Cometary Tales All That Was Asked,Blog What’s with the weird words?

What’s with the weird words?

Translations In the Real World
(Photo by Tflanagan at KSU, Saudi Arabia,
Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of the first things people ask me when they read certain of my stories is “What’s the right way to pronounce all these weird words?”  My stock answer is:  “However you like! It’s all made up, whatever sounds right inside your head is fine by me.”

Starting the process of doing an audio book for All That Was Asked has forced me to face the fact that, well, really there is a “right” way.  For one thing, the story centers on language–in fact, the working title of the book was “Translations by Ansegwe.” In general, for the stories where I have a made-up culture with their own language or an “evolved” culture that’s grown from more-or-less familiar cultures but uses a language other than English as their root language, I do know how those words should be pronounced. I’m that wonky sort that blows off an entire afternoon at Worldcon to attend a linguistics workshop, so, well, that’s where I’m coming from. 

In the real world, I know French pretty well, I watch a lot of foreign-language TV (though of course I’m relying on subtitles), I live in place where I hear Spanish and Russian regularly, and I have technical-world acquaintances with a great variety of language “homes” from India to Europe to Africa to both Chinas.  I’ve struggled to learn a smattering of my culture-base language–Gaelic. And I grew up being hauled around to various places in the U.S. and England.  I even still “hear” (and alas for spell-checkers, spell) most English as Brit-style.  End result:  I love the interplay of languages and the way everyone talks. I do not claim to be a polyglot, but I’m a diligent researcher and I just love all those sounds.

In my writing, most of the problematic words are names, because I think of such stories as having been “translated” from the alien/alternate history language set.  Names tend to get left over after a translation, because even if I’m translating a story from French to English, I wouldn’t change “Tourenne” to “Terence” or “Gervais” to Gerald, because a) the names aren’t really the same and b) the sounds of names add the flavor of a language without requiring a reader to actually know a foreign tongue directly. Spoiler? My current work-in-progress has characters named Tourenne and Gervais, and they live in a francophone culture that doesn’t exist anywhere in the real world.

In the made-up language base for All That Was Asked, I have lots of names for people, place-names from more than one country in the alternate-universe world, and a few name-based terms.  (The academic types in the story have dreams of winning their version of the Nobel prize, so they talk about it a lot.  The Nobel prize is named for a person, but . . . it’s a thing.)  I wanted the central names to make sense, to have relateable sounds, and to have some commonalities.  For instance, in English we have a lot of names that end in ‘-y’.  I selected some sound elements that would fit into different names and tried to make them sound like they came from a distinct self-contained culture–except for a few names I made up specifically to sound like another culture, in the same world. 

I decided on a family-personal naming order that made sense for the culture–Family first, Personal second, and most people refer to each other and address each other by their personal names, because everyone knows what family everyone else belongs to.  And I made names longer than we’re used to in English.  In our culture “power names” tend to be short, in theirs, most people have multisyllable names, and powerful people tend to have longer names.

For other sets of words in this story, ones that are “translated” to English, I “hear” the words in British/European English rather than American English, because that fits better with the social style of the people and gives it a little bit of distance for American readers.  It may sound really fussy–especially for such a short little book–but I think having a clear auditory sense going into it helped me with building the alien culture.  I just have to hope it carries through to readers and listeners–not a burden to cope with but an added feature of the story.

In my next post, I’ll give you a blow-by-blow pronunciation guide for All That Was Asked, with a few background bits to liven it up a bit.

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It’s happening again…It’s happening again…

I can’t believe it myself.

So let me work up to it.

Long, long ago, when I was a horse-mad thirteen-year-old, we lived stranded in a one-street suburb of Montgomery, Alabama, where the only available equine companionship came in the form of a mare and foal pastured behind our house.  The mare was tolerant, not friendly, but not the type to pitch a fit when some kid squeezed through the barbed-wire fence to pamper her baby.  It helped that the colt wasn’t a baby anymore, to be sure.

Generally, I would manage to sneak out with an apple, which the young horse would snarf down with relish. Then he would snuffle at my pockets in hopes of seconds.  Horses are smarter than non-horsey people give them credit for.  Horses know what pockets are for. Pockets are containers for apples, carrots, crunchy horse treats, sometimes even a handful of grain, preferably sweet feed.  They do not care about the cries emanating from laundry rooms when mothers find pocket-loads of such goodies swirling in the wash.

One fine February day, I ventured out with only some small treat, nothing as appealing as an apple.  It was chilly, so I wore my new(ish) red coat.  And my pony friend bit me on the shoulder. Another thing non-horsey people may not know is that a horse can bite hard.  They fight with their teeth–stallions even have extra-sharp eye teeth for those battles that make the front covers of old cowboy paperbacks.

That bite hurt. It hurt bad. I was not so horse-crazy that I didn’t run home for help. I was lucky to be wearing that insulated jacket–all my friend gave me was an enormous bruise, as the coat distributed the impact nicely.  My mother was angry, scolding me for trespassing in the pasture but also clearly angry that the horse had hurt me.  I took his part, explaining–convincingly, I was sure–that he simply mistook the red, rounded curve of my shoulder for a big shiny apple.  It was my fault, I told her, for leading him to expect apples all the time and . . . most accurately, for turning my back on him.  I loved horses, but I’d been hanging around them since I was six, and I knew better.

Bear with me. I’m getting there.

We were living in Montgomery because my dad was attending the Air War College, an academic-style officer-training program. It’s very like a master’s degree program in strategy, analysis, all that sort of thing.  (My copy of Strunk and White is a discard from the library there, one my dad brought home for his aspiring-writer kid.) My mom grew up spending summers on “the farm”–her parent’s country get-away. My dad was a city boy through-and-through. Years later, I learned he was afraid of horses–that the thought of his kid galloping around on top of one of those monsters horrified him.

The War College program is only a year. One spring night, quite late, my parents stumbled into the house after some kind of semi-official party at the AWC.  They, or at least Dad, had had a really fun evening.  Really, really fun. My dad had received his next posting. As wing commander for a prestigious bomber wing. In North Dakota. We were moving to an air base where there was an on-base stable, in a state where horses were cheap to get and to keep.

“North Dakota is Rough Rider country, cowboy country,” my dad told me that night, his eyes bright and his grin much wider than usual. “So you can have a horse in North Dakota. Won’t that be great?”

When Dad sobered up, the next day, and recovered from his headache, the day after, Mom sat him down and told him what he’d promised me. And she held him to it. She wouldn’t let him back out of it.

So for the next four months, I thought to myself, over and over again, I’m getting a horse, I’m getting a horse, I’m getting a horse. 

It’s happening again. I may be ever so much older than twenty now, but I’m having all those same feelings  Though it’s not a horse this time.  It’s a book.  It’s my book. And it’s being published. For reals. For really reals.  In four months.

It’s about a couple of strangers who meet up and have some troubles understanding one another.

Cross-species friendships can be complicated.

The book is All That Was Asked.  It’s coming out from Paper Angel Press, a publisher based in San Jose, California. And it should be out in January of 2020.  In the meantime, check out all the other books that Paper Angel Press has available.

 

 

 

Machine DesignMachine Design

 

I draw for you the art of Leonardo:
 
A man whose legs are feathered airfoils
of that smooth asymmetric camber
which folds the wind under an eagle’s wings.
 
A man poised in a cage of struts and sailcloth,
curved like the feathers on the haft of an arrow,
an apparatus geared to spin, to lift him free.
 
The paintings were for money.
 
 
 
 
This poem first appeared in Hadrosaur Tales #19, 2004.  You can still find copies of the original Hadrosaur Tales online at clarkesworldbooks.  Meanwhile, Hadrosaur Productions now publishes a new magazine, Tales of the Talisman, as well as novels, short fiction collections, and audio recordings.  Look them up at www.hadrosaur.com

 

On Aisle 42, Universe Components: Notes for Project LeadersOn Aisle 42, Universe Components: Notes for Project Leaders

I have a pair of projects to present this time–together, they are a sugar-based approach to understanding the building blocks of our universe.  The goal is to build up a sense of the scale and dynamic relationships among the smallest particles identified to date, and how they combine to form the stuff we call “matter”.  By the end of these activities, everyone participating should have a clearer picture of the following:

1. All of the matter in our universe is composed of just a few extremely basic and very tiny building blocks.  They’re called quarks and leptons.

2.These building blocks, in the right combinations, make the next-level construction materials.  The most common ones are electrons, protons, and neutrons.  But there are others, too.

3. Once you have electrons, protons, and neutrons, you can build elements.  Each element has particular physical and chemical properties–which arise from its unique physical composition of protons, electrons, and neutrons.

To make this activity fun (besides incorporating sweet treats), it helps to build into the presentation an element of discovery.  First, we come to terms with the fact that the familiar atom is not the smallest particle.  Second, we wrap our minds around the knowledge that even the tiny particles inside the atomic nucleus are made of even tinier ones.  Third, at the conclusion, it’s truly mind-expanding to try to envision each of these in true relative scale.

The atom is still a meaningful idea, so long as we adjust its definition to suit modern understanding.  The concept of the atom dates back over 2500 years, to Leucippus of Miletus and his more-famous student, Democritus.  They reasoned out that if you keep cutting a material, you’ll eventually reach a particle that cannot be divided further.  In Greek, the word “a” means “not” and “tomos” means cut, so when you call something an “atom,” you’re saying you can’t subdivide it.  However, even now that we know that the structures we call “atoms” can be broken open, we still use the term. For instance, we’ll talk about “an atom of iron” or “the carbon atom”.  But instead of defining the atom as “indivisible”, we now describe it as the smallest unit of a material that still retains those unique physical and chemical properties defined by its combination of electrons, protons, and neutrons.

In this project, we will build atoms from electrons, protons, and neutrons.  Energized by our constructions, we will discard our preconceptions about the structure of the universe and descend to the sub-sub atomic scale, where we will capture quarks and leptons, then build ourselves some protons and neutrons and electrons.  And then we will eat the lot:  atoms, quarks, protons and all. It’s elemental.

We’ll proceed in two parts:  “The Atomic Marshmallow Project” introduces the idea of atoms and their components, and “One Side Will Make You Smaller” takes us down into the realm of quarks.  As in our other science projects, we’ll include information to share with the participants as you go along. For those who would like to delve into more detail, you’ll find links to good sources with plenty of depth.

Everything You Need to Build A Universe

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