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Articles - Fiction Writing
Written by Terrie Leigh Relf   
2006-01-04

Alienspeak 101: Coming to a Galaxy Near You Soon!

by Terrie Leigh Relf

(Note:  A longer, and obviously somewhat different, version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of The Espresso, An Independent Newspaper for Café Society ((http://theespresso.com) in my “Mistress of Rhetoric” column.)

The star-slips land.  Linguists, rhetoricians, and other parties interested in Transgalactic relations are there to great them.  The UTDs (AKA the “Universal Translation Devices”) are switched on, ready to translate our respective languages.  We engage in dialogue with our visitors, invite them for a double vanilla latte at Rebecca’s recently opened café, followed by a jaunt, perhaps, to our famous zoo or a museum tour in Balboa Park.

It could happen, right? It may be happening as we speak, or sometime in the not-so-distant future. Meanwhile, a variety of writers—past and present—are busy creating—and recreating—language in order to inhabit their literary worlds. While this isn’t the sole practice and province of science fiction writers, you’re apt to find quite a treasure trove of linguistic delights and occasional oddities in their poetry and fiction.

Or perhaps they really are receiving broadcasts from other worlds…

Who better to assist in this linguistic quest than my alien friends!  I also beamed out a call to a few of the alien-friendly lists I’m on, and quite a few poets/writers responded.  Basically, I wanted to determine if they created neologisms, or otherwise tinkered with language, in order to create more believable worlds. In brief, I asked them to discuss issues related to the following:

  1. the word and/or phrase;

  2. its new or re-ascribed meaning;

  3. a context (e.g., a passage, a stanza, etc.); and

  4. the process (i.e., how you created the word linguistically, why you created it, etc.).

Many of the responders posed questions of their own as well as provided quite a bit of genre commentary. In the interest of brevity, I’ve highlighted a few of their comments.

David Kopaska-Merkel, publicist and editor of Dreams & Nightmares (http://home.earthlink.net/~dragontea/) stated that classic examples of this could be found with Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1971).  “In this book, as in many other examples of this practice, the purpose is to convey the impression that the story is set in another place or time.  It is an effective method in the slang or other linguistic trappings if they are believable.  It is easy to throw in words that sound like gibberish. In that book, "poke", was slang for sexual intercourse…This is just one example of the many slang words invented for that story.  This word, like many of the others, made sense as a slang term having the meaning it had in the story, and added to credibility of the story itself. This book was set in the relatively near future and the slang was not difficult to understand.”

Sue Burke, the author of one of my favorite short stories of all times, “Aliens Love Oranges” (http://abyssandapex.com/archives/aliensloveoranges.html, stated that she thinks “the best example of an alien language was in the Star Trek TNG episode ‘Darmok’ in Season 5, Episode 2. The Enterprise's ‘universal translator’ translates the words of some hostile aliens into English, but though they are all understandable, they make no sense. Eventually, Captain Picard learns their language is based on metaphors about their myths and histories, and when he finally learns their culture, he says, ’Shaka. When the walls fell,’ and the aliens understand him and stop being hostile.”

Teri Santitoro, co- editor with L.A. Story Houry of the award-winning  Scifaikuest (http://www.samsdotpublishing.com), also mentioned Burgess’ work, and says that “the first time I ever read a book with its own vocabulary, it was A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, who combined Russian with English, and came up with his own language for his novel. Then, I read Dune by Frank Herbert, who invented not only an entire world's ecology, but the vocabulary to go with it. I think that in both instances, the structure of the words and language not only placed the reader into the story itself, but into the customs and surroundings of that story. When an author invents words and languages, the reader gets drawn into something beyond the normal experience, which is something extremely helpful in building new worlds in SF.”

While I have by no means exhausted the possibilities, I’ve concocted a few tidbits for poems, short stories and other excerpts which will all be part of Coming to a Galaxy Near You Soon…The Boortean Embassy.

Word: Sozar (So-zharr)

Definitions:  1. an expletive like “awesome”; 2. a swear word (depending upon tone); 3. said as a toast and/or to congratulate someone; and 4. something said in frustration.

Examples:

“Sozar!I can’t seem to find the portal to return home to Boort.”

“The Boortian Ambassador just hired you as her personal assistant?  Sozar to you!”

Word:  Poochi Bug

Definitions: A type of honey-making “insect” (for want of a better category) that flies but can also maneuver on—and in--the ground.  Their tiered hives can range in height from a few feet to over twenty-feet.  Circumferences range in size as well. It is believed that certain types of Poochi Bugs burrow deep into the ground as well.  They are considered to be poisonous to most humanoid species. The Poochi Bug and its behavior  is a rich source of metaphor in the Boortian language group.

Examples:

“I wouldn’t go out tonight if I were you…The Poochi Bugs are too quiet.”

“Please join me for an aperitif—it’s made with the finest Poochi Bug honey.”

“Those Terrans have much to learn about our style of transgalactic trade negotiating.  They’re larval at best.” (This is reference to Poochi Bug larvae.  Just prior to hatching, they wriggle out of the hive, thus leaving themselves susceptible to other predators such as the Mora Blossom.  The Mora Blossom is a plant know for its exquisite fragrance; it  exists in a symbiotic relationship with the Mora Spider, another deadly creature. Interesting to note, however, is that the Mora Spider’s venom has psychotropic properties. There is also a belief that individuals with the appropriate genetic codes are capable of transdimensional travel once bitten.)

“You really need a vacation…You look like you’ve been building hives.” (This is a reference to the Poochi Bug Hives which are constructed much like a village.  It also references the underground activities of certain clandestine movements engaged in transgalactic political schemes.)

 And we haven’t even touched on body language!  What if our visitors don’t have bodies in the way we conceptualize them?

If all else fails, there’s always telepathy… 

If that doesn’t work, then what?

Here are a few links to further your travels:

The Official Website for the Science Fiction Poetry Association:
http://www.sfpoetry.com/

Home base for the SciFaiku list:
http://www.scifaiku.com/

The home of SpecFicWorld—home base to a multiplicity of universes!
http://www.specficworld.com/

Strange Horizons—speculative poetry, fiction—and more!
http://www.strangehorizons.com/

Ralan’s Webstravaganza—market lists, contests—and more!
http://ralan.com/

Terrie Leigh Relf, originally from the Alpha Centauri system, is currently living on Earth in a friendly human community called South Park, nestled in San Diego, CA.  She is an educator, writing coach, columnist, editor and poet. You may contact her at:  tlrelf@cox.net.
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