Tag Archives: China Mieville

Beyond Elvish

Forget Klingon, Na’vi and Dothraki—languages created for the screen. These are languages paid for by producers, created by linguists.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit is getting the three-part Hollywood treatment. The return of the Elvish languages to the big screen is a reminder of just how inventive fiction writers have been over the years in dreaming up new tongues. Think of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, with its thuggish Russian-inflected slang called Nadsat (a girl is a devochka, a friend a droog).

This urge to create new words starts at a young age. Children often make up words before they have a proper command of their native tongues.

“We enjoy exercising the way we produce sounds,” says Indiana University’s Michael Adams, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages.

Adams says he likes to play with the sounds of language, ”in the car or the shower or wherever I am…in the way that I suppose a poet has to think about sound and language.”

Tolkien needed to do a lot of that. A trained philologist, he did it for years before creating his fantasy world.

He worked on his fantasy languages during the First World War. It helped to pass the time, says Adams: “He did a lot of language invention and some of the prehistory of the language of Elvish is from those days in the trenches.”

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings came decades later. By then, Tolkien had imagined an entire history of his imagined languages.

“He would even leave unexplained thing in the languages he was working on,” says Adams. “Any real language you were reconstructing would have unexplained things in it too. So he was trying to mimic behavior of natural language very closely.”

That degree of detail may be unrivaled among novelists, although Michael Adams does have someone up his sleeve. More about that in a moment.

First, consider what most language creators do in their novels: they set up thought experiments.

In her science fiction novel, The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin created the Pravic language. Or rather, she created a breakaway society of anarchists who themselves created Pravic.

This group of anarchists “want to remove from the language anything that implies ownership,” says Le Guin.

Any kind of private possession. Your name doesn’t belong to you—it is assigned to you, after someone else with that name dies and the name can be recycled.

That’s reflected in Pravic too: the language has no possessive pronouns.

That was the thought experiment. Could words shape thought, could a language make people behave a certain way? It’s a linguistic hypothesis much poo-pooed by academic linguists, not that it worries Le Guin.

embassytownChina Miéville’s recent novel Embassytown contains another thought experiment, which owes a debt to Gulliver’s Travels. Miéville creates a language for a group of aliens called the Ariekei.

It’s a language that mimics language of the garden of Eden, where the word is the thing. In other words, there’s no difference between an apple, and the word for an apple.

The Ariekei can’t lie. “If they want to use figurative speech at all they have to construct a situation which they can then refer to,” says Miéville.

“If you wanted say ‘oh I feel like an angry lion today’ you would have to get a lion and make it angry. Otherwise you couldn’t say it because it didn’t exist.”

Miéville came away from his thought experiment with the view that if human language marks a fall from grace, it’s quite a good fall. It allows us to use metaphor, as well as to lie.

Back now to the writer who may have out-Tolkiened Tolkien. French author Frédéric Werst has published something approximating a novel called Ward. It’s about a group of people called The Ward who speak a language called Wardwesân. The entire work is written in that language, with a parallel French translation.

Michael Adams says Werst is the first novelist he knows of “who’s tried to do a literary work from start to finish in a language never before known in the world.”

Tolkien never went that far, though he did tell his publisher that wished he could have included more of his fictional languages in his novels. Restraint, in that case, was probably wise.

Tolkien remains an inspiration to others. He wrote about inventing languages in an essay called The Secret Vice. “It’s a charming essay,” says novelist Ursula K. Le Guin.

le guin“He’s thought of the fact that there just are a bunch of us who love to invent languages as well as to learn them,” Le Guin says. “A lot of kids do a certain amount of it and some people carry it on all their lives. It’s like kids who draw maps of imaginary islands. Some of us go on doing it until we’re 80.”

A two-volume selection of Le Guin’s short stories, The Unreal and the Real, has just been published. It’s been a treat for me to read the stories. Growing up in Britain, I was only exposed to Le Guin’s novels.

For more in the pod about invented languages, there is this interview with Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages, and this podcast on the Game of Thrones language, Dothraki.



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No Metaphors Allowed: China Miéville’s Imagined Language

"The Garden of Eden" by Lucas Cranach der Ältere

For the Ariekei, who live on a distant  planet in China Miéville’s latest novel Embassytown,  speech is thought: “Without language for things that didn’t exist, they could hardly think them.”

In Miéville’s Ariekei language, there is no room for metaphor, no space between the thing – or the idea – and the word. As a result, the Ariekei have no concept of lying. Language is truth, rather than merely standing in for it. Quite the opposite of any human language.

The Ariekei’s form of communication is meant to echo the pre-language of  the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Miéville plays on the idea that language itself– human language —  represents the Fall. As Miéville says, maybe the adoption of language is “rather a good fall.” It’s a nice irony that the Ariekei have two mouths (as well as hooves and wings).

China Miéville

Miéville is – and I’m just learning this —  one of the leading lights of the so-called New Weird generation of fantasy writers. Some say it’s only a matter of time until he busts out of his genre and wins some general fiction prizes.

Also in the pod this week: A short discussion of the word blagging, popularized by the News International scandal;  why governments and aid agencies avoid using the word famine (more here). And, if you sing in French, don’t expect airtime in the Brussels metro (more here).

Listen via iTunes or here.

Photos:  Stuart Caie/Flickr, Wikipedia


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