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Fiction & Linguistics

December 17, 2009

If you’re a nerd in the know, by now you probably know at least a little about James Cameron’s new flick, Avatar, that comes out tomorrow.  If you’re not a nerd in the know, well, the short-short version is it’s a sci-fi special-effects extravaganza that sort of tells the alien invasion story in reverse.  (In an unrelated bit of happenstance, I wrote a short story and stage play in high school that tells a very similar story; I suppose I ought to post that up for folks to see an example of my high school work: still rough around the edges.)

Interestingly, to create this film, Cameron turned to a linguistics expert to create a wholly imaginary alien language for the aliens in the movie to speak.

Genre fiction and linguistics have a long relationship.  Genre writers and artists have been creating new words and inventing whole languages as part of their work for almost as long as these genres have been in a category all their own.   Karel Capek, a sci-fi writer in the 1920s, for instance, introduced the word “robot” to the world lexicon as part of his short story “Rossum’s Universal Robots“.  Prior to 1997, when “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (the original British title) was published, the world “Muggle” was a nonsense word.  But author J. K. Rowling imbued those syllables with meaning.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet was famously translated into the language of the alien Klingons, of Star Trek renown – a language invented  for the sci-fi show and movie series.

Professor J. R. R. Tolkien is perhaps the most famous of the fantasy and science-fiction linguists (if not the certain greatest, which is another argument, altogether).  His invented languages, Quenya and Sindarin  – languages with their own vocabularies, syntax, grammar, and phonology – form the first threads of the fabric that became his grand epic, The Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien might be considered the prototypical fantasy linguist, and it was his early love of languages, and of inventing new languages, combined with his fascination for mythology, that provided an early impetus for the link between new languages and genre fiction.

But, as demonstrated above, this link runs far and deep.  Language, at its heart, is an attempt to gain meaning and understanding from the world around us – and to communicate that meaning to others.  It is a way for cultures to share information and to share ideas and perceptions, to share mythology and stories, to share experiences.  Science Fiction & Fantasy, in the same way, are a form of modern mythology and modern myth-making with a similar purpose and pedigree.  So it’s no wonder that language-making and myth-making are so tightly integrated – and that the artistic expression of each so frequently cross paths.

To some, the propensity for creators of fantasy and science fiction works – whether written or film in nature – to pepper their works with artificial languages (conlangs in the lingo of those who follow this as a hobby) and made-up words – is either unneccessary or pretentious.  But a closer look at this reveals that the two crafts are intimately linked in purpose and history.

This is a trend that I don’t see reversing course any time soon, and one that I don’t believe ought to be reversed.  Human beings have an innate desire to learn and understand more about their world – a desire muted by the workaday nature of adult life, but which is never really destroyed nor sated – and this desire manifests in our language.  Invented languages in genre fiction lend not only an air of mystery and excitement, but a sense of reality, purpose, and meaning in works of genre fiction.  They speak to the cultural significance of our modern-day myth-making, and they tie the experiences of these imagined characters to our own experiences in intrinsic ways – reverting us to our childhood when everything was still new to us, and when we did not yet know the words for all things, or how to properly express ourselves in a grown-up world.

Whether you go to see Cameron’s new film epic, or gain a moment of joy perusing the appendices of Tolkien’s books, or prefer to take your sci-fi and fantasy without delving deeply into the invented words and languages that are spoken in these imagined worlds, I hope you’ll take with you a sense of appreciation for the work and artistry that goes into their creation, and a sense of the wonder they seek to engender.

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