In the Absence of an Apostrophe

It is a commonly-held belief among speculative fiction writers that somewhere, out there in the great, dark heaven of the multiverse, there is a god who hands out apostrophes on big, pink memos and that when the writer in question has received said memo, her or his constructed language is, at last, complete.

Allow me to illustrate:

Sp’thra: Beggars in Spain (all props to Nancy Kress)
F’lar: Dragonriders of Pern (all props to Anne McCaffrey)
Dra'Azon: Consider Phlebas (all props to Iain M. Banks)

For the most part, said apostrophes decorate said constructed words nicely; after all, most readers want a story and not a linguistic treatise. In fact, I never noticed the difference between constructed languages that used this or other common conventions and those that did not until I approached the construction of languages for PTTB. And frankly, I still don’t care what convention an author uses to transport me into another species’ mind so long as I get there and have a good time.

However, after I did some interviewing and some reading, I decided that I couldn’t justify making it possible for an alien and a human being to comprehend one another’s linguistics without a damn fine reason for it. Human beings are hard-wired for language, so one cannot expect that sentient alien beings would have brain structures capable of grasping our linguistics (and vice versa). Additionally, aliens would think and behave in patterned ways that might not make sense to humans all the time.

It’s quite the conundrum, and I spent some time trying to construct a genuinely alien language only to discover that there wasn’t any way my creation could possibly be made to fit into the structure of a novel without casting my reader out of the plot and into the realm of “what the fuck was she thinking?” It was just too alien. Instead, I opted for an approach that preserves a sense of alien-ness while making structural changes to the way I use the English language in naming and dialogue.

Both the “invented phoneme/morpheme approach” and the “change the English language to suit the alien” approach are common devices, as are devices like communication via various modalities such as color, smell, or taste. What is uncommon are the unique ways authors use these devices, from Tolkien’s rolling linguistic landscape to the desert of Heinlein’s utilitarian but enduring "grok." My approach has just moved from research and theory into application in the last week, and though I’m excited to be using what I’ve made, it’s also proving to be quite a challenge. I look forward to releasing my work into the world and seeing how it finds its way among the conlangs of my betters.

Does make a girl long for a good, old-fashioned Klingon opera from time to time, though.