Six impossible things


The other day, my walking buddy and I were discussing the use and misuse of slang in SF and fantasy. She was particularly exercised over an author whose entire repertoire of “future speak” seemed to consist of awkward and obvious portmanteau words like “carrocoli” for a hybrid carrot-broccoli plant. This is really more a matter of naming things than slang, but it falls into the same problem category: how does a writer make characters sound both believably futuristic (or fantastical) and comprehensible at the same time?

There are three different areas a writer has to consider when thinking about how people in a completely different place and time would talk: what to call things, what sort of slang and idioms people use, and what sort of technical jargon each of the characters could/would/should slip into their dialog.

The first is the naming of names – that is, what to call various common objects that the reader will be unfamiliar with. In most SF, the things are unfamiliar because they’re things that haven’t been invented yet, or things that come from other planets or alien societies; in medieval fantasy, they’re unfamiliar either because most people no longer have experience with a wide variety of formerly-common things and activities, from sailing a tall ship to shearing a sheep, or because the things are imaginary (like the spices the dwarves use or the herbs the elves grow).

The real things, like the parts of a harness or the names of the different sails on a schooner, the writer can find out from research. The imaginary ones need to “sound real,” and that means considering what the thing is, what it’s used for, where it came from, and possibly who invented it and when. Regardless of what something is originally named, if it’s a common everyday item that’s in constant use, the name will eventually get shortened to something easy to say: television to TV, telephone to phone, automobile to car. Names of existing items can get transferred to new ones – “notebook” is both a shorter form of “notebook computer” and a repurposing of the word that used to mean “blank pages bound in a cover to jot things down in.”

Who invented and named it is also relevant. Anything that came out of a big corporate research program will have had oodles of marketing people involved in making up the name, the way drugs and new car models do. Hybrid vegetables and fruits are often given portmanteau names like limequat, or variations on one of the names they started with, like broccolini. Things that were developed or invented in another culture sometimes keep their original name; other times, the name will be adapted, or something will be completely renamed.

The second thing to consider is slang and speech patterns. Anyone who’s read Chaucer can see how syntax and word choice have changed in the past 900 years or so; there’s no reason to think that similar changes won’t take place in the next 900. The problem is indicating those changes without turning one’s story into a language class project. Slang changes constantly and comes from many, many sources: abbreviations, portmanteau words, repurposed words, words and phrases borrowed from other languages, acronyms, etc. To give a plausible-seeming impression of future slang, a writer needs to use all of these possible sources, not just one (which was what my friend was complaining about in the book she’d read).

The other thing to consider is that unless the writer is doing very near-future SF, there will have been lots of slang and lots of idioms that have come along in the interim, and some of them will have stuck. We still talk about “reining in” someone who’s out of control, even though horses haven’t been part of daily life for nearly a century. If the only slang and idioms your far-future people use are a) those current in the far future and b) those that stuck around from 2013, it’s going to look a little odd. Similarly, if your medieval peasants are talking about not having the bandwidth for that, or even about telegraphing a punch, some readers will not be happy, but if the elves have interesting archery-slang and nature idioms, lots of people will be very happy indeed.

The third thing to think about, language wise, is whatever specialized jargon would be plausible for your specific characters to use. This comes in two varieties: terms that were once specialized to a particular field, but which have become commonplace so that everyone uses them; and terms that are still specific to a particular field that one of your characters is expert in.

The first sort of jargon is stuff that any of your characters might use, because it’s commonplace in whatever time you’ve set your story. “Laser” was, in the 1950s, a specialized acronym that hardly anyone besides physicists and SF fans had heard of; “byte” was, in the early 1980s, a term only computer geeks understood. In a story set in 2013 or later, it would be perfectly reasonable for pretty much any character to use them. On the other hand, unless one of your characters is a blacksmith, there’s probably not going to be a lot of need for anyone to list the names or uses of every hammer lying around the forge, and the whole reason Scotty can get away with all that engineering doubletalk about dilithium crystals is that nobody expects anyone to understand the jargon anyway.

Once you’ve thought about all this stuff and made up a rich linguistic stew for your characters to speak…think about dialing it back. Once in a while, somebody gets away with a book like Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange or Norman Spinrad’s The Void Captain’s Tale, but most of the time, it’s more effective to use a much lighter hand so that readers won’t get distracted by having to learn new syntax and slang and names and specialist jargon in every single sentence. A book that has to be decoded is seldom a fast read. Sometimes it’s worth the effort, and sometimes the story demands it, but be very sure it does (and that you can pull it off) if you’re going to try what is essential a whole new dialect that will be completely unfamiliar to every last one of your readers (because you made it up).

On the other hand, if you can make it work, it’s a heck of a lot of fun and a terrific tour de force. And if it works, fine.

  1. “rein” is an interesting case. We also have “[giving] free rein” meaning letting someone go as he will. I have seen it garbled to “free reign”, presumably because the person was not aware or very aware of “rein”.

    Another case of this is the expression “having another thing coming”. It is actually a garbling of “another think coming”, that is, someone needs to think again about his situation.

    Slangs and other language forms also have fashions. In the last year or so, I have gotten away from using an editor that I had used for about thirty years: WordStar. That style of name with a capital midword has gone out of fashion.

  2. One of the (many) things I like about The Raven Ring is the way Eleret tends to use fighting-related metaphors, while the port-dwelling Ciaronese use fishing and sailing ones. It inspired me to work some occupation/culture-specific phrasing into my own WIP.

  3. “medieval peasants are talking about not having the bandwidth” <— I laughed 🙂

    I'm reading a book currently that has some interesting slang in it. The thing that annoys me, is that the author seems to be hitting us over the head with it. For example, she's created a new word for "cool". She probably uses that word on every page, as if to say "look readers! I have a whole new world set up here!". I get it author, no need to think I'm stupid.

  4. And then there are sound-changes, which take the same word and pronounce (and, after a while, spell) it differently.

    Two books I know that handle this well are

    Russell Hoban’s _Riddley Walker_, set in a post-apocalyptic Kent. I suspect that if one knew anything about rural Kentish dialect (which I don’t) it might be a little easier to figure out, but one gets it all from context eventually.

    For example, there’s a ritual song for a funeral, that reads,

    Pas the sarvering gallack seas and flaming nebyul eye
    Power us beyond the farther reaches of the sky
    Thine the han what shapit the black
    Guys us there and guys us back

    And then the narrator says, “we all thimet hans then roun the fire.”

    A pronoun has turned into a verb.

    On the other hand, Greer Ilene Gilman’s _Moonwise_ has a character who, among his other troubles, has been flipping in and out of two realities since (I think) the eighteenth century, and he started out speaking broad Yorkshire and his dialect has since mutated over the centuries into something rich and strange.

    For example, it’s only when you learn that his word for a scarecrow is “flaycraw,” that you realize that when he says “I’s flayed” he’s not saying what you might think, but “I’m afraid.”

  5. Ooops, typo; that should be “guyd” not “guys.

  6. One thing that bothers me is when our hero meets the whatevers and gives them a name and suddenly everyone in the world is using the same name, even the guys in the opposing army.

    I think that some terms will stay the same but the device will change — my wife still talks about having our pictures “developed”.

    I must look up Riddley Walker. That passage is a wonderful example of something learned by rote and not comprehended at all and regurgitated in understood words.

  7. You also can’t have your medieval peasants broadcast news, even though they could, of course, spread it like putting their hands into the sack of seeds and tossing it out over the ground, the original meaning of “broadcast.”

    sigh. The trials of a writer’s life.

  8. Tiana: ““medieval peasants are talking about not having the bandwidth” <— I laughed :)"

    I liked that one, too, being in the software field. And speaking of fields, you poor writers have a tough row to hoe.

    I wonder how ridiculous we could get with inappropriate slang. Do you think we could even get to first base? (There was one Infocom game that required knowledge of baseball to be able to solve it. Apparently, it gave trouble to non-NorthAmians.

  9. Stevermer’s otherwise excellent _A College of Magics_ requires considerable knowledge of baseball terminology and practice to understand parts of it. I mean, I have a copy of _Comus_ and I can always trace interesting references in it, but baseball????

    (And I live in the us. Doesn’t help.)

  10. djheydt: The real trouble is, it’s not only baseball terminology, but *archaic* baseball terminology! The game seems to have been played fairly differently in the 19th/early 20th century. I do love that book, though.

  11. Emily: I love it too, and I hope to goodness she has two more on her to-do list (we haven’t seen the Wardens of the East or South yet). But not only baseball terms, but ARCHAIC baseball terms, ye gods and little fishes.

    Points to her for research and authenticity, though.

  12. Off topic: I’d like to thank whoever solved the rights-issue that kept the ebook of “A matter of magic” unavailable to the ‘rest of the world’. It’s been available in this omnibus edition from TOR in the USA for a while now, but in Holland, Europe, we weren’t allowed to buy it: apparently this publisher’s contract did not contain the standard non-exclusive ‘rest of the world’ clause, which allows people in non-English language countries to buy American or English books.
    This week, I noticed that “Mairelon the magician” has become available as an ebook from TOR in Europe, and June 25th “The magician’s ward” will become available. I’ve immediately bought and pre-ordered them; they’ve long been favourites with me.
    I would like to thank you, your agent and the publisher for working out the problem with the rights, even though the rest of the world probably isn’t a major market for you. I hope the sales will be worth the time and effort it took!
    You’ve made at least one reader happy already.

  13. The phrase “teachable moment” in a medieval fantasy. I nearly chucked the book across the room.

  14. *thinking of Uno’s “spinoccli pizza…” Awkward portmanteaus are not restricted to SF, even when presumably decided on by marketers…*

    I was (probably overly) proud of myself for making sure that the “seedy lower classes” in two different cities had different slang for some of the same things. Some was shared, but there was a bit of byplay between a couple characters (from different cities) along the lines of: “So what about the X?” “X?” “A person who [description.]” “Oh, I always called that a Y. Right, well…”

    Had to make sure I kept good notes for that, to keep the protagonist From City X using their slang, and the protagonist from City Y using the other… >_>

  15. A.Beth: “*thinking of Uno’s “spinoccli pizza…” Awkward portmanteaus are not restricted to SF, even when presumably decided on by marketers…*”

    Could you please explain this?

  16. It sounds like a clunky hybrid of spinach & broccoli. Better than the obverse broc-ach, though, which sounds like an uncomfortable disease.


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