Sunday, 5 June 2011

Sweet Nothings In An Alien Tongue

I have this theory about Firefly, where all the characters learnt Chinese as their first language but now speak English due to some kind of social pressure. Why would I think that? well because they swear in Chinese and my experience (I have relatives who's first language isn't English) is that people revert to their native tongue to swear. It's easy enough to understand why, it's easier to find the words in a hurry, the emotional release from swearing just isn't the same if you don't know, right down in your soul, what those words mean, and so on. Don't get me wrong, I love Firefly and I get that the show does that to get around the censors, but it still kind of bugs me, just a little bit.
Reason I bring that up is that I've been working on my alien language this weekend, filling in the various places in my work in progress that read something like <replace this with nefari greeting> or more relevantly <insert nefari curse> (nefari being the name both of the alien race, obviously), and I've been trying to make sure I'm not guilty of the same thing. Incidentally, I leave comments like that because working the phrases out as I go along would completely stall my momentum (I do the same for names of places / people / objects that I haven't figured out yet as well) but on the flip side I do have to go back and work them out at some later point, like for example this weekend.
Anyway, the point (and I realise I'm taking a while to get to it) is that in trying to fill in the gaps it was once again brought home to me that the times when people are most likely to revert to their native tongue and to a lesser extent the times when people are most likely to switch to a foreign language are also those when they're most likely to use idiomatic phrases. Which makes it both more satisfying and more difficult to come up with them because these are phrases that are rooted in the culture of the native speakers. Case in point, the aforementioned curse, an alien character was remarking on the stubbornness of another character and used a nefari word for emphasis, relying on the rest of the sentence to get the meaning across (as the phrasing is 'being a stubborn <blank>' I'm fairly sure it's clear).
Now I could just have made up any collection of sounds and run with it, but either because I'm some kind of imaginary language obsessive or because I desperately wanted to avoid going back to writing the scene from hell (or possibly both) I decided that I wanted to come up with something culturally significant, so I sat and thought for a while about what kind of things we consider to be stubborn and what the nefari might consider archetypally stubborn and I thought first of mules and then that I had already established that the nefari anthropomorphize plants quite a lot so I started thinking about what kind of plants might be stubborn and I thought of weeds that keep coming back or are hard to dig up because of their roots. So long story short (way, way too late for that) I figured out that they would call that kind of plant a grip earth and then worked out what the words for those components would be and then I finally had the word I could insert into my manuscript. Hooray, it only took me an hour to work out a single word (a single word that might still end up being cut at that) progress is mine. Or something.
So my question (to myself as much as anything) is 'was it worth it?' was it worth spending that long working out the exact derivation of a word that isn't even translated in the text, all that work that no one will ever see except for those few hardy souls that managed to wade through this terminally dull blog post? and you know what, I kind of think it was, I learned some interesting new things about my setting, for one thing, but mostly it just feels satisfying to have made the effort.

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