Tor.com content by

CD Covington

“Evil Earth”: Linguistic Worldbuilding in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy

The Broken Earth trilogy tells the story of Essun, a woman who possesses the power of orogeny, giving her the ability to manipulate the earth itself to stop earthquakes, among other things. Each of the three volumes of the trilogy—The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017)—deservedly won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in an unprecedented run.

The story opens with a man tearing the world apart, opening a massive rift in the earth and wiping out the capital…and triggering a volcanic winter that could last for millennia. Around the same time, Essun discovers that her husband has killed her son and stolen her daughter away because the children are both orogenes. She sets out on the road, following them, as the volcanic ash from the Rifting begins to fall.  [Read more]

“Mind records are the one true forever”: Translation and Dead Languages in Marie Brennan’s Turning Darkness Into Light

In Turning Darkness into Light, Marie Brennan’s latest novel set in the Lady Trent universe, Audrey Camherst, Lady Trent’s granddaughter, is tasked with translating a newly found cache of ancient Draconean tablets with the utmost secrecy. She travels to Lord Gleinleigh’s estate, where she meets his niece Cora, who is assigned to be her assistant—and spy on Audrey for her uncle. Gleinleigh wants the tablets to be translated before the Falchester Congress, a summit between humans and Draconeans scheduled to happen in ten months. Audrey requests that her Draconean friend Kudshayn be allowed to travel to Gleinleigh’s estate to help her, and, to her surprise, Gleinleigh says yes. So Audrey, Kudshayn, and Cora work to copy and translate the tablets that seem to tell the story of the creation of Draconeans and their early history.

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A Prank on the Emperor? Names and Vocabulary in The Goblin Emperor

When my editor asked if I wanted to write a column about The Goblin Emperor to go along with the #TorDotReads read-along, I was absolutely delighted to be able to re-read this book that’s like reading a hug. This column is going to be a little different than previous ones, not only because it’s the first fantasy novel I’ve talked about, but also in its structure. So, come along with me as I work out how Ethuveraz titles and names work, based on the vocabulary we’re given!

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“Such a relief, to have a language with the right words”: Native Tongue and Women’s Language

Unlike many (most? all?) of the authors discussed in this column so far, Suzette Haden Elgin was actually a linguist. She held a PhD in Linguistics from UC San Diego and was a professor of linguistics at San Diego State. Her academic career seems to have focused on literacy and language education, with a secondary focus in feminist linguistics and gender studies. She also wrote a series of books on The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense and was influential in the conlang sphere.

In a keynote address at the Conference on Gender Research at Hollins College in 1995, Elgin describes the theory of metaphor insertion as a method to achieve gender equality.

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Expressing Culture Through Language in A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire, the 2019 debut novel from Arkady Martine, is a current Nebula nominee, and it reminds me very strongly of Cherryh’s Foreigner by way of Ancillary Justice. A young woman named Mahit Dzmare is summoned from her home, Lsel Station, to the home planet of the Teixcalaanli Empire to be the new ambassador. Her people have a prosthetic memory device, called an imago-device, which is used to preserve knowledge over multiple generations, and the one from the current ambassador hasn’t been updated in fifteen years, because he hasn’t been able to leave Teixcalaan in that long. When Mahit gets there, she learns that her predecessor is dead, and she spends the next several months figuring out how and why. But first, she has to find someone to help her learn all the things her predecessor had learned and figured out since his last update, as well as improving her ability to speak Teixcalaanli. She’ll also have to do her best to not wind up dead along with him.

Martine has a keen understanding of the formal aspects of linguistics, like morphology and phonology, as well as sociocultural aspects of language. She has spent a lot of time studying various languages, and this shows in her linguistic worldbuilding.

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Lang Belta: The Language of The Expanse

Linguistic worldbuilding can be fairly simple—like making up and incorporating a few slang words or insults based on whatever your fictional culture finds profane—or it can be elaborate, like inventing an entire new language and writing poetry in it (hi, J.R.R. Tolkien!), or anywhere in between. We’ve already discussed an example of a technique around the midpoint of the spectrum in Cherryh’s Hunter of Worlds, so now I’d like to explore something on the more elaborate end: Belter creole in The Expanse.

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Predators, Prey, Honor: Linguistic Worldbuilding in C.J. Cherryh’s Hunter of Worlds

I’m going to take a bit of a side road and talk about linguistic worldbuilding for a few columns, maybe more, depending on which books I can read next. What do I mean by linguistic worldbuilding? Anything from the phonetics and phonology of alien species and the phonotactics derived from that to the invention of languages (which doesn’t have to be as detailed as it is in Tolkien’s work, and could be simply the use of a handful of invented words to represent a particular concept in a particular alien species). Using invented language to highlight differences among alien species can be a very effective tool in a writer’s toolbox, and you don’t have to go Full Tolkien in order to do it. Figuring out the most important features of your alien society (or societies), and/or their psychology, and thinking about how that would affect their language can profoundly deepen the overall worldbuilding.

The first entry in this subseries is CJ Cherryh’s 1977 novel Hunter of Worlds, which comes with a glossary at the end (or in the beginning, if you have an ebook; I have the omnibus volume from 2003 which also includes Brothers of Earth). This book tells the story of Aiela, a kallia who is abducted by the iduve Chimele and all memory of him is then wiped from the system. Kallia are a humanoid alien species which live in fear of the iduve, who overran many planets in the distant past, then largely disappeared. The iduve are humanoid space-farers, but they are predators and have the instincts of predatory species, like the big cats; they do not psychologically understand kalliran society or internality. The amaut are a third variety of alien species which is not humanoid. Humans are a minor, threatened presence at the edge of kallian space, and they are described as having no language or way to communicate at all.

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The Signifier and the Signified: Semiotics and China Miéville’s Embassytown

China Miéville’s 2011 novel Embassytown was nominated for the Hugo in 2012. That was the first year I went to a WorldCon and was able to vote, so I carefully read the nominees and formed my opinions and placed my votes. I admit that at the time, I bounced really hard off this book around page 50, because the writing style is not really my cup of tea. Neither was the premise: that the insectoid natives of Avice’s home planet, called either Hosts or Ariekei, can only speak the truth, because their words can only refer to a real thing. (This is yet another instance of the dreaded Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in action.) Having read it fully, now, I still don’t care much for the linguistic-based premise—even if the way it’s used in the end of the book is kind of cool.

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When Speech Is an Assault: Linguistics and First Contact in Peter Watts’ Blindsight

Peter Watts’ 2006 novel Blindsight is a hard SF take on first contact, and there are, naturally, some linguistic aspects in the mix, here. Language is not the principal focus of the story, as it is in “Story of Your Life”/Arrival, but it’s a sizeable chunk. A group of bleeding-edge augmented humans led by a resurrected vampire is sent to investigate aliens after a massive number of extraterrestrial probes arrived in a coordinated pattern encircling the globe, first surveying the entirety of the planet in a single scan, then burning up on entry. The job of the astronauts onboard the Theseus is to figure out what the aliens want, and to blow them up if they’re hostile. You know, the usual things people do… I’ve focused on the linguistics-related aspects of the book in this article, since that’s what my column is about; the main plot is not my focus, though I will touch on the parts of it that are necessary to get a better sense of how linguistics function in the novel.

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“Law and order were nothing—not even words any longer”: Types of Aphasia and Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds”

The premise of Octavia Butler’s 1983 short story “Speech Sounds,” which won the Hugo for Best Short Story in 1984, is that humanity has lost the ability to use language due to some sort of illness that appeared suddenly three years before the story begins. The effects are described as “stroke-like” and “highly specific,” and language is lost and not regained. This illness can also lead to paralysis, intellectual impairment, memory loss, and death. Society has collapsed into violent chaos, but, for some reason, left-handed people are less affected by the urge for violence. 

People in this setting can still vocalize: they can roar, grunt, and squawk. In linguistics, the term “speech sounds” refers to the sounds that people use to create language, and this is the domain of phoneticians. Speech sounds include the entire range of sounds that can be made with the vocal tract, from bilabial fricatives (as in Spanish haber) to velar stops (/k/ and /g/) to glottal stops (the sound in uh –uh), to implosives, ejectives, and clicks, which are not found in most European languages. The key feature of “speech sounds” is that listeners identify them as speech. Roars, grunts, and squawks aren’t speech sounds—but in this setting, they are the only vocalizations left to (most) people.

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Linguistics in Arrival: Heptapods, Whiteboards, and Nonlinear Time

Arrival is a 2016 movie based on Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life.” Dr. Louise Banks is a linguistics professor, and she is contacted by the army to help translate an alien language when twelve spaceships mysteriously appear above various places on Earth. Interspersed throughout the film are snippets of her life with her daughter.

Linguists around the internet were very excited when this movie came out—finally, a movie about us that gets things (mostly) right! The internet’s favorite linguist, Gretchen McCulloch, collected links to a variety of articles here and did an episode of her podcast, Lingthusiasm, about the movie (transcript here). When Neil deGrasse Tyson made a disparaging remark to the effect that they should have chosen a cryptographer and astrobiologist, rather than a linguist, to talk to the aliens, Language Log posted an open letter from linguists explaining why he’s wrong.

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Good Fiction, Questionable Science: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Hello, and welcome to my new monthly(ish) column about language and linguistics in science fiction and fantasy! My name is Conni (CD) Covington, and I have MAs in both German and linguistics. I wrote my linguistics thesis on the effect of usage frequency on verbal morphology in a subset of German strong verbs (class VII), and my analysis suggests that there is a threshold frequency below which strong (“irregular”) verbs are most likely to become weak (“regular”). Catch me at a con, and I will happily talk your ear off about this! Broadly, I’m interested in how people use language: why a particular group of people uses a particular set of words and what it means to do so; whether it’s snuck or sneaked; what effects the massive increase in global communication allowed by social media is having on languages.

On the SFF end of things, I am a graduate of Viable Paradise 17 (2013), and I’ve had a few short stories published in anthologies. I tend to read or watch space opera-type stuff, like Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, CJ Cherryh’s Alliance-Union and Foreigner series, Yoon-Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, Babylon 5, and The Expanse. I enjoy mecha anime, mainly Gundam and Macross. I haven’t read a lot of fantasy recently, but Lord of the Rings was very formative when I read it the first time, aged 10. That sparked my interest in languages, like it did for a not-insignificant portion of my fellow linguists.

What is this column going to be about? I’ll be taking a look at the ways various authors use language in their works, and, in some cases, how linguists and linguistics are portrayed in fiction and media. I have a running list of works I want to talk about in a notebook—and I’ll take suggestions! Some of these topics will be positive, some will be neutral, and some things just make me want to hit my head against a wall.

[First order of business: Sapir-Whorf and SFF]

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