AE logo







AE logo
AE logo AE logo

David I. Masson
Some Thoughts on Language in Science Fiction

Author biography About the author  Links Links

Franz Rottensteiner asked me for an essay on language for his magazine Quarbur Merkur, and now Peter Weston kindly gives it secondary hospitality in its original English. Words and language fascinate me. But living in the midst of a cultural time-tract of what used to be called chaos and corruption and is now called experiment and permissiveness, it's hard to tell genuine from pseudo; the range is too short to focus. To me, however, words, however wild, must be charged with the force of 'reality' or the ironies and furies of the writer – preferably with both. You can't get this without something that they used to call discipline: those words must be made to do their drill, and in training them the writer is training himself.

"Le style c'est l'homme meme." Well yes, and style is also a product of the author's environment and times. But so, indeed, is the author himself. Style represents the resultant (in the vector sense) between the author's personality and his efforts towards objective statement, extrovert communication, appropriate presentation. In many writers, particularly writers of the shallower sort of fiction, style is merely a series of clichés, the striking of a more or less brash attitude, the entertainer's bawl and strut. Some writers of SF aim to amaze or to express the amazing. Their writing tends to be a series of screeches, their syntax moronic, and their typography relies heavily on italic sections.

One can see why they do all this, but really, this is not the way; at least if one is to write with any claims to serious consideration. It seems to me that licence with linguistic "truth", whether in style or in encounters with language in the narrower sense, is permissible (though not essential) where satire, humour or fantasy are intended, but illegitimate in forecast-SF and hardly legitimate in SF of any kind which adopts the guise of a forecast. And even "licence" here implies control, adherence to some sort of rules.

I am not so presumptuous as to advise writers when I have only published a few short stories myself; but I am going to discuss what I feel appropriate and what wrong in certain cases. I cannot avoid reference to my own few stories in so far as they embody attempts at certain linguistic approaches.

'Lost Ground' begins in a slightly future Britain with a domestic scene. [Note] A weather-forecast in weather-forecast language turns out to be a forecast of something else. This exemplifies what I believe to be a very important stylistic tool in SF: the shock of the unfamiliar-familiar. However, it was not constructed in cold blood as a device for shock, but, rather, arose from the careful working-out of the question "What would such a forecast sound like?" The question "What would happen if?", which is central to SF, should always be firmly supported by the question, asked of the writer (plus any experts he can get hold of) by himself, "What would be the language-features used in these circumstances?"

This is the guts of the matter. If it sounds genuine it has twice the impact. You must live in the world you depict - not present it as a travelogue, a specimen, or a joke. The same sort of unfamiliar-familiar opening is used in my 'Psychosmosis', and 'Traveller's Rest'.

For 'Lost Ground' I invented (or adopted) technical terms like microdiathesiology, acron, poikilochronism, chronismologist, new uses of domain and bound, and technical slang like poik, cog-slipper. That is what these things would be called, I said to myself. If these terms are convincing, it is because I have read some scientific literature and hope I know the sort of coinages that scientists make, and the principles on which they make them.

'Mouth of Hell' has transpex and heat mills. 'The Transfinite Choice' had glossopsychic, hyposubdeps, subquarkons, i-h-s-q, l.-b., Wunkun (slang) and a plentiful use of normal technical terms. 'Lost Ground' may be considered future, 'The Transfinite Choice' further future, 'Mouth of Hell' an alternative-world story: 'Traveller's Rest' (an alternative-world of sorts) has a whole series of technical and other neologisms, military, artistic, and everyday. The last in particular are intended to "distance", to "alienate" the world presented, by refusing to call a spade a spade (as it were) and calling it a digtool instead.

'A Two-Timer' is a special story. It is told, or written for publication in his own day, by a 17th-century English gentleman. Naturally he tells it in 17th-century English. What else? This meant a lot of hard work, though fortunately I knew many 17th-century works. This gave some opportunities for humour and satire. No doubt I made some mistakes; but I did my damnedest. No half-hearted shoddy pastiche will do. This leads me to a vital point about language. If you write about Century xyz the natives must speak (or at least appear to speak) the language of Century xyz (and of the part of the world concerned). Little compromise is admissible. I am tired of 21st, 31st, 101st, 10,001st-century hominids who speak mid-twentieth-century American. Of course they shouldn't, in SF worthy of the name. If we survive that long, they won't! Language changes all the time, and mere print and mass-media won't freeze it.

Of course, what is worse, these hominids of the 21st ... 10,001st centuries are made not only to speak like 20th-century Americans (of a kind), but to think and act like them, and their concerns and basic assumptions about truth, right-ness, achievement, pleasure and so on, are made out little more than exaggerations of those felt by 20th-century Americans. Well, we all know that SF cannot really foretell the nature, language or achievements of men more than a few decades ahead. We also know that if a writer tried to present a complex forecast in as full and faithful detail as possible, the ideas and language he would present would be incomprehensible to most readers and would bring in no royalties. But we must at least give the impression of truth.

In 'The Transfinite Choice' I had to present the pseudo-English uttered in the world of A.D. 2346-2395. I attempted this by giving, at the critical moment, a few preliminary specimens, and then saying that all after that was only a rough translation. (This is honest but risky.) I then rendered the dialogue by a sort of telegraphese which, it seemed to me, was the probable syntax of this period; here and there I had to expand the phrases for the sake of clarity. I had "computed" the probable sound-changes, also, by extrapolating from past changes and consulting the work of one or two linguists who have attempted serious short-term prediction, and these sound-values I represented in the initial specimens and in a few names. For in four centuries or so the sound-values as well as the vocabulary and syntax would make the "English" virtually incomprehensible to a 20th-century time-traveller.

The same is true of four or five centuries back, notwithstanding the survival of earlier literature. What, then, is the SF-writer to do who presents the 1400s or earlier, or the 2300s or later? We can hardly expect him or his audience to understand and handle Middle English or Mittelhochdeutsch, or whatever. A comparable leap forward leaves the writer more licence but, if he is an honest worker, nearly as hard a task. Either way he must perforce translate into suitable modifications of modern language. In any case the concepts, the tone, the degree of complexity of thought, the degree of abstraction or of earthiness, must correspond to the era. My 17th-century man expressed himself in a more homely, racy way than a writer of today would on the same ground. A Victorian would be more fulsome, an eighteenth-century person of any cultivation more polished (if more brutal) than we are, an Elizabethan different again. But brief remarks can do no justice to the complexity of the problems confronting a writer who wishes to represent the speech of some other time.

From these differences of vocabulary, syntax, sound-changes, expression, preconceptions, tabus and background, a time-traveller must always be in stupendous difficulties and dangers, particularly (1) at his first arrival, and (2) when he has gained his first rush of confidence. Any serious writer on time-travel ought to realise this, but few do. Even in humour the difficulties can be touched on and may even produce a good comic-plot; Harry Harrison has made some use of them in The Technicolor Time-Machine, where he even throws in some genuine Old Norse. Some writers such as Aldiss or Kornbluth have made plots out of the incomprehensions of the time-traveller, alternative-world-jumper, or cryogenic survivor. In 'A Two-Timer' my hero had to surmount the risks before he was accepted, and barely scraped through by a hairsbreadth. In 'The Transfinite Choice' he only attained a viable persona after a (fudged) linguistic operation performed on his brain-cells.

In quoting from existing languages, accuracy must be seen to be achieved. in Delany's BABEL-17 a character is called Jebel with a spaceship called (Jebel) Tarik. Tarik (which ought to be Tariq) is explained as meaning "mountain" in Old Moorish, and Jebel Tarik as meaning "Jebel's Mountain". This may be true, but everyone who has had anything whatever to do with the Middle East knows that it is "jebel" which is the Arabic for "mountain" (variously transliterated). The repetition of these two words thereafter through the book is a maddening and increasing irritation to such a reader.

In my 'Psychosmosis', a relatively light-weight but serious story, there is a dual system of language; that of the doomed versus that of the saved. The People = The Hard of Hearing. The Land = Outside. (the vanished) = The Invokers. Vanishment (a coinage, cf. banishment) = Crossing. (presumed nowhere) = Inside. The ideas and words of the doomed are harsh, coarse, and barren; those of the saved are compassionate, tender and rich. The narrative changes tone, too. And the landscapes and geographies are in tune with the two populations, indeed they influence them. The respective moralities are nowhere stated, only presented, and so are the clues to the catatonia of one boy, the doctor's misappropriation of a basket, and the final fate of the doomed. Both worlds are simple, tribal worlds, and a simple style suits them. The men have monosyllabic names, the women dissyllables with final -a. Of course, to suit the tone of the words of a society to its nature is fundamental to authorship; compare the stridency and barbarity brought out in the advertisements and the small-talk in Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (of which more anon). The difficulty is to keep it up consistently and not to let it get overridden by didactic claims, the need to tell the reader what the author thinks or to fill him in on the background.

In 'Mouth of Hell', another of my slighter stories, the names which some people suppose unpronounceable (because they have some doubled vowels), are chosen mostly to prevent the reader from recognising their owners as belonging to any language-group on Earth, but as the rest of the apparatus is relatively commonplace, he is to suppose the world to be a species of "alternative world". This enables me to insert a geographical feature in it which Mankind would have discovered long ago if it had been on our Earth. A change of key at the end, however, goes with two rather snide puns, as well as a slight satirical twist and a rapid acceleration of tempo.

Tempo and language are even more closely bound up in 'Traveller's Rest'. Here not only are the bizarre names and terms those of an alternative world, but the names change with latitude, to fit the differential logarithmic curve of time-dilation from South to North. Place-names are progressively shorter as one approaches the Northern Frontier where time-dilation is apparently infinite. Those in the South are quasi-African, those in the North quasi-Germanic, those in between something in between. To some extent, too, the descriptive style becomes more curt and suggestive of frantic hurry nearer North, especially during a flight from the Front. The personal name of an individual as he goes North shrinks from a long rolling African-like appellation (as benefits the near-tropics) to a mere initial (in the South the middle syllables constitute his affectionate or family name); and the same things happens to the names of those he thinks of. This is not only to fit the time-dilation, but, more relevantly, to express the progressive emptying of personality as one approaches the Frontier. No explanation is given to the reader, beyond a spurious "of-course" allusion halfway along the story to the workings of "onomatosyntomy". This is another result of my feeling that the strange must be treated as familiar in order to increase its power and its mystery.

There are linguistic pitfalls in the representation of alien worlds. A writer must curb his natural playfulness and give them careful consideration. Firstly, the names of strange planets and strange topographical features must either have been given by invading Man, in which case they will be the names of human beings or human topography (or fanciful names like Horse Neck), or else have been given names taken from an alien race, in which case they will be human attempts at, or genuine examples of, utterances totally non-human. To call them 'Cibarra' or 'Zil' is not good enough; to call them something like 'Axxtx' is nonsense.

Secondly, languages; the intelligent inhabitants of an alien planet are in stories almost invariably given one race-name and one language. Why? It is unlikely that only one language could have developed on one planet, except perhaps in special circumstances where world-government was in full power and tight control there, Thirdly, grammar; it is inherently improbable that an alien syntax could resemble the syntax of a European language, and quite possible that it would be totally different from that of any terrene language. My own lightweight 'Not So Certain' was comparatively timid in its treatment of grammar in spite of the shocks about language which it sought to administer to the reader, being less bizarre than that of some Amerindian languages. But perhaps it takes the learning and philosophic fervour of a Borges to interest the common reader in the statement that in the language of Tlön, "The moon rose above the river", hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, is literally "upward beyond the on-streaming it mooned".

Kornbluth knew what he was about when he introduced the interstellar moral-thriller 'That Share of Glory' by having a monastic training-college of heralds dine to the accompaniment of a brother reading excerpts from an alien vocabulary: "Tlon – a ship ... Rtlo – some ships, number unknown. Long – some ships, number known, always modified by a cardinal. Ongr – a ship in a collection of ships, always modified by ordinal. Ngrt – first ship in a collection of ships; an exception to ongr." (The linguistically alert reader will notice that these words are all quadriliterals comprising a non-finite circular word ... longrtlongrtlongrt ...; and will be seized with a doubt whether Kornbluth realised that a final or initial ng could, and in most languages certainly would, stand for one sound unit, not two. But let this trifling carelessness pass.)

Having brilliantly and sufficiently hinted at the sort of linguistic assault-course that the herald has to master, he went on largely to ignore language as such and to concentrate on mineralogical, legal, and ethical cruxes. Attempts such as these have been made to show and use alien concepts and preoccupations, but this has only been related in the most elementary way to language. (A good humorous-serious example is 'The Monsters' by Sheckley, which turns on a contrast of ethologies.) The other-worldly, holier-than-us communications in Blish's 'Common Time' are only plausible because they are, in essence, garbled memories of a dream.

Fourthly, (with some reference to Kornbluth's ships), the phonetic expression of grammar in an alien tongue must be similarly non-human. Blish's "beademungen" are barely excused for the reason given above. And only the domestic authority and imaginative power of a C.S.Lewis or a Tolkien can carry off the incongruity of a supra-human language that has umlaut-plurals.

Fifthly, phonology and phonetics; alien voice-apparatus and alien auditory circuits are likely to differ from those of terrestrial animals. The phonological elements can only be approximated. (An early Aldiss story gives the four "Lords of the Galaxy" names apparently concocted respectively from medieval European legend, ancient Egyptian religion, the American business world and (perhaps) astronomy or mathematics. The whole bunch are clearly phoneys but Aldiss carried the thing off, as a piece of rather frivolous doom-SF, by sheer impudence.) My own 'Not So Certain' did bring out a certain degree of variation from human voice-production, articulation, etc, and suggest other aspects. However, one could go much further.

Blish and Kornbluth have both used vibratory imitation of human speech (cf. dolphins), one in a paramoecium, and one in a Martian parasitic egg-layer. (You and I know – never mind Mars – that the paramoecium is incapable of mental activity, at least as complex as that – but this is one of the impossibilities here in which we can legitimately suspend our disbelief for the sake of a well-told story. SF subsists largely on impossibilities but they must be possible impossibilities keeping to the rules of the game.) Much alien speech could be unreproducible in print, and some alien communication could be visual, electrical, or tactile. A clever story, Jack Vance's 'The Gift of Gab' has a human being teaching marine dekabrachs to communicate by arm-semaphore, one sign per "word".

All this amounts to saying that people's imagination is too limited, and that they prefer for that reason flamboyant but superficial fantasy to detailed imagination (in the same way many writers cover their planets with perhaps showy but essentially terrestrial trees, grass, mammals, insects, fish, clouds, rain, lakes and rivers. This is pure Edgar Rice Burroughs and worse.) I know it has been argued that the basic design of the human body is likely to have evolved wherever an intelligent species "has appeared" This presupposes earth-gravity, earth-atmosphere, earth-humidity, and of course carbon- and water-based life. But even if the argument is sound, the detailed mechanisms are certain to differ, (If this Universe cannot do better than Earth's climates and the human race, it's beyond hope.)

However, space-travel and aliens are likely to be given a rest in SF for a bit, now that two or three men have actually tiptoed a hairsbreadth outside Terra. In science fiction we are likely to be stuck with homo insipiens and his toys, games and tantrums for a few decades, provided SF survives that long. Some refreshment may be gained by the presentation of alternative-Earths, alternative-histories, variations of the theme of humanity. But perhaps someone, sick to death of the imbecilities and machinations of this species, may seek total relief in the exclusive exploration of an invented alien psychology. Man, however, is so besotted with his own fascinating image, that not many such stories are likely to appeal.

There are a few writers whose style or whose treatment of languages particularly interest me. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings does not really qualify as SF, but we can learn valuable lessons from this unique work, not for coarse-grained imitation of its surface features, but for consideration of method, imagination, and discipline, Tolkien uses all his skill and knowledge as a professional philologist (if that is the best term) to deploy a whole continent-full (and more) of languages and "alphabets", which he carefully places on a (really alternative) version of a supposedly ancient Western Europe; and even to provide a series of linguistic and other appendices. The West-Elvish or Eldarin tongues Quenya and its less ancient relative, Sindarin, appear in many quotations, utterances and texts, and place-names and personal names in them are thick enough to furnish the Tolkienologist with some evidence for the grammars and etymologies, not to speak of the assistance of the various appendices. East-Elvish is mentioned in an appendix.

Adunaic and its derivatives (1) Westron or Common Speech in its many varieties (represented in the story itself by English), (2) the language of the Rohirrim (represented in the story by Anglo-Saxon), and (3) northern Mannish (e.g. in Dwarves' names; represented by Old Norse, etc.) are much discussed, particularly in the appendices where "genuine" versions are given of examples. True Dwarvish appears in a few places. The Black Speech appears in an ancient and a debased form in a few places. True Entish and also the language of the Wild Men come in very rarely. Dunlendish is touched on in the appendix. It is apparent that there are varieties of Sindarin and perhaps even of Quenya. The tengwar and the certar (letters and runes), invented forms, are presented (and codified in the appendices) in many differing forms and functionings. Tolkien even goes at great length in these appendices into the various calendars and the ancient names used in them.

Tolkien suits his style to the speaker and the occasion, and ranges from the heroic to the clownish. In this he may remind us of Scott, but he does not always pull the thing off; some passages creak a little, some seem derivative (I seem to recognise Juliet's Nurse in one old woman, for example), and, almost as in an opera, many of his characters seem to have a lot of time at their disposal to express their feelings in at moments when they should be hurling themselves into violent action. Nevertheless, read aloud as it should be, the saga comes alive. (But I find the gambolling, rhyme-jingling earth-spirit Tom Bombadil hard to stomach.)

Coming back to science fantasy with a bump, Ballard may be noted as specialising in making his personages utter scientific (or even common) nonsense and semi-nonsense with deadpan authority. This lends a kind of power and mystery to his atmospheric fiction. Nearly all his personages speak in the same rather formal tone, too, of slightly mystical calm, at odds with their often bizarre or violent actions. But then, he is not describing a world, he is actualising a dream. Ballard uses science as a principal flavouring ingredient in his concoctions, both in his middle period and in his latest writings. There is also a strong element of self-parody and obsessively recurrent words such as the adjective "terminal" and "time"; and the latest series appear to be close variations on the same theme. For readers that find him congenial, however, there is enough power behind his vision to carry off all these idiosyncrasies successfully.

Disch in Camp Concentration employs an interesting hysterical, lushly allusive style at the moment when the hero's genius and agony are at their height. In general his cool, ironic tone seems to hone his stories into weapons of uncommon sharpness.

Blish in A Case of Conscience, part 1, scatters some linguistic clues to Ruiz-Sanchez' Jesuit verdict on Lithia. The coarse physicist Cleaver calls the gracious Lithians "the Snakes"; their language is rich in hisses and rasps; topographical names translated suggest (in the complete volume) the biblical Field of the Potter and Field of Blood, and there is also the Tree. These vague associations with biblical crises connect Lithia to "the second-best Authority in the Universe", etc. But what are we to make (in the complete volume) of the botched statement that "x" = k, and "g" = (in effect) German ch? Presumably Blish meant to indicate two varieties of velar fricative as transcribed by the Peruvian Ruiz-Sanchez.

Brian Aldiss has some telling similes and metaphors in his works. Many of his personal names are cranky and diverse, one had almost said perverse, but all the more memorable for that. The psychedelically drugged society of Barefoot in the Head and other acid-head Charteris stories is presented in language full of Joycean dislocations and free-association-ridden speech, etc, which seems appropriate, though it is hard on the reader. A nice use of linguistic confusion occurs in his earlier story, 'The Failed Men', where the incomprehensible thought of a future generation is brought out in maze-like sentences, which lead the unsuspecting reader little by little onto an explosive little mine, "You are the struback", an ambiguous condemnation of, in effect, modern man.

Brunner uses a collection of styles in (the A.D. 2010) Stand on Zanzibar, including brilliantly observed native legends, radio and wall adverts, police announcements, TV scripts, and straight narrative. This is to involve the reader (with greatest economy) in a total world. It demands a keen ear, eye and memory in the author. This world is also evoked by a convincing host of invented future slang terms, metaphors from space shots, etc, and eugenic or other scientific jargon, all carefully worked out. The atmosphere of sterile violence, overcrowding, and the combined cosiness and stridency of mass media and the consumer world, come over well.

Much could still be learnt from style in Kipling. Not only did he write horror stories, mystery stories, supernatural stories; we have 'A House Surgeon', 'The Dog Hervey', and others written round telepathic influences, as well as an induced Keats in 'Wireless'. We have 'Unprofessional', in which a cancer is controlled by tides from outer space. We have 'With the Night Mail', written ostensibly by a journalist accompanying a cross-Atlantic aircraft on a stormy night, with a long appendix of startlingly-realistic extracts from the magazine of 2000 A.D. (forecasters of circa 1919 were rather conservative) in which the account is supposed to have appeared, advertisements and all; and as a sequel we have 'As Easy as ABC'. All these stories, given the prejudices of the time, are written with perfect realism and as human documents. In comparison with Kipling, H.G. Wells, with his radical idealism and his clever but ultimately rather irritating mannerisms of dialogue, seems less professional, despite his vivid imagination and skill.

To revert to the subject of miscommunication. The stallion lowers its head when most domineering. The chimpanzee grins and chitters when frightened. Some animals (including children) scream when happy. A stranger's feelings and intentions may be misunderstood and he may misunderstand ours. Perhaps someone would like to go further and with more subtlety than Sheckley's 'Monsters', and construct a story in which a human being innocently infuriates aliens, or humans from another age, alternative world, or merely another part of this world, and equally mistakes their expressions, voices and words.

David I. Masson, 1969

David I. Masson lives in Leeds and is a rare-books librarian. He was born in Scotland and has a university background, and for a dozen years around the 1950s he wrote articles on phonetic sound in poetry, which were published in encyclopedias and learned periodicals.

Note: David Masson's stories mentioned here were published by Faber & Faber in the collection The Caltraps of Time, 1968, 21s.


"Some Thoughts on Language in Science Fiction" first appeared in English in Speculation volume 3 no. 2 (May 1970; whole number 26) edited by Peter Weston. Text copyright © David I. Masson, 1970. Endnotes copyright © Peter Weston, 1970.

Author biography About the author  Links Links