previous centuries. One of the photos was of our many-times-great-grandmother Kvale.

And guess who is her absolute spitting image?

Former vice-president Dan Quayle.
Posted by Smiley (Member # 9379) on :
An African friend of mine starts her name with an asterisk. It is the representation of the tongue click.
You say your characters are scaled? Have you considered giving them the ability to flex, wave, or furl their scales as part of communication?
Just a thought.


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