Mercury Retrograde Press is a small, independent press that focuses on quality rather than quantity. I don’t think they get the book blogger attention they deserve, and so I started the MRx Bloggy Love project. There has been quite a bit of participation so far this year, including a read along of Barbara Friend-Ish’s Shadow of the Sun, hosted by nrlymrtl.
One of Mercury Retrograde Press’s authors is Leona Wisoker. She is the author of four books in the Children of the Desert series. It’s pretty hard to write about a fictional fantasy world without coming up with at least a few purely invented names and words, but, as we readers will tell you, it’s pretty easy to bomb a fictional glossary, too (“zorses”, anyone?). Leona does an excellent job of inventing a whole new vocabulary, and if for no other reason than to revel in the delight of a well-done fantasy fictional glossary, I recommend Secrets of the Sands. Here, she tells us the how and why and what of creating a second-world glossary.
How does a writer come up with so many believable but totally made up words? How do they add to the reader’s experience? How do you manage the glossary from one book to the next? What pitfalls have you run into with a fantastical vocabulary?
It starts so simply. Just one little collection of rearranged letters, thrown in for a hit of the exotic. After all, you think, I don’t want to use a real-world foreign language in a completely fictional world; let’s scramble the letters up and see what happens.
Then that one little italicized word looks, well, lonely. So a mate is created for it. And then, predictably, they breed…and before you know it, you’re frantically researching rules for creating a fictional language and structuring a family tree of gender references.
In my particular case, it started with the very first lines of Secrets of the Sands. I wanted to create a soundscape that would stand out from the usual “crowd noise” descriptions; so rather than telling the reader about the sounds, I threw the sounds themselves into play:
–Hee-ay, hee-ay: the cry of the water-seller in the broad and the narrow places; shass-shass-shass, the warning signal to clear the road for those of noble blood, be it one or many together. Iiii, iii-sass, iii-sass, the wailing of a merchant who protested his certain ruin–with overtones of castration–should he lower the price any further.–
The first two sounds were simple enough to not require much by way of definition, but the merchant’s protest was more complex. What, exactly, gave it the overtones of castration? I decided that iii was the best choice, as it’s intrinsically a high pitched sound; it felt more appropriate than sass. But deciding that iii indicated a gender neutral/unmasculine condition meant I had to develop alternates for male and female. I managed to avoid that decision while Idisio remained only in the company of desert lords and kings, because titles were all I needed; but eventually, he was faced with “ordinary folk” and needed to use a respectful yet not noble address. S’a (female), s’e (male), and s’ieas (mixed group) were born.
I have occasionally been accused of overthinking things. The cascade that came from that one decision is a really good example of that problem; I wound up creating terms for uncle, nephew, grandfather, and multiple insults, just from that one designation of iii as gender-neutral.
I tried to make the madness a little bit easier by keeping a certain (arguably artificial) similarity between terms in the same family. For instance, ma’am and sir and ladies and gentlemen have no real connection, phonetically speaking; certainly not when compared to s’a, s’e, s’ii, and s’ieas. For “honored priest” I developed the term s’iope (beloved of the gods), which implies 1) that the “honored/beloved” part relies on that apostrophe s, and 2) that priests and gods alike are seen, to a certain degree, as asexual (thanks to that i right after the apostrophe).
Gender wound up infiltrating all sorts of things in surprisingly short order. If you look at the glossary for the Children of the Desert series, you’ll notice terms both respectful and disrespectful, many based around that apostrophe s. For instance, perroc-s’etta is a rather colloquial nickname for a type of cactus “milk”. The more global indicators ish (for feminine) and ke (for masculine) resulted in words like ishell (a place where women worship) and s’a-ke (mother’s brother).
I kept the “rules” flexible and even vague in spots, largely because that’s reality: language evolves and adapts and twists round and contradicts itself without warning over the millennia. I will also admit to a sense that there was only so much “getting it right” that would serve the overall story; past a certain point, the madness of proper lexicography was too deep even for me. So there are times when the language will not match up in a strictly linear sense; for example, kaen (honored leader), which transmuted over time into king, leans on ka (honored), but dista (dishonored/dishonorable woman/mistress) has no ties to ka, let alone the apostrophe s mentioned above. Discordances like that I gleefully pass off as dialectical differences and move on with the story.
The most formidable challenge I’ve had to face is trying not to use “real world” words by accident. There are unfortunately only so many ways to rearrange the letters of the English alphabet in ways that make sense; since I didn’t want to use punctuation-based, all-consonant, or all-vowel structures, I have a limited and already much-explored palette. Inevitably I will trip over another language, and probably already have multiple times; I have no doubt that one of my “fictional” words is a deadly insult in some corner of our world.
Such is the life of a writer who ventures into that chaotic jungle of creating a fictional language. –Oh, my…I just realized I have yet to define the southern and northern terms for various relationships in the story–since girlfriend/boyfriend and variations thereof don’t…quite…fit…awwwww, *crap*. Here I go again…hand me that machete, would you?