layla: Woman looking down into a valley (RC-Jemer TPB2)
Layla ([personal profile] layla) wrote2012-04-13 01:39 pm

The Annotated Raven's Children - Issue #1: Page 1

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This is actually the second version of the opening scene. The original, very first pages of the comic were drawn in 2000, and when I redid issue #1 in late 2001 with the new cover, I revised and redrew the first 6 pages as well. (The main difference is that in the original opening, you get told all of this, in a lot more words, while actually seeing a series of talking heads. The new version is, at the very least, more dynamic.)

The statue is a boundary marker that indicates the edges of Wagaibe clan lands. The lettering on it relates part of the story of the clan history. I did in fact work out their alphabet, although those aren't actual words. (Wagaibe is written top-to-bottom, in vertical columns.)

While I was preparing these pages for posting, the use of the word "yurt" bothered me in an odd, indefinable way. When I get to that word as I read the page, I stumble. Something feels out of place about it. I think I finally figured out what it is.

Basically you've got three choices when you have a character mention the name of an object, animal or plant in a fantasy world (er, all of this assumes that you're writing in English to begin with; otherwise insert language of choice, of course):

1. You can make up a word. It's not a yurt, it's a glasblickel!
2. You can use a common English word, or a combination of them: "tent" or "tent-house", for example.
3. You can use a non-English word from an actual language that conveys what you want.

Obviously, most of this is an individual choice on the author's part, depending on the effect they're going for, the level of immersion in the culture that they want the reader to achieve, and so forth.

I don't see much point in doing #1, though, if there's already an English word that means exactly what you want. You're only going to annoy your readers if you go around calling birch trees flangablaggers for no good reason. If you're skillful about it, though -- if, say, you're having two characters who speak different languages try to talk to each other -- you can get away with quite a bit of invented vocabulary. And if you really are trying to get across something that has no good English equivalent, then a completely invented word is perfectly appropriate. Some readers will be turned off by it nevertheless; others will eat it up, because this is exactly what they come to secondary world fiction for. (I'm more in the latter category, up to a point, at least. Beyond that point, I think the author is being a little too self-indulgent -- but my own "perfectly appropriate" is probably someone else's "completely self-indulgent", so, you know ... individual tastes and all that.)

The second one can sacrifice specificity for comprehensibility. A yurt is not at all the same thing as a tent. On the other hand, "we pitched our tent" gets the meaning across just fine. In general, if you don't go so generic that you blur all the foreign specificity out of a fictional culture, I think this option is nearly always appropriate (and it's probably the one that I would've gone for in this case, if I were rewriting it now).

The third option gives you access to the virtually unlimited vocabulary of our own planet -- with somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 languages on Earth (depending on how you count them), there is bound to be someone, somewhere, who came up with something similar to your fictional object or concept.

But in using a real word from a real-word language, you're also reminding the reader (subtly) that the actual language exists, and that the characters all speaking English is actually a polite fiction for comprehensibility. And, depending on the reader and the level of their immersion in the world, this may or may not cause them to stumble a little bit. Some authors go to great lengths trying to purge their fantasy and science fiction writing of any anachronistic or out-of-place vocabulary whatsoever: Elizabeth Bear, for example. (Personally, I'm not concerned about it to that degree ... It's something I think about a lot more than I used to, but I'm still inclined to handwave it to some degree.)

Since real-world languages don't exist in a cultural vacuum, you can also find yourself bringing in unwanted emotional and historical connotations along with the word -- especially as things shift and change. My dad recently mentioned the mental disconnect of rereading Dune and being caught off guard by the overt Arabic/Middle Eastern cultural stuff in the novel. The first time he read it, as a young man in the early 1970s, it seemed like nothing but alien-culture set dressing, which presumably was how Frank Herbert was using it. Most people in the U.S. hadn't heard words like "jihad" and so forth. These days, it's become familiar and it makes the suspension of disbelief harder. RC has its own glaring example of this, later on, in the Japanese influences that I used for certain elements of the Tolshay Kahn language and culture. When I was worldbuilding, I thought of it as nothing more than a foreign influence that would be unfamiliar to most readers. A few years later, after anime and manga exploded, it was a different story ... literally!

"Yurt" is probably already somewhat familiar to English-speaking readers, enough that most of them would most likely know what it means (or have a general idea). English has a ton of loanwords, and there's an infinite continuum between "foreign word" and "fully adopted English word". (Nobody considers "rifle" or "mutton" a loanword anymore.) Whether a word slides seamlessly into the fabric of your fantasy world, or sticks up and causes your readers to stumble over it, is determined by a complicated and non-deterministic equation involving where it's used and how it's used and what context each individual reader brings to it. (I'm guessing, for example, that "yurt" wouldn't stand out to me at all if the Wagaibe were more obviously Mongol-derived in culture.)

What do you guys think? What are your personal preferences for borrowed or invented words in fantasy settings, either taken from real-world languages or made up?
ysabetwordsmith: Cartoon of me in Wordsmith persona (Default)


[personal profile] ysabetwordsmith 2012-04-14 06:31 am (UTC)(link)
Depends on the context for me. I won't hesitate to use non-English words because English is really a creole anyhow (Germanic base + Latin + Greek + French + Norse + everything else it's ever brushed past). That's the simplest. An English paraphrase works if I'm trying for a little local color but want to maintain maximum accessibility.

For deeper work, especially in an established setting, I'll borrow from the local language because I'm quite good with constructed languages. I've built a number of them in varying degrees. My fans are used to me using words from foreign languages or constructed languages; they'll follow me. Anything with linguistic or communication themes gets the original language just for thematic match, too.
thnidu: Tom Baker's Dr. Who, as an anthropomorphic hamster, in front of the Tardis. ©C.T.D'Alessio (Dr. Whomster)


[personal profile] thnidu 2012-04-14 02:26 pm (UTC)(link)
I thought "yurt" worked well here, for a tent used as residence by a family of a nomadic people. It's a pretty well known word,* but it's not nativized and still carries its connotations of the Asiatic steppes and its circular shape.

*"Everybody generalizes from one example. At least, I do." S.K.Z. Brust, in Issola
thnidu: my familiar. "Beanie Baby" -type dragon, red with white wings (Default)

Re: okbaimi

[personal profile] thnidu 2012-04-14 05:37 pm (UTC)(link)
Pseudo-lolcat: OK by me.
thnidu: my familiar. "Beanie Baby" -type dragon, red with white wings (Default)

Re: okbaimi

[personal profile] thnidu 2012-04-15 05:32 am (UTC)(link)
An' thass why! :-)
frith_in_thorns: (Zundry - teacups)

[personal profile] frith_in_thorns 2012-04-14 02:40 pm (UTC)(link)
Have you read anything by Trudi Canavan? I do like her stories, but she has a habit of making up words for everything - things like spider, ox, coffee - and then just using them with oblique descriptions of what they're actually describing (and a translation list in the back), which is actually pretty annoying/funny after a while.

But then, that's for words for which there is a perfectly good English equivalent - in general, if there's something very specific to be described, like a certain type of house/living space, I tend to think that's a reasonable place to make up a word, provided that readers get an understanding of what the thing is and it isn't done too often. I guess it's really all down to context.
frith_in_thorns: (Writing - tea and book)

[personal profile] frith_in_thorns 2012-04-14 03:44 pm (UTC)(link)
No, these books are still coming out - although she's actually stopped doing it as much in the last couple. But yes, she also has words for tea and coffee! I can't remember tea, but coffee is raka. I think the point when I had the aargh reaction at it was when the heroine encountered a very common creature in a tunnel and the narrative gave its made up name and described it, and I was going THAT IS A SPIDER YOU COULD JUST HAVE SAID THAT RATHER THAN USING A WHOLE PARAGRAPH TO TELL US WHAT A SPIDER LOOKS LIKE. But I do like her Magician books, which are so far two sets of trilogies.

I don't think I've read much stuff that has language barrier issues. Out of the ones I have, I think Jingo is the one where I think it's done really well (in several extremely different contexts). But then I love pretty much everything Terry Pratchett writes, so :)