Worldbuilding: Slang, Profanity and Invented Language

2012-Feb-18 -> from the 29-days-of-fantasy department Tags:

The original plan was to have a guest post about dragons today, but I've had a change of heart, and will be writing the post on dragons myself, and posting it tomorrow. Instead, I bring you a guest post from a lovely Australian author, Ciara Ballintyne.

Ciara is a writer of high fantasy. She has been reading fantasy since she was 9 and writing it since she was 11. Born argumentative and recognising the long road to make money out of writing, Ciara wisely invested her natural inclinations in a career in law.

And so, without further ado, I bring you her fantastic post on Slang, Profanity and Invented Language.

When it comes to worldbuilding, there are so many ingredients it's entirely possible to spoil the meal with the wrong ones, too many of the right one, or add them at the wrong time or in the wrong way. So how do we know what to add and when? Can someone send me a recipe?

One ingredient often overlooked is language. A tasteful smattering of invented language, slang or profanity can give any world a certain realism. Caution: Do not overuse!

Slang

An easy one to overlook, gloss over or just plain ignore. Why? Because it's so damn hard! I can tell you that because I've tried and it really strained my brain.

Slang can be age specific, culture specific, or occupation specific. For example, the military and law enforcement has its own slang separate from that of the culture in which it exists. You can choose to use any or all of these -- but be sparing in the amount of slang you use. Slang adds authenticity but you don't want to over-salt the soup!

Slang can be character-specific, too. So there might be a word one of your characters favours, and you can use this attribute to distinguish him or her from other speakers, or as part of your characterisation.

The bad news is, in fantasy, you'll probably need to invent your own slang, because our own slang isn't likely to fit with your invented culture. It can be tough. Think about some of the slang you're familiar with, what relationship it bears to what it actually means, if there's a connection, or it's just because the word sounds good. Here's an example I did:

'You'll get smeared walking 'round here like that.'

Berkh glanced around then down. A girl, maybe twelve, in dirty boy's clothes with smudges on her face, sharp grey eyes, lank blonde hair, hovered in the shadows out of reach.

'Smeared?' Berkh looked down at his clothes, plain and unornamented, a little ragged around the edges, mended in places. They were none-too-clean. Why should he care if they got a little dirtier?

The girl's mouth dropped open. 'You know, smeared.' When his blank look persisted, she rolled her eyes. 'Smeared, wiped, ghasted...'

He shook his head, not getting it.

'Killed.' She ground the ball of her bare foot against the dirt street in a squelching motion. 'Get it?'

Yeah, he got it. The foot movement spoke volumes her words didn't. Dead, and in a spectacular fashion. What he called a messy example.

'Smeared' as a slang term isn't something I made up but the reader learns its meaning. It made sense, in this snippet, for the word to be explained to Berkh because he and the girl move in different social circles, but you can't do this where two characters both know the meaning of the word. Then, you need to carefully use the word so it's clear from context what it means.

Profanity and Insults

Often we see the same old profanities and insults repeated -- and why should they be? Profanity is culture specific.

We often swear or insult by reference to things we revere or denigrate. On Earth, that tends to be deities, sexual acts and bodily functions. Some of these may be the same, but if, for example, your culture doesn't really take their gods seriously, they might not swear by them. So you need to think about what your culture would find offensive and why. Only once you work this out can you determine how they might swear. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Does the culture prize something in particular? In Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series, long hair is a sign of stature on a Midlands woman. It might, therefore, be a great insult to call a woman hairless or short-haired (although I don't believe Goodkind makes use of this).

  • Is there a particularly exclusive society or occupation? Nobility often look down on commoners, and so elitists of other kinds might have derogatory terms for people outside their clique. I can't think of a good fantasy example, but a science-fiction one is how space-farers might call planet side people 'dirtsiders' or worse 'dirtsuckers'. A fantasy equivalent of space-farers might be dragonriders, or airship sailors... you get the idea. In fact, I do recall some of the dragonriders in Pern regarded non-riders in a similar derogatory fashion.

  • What prejudices exist, against who, and why? What characteristics do the victims have that can be derided? It might be pure racism, or it might be across species. What would you call an elf to express your disdain? How about a goblin? And your own invented races?

  • Is there a religion? Blasphemy comes from devotion. Can characters use the name of a god or goddess to swear? Has religion placed restrictions on its devotees? Saying someone has broken one can be an insult or profanity e.g. adulterer where monogamy is prized. Is there an equivalent of hell?

  • What do the people of your world fear? We often insult or profane using things we fear as a way of dealing with that fear.

Personally I find profanity harder than slang. You might find it works the other way round for you.

Invented Language

Of course profanity and slang as discussed above are invented language, but there are a couple more points I'd like to make more generally.

One, there are more than 6,000 languages on Earth. It beggars belief for everyone in your world to speak the same language. Mix it up. Yes, this might make it tough for you characters. You can find a more interesting solution than having everyone speak the same language.

You may invent other words than slang and profanity. In fantasy, it's pretty much a given. Don't spend pages at the beginning of your book explaining to us what all these things are (along with the history, politics, religion etc.). This includes a prologue. Prologues should only be used, in my opinion, in two very limited cases. Worldbuilding is not one of them. For that matter, don't ever spend pages anywhere in your book explaining these things to us. An infodump like this will bore us, no matter how fascinating your world.

The key to clever worldbuilding is to sprinkle these things through the action and dialogue so it's clear from the context what you are talking about. Like seasoning in a soup. If you get heavy-handed with the pepper, your diners won't be coming back for a second course. Here's an example of how to do it:

'I'm not here to kill you.' Astarl studied his face with interest. Nut-brown skin instead of olive said he was not Forynian. What interested her most, though, was he evidently had some way of focussing to ignore the pain.

'No?' Brown eyes flickered open. 'Isn't that what Nizari do?'

'No one is paying me to kill you.' Astarl eased her knife out of his body. Though she'd been careful, the magician screamed, jolted out of his meditative state. Fresh blood welled in the wound. Cloth torn from a cloak hanging on a peg made a makeshift bandage and she jammed it against his side. 'I was careful to be sure I hit no major organs. That wound may be painful, but as long as we staunch the bleeding, it won't kill you.'

Leaving him to hold the bandage against his wound, she turned to survey the room. 'You're a healing magician. Where do you keep your healing items?'

'The outlaws didn't send you?' Desperate hope edged the magician's voice. Hunching over his wound, his eyes locked to hers.

Astarl looked at him with one eyebrow cocked. Elnisyan, by the look of him. He was a long way south. Elnisya spoke the pidgin trading tongue more than its own language so she didn't even bother speaking to him in Elnisyan. 'Why would they?' Hands on hips, she looked over the cluttered workshop, lit by the glow of one flickering tallow candle. 'They have already destroyed your Confederacy.'

From this snippet, without slowing the action, we've learned:

  • There are two countries, Elnisya and Foryn, and a little about the characteristics of those people and their languages;

  • Nizari appear to be assassins or some other kind of killers-for-hire;

  • There is some kind of group of magicians called the Confederacy, which has been destroyed by outlaws.

We don't know everything there is to know about these yet, but it's starting to sketch out some of the world in which events are taking place -- and at the same time, the plot is still moving forward. Your world only has relevance in the context of the events that happen there. If the reader doesn't know what's happening, they are less likely to care about the world.

One Last Caution

Here are a few things to be wary of:

  1. Human brains can process two, maybe three, strange or unusual concepts per page. I don't mean a word here or there, but where sentences or paragraphs become almost unrecognisable. Consider yourself warned;

  2. Using all consonants or all vowels in invented words or names;

  3. Using similar sounding names, including too many names starting with the same letter in one story;

  4. Apostrophes and other punctuation affectations e.g. F'lar in the DragonRiders of Pern series. This apparently isn't done anymore. Probably because it's already been done to death.

Please allow me to be the first to say, thank you, Ciara, for this very insightful post. You've given me and my readers plenty to think about.

Ciara's website is at www.ciaraballintyne.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @CiaraBallintyne or like her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/CiaraBallintyne.

Come back tomorrow for a showcase on The Might of Dragons.


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4 Comments(1 Pending Approval):


By cathy brockman on Sat 18 Feb 2012 10:17:02 am [ Reply ] This is a great and interesting blog!!I love all the fun helpful information you share!!

By Thomas A. Knight on Sat 18 Feb 2012 11:11:28 am [ Reply ] Hi Cathy, and thanks for dropping by! I'm glad you're enjoying my blog. :)

By Christine on Sat 18 Feb 2012 01:43:26 pm [ Reply ] Yes! This article had some great points. I was actually planning on doing a series of blog posts on swears, so if I do, I'll have to link back to this article.

I really like how you distinguish between slang, swears, and invented language. I think about this stuff a lot when I'm writing.

A few things I did notice though, about integrating those words, didn't quite enchant me the same way. You mention using context to give clues to meaning, and I think this is the best way, and yet "smeared" gets a lengthy exposition that rambles in a circle about itself.

Personally, I think any explanation after 'You'll get smeared walking 'round here like that" isn't giving your audience enough credit. The meaning is obvious enough by the context already, and if I were reading, I would get annoyed that it's being spelled out slowly, with a lot of extra dialogue that really isn't contributing to plot.

I mean, even if this kid runs in different circles, he's going to come across as really silly/slow if he doesn't pick up the meaning of the word himself. Also, if someone way older, who looks like a boss, uses a new word, are you going to out yourself and admit you don't know what it means? I had to misuse just about every piece of slang on the block before I learned what anything meant...

The cultural references in the last example are integrated more effectively.

By Ciara Ballintyne on Sat 18 Feb 2012 06:59:25 pm [ Reply ] Cathy: Glad you found it useful!

Christine: Don't forget the slang example is from a short story - this isn't an extract purely around slang. The explanation is given because Berkh doesn't know the answer. So this is part showing slang and part showing character. Berkh is a colonel and half-brother to the king, although you can't see that in this snippet, and the girl is a street-rat from the dock quarter. Their worlds don't usually cross at all and he has zero familiarity with the street patois. A guard in his command, however, would probably be more familiar with poor quarter slang - unfortunately he hasn't got one handy right now. You must always be true to your character and the situation - the other thing you can't see from this snippet is the emotional stress Berkh is under, the reason he is even in this place at all, and the fact that he's not thinking as clearly or as level-headed as he might otherwise. I expect the issues you've raised, while legitimate, would be more completely answered in the context of the whole story. However, thank you for pointing them out, and you are absolutely right that there are many circumstances you wouldn't spell it out this simply.

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