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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