Tag: language

Language Awareness

People like their own words.

This is meant as a context essay, but might easily be a craft essay on this too: language is power, and one way for the oppressors to oppress is through the imposition of their own terms. There’s some good storytelling potential there.

But I am already digressing and I haven’t even started yet.

Let me begin in earnest by mentioning that I am British1, and I am sensitive about the (usually thoughtless) imposition of American spelling: I will always try to initialise my favourite conversations.

One of the things that first made me frustrated with Microsoft was that they produced a web browser with a “Favorites” menu, but then never localised it for British English. There were lots of reasons I probably wouldn’t have used Internet Explorer anyway, but the reason I chose not to was that ridiculous act of linguistic churlishness.

My point is that using words with others they don’t like or don’t recognise will give you problems.

The empathetic reason to do this is just to recognise the individuals you are addressing: tailor your speech to the audience in order to engage them more. This might include using audience-appropriate terms, but it probably doesn’t extend to mimicking their accent2 or “correcting” their speech. This isn’t political correctness, gone mad or otherwise: it’s acknowledging the personhood of your audience.

But the inverse is also true, in that minorities need to learn how to navigate the world they live in and adjust their language accordingly, not because their minority identity has no value but because there has to be some common vocabulary or there is no basis for conversation at all.

To use another example from my own experience, I am writing a lot of code in Ruby at the moment. Ruby is a dynamic object-oriented (OO) language (for the initiated, it’s a bit like Perl but with only one object model). OO languages need to set up new objects, what is often termed the constructor. Ruby’s constructor is called “initialize”.

So every now and then I will call it “initialise” and then spend ages trying to figure out why Ruby can’t find the class definition3.

Pick your words wisely, and be aware of the context.

[1] I hope this is not a surprise.

[2] unless you are Christian Bale doing your Batman Begins press tour.

[3] there is an irony here in that I used to really like the ‘z’ spelling of words like “initialise”

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Shifts In Meaning

When it comes to language, I am more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist: I would rather document how people use language than hit folks over the head with how they’re using it wrong. However…

Words do have meaning and they have history, and the first is derived from the second. Language exists primarily as a tool of communication and that communication only happens when the meanings are agreed on.

Words also have context. Sometimes that context is obscure and radically changes the intended meaning. For example, blue. We all know what blue means, right? But there’s a big difference between saying someone has blue eyes and that they themselves are blue.

Or the word terminal. If I’m a transport nerd then it means one thing (or several things depending on how finely graded your shades of meaning are for different modes of transport); if I’m a telecomms engineer it means something else. For a computer technician it means another thing again. If I’m a hospital nurse it probably has a rather more grisly, but still necessary, meaning. All of these different contextual meanings derive from the Latin “terminus” which meant* goal or end point.

So, words have meaning and context, but that context is not always clear to the listener. Whose job is it to uncover the context that illuminates the meaning?

I would say that depends. If the speaker is trying to communicate their ideas, then they need to provide the context or their ideas will be lost (this is why knowing your audience is important when writing). If the listener is trying to extract meaning from words that were not expressed without them in mind, then it is up to the listener to figure that context out – it doesn’t do any good to wilfully impose the wrong contextual meaning on a term**.

However, words do have historically-based, accepted meanings. Those baseline meanings need to be treated as the default unless context is found which changes them. I don’t agree with Humpty Dumpty, in other words: you can’t just go around making up new meanings for words willy nilly, at least not if you want to communicate anything.

Because Persian blue cats aren’t blue at all, and that’s just weird.

[*] I think the past tense is appropriate here since this refers to the Latin which formed the root of so many other languages rather than the conlang that is spoken in the Vatican.

[**] although you can construct quite a lot of jokes this way.

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Local language

Do your characters speak as if they inhabit our world or theirs?

Your audience wants immersion in the environment you are describing to them, and the suspension of disbelief can be broken by using terms and attitudes that are modern or culturally inappropriate.

Anachronisms are well understood and picked upon in TV shows of course: the 1960s drama with the modern car in the background, or the early era Roman battle with late Imperial armour, but keeping language appropriate to the setting in writing is surprisingly difficult.

In my own work, Bluehammer has been challenging because so many idioms in English rely on simile with things that aren’t in the Bluehamme world. What do you call a ponytail when there are no horses? Or a handlebar moustache when there are no bicycles? Or even a T junction when the written language is not using the Latin alphabet?

As an example from a published author, Mary Robinette Kowal has spoken about how she wanted to ensure that her Regency-set novels used language consistent with the period, so she created a word list based on the text of Jane Austen’s novels which she used to check the novel manuscript (this is of course exactly the kind of task which computers are helpful for).

The counter to this approach is that if the characters use too much language which is specific to their world then they can be too alien, but for my own work I try hard to avoid the use of our own terminology and attitudes since I really do want to make a different world rather than just our own in drag.

Being a transplant from another country helps here.

What vocabularian disindicators do you try to avoid in your work?

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