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Guest Post: ‘Word Building’ by Katherine Addison (aka Sarah Monette)

If there is one thing in the world I am a prima donna about, it’s names.

I have to know characters’ names before I can write about them, and I have more than once been blocked on a book because I had a character’s name wrong. For reasons I don’t understand any better than anyone else, names are absolutely vital to my creative process. Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Rule of Names” might have been written about me.

This finicky perfectionism makes things difficult enough with stories set in the real world, or in worlds close enough that I can cannibalize real languages, as I did in the Doctrine of Labyrinths series. But when your protagonist is the half-goblin son of the elvish emperor, that strategy won’t work.

And if the names are going to be right, the language has to be, too.

Most science fiction and fantasy writers probably fool around with inventing bits and pieces of a language at least once in their careers, although few, if any, of us ascend to Tolkien’s dizzying and rarefied linguistic heights. I don’t think, although I could be wrong, that very many of us are as dedicated to constructed languages as the Language Creation Society, although we can certainly benefit from resources like the Language Construction Kit. Somebody once said of Tolkien that he had to invent elves in order to give his languages someone to speak them; for my part, it’s the other way around: if I invent elves, I have to give them a language to speak.

In the first draft of The Goblin Emperor, the language was bristling with diacritical marks. I was deliberately trying to make it look not like English, because what would be the point of inventing a language for elves to speak if it looked like my own native language? For the same reason, I foregrounded grammatical gender (all cities are female, all rivers are male), and made the language agglutinative with a preponderance of inflectional suffixes.

I wanted Ethuverazhin (i.e., elvish), to be a language I could have fun with and also a language with rules that could be deduced and that would make sense. (English is terrible at this, but I’ve studied Latin, Ancient Greek, and Old English, all of which adhere pretty consistently to their grammatical rules.) After a certain point, when I’d reached a critical mass of invented words, this actually made the task of making up more words easier, because I had rules to follow, and I’d internalized how the language worked.

My husband, who is a pragmatist, talked me down off the diacritical ledge; although I’m still vaguely resentful that I had to take the diacriticals out–the name of the palace is the Unťélenése Court, not the Untheileneise Court, and dammit it makes a difference–he was right. There’s a fine line between pushing the envelope and alienating readers, and that’s the line at which an author has to let go of the platonic ideal and make some compromises.

I’m not very good at that. In point of fact, I’m terrible at it, as the Doctrine of Labyrinths quartet attests, where I invented two competing calendrical systems, and then spent four books reckoning dates and days of the week back and forth between the two (plus a couple of ancillary calendars along the way). In theory, I still think I was right; there is no reason that an imaginary society with a completely different history would have the same names for the days and months as we do, much less calculate the year from the same arbitrary point. But in practice, I nearly drove myself insane, and my readers were hopelessly confused.

But I’m not willing to give up the deep, addictive joy of making up words. I invented languages for the elves and the goblins; I invented naming systems, and I stuck grimly to my guns that in this world -a is a masculine ending and -o is a feminine ending, because my protagonist’s name was Maia and his mother’s name was Chenelo, and those two things were simply not up for discussion, no matter how weird it was going to look to my readers. I have to have the names right.

And I have faith in the ability of SFF readers to adapt. Many of them, like me, even enjoy figuring out the rules of the system from context. Many of them enjoy world-building that provides a puzzle, which is something I love with all my heart.

Maybe next time I’ll invent an alphabet.

Katherine Addison’s short fiction has been selected by The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her book, The Goblin Emperor, is available today.  



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