Constructed Languages

From Elvish to Esperanto to Dothraki to Belter

Welcome to Part 8 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: David Peterson (as moderator), Lawrence M. Schoen, Ryn Yee, and Jean Bürlesk. The panel description was as follows:

This is not a 1950s movie. The aliens don’t speak English. Fictional societies, whether on distant planets, in the far future, or in secondary fantasy worlds, will have their own languages unlike our own. These constructed languages (conlangs) can be fun–and devilishly difficult–to construct. Language experts and writers (aren’t writers language experts?) will talk about making a conlang, and how they figure into stories, from first contact to diplomacy to bargaining for your life.

How Far Should You Go?

When reading a book — like Lord of the Rings or Embassytown or watching a tv series — like Star Trek or Babylon Five, or even a movie like Arrival, even the casual fan can pick up a word or two in a constructed language (or conlang). But, from the outside-looking-in, it can be hard to determine: did the writers invent a word? Or a full language?

More importantly — if I’m writing a story, how much of this language do I need to invent? Do I need to act like Tolkien?

Well? All languages are comprised of a multitude of layers.

Layers of a Language

  1. Vocabulary — The most readily apparent. The conlang consists of words with meanings. But, let’s think about the ways the vocabulary we use reflects on us.
    • Word choice can demonstrate a particular culture (references to particular gods or rituals, expected life events, etc)
    • Word choice can also demonstrate class (“How y’all doing? versus “How do you do, today?”)
    • Words also have connotations, that may not be familiar to non-native speakers. (“My big sister” versus “my large sister”).
  2. Grammar — Most humans are designed to recognize patterns, if only to make sure they can tell when something seems ‘off’. What is grammar if not patterns of word use?
    • What order do you put your parts of speech — your nouns, verbs, adjectives, and more?
    • Do the verbs/nouns/etc change form based on other factors in the sentence? (i.e. verb conjugation based on tense or subject)
    • Punctuation (I love the Oxford comma!)

Do I Need The Whole Language Before I Can Write?

Short answer? No.

Long answer? It’s up to you. And you can always write your story and then layer the language part in.

Options for Conlangs

Treat language as world building!

  1. Opt out! Use universal translators.
    • But! Think about idioms and how poorly they translate between earth cultures. “Raining cats and dogs”.
    • Think about things that can translate content, but not intent.
  2. A few words here and there, just thrown in.
    • You can spell it either in the way that makes it more pronounceable by the majority of your audience, or stylized to give a sense of culture, (but harder to pronounce).
  3. A few sentences — an idea of the spelling of things, a form of grammar, what letters and vowels are more common in the language.
    • Try to be consistent for certain sounds. For example, pick either “ck” or “k”, and “s” or “c”. Unless there’s a cultural explanation.
  4. Give the created culture verbal ticks (“like”, “um”, etc). Plus, their own accents – both with their own language and yours.
  5. Remember those idioms? Think about what sort of hyperbolic phrases the created people’s culture might use.
  6. Have a creole language! Now, is a creole language — using part alien/ part your language easier? No. All languages have their own grammar and patterns and cultural baggage! Even dialects of your own are internally consistent.
  7. Some languages have a better vocabulary for certain concepts. Show the characters switching languages based on conversation subject matter.
    • This also means you can imply words that are too complex to be said in one (for example) English word.
  8. Next step? Think about the history of the culture. Invaders and conquests, what sort of languages got filtered in.
    • English has “beef” that comes from “cows”. How did these words get to be so different? Because “cow” is from the Germanic, while the conquering Norman (i.e. French) lords used the term “boeuf“, giving ranchers one word, and the people eating the meat another.
  9. More! What font, alphabet, pictograms, logographic, syllabaries, etc would your society use? Could it be translated into the language you’re writing in? Or not?
  10. Okay. You’ll need a glossary by now, and might be time to start thinking about a dictionary. Maybe a grammar book.

In conlang circles, the Darmock (season 5, episode 2 Star Trek: The Next Generation) is infamous. In the episode, while the translators work as usual, the culture uses references to famous (on their world) stories for many concepts.  For example, the expressions “Darmok on the ocean, Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, Darmok and Jalad on the ocean”, convey a sense of two opposing persons, who arrive separately at an isolated place and, forced to cooperate when faced with a fierce beast, leave together as friends.(1)

Things To Be Wary Of

  1. Science fiction and fantasy has overused the apostrophe in created names and more. Be sure you need it before using one.
  2. Is borrowing from a dying language a good idea?

    I mean, science is known for using Latin for its naming conventions.

    No. Remember those connotations and contexts we mentioned? If you’re not a native speaker, it’s easy to get those wrong. And using one language to represent an imaginary language is kinda the definition of cultural appropriation.
  3. What about using words from a real language?

    Is it because you have characters from that culture? Sure! Just make sure a native speaker reads it and makes sure it both says what you meant for it to say, and that the connotation is what you intended. (‘Big sister’ versus ‘Large sister’). Just make sure the words are there for a reason, not just window dressing.

Are you ready to start creating a language?

Have you created one in the past?

Let me know how it goes/went!

Fairy Tale Contract Law

Welcome to Part 7 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Kathleen Jennings as moderator, Sascha Stronach and AJ Lancaster. The panel description was as follows:

Our panellists consider various bargains made in fairy tales and fairy tale fantasy, and what that means for the laws of the land of fables: How could Rumpelstiltskin’s contract been enforced? What court could hold Jack (of Beanstalk fame) guilty of trespassing? When does a promise become a curse, or a quest a contract?

I love fairy tales, fairy tale retellings, and creating my own, so when I saw this panel was going to happen, I knew I didn’t want to miss it.

Who Makes The Rules?

When reading fairy tales, it can be rather nebulous to determine if a law is intrinsic or something instituted by a peoples.

The power dynamic is sometimes part of the story. Who knows the rules and can enforce them (Baba Yaga or Rumplestiltskin)?

In folk horror, the rules are unclear, and the rules will come and bite you. In fantasy, the rules typically come from the author or the rulers, something a little more knowable.

Although?

The punishment doesn’t always seem to fit the crime.

Like a force of nature itself. Fairy tale contracts are a way of reassuring people — if they follow the rules, they’ll be safe.

But, the saving grace of fairy tale law is there is usually a loophole. The petty details are what keeps the capricious being from completely destroying you.

Consent Matters

While in the modern era, a contract cannot be legally binding if the signer doesn’t understand it, that rule is clearly not true in fairy tale law. Perhaps, fairy law represents a shift in culture… whether one’s word is something that can be trusted?

However, the fairies can’t demand something for nothing. In order for it to be a contract, no matter how capricious it seems, the fairy has to have given you something. This is why folks are warned not to eat or drink anything in the fae realms.

No matter how ignorant of the rules the victim of fairy tale contract law might be, the mortal has usually done something to — consciously or not — agree to the contract.

Even if they don’t believe in it themselves: think of Sarah in the movie, Labyrinth, bargaining her little brother away.

One way to get trapped is either making false claims, or having someone make them on your behalf, such as the woman in Rumpelstiltskin. Her father’s claim that she could spin straw into gold started the whole mess and dragged the titular character into the story.

But? Cheating can get you out. While the fairy folk might rant and stomp until they stomp their way out of the mortal realm, they can’t deny your win. Likely because they cheated you into this contract in the first place. But, by doing the impossible, the character is shown to deserve their prize.

Common Tropes

Firstborns are often promised in fairy tales — perhaps as a way of winning back land that the humans stole from the fairy folk? With these tales being written in a time when the first born often was the sole (or primary) inheritor.

The youngest — of three, or seven, or nine usually — is typically the one to save the day. Because, in a time where the firstborn inherits, by the time you get to the last-born, they’re expected to get by on nothing but their wits.


While fairy tale contract law can be cruel and capricious, one can usually escape if you follow the rules, and think outside the box.

What are your favorite fairy tales? What loopholes have stuck with you?

Spirits Abroad and At Home

Welcome to Part 6 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were: Doctor Z Aung as moderator, Graci Kim, and Momi Mondal. The description for the panel was as follows:

Yōkai, manitou, aswang–these are some non-western spirits. Western SFF has mostly limited itself to European creatures. How do these natives of other lands’ stories compare to the more familiar ones? Can we learn about (and as writers, can we reveal) something about cultures by comparing their spirit tales?

At the panel, we were treated to the panelists comparing and contrasting the views of spirits from their native cultures, with Graci Kim representing Korean beliefs, Momi Mondal, the Bengali beliefs, and Doctor Z’s family’s Myanmar traditions.

While the panelists shared their knowledge based on their families and cultures, beliefs and traditions vary from family to family and from village to village and thus, are not intended to be a definitive statement on what all people from a culture believe or have believed in the past.

House Spirits

Traditionally, Korean house spirits are like deities — contained to a room or object. The Korean spirits are all about people fulfilling their expected role in society. The unmarried virgin ghost or unmarried bachelor. The evil ghost with a featureless face, haunting children, because she was unable to have children in life. These spirits inhibit a house, they don’t follow a family.

But not all spirits are ghosts.

In Burmese (Myanmar) culture, one prays to and gives offerings to house spirits. And there are spirits for houses, villages, and towns. These nature or house spirits are often people who died in service or tragically.

For the Bengali, the word for ghost means “dead humans”. Their only stories about animals are dead people coming back as such. They don’t have spirits that aren’t ghosts, because they have a polytheistic religion.

Originally, they had altars to their ancestors to watch over them, until other religions came in. Eventually, the concept of a heaven and hell were introduced to their stories. Their god stories are very different from their ghost stories, though.

Are The Spirits Positive/Protective?

In Korean tradition, the family watches over you. And dreams themselves can be messages from them. Graci Kim dreamed of her grandmother and gut pain. The dream went away when her granny was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

For the Bengali, their gods aren’t necessarily positive or protective, they just are.

In Burmese culture, ancestor worship is regional, rather than gods. Plus, Hindi gods are always good. You familiarize the god to yourself, and the gods are all family, so that shows in how they react. They’re like your family or network.

What Inspires The Darker Tales?

Some are inspired by loss — lost children, lost spouses, people who died before they could fulfil their role in society.

Some are inspired by urbanization — talking to someone in the dark and realizing later, it was a stranger, not who you thought it was. These tales remind you to be polite and welcoming to strangers… so you don’t tick off someone with power.

Others are inspired by tragic events — chinese migrant workers who died were bound tightly and sent home, and looked like they were marching home, inspiring ghost stories.

And others exist to reinforce social roles — Momi shared that she’s from a lower caste Indian background, (what used to be called untouchable), but was so integrated these days, she didn’t know it until later and didn’t really suffer much from discrimination. Yet, in the films and stories, the bad guy was almost always from that lower caste.

Writing Tips for Non-Western Spirits

When writing ‘the other’… no one is stopping you, they just ask that you have a level of respect for the culture it derives from.

The lived cultural experience lends an intimacy that research struggles to duplicate. Before you tell the story, ask yourself: is there someone better suited to write this.

American science-fiction publishers typically are looking for the big stories with the strong cultural influences, not necessarily explorations of internal cultural clashes, not involving Westerners. Small stories work better as short stories, while diaspora tales are a totally different sub-genre.

Recommended Reading

  • Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad
  • Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride
  • F.C. Yee The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
  • NK Jemisin’s The Great Cities series
  • Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen

What do you bring to your writing from your culture?

What cultures do you like exploring in your writing?

World-Building: Economics

Welcome to Part 3 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the “Future Economics were Jesper Stage, Karl Schroeder, and Katherine Quevedo. While panel descriptions are always an idea of what the panel might be, and not a promise of what it will contain, they’re always a lovely teaser. For ‘Future Economics’, the description was as follows:

Will we ever fully disentangle from the physical? Blockchains, cryptocurrency, differently organic sentience. Will economic concepts of supply, demand, money, resources hold up? Evolve? Or be completely different?  And what might they look like?

Economics is usually seen as a dry topic, full of game theory and calculated systems.

But economic systems do not exist in a vacuum. Here are:

5 Things To Consider When Designing Future (or Fantastical) Economic Systems

  1. Remember when looking at the model, that you must consider the humanity of the situation if you want both more nuanced and more accurate predictions
  2. Most of the labor in this world is not done for money — most labor is caretaking, and is usually done by women
  3. When IP (Intellectual property) is owned by a corporation, it is typically very secure. What about the people who create that IP?
    • Computer translation gets better by analysing translated works that are online, but what about the people who are doing the translations? Where is their compensation for training the automation that will eventually leave them jobless.
    • If Corporations are legally considered people and have a right to free speech, does that make them somehow potentially immortal beings?
  4. Where do the arts get their funding?
    • In this day and age, many get their funding through Patreon or similar entities — and projects get their funding based on popularity — both of the idea and the creator. This leads to success for those who are already successful and oftentimes nothing for those who have not yet had the opportunity for success.
  5. What are the roles for AI (artificial intelligence) and computers in the future?
    • Consider AIs representing natural resources like rivers/mountains/etc, programed to act in the resource’s best interests
    • What if google or facebook or what have you granted you a sort of ‘universal income’ for use of your picture and your data in their algorithms?
      • If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a ‘universal income’, in this day and age where more and more things are becoming automated, more and more jobs are almost more like ‘make-work’ than needed to sustain humanity or civilization. In such a world, it has been suggested that humanity itself makes one worthy of rent and food, with work something done because of a desire to do the job, a wish for purpose, or done for extra luxuries.

A world fantastic doesn’t have to be built on the economic principles that we live with today. Exploring the alternatives, and finding our way to the extrapolations of what that means for humanity can help create a world of nuance, with a core of truth holding it together.


What real world influences do you bring to world-building economics? What theories do you like to explore in your writing?

Cultures and Their Myths

This is part 1 of my CoNZealand – WorldCon 77 notes.

The titular panel was called “Shared Common Myths” and the panel description was as follows: “How do myths and legends impact cultures around the world? Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell argued that the same stories underlie myths everywhere. Were they right, or are there fundamental differences between myths from around the world? “

The panelists were Helen Marshall (as moderator), Peadar Ó Guilín, Graci Kim, and Suyi Davies Okungbowa.

While the premise of the panel was the shared myths, the discussion instead demonstrated that the culture that births the story influences the myth far more than one would expect. While I am referencing all of these items as “myths”, many of them are sincere beliefs of their followers, and in this post, I am aiming to give them all the same level of respect.

Myths that more people should know about

In some Korean myths, in the beginning of time, Bear and Tiger both wanted to be human and prayed to Hwanung. The divine king told them to go into a cave with only mugwort leaves and garlic to eat. If they stayed in the darkness for 100 days and 100 nights, through the dark and cold and hunger, they would become human. It didn’t take long before Tiger left for food. But Bear became the first human — a beautiful woman.

The fascinating part is the foods it describes were so unexpected.

Another myth put forward was told in Laurie Anderson song ‘The Beginning of Memory’, based on Aristophanes’s ‘The Birds’. The Earth was originally covered in water, so birds would circle it endlessly. When Bird’s father died, there was no where to bury him, so, instead, she buried him in the back of her head — and that was the beginning of memory. The notion and contemplation of memory is fascinating.

For the Irish, their mythology talks about the interaction between two worlds in touching planes. In the ‘Voyage of Bran’, on a rough sea, Manannán mac Lir rode by on his chariot. Bran called out, “how do you wheel on the sea?” and Mac Lir replied, “it’s fields here for me.” In another Irish tale, a ship flies by and its anchor gets caught in a tree. A man swims down through the air to free the anchor and starts to drown. A farmer, seeing all this, cuts the anchor free. The man swims back up, the shipmates wave, and the ship sets sail once more. The ways the two worlds overlap, but differ in geography is fascinating.

In a West African creation myth, there is a God of Sky and a God of Water. Another god offers to create land. So, they give him a chain and a snail shell filled with dirt. The god climbs down the chain from the sky, and pours the dirt out of the shell, creating land and mountains and more. He’d brought other artifacts with him, and filled the land with humans, animals, and vegetation.

The Differences Between The Myth World and the Real World

The intersection of different or parallel worlds is always fascinating.

For the Irish, they claim to have beat the spirits that came before, the Tuatha De Dannann, and agreed to split the land with the losers. But not east to west, not north to south. The Irish took the top of the ground and granted their spirits the underground. And it is because of this trickery that the Irish spirits can be so antagonistic, and always trying to get the better of the rules. Spirits in other places may be kinder, or not, depending on the culture that birthed them.

In myths, there is often an underworld — beneath or beside our world. In some mythologies, the underworld/spirit world isn’t really another place, it’s a revolving door. In some Korean traditions, when you die you are wrapped in 7 layers of shrouds and, in the spirit realm, you are on trial for 49 days. And every 7 days, your descendents can perform rituals to help. Eventually, your spirit will be reincarnated.

Life and birth are different in spirit worlds. The ways gods are said to birth themselves or each other are not the mortal way.

The Basis Of Myth

A culture’s myths are based on one (or more) of three things:

  • what a people wants to be true
  • what a people believes is true
  • what a people fears is true

The further back in a culture’s history you find a created myth, the more likely that the myth is a way to make sense of the world around them, and a sense of self. As more cultures with their own believes intersect, you see more external values and morals being filtered into the stories. Many later myths that have been collected have been filtered through Christian/Muslim/Confucianistic/etc beliefs.

There was mention of the story of a mythological firefly creature that conveyed what people needed to do to be safe from malaria — that was created after the mosquito was introduced (inadvertently) by the colonizers.

Absorption versus Changed Myths

Myths have always changed and evolved, that is the nature of oral traditions. Plus, there are some myths are changed by outside influences, and some myths from outside cultures absorbed and rewritten with native influences.

In Korea, every family had its own spirits, and then Confucianism made them into family ancestors. Things are interpreted by where you live and your culture.

In Christian church art, they often made the paintings and the images of the stories they were trying to teach filled with flora and fauna very local to the area, so that the people could see themselves in the story.

The Power of Modern Myths

By creating and rewriting myths, you can create a sense of community. You can bring the culture you were born into and make it more accessible, or more relevent to current issues and concerns.

Disasters and war and trade have always influences myths and changed both their nuances and their focus. They give us a way to cope with the truth.

Today? The pandemic is likely going to spawn tales and myths for generations.


What are your favorite myths? Have you ever created one or your own or rewritten one? I know I love to.