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Story-Scribbling Sunday – October 6, 2013: The Limits of Language

October 6, 2013

I must admit that I haven’t been scribbling recently. Or even thinking much about the story tentatively titled Rocks and Reeds.

What I have been thinking about is languages. I need to come up with at least two languages for Rocks and Reeds, and it’s astonishingly daunting. It has been years – I don’t even know how many – since I’ve attempted to create a new language. I have worked on Tosacy on and off, but that language is definitely not new any more.

I still don’t have a single word for either of the two languages, but I’m thinking a lot about grammar, about the structure I want these languages to have, and wishing I knew more about languages, especially non-European ones, more about the weird things languages can do. I have hunted through my bookcases for Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher, which was an entertaining read the first time around, but now I was mostly rereading it for inspiration.

One of the things Deutscher talks about is that the difference between languages lies not in what they can express, but in what they force their speakers to express.

For example, in English, I can say, “My friend visited me yesterday,” without specifying my friend’s gender, while German forces me to choose between “mein Freund” (male) and “meine Freundin” (female). On the other hand, German is woefully imprecise in other regards. If I just say, “mein Freund”, I might be talking about any male friend, or about my boyfriend (which is why, in my case, the phrase “mein Freund” is usually followed up by two sentences specifying that I’m just talking about a friend, and another three sentences complaining about the uselessness of the German language.)

Anyway, in addition to grammar, this is one of the things I’m thinking about – which things have to be expressed in the languages of the Rocklands and the Reedlands? Which things does the language force people to pay attention to? How does this relate to their societies’ values? What misunderstandings will that lead to?

I doubt I will develop the languages fully before November (where is the time going?) and even if I did, I don’t think I will use more than a few random phrases in the story (because most people probably don’t want to read pages of what will look like gibberish to anyone but me). But I still feel like knowing how their languages work is an important part for me to get to know a character.


The other thing I think about is what language to write in. I try to write in German more, because after all, it is my native language, and it is really weird that writing in English feels more natural to me.  But I think this will, again, be a story that I have to write in English. The people of the Reedlands have some rather strange ideas about gender, which are reflected in their language’s pronouns. So to be able to write from the point of view of a person from the Reedlands, I need a gender-neutral pronoun. Which German just doesn’t have.

It’s a little frustrating. As I said in an earlier post, Rocks and Reeds is one of those rare stories that I feel might be worth trying to get published. And living in a German-speaking country, it would make so much more sense to write it in German. But for now, I must focus on telling the story as well as I can, and some stories can only be told in certain languages. Or, all right – they can be told in any language. But they can only be told well in certain languages.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2013 15:07

    If you want to know more about non-European languages, I can always help with Japanese. I also registered for two linguistics lectures at uni this semester, so by November I’ll have some general language stuff to say too. Always happy to answer questions and hear about your languages (via NaNo-mail or email). 🙂

    Also, regarding the other blog post, I’m so jealous you get to meet Robin Hobb! Only know her Farseer series, but that is brilliant.

    • October 7, 2013 22:43

      We can always talk at write-ins, too. (I might even go to Vienna once or twice this year).

      And – Robin Hobb! And Tad Williams! And also Patrick Rothfuss and Trudi Canavan and probably others I’m forgetting, although I’m not sure I’ll get to talk to them. But Robin Hobb for sure, although I’m still not sure what I’ll say.

  2. October 8, 2013 16:06

    “I need a gender-neutral pronoun. Which German just doesn’t have.”
    Maybe you could invent one. At least, that’s what your translators will have to do one day 😉
    I wish you good luck for your story!

    • October 8, 2013 17:18

      Eventually I will have to come up with something (or hope someone has come up with something in the meantime). Because if I do get the story finished, I will do my own translating.

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