Whaddya Mean, No Babel Fish?

The first Astronomicon panel I attended was “Aliens Speaking Alien,” which included writers Josepha Sherman, Rick Taubold, Nancy Kress, and Carl Fredericks. I admit, the only reason I went to this panel was that it was the first opportunity I had to hear Kress speak. But I took notes anyway, and here’s what I learned:

Carl Fredericks says there are two levels to think about when writing or writing about alien language. The lowest level is “language.” A higher level involves semantics, e.g. “motor oil” vs. “baby oil.” Might an alien think we make oil from babies? Could we make that mistake of an alien tongue?

Nancy Kress told us that one way to start is by considering the biology of aliens. Do they even make sounds? Do they make sounds within a range audible to the human ear?

Also, instant universal translators [my paraphrasing:] suck.

Recommended reading: “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

Other approaches to writing alien language: Sherman starts with the premise that for space travel to be possible the way modern aviation is possible, there has to be a sort of intergalactic lingua franca that everyone understands. Kress tries to “sneak it in.” Fredericks wrote (or read? Can’t remember) a story where a race’s vocal language was a secondary language reserved for parental interactions with their children.

Some thoughts on actual mechanics, most (but not all) from Kress…

  • Quotation marks or italics sorta suck [my word] for telepathy or other non-verbal communication. People have used typographical tricks w/great success.
  • Any invented language needs an integrity to it. A consistency. One option: pick 3-4 consonant sounds and a couple of vowels to use most of the time.
  • Fluted effects usually involve K or L sounds. Growls: G, R, or F
  • And even if you think you’ve made up a name, Google it anyway!
  • One writer used typography to illustrate one twin starting a sentence and the other finishing, every single time.

Idea Free-For-All

  • More required reading: Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.
  • Go overboard and you won’t get published.
  • Language is only partly auditory. That’s why we need emoticons in email/text.
  • Using pheromones. Poul Anderson had a smell on every 3rd MS page. Maybe overdoing it?
  • Animals don’t speak in phonemes. Most of their stuff is in the spaces between sounds.
  • Some panelists irritated when every single slang/foreign expression gets immediately translated. It’s very possible to tell by context.
  • In some stories, humans and aliens never really communicate, but they just get it. (Or, not!)
  • You usually have two choices when writing “English in the future” — just use English or go ahead and invent slang. There’s a high risk of sounding ridiculous with the latter.
  • Alien societies probably have classes and their language would reflect that.

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