Google Mini-Rant and Follow-Up Language Tips

— February 15, 2010 (4 comments)
I normally love Google, but this Google Buzz thing is bugging me. The problem, as I see it, is that Google signed me up for a social network and started sending my updates to people (that I may or may not actually know, but whom I've e-mailed at some point) without my permission. That's a Bad Thing.

Now I'm not a big privacy nut or anything. But I am a simplify-my-life nut.* I get requests for random social networks all the time, and I refuse them for a reason. Google just skirted around that by not asking me, and then making it ridiculously hard to opt-out of. Thanks a lot, Google. Screw you, too.

* Which is to say I'm a supporter of it. It doesn't mean I'm good at it.

*deep breath*

Okay, enough of that. How about some random tips on fictional languages that didn't fit in last week's post? Sound good? (I swear this will be the last post on foreign languages. At least for a while. Maybe...

Does slang count?)

MAKE IT READABLE. Even if the reader doesn't understand a word, they will still try to mentally pronounce it. It's frustrating if they can't. Wykkh'ztqaff may look very alien and fantastic, but it'll drive the reader nuts trying to say it -- even in their mind. This is especially true for names!

USE LATIN WITH CAUTION. My method last week involved stealing words from real-life languages and mashing them to hide the source. If you use this method, you should know that Latin and some of its siblings (Spanish, French, and Italian, for example) are so familiar to English speakers that it's very difficult to hide them as a source. (Assuming you want to. See parenthetical below for a counterexample to this tip.)

Take the magical words and phrases from Harry Potter, for example. Their origins are obvious (flagrante enchants objects to burn, gemino duplicates objects, lumos makes light, etc, etc, etc). It works in Harry Potter because it's set in the real world, more specifically Europe. It makes sense that their magical language has the same roots as their spoken language (it also makes it easier to remember what each magic word does). But can you imagine Gandalf the Grey using these same words and claiming they were the ancient language of the Valar?

"The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Ud√Ľn. I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor... Incendio!"

(Matt Heppe noted in last week's comments that he intentionally used Romanian (a Latin-based language) to give the language a sense of familiarity for English readers. That's definitely a good reason to use Latin. I think, as with anything in writing, intentionality is key.)

WHAT ABOUT ALIEN LANGUAGES IN SCI-FI? It would be a little odd if an alien language sounded like one or more of our Earth languages, wouldn't it? Aliens could be their own post, but off the top of my head I'd say don't use language as we understand it at all. Aliens can speak in hisses, purrs, scents, flashes of color, x-rays, gamma rays, frequencies too low for the human ear to hear... Get creative. Though if you do use a spoken alien language, see the first tip at the top. (There's nothing wrong with spoken alien languages, even if they do sound like ours. I just want to encourage genre writers to stretch their creativity and be intentional about their choices.)

Anyone got any other tips on made-up languages? Do you know any fantasy languages done particularly well? Particularly poorly?

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  1. The Stargate series (movie and TV show) works on the conceit that the language of the Ancients is actually a really old progenitor of Latin; and that all the "aliens" in our galactic neighborhood are humans taken from different points in Earth's history by superpowered bad guys aliens.

    That's why the "alien" language in the first movie is Egyptian. I always thought it was a great idea for a way to get around crafting your own language. Even though now I've started to use your method instead of the one I mentioned in my original comment on this series.

  2. You make good points about languages here.

    Also very good points about Google. I'm currently trying to work out if it's worth the huge effort it will entail to deGooglify myself completely. One person doing that won't make a difference, but if enough people did it might send Google a message.

  3. Right now I'm glad I don't have gmail.

    Your advice on languages is very good, and I appreciate the thought you've put into these posts.

  4. Matt: That's a cool reasoning behind an alien language. I had totally forgotten that (having only watched the movie and never fully gotten into the TV series). A good use of a Latin source too.

    fairy and Myrna: Man, I normally love Google. Their apps are usually so useful. This is just...really inconsiderate of them.