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Secondary World-building and making up new words...
Marshall R Maresca
Posted: Saturday, April 9, 2011 6:16 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 56

One of the reviews here for my book "Holver Alley Crew" said: 

"You use minutes and miles for measurement. Are these people in our world? Do they use our measurements?"

Now, I think this is a valid question to raise.  There's times in world-building that I start spiraling into the idea of where words come from and if a word in English has a Latin or German or Hindi derivation than how can it exist in the world and... that way lies madness.

But I also remembered something from a foreword I read once (from Robert Silverberg's novelization of Asimov's Nightfall), which I thought highlighted the point quite well.

"So when the people of Kalgash speak of 'miles' or 'hands' or 'cars', they mean their own units of distance, their own grasping organs, their own ground transportation devices.... it seemed simpler and more desirable to use these familiar terms in describing events on this wholly alien world than it would have been to invent a long series of wholly Kalgashian terms."

So, therefore, I tend to fall into the line of thought that I'm not going to make up a word for something when a perfectly good word already exists.  Do you agree, or does something like that pull you out of the story?

Posted: Saturday, April 9, 2011 8:43 PM
Joined: 3/31/2011
Posts: 11

I like to consider sf/f narrative as a translation attempting to make sense of an alien/foreign culture. We use our own vocabulary to do that. Miles, minutes, all of it makes sense as long as there is reason to believe that this foreign culture is advanced enough to describe their world in a similar way.

I think it's a little silly to nitpick miles and minutes out of a full manuscript that uses English words...
Posted: Sunday, April 10, 2011 12:50 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

The English language has such a history of using familiar words to describe the unfamiliar. Look at the space program. So many things in aerospace technologies share words with the nautical world.

If you're using a term that's completely incongruous with the general feel of your world (like telephone or car when it's not a modern-looking world that you've created), then it's a problem.

But to nitpick on miles and minutes? That seems a little overboard.
Posted: Sunday, April 10, 2011 6:35 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 46

I agree that it's a valid question. However, I frankly find SF/F stories with invented vocabulary for everyday items tedious and likely to distract me from plot and character. I don't think that adds anything to the story or the world. I find sayings, curses, and references idiosyncratic to a culture or a geography far more interesting, and they add depth to the world of the story or reinforce the "different" aspects of the world.
MB Mulhall
Posted: Monday, April 11, 2011 12:17 AM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 81

Sometimes I am turned off by fantasy and sci-fi when there are tons of made up words or hard to pronounce names. It doesn't make for easy reading. Case in point, ever read Clockwork Orange? Not only is it full of words in Russian, but it's also chock full of made up slang. I had quite the difficult time getting through the book for the first time, even after I had seen the movie! It's an amazing story. I feel sad for those who end up putting it down because they can't figure out the lingo or don't feel like stopping to check the in book glossary constantly.

If you're going to make up a name for something, be sure to explain it so your reader isn't lost. Or look for an uncommon way to say something common. Like maybe using hands for measurement. I know horses are measured in hands, so maybe everything is measure in hands in your world. It's different, but people will understand it.
Victoria L White
Posted: Monday, April 11, 2011 8:52 PM
Preferably, when reading fantasy, I prefer as few made up words as possible. I've read a few with glossaries full of specific terms and it just gets confusing and tedious.

I think of it the same way you do. Not every culture speaks English, but that's the way we see it since that's the medium the story's being told in. Thus you can consider "miles" as the equivalent to whatever term they would use for measurement, and save the made up words for anything that wouldn't have an English language equivalent or for actual foreign languages relative to the speaker.

I usually avoid the argument entirely by describing distance in terms of travel time ("Candor is five days away by horse", etc) but really, using miles or any other form of reasonable measurement is fine.
Michael R Underwood
Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 2:55 PM
Joined: 3/3/2011
Posts: 74

I find the idea that every non-earth setting has to have completely different measurements, flora, fauna, etc. exhausting, and often irrelevant. I have bigger speculative fish to fry.

There are going to be times when you want to make up your own measurements, sure. Especially if you want to go heavy on the estrangement side of Darko Suvin's Cognition/Estrangement model.

But even when you do, there are other things to be aware of. As people have said, if you get too friendly with the neologisms, it can be really easy to get overwhelmed and shut off as a reader.

Marshall, I think you're perfectly within your rights to ignore that portion of the review. Why call something a lungar when you can call it a mile and what's really important is that something is really far away?
Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 3:14 PM
Joined: 4/6/2011
Posts: 31

I agree with you that there's no reason to make up a word for everyday things that have perfectly sensible cognates in the real world. I reserve made-up words for made-up things myself.

One place I can see you *might* want to use made-up words for ordinary things is if you've got a setting with more than one language in use, and want to highlight that--perhaps communication problems are part of the plot--by having certain characters use a specialized vocabulary. You can also show a depth of history by having a couple of hang-over terms from earlier eras sprinkled into the ordinary language. (Example: in Terry Pratchett's Wee Free Men, the human population uses the "yan tan tethra" counting system - though of course that's real!)

Definitely be sparing about it, and provide your reader with plenty of contextual clues so they're not always flipping to the glossary.
Jessie Kwak
Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 7:38 PM
Joined: 3/29/2011
Posts: 27

This discussion puts me in mind of a book I used to love in middle school about a planet of dinosaur people (I can't remember the name of it, and I'm not finding it in a google search. It was a YA novel about a dinosaur society and the main character was basically a pacifist in the midst of an uber-violent culture. Ringing a bell for anyone?).

The characters didn't use a base ten counting system, because they had six fingers on each hand. Or four. Obviously, my memory is fuzzy. Point being, unless the culture's worldview is crazy altered from our own, you might as well use boring old English words to describe it.

Rebecca, I love your idea of having specialized vocabulary and communications problems as part of your story. My novel is set in an alternate world where racial tensions run high, particularly between established immigrants and new refugee arrivals. The tension definitely manifests in which group has mastered the dominant race's vocabulary.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 9:24 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

I think Kwak's got a good point. Unless its important to the story that they use something different, and it has a name, then why bother? If the units of measurement have a societal basis, and give insight into the culture, then I'd love to hear about it. If a foot is the length of a limb of some past king, and a mile the width of his estate, and its now something everyone just uses... don't care, use foot and mile.
Posted: Friday, April 15, 2011 5:20 PM
Joined: 3/9/2011
Posts: 16

This is an interesting discussion. I've never thought too much about how distance is measured but I have wondered in my own writing if time would be viewed the same in a fantasy world. I would imagine things might be a little different for worlds that have say, more than one sun, how day and night are perceived, but what about hours and minutes? Does it matter to the story?

Might have to think about it more.
Posted: Friday, April 15, 2011 9:01 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224


In my story, I use the following measurements: leagues, legions, fortnights, hours

I don't use minutes... but my characters don't really distinguish 'minutes'. There are people who do, but they are mostly concerned with hours. Hours are something they can 'roughly' judge by the sun. These characters do not have watches, so why would they go by minutes? It is too exact of a measurement.

I don't mind normal measurements of time. In fact, bring in measurements outside of real terms and I get confused. 'bells' I don't mind, because bells toll on the hour. It is just a fancy way of saying hour.

The key point is *understanding*. If you can add words that make sense to the culture and the language and is obvious to the reader, then use them. IF it is critical to the culture.

For example, in one of my worlds... there are duels of honor. This is a critical part of their culture. Honored prisoners and unhonored prisoners are also concepts critical to the culture. I include these terms because it is a basic function in the society. These people live and die by these three codes, so I feel it important to add them into the story.

The vocabulary of your world needs to make sense to your world. If you can convince me it is a critical part of the society and world, I will accept the vocabulary presented -- IF you show me the meanings of these words. (I should be able to figure out what these mean WITHOUT the use of the glossary.)

Just my two cents.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Saturday, April 16, 2011 10:42 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

Fantastic important point there, RJ. While a glossary may be useful for words that mean drastically different things to different characters, to give an *objective* meaning to the word, a reader should be able to determine a functional definition based on the text.
Marshall R Maresca
Posted: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 4:22 AM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 56

Good points, all. I do think there's a difference between needing a glossary, and using terms that can be easily derived from context (bells instead of hours, for example, which is one I specifically do use.)
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 6:18 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

RJ, bells doesn't JUST mean hours. Its a different numbering system. (3 watches of 8 hours, or bells. So 8 bells means either 8 am, 4 pm, or midnight. )

Sorry, don't mean to nitpick, but drives me nuts when I see people use bells to just mean hours, and use it with a 12 or 24 hour numbering system.
Posted: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 9:52 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

@Alexander -- Answer me this then... how do your people distinguish am and pm? That is a modern contrivance.

In the simplest terms, a bell is an hour, or, as you say, a number of hours. When I read, I don't take it that far. It is just in the back of my mind. I don't, pardon the pun, have the time to try to figure out which fancy schmancy method of keeping time the writer has in mind. If I'm luxury reading, bells is hours, and if it doesn't fit that definition, I may scratch my head a little, but usually shrug it off, move on, and try to find the story somewhere in the timekeeping.

This is why I keep it simple in my world. I'm not writing a science fiction, and my characters think in terms of *basic* time of day out where they are at -- morning, afternoon, evening. These are things that are obvious by looking at the sky.

In the city that changes. And it gets worse -- each city has their own method of tracking time. BUT, unless it is a critical part of the story, I gloss over it.
Marshall R Maresca
Posted: Saturday, April 23, 2011 8:04 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 56

@Alexander-- Hmm. I use "bells" for hours in my fantasy world, since in the city all the various churches ring on the hour. So it's simply a different thing than the nautical usage you're referring to. I think that's a different situation than what I think you're talking about-- using the nautical usage of bells incorrectly.

Robert C Roman
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 1:03 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

Honestly, guys, if the author uses it *completely* 'incorrectly' in terms of historical usage, but is internally consistent, I think each of us will shrug and move on. If they're not only internally consistent, but have a reason for the consistency that is either spelled out or alluded to, we may even give them points for creativity.

Thing is, hours are... Kinda arbitrary. Yeah, we use them, but there's no hard and fast connection between them and the real world. Ergo, anything goes in terms of fictional world time. If you keep them, you don't need to explain them. If you lose them, you *do* need to explain it, or at least give the reader enough to understand 'big time chunk', 'little time chunk' and so on.

In my sci-fi XLI, I cheated. The worlds involved in the first (and second) book(s) in the series use earth-norm hours and calendars. The rationale was that those two worlds were almost 'earthlike', including revolution and rotation.
Philip Tucker
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 11:47 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 77

Like almost everything else, neologism depends on how well it's done. I tend to like it because for me, part of being in another world is that you don't speak the language.

But it MUST be well-done, and that is partly in the eye of the beholder. Let me ask you: is "snout" an intuitively obvious coining for "cop"? Maybe not, but for me, a pig has a snout, and a cop is a pig (in slang!); furthermore, my story is set in future Stockholm, and "snut" is Swedish slang for "cop".

But there is more like that, maybe too much for some.
Kenna OKelly
Posted: Saturday, April 30, 2011 4:33 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 1

Well, if this world is say a parallel universe I'd think using our terms of measurement would be completely acceptable. And even if it wasn't parallel, I don't think I would mind much either. That's not to say having a new term of measurement for the world wouldn't be fun to read too.

I think it's all about this world you are creating. To me, if it has a medieval feel to it and bares not too many similarities with our own customs of society, I'd say go with a different name of measurement. Or even change the measurement itself like how a cubit, a Biblical form of measuring, is - according to Wikipedia - 18.9 to 22.7 inches.
Alex Hollingshead
Posted: Monday, May 2, 2011 9:35 PM
Joined: 5/2/2011
Posts: 61

It depends on the significance of what is featured, I suppose. If a book is very much about precise measurements of distance, then I would wonder after a while how they came to have the same arbitrary measurement of a meter or a foot. But if, in a single paragraph, the narrator makes an offhand reference to the fact that Thorlan is '2 meters tall', then it won't cross my mind.

In my own story, the world does not have a sun or moon, so I did change the way time is told out of what I would consider necessity, but I never really explain it and, for the most part, it is coincidentally similar to our own. Time is measured by the tides (there is another force far below the seas that controls the tides in a way we might describe as 'moon-like' for convenience) and years are split by the mating seasons of the dragons and the faeries. I never really explain it in the story, and I don't give it any fancy names, but there is a random mention or two of it being "the end of the dragon season" or "waking at low tide".
Posted: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 12:43 AM
Agree completely with the previous poster that the significance of these terms to your work is important. I can be just as distracted when an author launches into a bunch of made up terms without significance backing them. I really do think it gets messy when we are so caught up in authentic language that we question EVERYTHING. This doesn't mean that authentic language can't lend to a more powerful voice, setting, and plot; but it does mean that we don't have to freak out over every little word.

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