Worldbuilding Week Day One: Languages

Worldbuilding Week

Welcome to the second annual Worldbuilding Week at QSF. We’ll talk about all aspects of building a world for your story, including languages; alien/magical races; history and timelines; culture and politics; sex, marriage and reproduction; and tools and techniques. It should be a lot of fun.

Today we’re talking about languages, and Loren Rhoads will be our moderator. Here’s Loren’s take:

One of the things I love about the Star Wars universe is the diversity of species in the background characters. Unfortunately, beyond Chewbacca, Admiral Ackbar, and Nien Nunb, few aliens who are good guys speak. When I wrote my space opera trilogy, I wanted to reverse that.

On Earth, we have more than 5,000 species of mammals and more than 17,000 species of reptiles and amphibians. I wanted the galaxy in my books to echo those numbers. That led me to realize that differing biology must logically lead to different forms of communication. I needed to figure out how my peoples could communicate across species. Douglas Adam’s Babel fish tempted me, because I could mention it once, then the symbiote would live inside the characters’ bodies and never be seen again.

I thought too that there might be a Galactic Standard language, like Esperanto. It’s a lovely idea, but physiologically, not everyone would be able to make the necessary sounds. People could learn to understand it, even if they couldn’t speak it, but I needed a way for everyone to be able to talk together or risk, as in Star Wars, having the non-English-speaking characters reduced to sidekicks.

Which is where the Templars come in. According to popular mythology in my books, the Templars are the oldest race in the galaxy. Physically, they grew out of my fascination with pill bugs: armored, with too many legs. At first I thought the Templars might communicate via pheromones like ants, but that wouldn’t work well over the distances in space.

Going back to nature on Earth, I thought about bioluminescent animals, communicating via light. I thought about cuttlefish and their amazing ability to alter their colors. What if Templars used color to communicate: not only shade but blends of color, the percentage of color on the blank space that composes their faces? What if colors weren’t words, but syllables? What if the Templar could sense gradations of tone that human eyes couldn’t perceive?

In order to speak to creatures reliant on sound to communicate, they’d need to build a translation device that could translate into sound.

Many of my aliens wear their translators in the form of jewelry, often as medallions as with Haoun and Corvas and the other lizard- or avian-related creatures. Vezali, who was inspired by squids and slugs, wears her translator as a belt around her midriff since she doesn’t really have a throat.

Star Trek, the original series, made use of “universal translators,” small machines that translate brainwaves and produce sound. Seems to me that would require such concentration to keep one’s thoughts coherent and on point that the device would cause more problems than it solved. It would be better to use whatever form of communication a species uses and translate that into the Galactic standard language.

Because of that, in my books the communication tech is based in sound. In some cases, my heroine Raena can hear the creature’s natural voice in addition to the speaking voice of its translator. She has what she calls a vestigial reaction to the low sibilant sound of iguana-inspired Haoun’s voice: it makes the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Squidlike Vezali, however, makes no noise that Raena can hear. Ze has programmed the translator to speak with a high-pitched girlish voice, which leads the Veracity’s crew to use a feminine pronoun in reference to zir. Raena thinks that the pitch must please Vezali’s auditory system, however it works, because ze is clever enough to adjust it.

No one seems to fully understand Templar technology, even those most reliant on it. Some of that is due to Clark’s theorem, but if your sensory organs work differently, wouldn’t your science reflect those differences? What if the scientific constraints that we accept are only the constants we perceive or can imagine?

Ann Leckie plays with that concept of the limits of understanding with the human translators for the Presger in her Ancillary series. The Presger translators have been so altered by their connection to their alien masters that they are barely able to be coherent any longer.

Of course, you can get around the need for translators – and the problems of miscommunication – by only having humans in the galaxy – and having them all speak the same language – as Firefly does. But where’s the fun in that?

Have you ever created a language for a story? How do you go about building the fundamentals? Are there tools online to help? Does your language offer clues to your culture? And how do you make it work for your readers?

Join the discussion.

Here’s the schedule for the week – each day will have a moderator to help keep moving things along and to supply their own tips and point of view.

Tues 7/26: Languages, Moderator: Loren Rhoads

Wed 7/27: Alien/Magical Races, Moderator: J. Scott Coatsworth

Thurs 7/28: History/Timelines, Moderator: Lloyd Meeker

Fri 7/29: Culture & Politics, Moderator: Roger Lovelace

Sat 7/30: Sex, Marriage, Reproduction, Moderator: A. Catherine Noon

Sun 7/31: Tools and Techniques, Moderator: Jenna Hale

It’s a freeform discussion – pop in and ask your questions or share your wisdom – or both!

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