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Tidbits of Inspiration: Bad Writing System

May 19, 2011

I found this article over on Language Log fascinating, so I thought I’d share it with you.

The article is about whether a better orthographic writing system – the way a language is written down – hurts or hinders either (a) the economic potential or (b) the literacy of its speakers.  English, for instance, is often considered to be a notoriously difficult language to learn because of the inconsistencies of its spelling.  (In fact, I believe English is quite consistent in the way things ought to be pronounced – but there are a lot of arcane rules that one must learn in order to understand how things should be pronounced, and there is a series of precedents for which rules are more important.  I saw this demonstrated once by someone who created a program for making sound changes to conlang words using systematic formal rules, and used the same program by setting up pronunciation rules for English, running english words through it, and outputting a “pronunciation guide” for the words.  It was a powerful demonstration of how systematic English pronunciation really is, and only a few words fooled his codified approach.  Alas, I no longer have a link to that site.  But I digress… a lot.) 

Anyway, the article got me thinking, again, about artificial languages and orthography.  I do that sometimes.  In particular, it made me wonder about the idea of either an inconsistent lexicography or an apparently inconsistent orthography as a mechanism for hinting at the history of the language.  Languages with more recent orthographic developments (such as Turkish, for example, which had its modern orthography set down in the 1930s), it turns out, tend to be more or orthographically consistent.  Whereas writing systems that are older – older in the sense that people have been writing in the language for longer – tend to be a bit more varied and muddled – English and Chinese being two prime examples.  But that varied language hints at the history and etymology of the language in ways that a simple, straight-forward orthography do not.  Which made me wonder – to what degree might this influence how one goes about working on invented languages for fantasy worlds?  For instance, I’d developed an alphabet and orthography for a fantasy language that might be spoken in my ever-in-development (i.e. that-which-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever) Project SOA.  But the spelling of that language is entirely logical and consistent (the orthography being based, in part, on the IPA).  Would it be advisable to, intentionally, make the language less consistent to make it more realistic?  Something to think about.

Anyway, if you’re writing a speculative fiction story set in a secondary or otherwise non-contemporary world – or if you enjoy contemplating such worlds – then maybe you’ll get a kick out of thinking about language in that way as well.

Here’s the article.

And here’s a bonus.

[Edit… I found the site mentioned in my earlier digression, thanks to one of the comments on the article I linked… It’s here.]

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2011 2:07 pm

    I never considered the inconsistencies of language when trying to come up with conventions for invented ones, though E points out the strangeness of English regularly, and it usually turns out to be that the origins of a word and how the spelling / pronunciation has morphed from the (perhaps borrowed) original.

    • May 19, 2011 2:30 pm

      Which is exactly what I’m wondering about. When something is weird in English, it’s usually because of the history of the word and the language, and how that history has been preserved in the language. Should an invented language for a story exhibit similar “historic” inconsistencies?

      • May 19, 2011 4:56 pm

        I suppose it depends on how much you’re using the language. In most fiction I’d say it might look out of place if it is not consistent, since it’s not used enough to allow for richness to shine through. Not reality, but an approximation of reality.

        On the other hand, the truth makes me feel better about my not so consistent language/naming conventions. Hee hee

      • May 19, 2011 5:06 pm

        That’s a good point, though, about the frequency of use. In the case of fiction, the illusion of reality is more important than reality itself – and paradoxically, sometimes when you make something more realistic it actually seems less realistic to readers. That’s certainly worth keeping in mind, both in this instance, and in others when writing…

  2. May 20, 2011 2:37 pm

    That’s definitely something to consider, Stephen. Unfortunately, I don’t think most people can be bothered by such detail, to be honest, haha. Though, to be able to subtly work something like that into a story and have some of your readers pick up on it…that would be kind of cool. Like a little treat for folks who have an eye for that kind of thing.

    If it can be done in a way that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself yet can still be noticed…I think that would be ideal because then people who don’t know what’s what aren’t going to be like, “What was that about?” They just sort of gloss over it rather than see it as some trivial detail.

    I blogged about creating languages a little whiles back (before hopping over to WordPress) and shared some samples of ones I’d made up, though I don’t take a particularly nitpicky approach to it, heh. (At least, I don’t think I do; I’m no linguist by any stretch of the imagination.) Might be something you’d be interested in it.

    Ultimately, though, I think it comes down to what Theresa said: it really depends on how much you use a language(s) in your story, but it also depends on what you’re trying to accomplish and why. Though, I don’t see why you couldn’t experiment with consistency and different ways of portraying realism within fictional languages. I think it would be challenging but potentially a lot of fun.

    • May 20, 2011 2:44 pm

      I’ll definitely check out your post when I get an opportunity. Normally, I’m not sure I would go to the trouble to detail out a whole language for a story I write… Well, I normally but it’s not like I’ve written enough to really know one way or another. I don’t plan to for “Book of M”, at least except for the few bits and pieces needed for verisimilitude. But for “Project SOA”, the novel series I’ve been working on since my wee years… I’ve already mucked myself to my knees in it, and I can’t stop stepping further in. I have a conceptual framework in my head for the evolution and change in this world’s languages over a period of thousands of years of history, as well as a first-blush pass at some linguistic bits for one of the main “old tongue” languages of the world… I just can’t help myself! When I’m done, I hope to have a few useable languages and bits and pieces of several other languages enough for them to feel useable even if they really aren’t. But, well, there’s a reason I’m not actively working on Project SOA right now.

      • May 20, 2011 6:17 pm

        And I thought I was taking ages to finish my labor-of-love… “Since my wee years” definitely trumps four-ish years. :P

      • May 20, 2011 10:27 pm

        Yep… more than 20 years, in fact, to be a little more precise…

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